Where to Get Your Fresh Catch Cooked for You in Florida
Most Florida fishing destinations boast restaurants that turn angling expeditions into culinary adventures.
By Terry Gibson
A couple of my fondest fishing/culinary expeditions took place in northwest Florida.
For example few years back, I joined a film crew on a trip to Panama City Beach, where I hopped on what’s called a “headboat” out of Capt. Anderson’s Marina. It was early in red snapper season, and only a few years into what’s proving a phenomenally rebounding fishery. The film crew came to document evidence of healthy fisheries and people having fun fishing and dining on fresh-caught local seafood.
As the captain called for “lines in,” I took note of a good mix of salty locals and excited visiting families lining the vessel’s railings. Forward and aft, starboard and port, rod after rod doubled over. Shimmering reddish shapes quickly emerged from the depths of the deep blue Gulf, came over the gunnels, and headed to the icebox. Over the course of the 12-hour trip, every angler, regardless of age or experience, limited out on red snapper. Most landed other reef species, too, including lane and vermillion snapper, gag and red grouper, plus a few of reef beasts called amberjack. A lot of folks went home proud anglers, ate really well that night, and probably for a few nights to follows.
We sure did. For a modest fee, the crew cleaned our fish and pointed us to a surfing-themed restaurant called J Michael’s, a restaurant founded in 1976 and one of several in the area that offer “hook-and-cook” services. The camera guy and I stuffed ourselves with grilled and fried red snapper, with a medley of vegetables and sides of garlic potatoes and red beans. Our bellies purred with satisfaction, especially in the knowledge that we’d caught the fish ourselves, just a few hours before.
The next morning, we boarded a charter boat, idled out East Pass, and bought live bait to feed king mackerel, a stock that scientists had recently declared, “fully rebuilt.” King mackerel, commonly called “kingfish,” are one of the world’s largest and fastest species in the mackerel clan. Once hooked, these lightening fast fish will test the mettle of any reel’s drag.
To find the fish, we only had to run about a mile offshore to the first buoy or “can.” It wasn’t more than a five-minute ride across the smooth, emerald water before we saw acre-sized schools of baitfish, and kingfish skyrocketing through them.
When feeding near the surface, kingfish go airborne, like missiles launched from a submarine. They attack from below with such velocity that the fish often “get” 15 or 20 feet of air. Once hooked, they tear line off a reel faster than almost any other fish except their larger cousins, the wahoo.
The mate didn’t get three lines in the water before we had two “knockdowns” on our hands and speedy kings running across lines in multiple directions. And so it went, excitingly, chaotically, until noon. Light spinning tackle made tangling with those speedsters all the more fun. And the Dockside Seafood & Oyster House turned our limit of kingfish into baked and fried delights. In fact, if you’re coming in with oily fish such as mackerel, they taste best if eaten right away so take them straight to a restaurant your captain recommends.
You’ll likely have more fish than you need for dinner. I recommend inquiring as to whether there’s a local smokehouse that will smoke your mackerel, and/or turn it into fish dip. Smoked kingfish, Spanish mackerel or amberjack make a delicious cold snack, and keep well as long as you keep the smoked filets cold. Just make sure you leave the skin on the filets you want smoked.
Just about anywhere you travel to in Florida, you’ll find great fishing and a friendly restaurant that will cook your catch. That expedition and meal will likely be the highlight of your vacation. Each region offers a variety of tasty fish species and flavors. Here are a few great places on the Florida Peninsula and in the Florida Keys.
Stuart calls itself the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” and yes, the sailfishing is excellent, especially in the winter. But sailfish aren’t great eating, and sporting ethics call for the species to be caught and released. Fortunately, many tasty fish are caught in this region, which is one of the North America’s most biologically diverse. Stuart might also call itself “Snook City.” This powerful inshore species produces thick filets of firm, flaky white meat. Late spring and early fall are the open-season periods that produce the most fish. (Click here for information about seasons and bag limits.)
Conchy Joe’s, in Jensen Beach, will cook your catch and is located a short distance from marinas with charter boats. King Neptune’s in Port Salerno also does a great job serving up your fresh fish, and it is on Manatee Pocket, where many highly skilled charter captains keep their boats.
Between November and March, millions of Spanish mackerel invade the nearshore waters off Stuart. King mackerel are available year round, but the peak season runs between May through August. Amberjacks -- another great species for the smoker -- are also on the wrecks and reefs throughout the year. Mrs. Peters Smokehouse & Catering does an exquisite job smoking fresh fish.
Many restaurants in the Florida Keys will cook your fresh catch any number of ways, often with southern, Cuban and other Caribbean accents. Fried “Grits & Grunts” is a cracker breakfast staple. Yellowtail snapper and spiny lobster are probably the most common and delicious species that come off the Great Florida Reef Tract. And charter boats encounter the legendary mahi mahi just about every trip offshore. So many restaurants will cook your catch we strongly recommend that you ask your captain to name a favorite. A few well-known places include Lazy Days Islamorada and Lazy Days South in Marathon, Hogfish Bar & Grill in Stock Island, and the Buzzards Roost Grill & Pub, in Key Largo.
The Sarasota area offers great inshore, surf-zone and offshore fishing. Inshore, anglers target species such as red drum and speckled trout, flounder and sheepshead. Along the beaches, pompano and Spanish mackerel provide rich white filets. Offshore, bottom fishermen enjoy superb fishing for a variety of grouper species, including gag, red, and scamp groupers. The Swordfish Grill, located in the quaint, historic fishing village called Cortez, sits right on Sarasota Bay. They do an amazing job cooking your catch. After all, they serve up fish straight from the Gulf of Mexico every day.
Fishing the southwest coast takes from the creature comforts of Naples and Marco Island straight into some of the most stunning wilderness waterways you can imagine. Rookery Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge consist of a labyrinth of creeks, bays and islands in a massive mangrove jungle. Snook, redfish and speckled trout are abundant, as are mangrove snapper, sheepshead and pompano. Head back to civilization with your catch and go straight to The Dock at Crayton Cove, Riverwalk at Tin City, Bay House, Snook Inn, and Kelly’s Fish House.
Talk about fresh: You can walk down the Daytona Beach’s Sunglow Pier and straight into Crabbie Joe’s Restaurant with your fresh catch, most likely whiting and pompano, flounder and trout, or Spanish mackerel and bluefish. Of course, they’ll cook your catch of vermillion snapper, mahi and cobia, if you’re coming in from a trip offshore.
For traveling anglers, asking a local restaurant cook your catch solves a number of issues. Each species has different levels of fat and oil content and begs different styles of prep. Having a seafood expert cook your fish ensures that it’s cooked to the right temperatures and spiced just right. It also spares you from cooking after a long day on the water. And it reduces the amount of fish that you have to find a way to lug home, frozen, which is never as tasty as fresh. Plus, you get to sample local seafood styles in local ambiance. You may bring home some new recipes.
Most restaurants that cook your catch expect it to be filleted, boned and skinned before you get there. Most charter and headboats will clean your fish for free or for a modest fee. They do an expert job, so it’s well worth a few dollars.