Kids, Clowns & Fishing
The Northern Puffer is the clown prince of saltwater fish. Kids and adults love ‘em!
Introducing kids to fishing from a boat can be an interesting exercise, especially small children who might not be able to spend many hours on the water without losing interest or feeling uneasy. The whole key to making a child’s initial experience with saltwater fishing enjoyable is to keep it short, simple, close to shore and, most importantly, make sure to catch some fish. I can’t think of a better way to accomplish this goal in the Mid Atlantic than to go fishing for northern puffers, better known as blowfish.
Three decades ago, blowfish were not just common in Mid Atlantic estuaries like New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, they were absolutely prolific. Anglers would catch them by the buckets full. The small, funny looking fish also happen to be a delicacy, each providing a firm piece of white meat that looks like a chicken drumstick when cleaned, which added to their allure. When populations declined rapidly 20-to-25 years ago, there was a lot of finger pointing and suggestions that the reason was overfishing, but so little was known about puffer fish at the time it was hard to come up with a cause. Most likely the long disappearance was the result of a combination of factors including environmental impacts like temperature changes, nitrification of the estuary waters they inhabited from the over use of fertilizers, and surely overfishing played a role.
The ubiquitous blowfish was all but absent for a lot of years, but about five years ago they started reappearing, and to the delight of adults who still remember catching their first puffer, they have managed to reestablish strong populations in many of their old haunts.
Thousands of adults remember cutting their teeth saltwater fishing for blowfish, and now they have the opportunity to introduce children and grand children of their own to the sport catching these funny little fish. So just what makes blowfish so much fun to catch? They are one of the few fish that can actually make you laugh out loud when you get them in the boat. Imagine if you will a fish that is the equivalent of an animated, self inflating whoopee cushion and you’ll start to get the picture.
In the water puffers have a natural defense mechanism against predators—they rapidly gulp water and blow up their bodies into a round ball two-to-three times their regular size. Their colorful white, yellow and brown skin is rough, like sandpaper and tough like the hide of a football, which makes them hard for a predator to get into its mouth, never mind swallow, when inflated.
The fun comes when you catch one and hold it in your hands and its defense mechanism takes over. The little fish gulps air pumping its body up like it has a built in compressor and clamps its beak-like jaws shut to hold in the air. The cute little eight-inch fish suddenly becomes larger than a regulation softball. That alone makes kids giggle and laugh, but if they think that’s funny, the sounds they make pumping themselves up and releasing the air is down-right hilarious. A few blowfish in a bucket make so many weird sounds kids go crazy, and adults tend to revert back into childhood with big smiles and uncontrollable giggles.
Catching blowfish is easy. They congregate on shallow sandy flats near channels in estuaries and tend to feed best on a moving tide. The only specialized equipment you need is a couple of weighted chum pots designed for use with a frozen log of clams.
Pick a spot in 5-to-10 feet of water up current from a nearby channel edge, and anchor the boat using two anchors. Start with the bow anchor for initial position and then fall back a little further than the spot you want to fish. Then drop another anchor off the stern, and pull forward on the bow line to plant it. The two anchors will keep the boat from swinging with the wind or wakes from passing boats. When that’s done load up the chum pots, tie one to each corner of the stern and drop them to the bottom. Rig up ultra-light spinning tackle with a one-ounce sinker at the terminal end and a single #10 hook on a dropper loop a few inches above it. Bait the hook with a small piece of clam. Blowfish have sharp beaks and are notorious bait stealers so too much clam just gives them a better chance of pulling it off the hook instead of getting the hook in their mouths.
Drop the baited hooks right alongside the chum pots, keep the line tight and when you feel a bite set the hook lightly. You’re now fishing for the clown prince of fish, the northern puffer. Any puffers caught over seven or eight inches are prime for the table and easy to clean once you learn how. There are a number of videos on YouTube® that will show you step-by-step. Northern puffers, blowfish, are the fish with a sense of humor, so grab the kids and head out for some laughs and good times on the water. Y