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Capt. Tommy Thompson's Saltwater Angler's Guides

Gulf Coast Smooth Back Pufferfish–An Invasion? Your Experiences Wanted!


smoothback pufferfish

smoothback pufferfish

I’ve been fishing Florida’s Gulf coast for about 60 years, and I’ve never seen one of these puffers.  What we usually see, especially inshore, are the cute little “porcupine blowfish” that are less than a foot long, and are known to cut perfect notches out of soft baits.  However, this year, there seems to be an outbreak of these bigger, heretofore rare in inshore waters, smoothback pufferfish.  They’ve been found in the past month from Tampa Bay to Panacea and are ready and willing to eat jigs, soft baits, live bait, hard plugs, topwater lures and even popping corks.  Structure doesn’t seem to matter either.  They’re over rock piles, oyster bars, mud bottom and grass flats.

I’ve contacted the FWC’s research department (FWRI) and have had no solid response from them about these fish and about the possibility of an “invasion”.  One response from an FWRI Communications Officer was, “I heard back from our biologist and he said that it’s hard to say why there’s a sudden surge in population.  He said that pufferfish can have strong recruitment some years.  As for them being an exotic, they are not  exotic, so no worries there.”  My response was to forward several emails I’d received from my Florida Sportsman Big Bend Fishing4Cast readers, but I’ve still had no response.  Does “strong recruitment some years” mean thousands of fish every 50 years?  Personally, I’d like to know more about the outbreak and what these voracious feeders eat.

Please feel free to send your reports of smoothback pufferfish adventures to me at capttfommy@me.com or as a comment on this post.

Below are some email comments I’ve received so far:

  • Just read this weeks forecast. Both my wife and I caught some of these new puffers on our recent trip. We landed about 4 and had bait demolished by several others. All fish were in the 16″ range. They are very aggressive. We were south of Rocky creek most of the time.


  • Read your 05/07 fishing forecast re: Smooth Puffers, have started catching these puffers between Rocky Creek and Pepperfish from about 4’ up to the grass line biggest so far was about 16” caught 3 in one trip before moving on.  Never seen them before this year. Joked with my wife about not being a fugu chef.


  • I read your forecast and thought I’d let you know I caught a 18 ish inch smooth back puffer  2 weeks ago in a small creek (Stony Bayou) in the St Marks Wildlife Refuge. I was really surprised, because I’ve never caught one inshore. I didn’t think much about it until I read your reports of the invasion.


  • Went out of Steinhatchee today a mile south of the channel in 3 to 5 feet of water and caught 3 of the large puffers. They were even chasing the small trout as I reeled them in. Lost a lot of Gulps to them. They are ferocious.


  • I have been fishing the big bend area from Keaton to Mexico Beach for over 30 years and have never caught one of these smooth puffers. On a trip to Keaton, weekend of May 1st, we caught 5 of them. Hope they’re not invasive.


  • Recently saw your comments on Florida Sportsman/Puffers and…put the yak in early today (sunrise) at Hagens Cove hoping for trout topwater action. Liked the water/weather conditions (glassy/no wind). Went out about 1 mile 4′ depth.  Between the Puffers and the floating grass (where is all that grass coming from?) couldn’t/didn’t hook up with ANY trout. Them darned Puffers hit just about anything: topwaters, suspending hardbaits, various riggings under popping corks…


  • I also have been encountering the Smooth Puffers in and around Ozello. Did not know what they where called, never caught one before. They are as you stated in your article ferocious little buggers. Was catching them on a MirrOdine



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36 comments for this entry:
  1. Sean Harrison

    We were fishing May 9th about 3-5 miles south of Snake Key out of Cedar Key.

    In about 8-12 feet of water, we were drifting cut bait.

    We had 2 of these puffer fish surface and follow our boat around for about 15 minutes, just floating along on the surface. They did not seem interested in our cut Ladyfish, but we did not really try throwing anything else at them.

    Eventually they dove down and disappeared. First time ever seeing them in the Cedar Key.

  2. James Roe

    We fish Cedar Key, mostly inshore on the flats. We target trout and red fish almost exclusively. The past few weeks we have started seeing these. First time I’ve ever seen them in CK, they haven’t hit any of my lures or hardware, but I’ve seen a lot them cruising the top of the water, they are almost always in pairs, see 3-5 pairs per trip usually, anywhere from 2-3 feet, up to 9-12 feet. They are over mud/sand flats, and grass flats.

  3. Harry Butler

    If, as it appears, they are becoming a nuisance, maybe an orchestrated effort to reduce the population is in order. Any one tried them for cut bait or just shark food?

  4. Capt Bill

    we fish the flats of Homosassa and have caught them.

  5. Dan Shuford

    Noon 5/24/15 in 7ft at Chassahowitzka channel marker, the wife and I must have caught 5-6 of these on both cut white bait and live shrimp.

  6. David Smith

    I caught one on cedar point pier on dead squid and I have never seen one and I’ve lived here my hole life. It seems to be an aggressive fish

  7. Vernon Baker

    Caught one today while surf fishing on the west end of Panama City Beach. Hit on shrimp. About 12″.

  8. Karl McClamma

    On may 22-26 me and my family caught 4 in Port St. Joe Florida. This is our firt encounter and spoke with othe seasond local fishermen and none have ever caught this species before.

  9. Robert Sanchez

    On 12/13/15, I was fishing off-shore around 11 miles west of Englewood Fl. In the Gulf Of Mexico, when I caught a big Smooth Back Puffer Fish. Water depth was around 40 feet deep, with my bait a couple feet over a reef. The bait I was using was a combination of squid and cut Mullet on the same single hook. The puffer put up a good fight and it’s’ stomach was bulging like it had been feeding all morning. I am guessing on size, about 18 inches maybe 7lbs. Nobody had any idea what kind of fish it was. My wife thought it looked like a small Whale. I would love to attach the photo we took of it. Awesome fish, I did release it.

  10. Joe Barrera

    On 1/30/2016 i took my kids fishing to pier in Port La Vaca, Texas. My daughter hooked one using cut mullet. Was about 18 inches long and was bout 6-8 pounds. Was released after a few pictures.

  11. Capt Damon Lofgren

    A trip on 3/5/16 produced a nice size fish in 50 feet approximately 10 miles west of Clearwater pass. The puffer was caught on a jig head with a shrimp while we were targeting hogfish quite aggressive, my question is has anyone tried to eat one of these things? If someone could post a comment about the food quality it would be much appreciated.

  12. Capt. Tommy Thompson

    Damon….one observation from a friend in the seafood business, “Rednecks will eat anything, so I guess lots of those rabbitfish have been eaten, with no problems. If a couple of rednecks died from eating them, we’d sure be hearing about it.” Not very scientific, but my guess is they’re probably edible.

  13. Rich Gorden

    Caught one yesterday out of Bayport in my kayak. I’d never seen one before either. Googled it and found your site.

  14. Michelle

    Caught one today off of Steinhatchee in the gulf.

  15. Smooth Puffer 'invasion'

    […] "Rabbitfish"… Had to chuckle at this one: Gulf Coast Smooth Back Pufferfish?An Invasion? Your Experiences Wanted! – Capt. Tommy Thompson's Sal… Here's what Fishbase has to say: Lagocephalus laevigatus, Smooth puffer : […]

  16. Tammy

    We caught one just north of the 1st tower out of Hernando Beach, in about 5 foot of water, sandy bottom, about 7 pm on 5/14/2016, it was about 16 inches long.

  17. Joe

    Just caught one this weekend off Grayton Beach near Destin Fl. 150-180ft of water on cut squid. Weird looking fish.

  18. The Claw

    I caught a big one about a mile out off my kayak in Destin. The puffer took a big ole cigar minnow close to the bottom, good strike then not much of a fight after that. First time I’ve ever seen one.
    P.S. The beaches in Destin are overrun with tourist, I’d recommend a different destination if you want to fish from the beach, I could hardly get my kayak back to my truck.

  19. John

    Just caught one out of crystal river. in 3ft of water on a gulp trout fishing. I have been fishing there for 30 years and never saw one like that.

  20. Capt. Tommy Thompson

    Jason…based on a conversation I had with a seafood safety expert the other day, I wouldn’t eat one. Any neurotoxins they have in their gut are likely not as bad as those in fugu, but could cause discomfort, especially in older folks, children.

  21. Capt David Weintraub

    I recently caught one in miami in 125 feet of water. First one I’ve seen in 35 years. I grew up on the party boat “Cap Rudy” at Haulover Docks in Miami and we used to catch lots of them while chicken rigging. Great eating and easy to clean as long as you know how

  22. Capt David Weintraub

    I recently caught one in miami in 125 feet of water. First one I’ve seen in 35 years. I grew up on the party boat “Cap Rudy” at Haulover Docks in Miami and we used to catch lots of them while chicken rigging. Great eating and easy to clean as long as you know how and we call then Rabbit Fish

  23. James Greene

    Caught one in the surf on west side of Gulf Shores… Cut bait. 18-20″ long. Weird critter.

  24. Dick Cournoyer

    Here’s one for you.July 17th 2016 Pt. Judith, Rhode Island drifting for fluke inside the channel ,caught a 25 inch smooth puffer. Took pictures did not know what it was , very aggressive fish nice fight on light rod. Finally today 7/28/16 my friend finally found out what it was. Fish weight was approx. 10lbs. What the heck is it doing here in New England?Fish was released after taking pictures. This fish was caught on a 5 ounce jig.

  25. Duffy Harrison

    We caught 2 of these puffers yesterday 8/21/16 they were both bumping 10 lbs each and had several others following them up. We were in 50 feet of water 2 miles off the beach near cape Lookout, NC.

  26. jim maieski

    just caught 1 on long islans ny moriches bay 6 ft water 74.5 temp, 18 inches long released

  27. Alan Bello

    9/15/2016 caught a 4 1/2 pounder out of Steinhatchee. These fish are ferocious, one took a bite out of a popping cork!

  28. Chris

    A friend from church just caught about 45 on the Clearwater side on Courtney Campbell Causeway. October 15th. He and his wife cooked up a bunch of them for dinner today. They enjoyed them and brought over some for us to try. They are taking some back to the bait shop on the Clearwater side since the gal there gave them some extra bait when they were low on cash. The gal at the bait shop said she never ate any. We have not eaten them yet. The are in the ice box and I guess my wife an I may try together tomorrow. Hope we make it! LOL


  29. Capt Roy Bennett

    We caught one in 68′ of water on 11/17/16 off Sanibel Island, FL. It was close to 20″. Didn’t know what it was until I looked it up at home. Sounds like we should have eaten it. It took a squid bait meant for a lane snapper or porgy. Capt Roy Bennett

  30. JoAnne and Rusty

    We caught 2 today, one was about 12 ” and the other was 8″. We were fishing grass flats off of Crystal River.

  31. Robert S

    Caught one this weekend at the Frangista wreck by Destin in about 80 feet using live pinfish, around 20 inches.

  32. Daniel Lewis Jr.

    Caught a monster one of these in about 40ft of water off anna maria island on a large live shrimp. I have a really good picture of it if i can email it to you i think you would enjoy it. Tihht lines!

  33. Capt. Tommy Thompson

    Daniel…would love to see a photo. Please email to: capttommy@me.com



  34. Ronnie

    Fished chassahowitzka for years and havent ever seen these puffers, until the last 2 days have caught four.

  35. Bernard Crane

    Tommy, my buddy caught a nice smooth pufferfish 3/12/17 out of Crystal River south of Gomez Rocks in grass flats about 5′ of water. We were using live shrimp. Fish was about 9 pounds. I have not seen one since a kid in Miami. I recognized it after not seeing one for over 50 years in Biscayne Bay.
    I remember eating the fish and was excellent.

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