It’s summer on the North Fork and there’s no better time for a fish fry.
Although there are many reputable fish mongers from Riverhead to Orient Point, there is nothing better than catching your own fish for one of these feasts. Fluke, sea bass and striped bass are enthusiastically targeted, but too often anglers catch nothing but “trash” fish.
Of all the “trash” fish caught on the North Fork, none is despised more than the sea robin. While drifting for fluke, an angler hooks into a strong fighting fish and thoughts of a freshly fried flounder sandwich instantly pop into their head. Before their hunger can be satisfied, the large, bright orange wings of a sea robin come into view and their dream quickly “flies” away.
Upon lifting the sea robin from the water, the angler becomes further annoyed as they are now unsure of how to safely handle this fish. Sea robins have many sharp spines around their hard, boney head and with many stories of them being venomous, there is much apprehension to even touch the fish. Once they get a grip on the fish, they are in for another surprise when this very vocal fish begins to bark at them like a dog while being unhooked. At this point, the angler tosses the sea robin back into the water while angrily grumbling under their breath about how much they hate sea robins (only to catch many more the rest of the day).
I see sea robins in a different light, as they are one of my favorite local fish. With their large, birdlike wings spread out, seeing a sea robin soar along the bottom is an awesome sight. Looking closer at the front of their pectoral “wings,” you will see three finger-like fins hanging below the fish. These “fingers” are used to hunt prey that is buried in the sand, making them far from the bottom-feeding scavenger they are often thought to be. Those sharp head spines are used to deter predation, as they are fed upon by many large gamefish such as striped bass, bluefish and even fluke.
And those predators are not the only ones who like to eat them. I do, too!
The rumors of them being poisonous are just that. In fact, they are quite delicious. I enjoy serving them broiled, baked, fried and as ceviche (my favorite way to serve them).
Another hard-fighting “trash” fish is the smooth dogfish. Better known as a sand shark, these four-foot-long sharks are very common in the Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound. Don’t fear their “fin,” however, as this small relative of “Jaws” feeds primarily on crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, and shrimp) that it grinds with its full mouth of flat, blunt teeth.
As with sea robins, dogfish are never the target species. Even though they put up a good fight when hooked, they are considered bait-stealing pests by most anglers. My opinion of smooth dogfish is similar to the feelings I have for sea robins. They are a sleek-looking shark with mesmerizing catlike eyes. And even though they don’t get very large, there is still something special about catching a shark.
There are also many stories about smooth dogfish being inedible or poisonous. These rumors probably originate from the fact that a shark’s physiology is much different than your typical fish. Because of their biology, dogfish must be cleaned and iced as soon as possible. If handled properly, they too are delicious. Don’t believe me? Travel to Europe and order fish and chips. The fish you will most likely be served is dogfish.
One last “trash” fish I will discuss that can be found on the North Fork is the oyster toadfish, aka hacklehead. Having a cryptic lifestyle of hiding under rocks and piling, most anglers will not encounter them while fluke fishing.
They are more often caught while wreck fishing or more commonly while crabbing. At a full-grown size of twelve inches, they have an extremely powerful jaw that is capable of crushing through the hard shell of crabs with ease. Like the sea robin, they are extremely vocal. Males will make a series of grunts to attract a female. I have been diving at times when their “singing” is deafening.
They are also quite edible, so much so that the NYS DEC has implemented a size/bag limit (ten inches, three fish daily limit) as well as a season for when they can be targeted (July 16 to May 14).
I am not the only one who really values these “trash” fish. While attending an art show at the Old Town Arts and Craft Guild in Cutchogue, I met an up-and-coming 15-year-old artist named Alex. He is well known on the North Fork as North Fork Rock Art by Alex Matthew on Facebook.
In addition to showing his unique rock art work, he had several pencil drawings on display. I was amazed by the detail he showed in each of his illustrations. Not only did he capture their beauty, he told the story of how each fish is important in the big picture and that there is really no such thing as a “trash” fish.
Next time you hit the water in search of some tasty flounder fillets and all you catch are these pesky “trash” fish, stop and take some time to appreciate the beauty and taste found in each of them.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.