Of all of the fish encountered on the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts, filefish are surely some of the weirdest-looking ones there are.
But despite their alien appearance (or maybe because of it), you may be tempted to give one a try next time you fire up the grill!
So, can you eat filefish? Would it be worth the effort?
That’s the question we’ll be answering this week, along with everything you need to know about eating filefish. Tie on your favorite apron and let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- How does Filefish taste?
- Anglers Beware: Some Filefish can be Poisonous!
- What do Filefish Look Like?
- How to Catch Filefish
How does Filefish taste?
Filefish are closely related to triggerfish, as their families are sister taxa- they’re more closely related to each other than they are to any other fish!
Filefish meat is said to be extraordinarily sweet, and tastes almost like crab or lobster more than it does fish.
It goes great with melted butter and garlic, and is much easier to extract from the animal than shellfish is! Just be sure to remove their rough, sandpaper-like skin first.
Filefish can be pan-fried, baked, broiled, and more. Their meat is firm and holds together well while cooking. Just be sure to catch a few… most filefish are smaller and don’t yield too much meat per fish!
As such, filefish is said to taste nearly identical to triggerfish. Check out our article on eating triggerfish if you’re interested in this close relative!
Anglers Beware: Some Filefish can be Poisonous!
The scrawled filefish (Aluterus scriptus) is commonly found in tropical waters around the world, including places like Hawaii and Florida.
It is distinguishable by its yellow to gray coloration with an irregular pattern of black spots and electric blue bands.
This species of filefish should never be eaten, as its flesh and organs contain a strong toxin called palytoxin.
It accumulates these toxins from eating palythoa polyps, which the posion is named after. The scrawled filefish may be immune to this toxin, but us humans aren’t so lucky!
Traditional Hawaiian hunters tipped their spears in palythoa in order to instantly kill whatever the spear hit. Palytoxin is nasty stuff, and you don’t want it entering your bloodstream!
It should be noted that not all scrawled triggerfish are toxic, only those that eat palythoa. But you can’t tell whether a given fish is poisonous when you’re looking at it, so it’s best to just avoid the species as a whole.
Ciguaterra poison accumulation has also been been noted to occur in filefish. This happens when the fish feed on harmful algae that occasionally bloom in their habitat. This can get you pretty sick if you eat a fish that’s affected.
However, filefish are far from the only fish to be affected by this condition, and many species of fish have been documented to carry the toxin.
It’s not their fault- eating anything during these algal events should be avoided! Check your local conditions before keeping fish if you have any doubts.
What do Filefish Look Like?
Filefish are easily recognizable by their round, compressed body that makes them look like a big coin swimming through the water.
Their other distinguishing feature is the single massive dorsal spine protruding from the top of their heads. Be careful if you’re getting one off the hook!
Filefish are also able to change the color of their body to match their surroundings. From seaweed clusters, to coral reefs, to dock and oil rig pilings, these fish sure know how to blend in- they’re like the chameleons of the sea!
Their odd eye shape adds to this comparison as well.
These fish are probably more well known in the aquarium trade than they are to us anglers. This makes sense, because many of their species have the small size and bright colors that make them shine in a reef tank!
One species in particular, the matted filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus), is renowned for its ability to eat the fast spreading anemone aiptasia, a well-known aquarium pest that can quickly overtake a tank.
Many fishkeepers simply call them “aiptasia-eating filefish” since they’re so good at their job!
How to Catch Filefish
These fish generally have small and inflexible mouths, so they won’t be able to swallow anything too large.
If fishing from shore, cut bait on a small hook is likely the way to go! Shrimp and squid have both been known to work well for filefish in a large range of sizes.
Filefish love structure, so pier pilings and rocks will be your friend. Hi-lo rigs can be an easy and effective way to keep your bait suspended off of the bottom without much work. Jigging your bait with little to no weight is also an effective strategy!
When offshore fishing, chumming the water can attract filefish (among sharks, remoras and other species).
Some anglers fish by dangling a fish carcass off the boat and using a gaff to quickly puncture the filefish as they approach! Obviously only do this if you plan to keep your catch.
Be sure you know what species of filefish you’re catching, as some can be restricted.
For example, in Florida the unicorn filefish (Aluterus monoceros) is the only species you’re allowed to keep. Make sure to always respect local size and catch regulations; they help keep the fish populations healthy!
These fish aren’t the most common to catch since many of them eat algae and meat isn’t the major component of their diets.
Even if they’re in the area, other fish species may be more ravenous and take the bait first. But with enough patience and luck, hooking a filefish is bound to happen!
While some filefish may be too small to eat and others might be a bit dangerous, if you know what you’re doing you’re in for a tasty surprise. Who would have thought that these downright otherworldly fish would cook up so nicely!
If an edible filefish species lives in the waters in your area, putting it in the cooler would be a wise and delicious choice! Tight lines and bon appetit.
Growing up in Florida, I’ve been surrounded by saltwater my entire life…and I love sharing my passion with others.
To learn more about why I started Saltwater Mecca, visit the ABOUT page.
Thank you for reading this article. Browse around & have some fun!