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Fresh catch: Atlantic spadefish


Story by Bailey Gilliam

Some fishermen call them angelfish. Others refer to them as moonfish, sea donkey or butterflyfish. But let’s call a spade a spade. Here in the Lowcountry, they are known as spadefish. This schooling fish is valued by recreational fishers due to its size and tenaciousness. “Atlantic spadefish are an underutilized recreational fishing treat,” said Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse. Keep reading to learn more about this fish and how you can catch and cook it up this summer when it is in abundance here in the Lowcountry.

Fish for compliments

The Atlantic spadefish has a brilliant silver body with characteristic black bands and a rounded snout. It typically grows up to up to 3 feet and weighs between 3 and 10 pounds. Both of its dorsal fins are separated from each other, and this silver-colored fish has four to six black vertical stripes on both sides of its body. These bands may fade in larger fish. The coloration of the adult resembles that of the sheepshead, but the spadefish has a shorter snout and round body.

Fish around

The spadefish can be found in the Atlantic Ocean starting from Massachusetts down to southeastern Brazil. It is also found in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. It is known to inhabit marine and brackish shallow waters of beaches, mangroves, shipwrecks and harbors. “Locally you can find this fish at most of the reefs close to Hilton Head Island,” said Kaple. “Beaufort 45, Betsy Ross or Hilton Head Island Tire Reef to name a few.”

Teach a man to fish

While spadefish have a fighting spirit that gives anglers a run for their money, it is possible to catch them if you know what you’re doing. The fun thing about catching these fish is that there are multiple ways of doing so, each a different experience and a different challenge. The easiest way to catch spadefish is by using a landing net, but Kaple recommends using a crab net if you have the space. Another fun method is to take a straightened coat hanger with a stop and weight at one end and thread a few jelly balls onto it, Kaple said. “Many fishing trips can be saved by picking up a bucket of jelly balls on your way out.”

He recommends looking at your sonar to get an idea of what depth the fish are. “As the spadefish begin to feed on the jelly ball, slowly bring the balls to the surface, and the fish will follow,” he said. “Take your favorite spinning rod and reel — I recommend the Crowder Boat Spinning 15-25 with the Shimano 5000 reel — and set your hook baited with a hard piece of jelly ball into the water with open bail, let drift back until the fish takes it and then hang on, similar to a tuna, the fish will head straight down.” The biggest challenge is getting cut off on the wreck or a large barracuda or shark taking a bite.

Another sporting way to fish is using a compound bow and arrow. “Oftentimes you will find the fish at the surface, which allows for the opportunity to use an arrow attached to the rod and reel,” Kaple said. “Just fire the arrow at the fish and hang on.”

State record

A 14-pound, 1.8-ounce spadefish caught by Stacey Nickleson of North Augusta is the state record. Nickleson caught the fish on July 2, 2005, while fishing out of Station Creek in Beaufort on the Betsy Ross Reef. She fought the fish for 30 minutes aboard the boat “Marked Man,” captained by Monty Bates of Aiken.

Fish-eating grin

Due to the large size of this fish, there will be plenty of meat available after cleaning. “These really are a great fish to have for a good old-fashioned Lowcountry fry, so gather your friends, get your best recipe for coleslaw and hush puppies and enjoy,” Kaple said. “Oh, and don’t forget yellow grits and your grandmother’s key lime pie.”

Fun facts

• The female Atlantic spadefish can spawn 1 million eggs per spawning season. Eggs hatch after only 24 hours.

• Juveniles of this species also live in shallow waters and have been observed to swim in a way that disguises them as dead leaves.

• Adults often school in groups of up to 500 individuals.

• The life expectancy of a spadefish is 8-10 years.

Baked spadefish


Spadefish fillets

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 ground black pepper

1/4 cup melted butter

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon ground paprika

Directions [1] Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a baking pan with vegetable oil. [2] Place the fillets in the baking pan and season with salt and pepper. [3] Mix butter, lemon juice and paprika together in a bowl. Pour over the fillets. [4] Bake in the preheated oven until fish flakes easily with a fork, 20-25 minutes.

Blackened spadefish


1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

6-4 ounce spadefish fillets

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Directions [1] Mix together paprika, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, cumin, black pepper, white pepper, thyme and salt in a small bowl; set aside. [2] Heat a heavy cast iron pan on high heat until extremely hot, about 10 minutes. [3] Pour 3/4 cup melted butter into a shallow dish. Dip each fillet into the butter, turning once to coat both sides. Sprinkle both sides with spice mixture; gently pat mixture onto fish. [4] Place fillets into the hot pan without crowding. Carefully pour about 1 teaspoon of melted butter over each fillet. Cook until the fish has a charred bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn fillets and spoon another teaspoon of melted butter over each. Continue cooking until bottoms are charred, 1-2 minutes. Repeat with remaining fish.

Spadefish tacos


1 ripe avocado

1 cup nonfat yogurt

2 teaspoons plus

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups shredded savoy cabbage or green leaf lettuce

1/2 cup diced English cucumber

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 serrano chili, seeded and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 pound spadefish fillet, skin removed

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

8 corn tortillas

Directions [1] Halve and pit the avocado, and scoop the flesh into a food processor. Add the yogurt, the 2 teaspoons of lime juice, 3/4 teaspoon of the cumin and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Blend just until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. [2] In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, cucumber, bell pepper, the 2 tablespoons of lime juice, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the chili, cilantro, onion, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of cumin and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir to mix well. Cover the slaw and refrigerate for 1 to 6 hours. [3] Prepare a hot fire in a grill and oil the grill rack. [4] Place the fish on a plate and coat lightly with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Grill the fish, carefully turning it over once with a wide spatula, until opaque in the center, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the fish to a platter, break into 8 pieces and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Wrap the tortillas in foil and warm on the grill, about 5 minutes. [5] To assemble the tacos, place 2 tortillas on a plate, and top each with a piece of fish. Stir the cabbage slaw well, and top each piece of fish with about 1/4 cup of slaw and 2 tablespoons of the yogurt mixture. Repeat to assemble the remaining tacos.

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