Can you cook needlefish?

Needlefish, also known as long toms, are a popular game fish found in subtropical and tropical waters around the world. They are elongated, slender fish with long, narrow beak-like jaws filled with sharp teeth. The most common species caught and eaten include the Atlantic needlefish, Pacific needlefish, and hound needlefish. Needlefish have white, flaky flesh with a mild, sweet flavor. They are bony fish, but the bones are relatively easy to remove during cleaning and preparation. Needlefish can be prepared in many ways – baked, grilled, pan-seared, deep fried, or used in soups and stews. Their texture and flavor are often compared to snapper or trout. This article will provide information on how to catch, clean, and cook needlefish.

Can You Eat Needlefish?

Yes, needlefish are edible and make excellent table fare when properly cleaned and cooked. Needlefish have been fished and eaten by coastal communities worldwide for centuries. The ancient Hawaiians called them ‘au’u and considered them a delicacy.

Needlefish are safe to eat as long as they are fresh and properly cleaned. Like many fish, needlefish can carry parasites like nematodes or trematodes in their flesh. However, these are killed during cooking. Needlefish from polluted waters may also accumulate toxins, so it’s best to fish needlefish from clean, open marine waters.

Their long, narrow bodies provide a generous yield of white, flaky, delicately flavored meat. Needlefish have a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and are low in mercury or other contaminants. Many people compare cooked needlefish to snapper, dolphinfish (mahi mahi), or rainbow trout in terms of flavor and texture.

So in summary – yes, needlefish are a nutritious and tasty fish species that can make an excellent meal if handled properly from catch to plate. Their low fat content makes them suitable for a wide array of cooking methods.

How to Catch Needlefish

Fishing Techniques

Needlefish are most often caught by anglers using small lures, jigs, or flies. Common techniques for catching needlefish include:

– Casting small jigs, spoons, or plugs in shallow coastal waters, estuaries, and rivers. Retrieving with an erratic, darting action triggers strikes.

– Using small shrimp or baitfish pattern flies and streamers on a fly fishing outfit in shallow water. A fast retrieval prompts predation.

– Still fishing or drift fishing with live shrimp or bait fish like anchovies on the bottom in deeper water around structures.

– Chumming with live or freshly cut bait to get a school feeding on the surface, then casting jigs, spoons, or flies.

– Using sabiki rigs to catch bait fish like anchovies and then using them alive or cut up to chum and attract needlefish.

Best Locations

Prime needlefish habitats include:

– Shallow sandy or grassy flats and estuary mouths where bait fish gather

– Along beaches, jetties, piers, and other structures

– Sand bars, flats, and shoals around offshore islands

– Over seagrass beds and coral reefs

– Mangrove shorelines and saltwater rivers

The most important factor is finding locations with schools of small baitfish, as this is how needlefish feed. Focus on areas with strong currents or tide changes which congregate bait.

Best Times to Catch

Early morning and late afternoon to dusk are usually the best times to target needlefish, when they actively hunt smaller baitfish in shallow waters. Night fishing under lights that attract bait can also be very productive.

Adjust your fishing time according to the tides and baitfish activity in your area for best success. Needlefish movement is closely related to bait movement.

Tackle and Gear

A lightweight spinning or baitcasting rod around 7 feet paired with a 2500-4000 size reel works well for needlefish. Lines from 10-20 lb test mono or braid are common. Wire leaders are advisable when toothy needlefish are abundant.

Common lures and rigs include:

– Small jigs like Bass Assassins, Sassy Shads, or curly tailed grubs on 1/16 to 1/4 oz jigheads

– Spoons like Acme Kastmasters or Johnson Silver Minnows in 1/4 or 3/8 oz sizes

– Plug lures like Rapala X-Raps, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, or Rebel Wee Crawfish

– Surf candies, crappie jigs, and tube lures also work well

– #2-2/0 sized bait hooks with live or cut shrimp or baitfish

– Small flies like Clouser Minnows, shrimp imitations, or baitfish streamers (2-4 inches long)

How to Clean and Prepare Needlefish

Needlefish need to be thoroughly cleaned as soon as they are caught. Their sharp teeth can puncture internal organs and taint the fillets if left unchecked. Here are the basic steps:


Make an incision at the throat or gills immediately to bleed the fish after catching it. This prevents blood from pooling and spoiling the flesh. Place it on ice to chill completely.


Scale both sides from tail to head. A fish scaler or dull knife works well. Rinse thoroughly.


Make an incision up the belly from tail to head. Remove all internal organs, kidneys along the backbone, and any bloody areas. Rinse well.


Run a sharp fillet knife down the backside of the ribs, cutting the fillet off the bone in a smooth motion. Repeat for the other side. Trim off any remaining bones or fins.


The thin skin can be left on or removed. To skin, secure the fillet flesh-side down and make an incision through the skin at the tail. Use pliers to grab the skin and peel it off in one piece.

Proper bleeding, gutting, filleting, and skinning is key to getting clean needlefish ready to cook. Chill the fillets on ice until ready to use. Discard the carcass, head, fins, tail, and bones.

How to Cook Needlefish


Brush fillets lightly with oil or melted butter. Season simply with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, etc. Grill for 2-3 minutes per side just until opaque and flaky. Broiling works equally well.


Arrange fillets in a baking dish. Top with lemon slices, parsley, diced tomatoes, white wine or broth and bread crumbs or Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400°F for 10-15 minutes until fish is opaque and cooked through.

Pan Searing

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Pat fillets dry and season with salt and pepper. Sear for 2-4 minutes per side until browned. Make a pan sauce from the fond with lemon, capers, herbs, butter, or wine.

Deep Frying

Cut fillets into chunks or strips for bite-size pieces. Mix flour and spices like garlic powder, paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Dredge pieces and deep fry at 350°F for 3-4 minutes until golden brown and crispy.


Add boneless needlefish chunks or strips to seafood soups, stews, chowders, or curry dishes during the last 5-10 minutes of cooking time. Gently simmer just until fish is cooked through and flakes apart.


Dice the raw fillets into 1/2-inch cubes. Marinate for 1-2 hours in freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice with chopped onion, peppers, cilantro, salt, and pepper. The citric acid “cooks” the fish.

Cooking Method Prepareation Steps Cooking Time
Grilling/Broiling Brush with oil, season, place on hot grill or under broiler 4-6 inches from heat 2-4 minutes per side
Baking Place in baking dish, top with aromatics and breadcrumbs/cheese Bake at 400°F for 10-15 minutes
Pan Searing Pat dry, season, place in hot pan with oil, turn once 2-4 minutes per side
Deep Frying Cut into pieces, dredge in flour/spice mix, fry at 350°F 3-5 minutes until golden brown
Soups/Stews Add chunks/strips during last 5-10 minutes of cooking Simmer until fish flakes apart

Complementary Flavors and Ingredients

Needlefish has a mild, delicate flavor that pairs well with a variety of seasonings and ingredients:

– Citrus – Lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit juice brighten up the fish’s flavor. Use as a cooking liquid or make into sauces.

– Herbs – Basil, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, thyme, oregano, and chives.

– Spices – Old Bay seasoning, paprika, cumin, curry powder, chili powder, cayenne, garlic, onion, blackening seasoning.

– Butter/Oil – Baste with compound butters or olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, sesame oil.

– Veggies – Onions, shallots, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, spinach, asparagus.

– Starches – Rice, quinoa, couscous, pasta, crusty bread.

– Fruits – Mango, pineapple, peaches, or an orange beurre blanc sauce.

Get creative mixing needlefish with your favorite sauces and produce! Its adaptable flavor allows diverse culinary uses.

Is Needlefish Healthy to Eat?

Yes, needlefish are nutritious as part of a balanced diet. Some of the health benefits include:

– High in protein – Provides over 20g protein per 3oz serving for building muscle.

– Rich in Omega-3s – Up to 1g of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids per serving.

– Low mercury risk – Smaller fish like needlefish accumulate fewer contaminants.

– Vitamins/minerals – Good amounts of selenium, potassium, Vitamin B12 and more.

– Low calorie – A 3oz portion only provides around 90 calories, making it a lean choice.

Needlefish are not a common allergy risk and don’t pose toxicity concerns when properly handled. Pregnant women and young children should follow local advisories for allowable intake.

Overall, needlefish are a smart, nutritious choice providing quality protein and healthy fats. Eat up to the recommended fish serving 1-2 times per week.

Where to Buy Needlefish

Fresh needlefish may be sporadically available at some seafood markets, especially in tropical coastal regions. However, it is not a mainstream staple like salmon or tilapia. Here are some ways to find and purchase needlefish:

Specialty Fish Markets

Independent fishmongers specializing in local and exotic seafood are a good option. Phone ahead to ask if they carry or can source needlefish.

Local Fishermen

Buy dockside straight off the fishing boats if available in your area. You’ll get the freshest needlefish this way.

Asian Markets

Some Asian supermarkets may carry needlefish imported from the South Pacific or Southeast Asia. Look in the freezer or fresh seafood section.

Online Mail Order

Several online seafood retailers sell needlefish fillets and ship overnight. Search for “needlefish for sale” to find options.

Catch Your Own

An exciting way to get needlefish is fishing for them yourself. That way you’ll know exactly where your catch came from.

While not the easiest fish to find year-round, seeking out local, wild-caught needlefish provides a delicious and healthy meal from the sea.

Substitutions for Needlefish in Recipes

If you can’t source needlefish, there are several fish with similar attributes that work well as a substitute in recipes:


Barracuda fillets have the same dense, flaky texture and moderate flavor. Reduce cooking time slightly as they are thicker.


Red snapper and mangrove snapper especially have a comparable sweet, delicate flavor. Adjust cooking as snapper is thicker.

Mahi Mahi/Dolphinfish

This popular game fish has a very mild taste and fine flaked texture just like needlefish fillets. Cook identically.


Farmed tilapia is affordable and takes well to all cooking methods. It has a mild taste and light texture like needlefish.


Both freshwater and sea-run trout have a similar density and flakiness as needlefish. Trout may have a slightly stronger flavor.


Flounder and fluke fillets have a lightness and neutral flavor suitable for substituting in needlefish recipes.

Experiment with these mild white fish to find the closest match for your cooking needs if you can’t source needlefish.


Needlefish are an excellent eating fish that are found around warm coastal waters worldwide. They put up an exciting fight when caught by light tackle fishing. Needlefish have delicious white, flaky flesh when properly cleaned and cooked. The meat is lean and rich in protein and omega-3s.

Needlefish can be cooked by a variety of methods including grilling, baking, pan searing, deep frying, or using in soups and stews. They pair well with herbs, spices, citrus flavors, butter and oil. While not the easiest fish to find year-round, needlefish can be bought at specialty markets or substituted with snapper, mahi mahi, tilapia, trout or other mild white fish.

Treat yourself to tasty, nutritious needlefish next time you come across some fresh fillets or catch one on your line. Just be sure to handle them properly and cook thoroughly before enjoying these unique and underrated fish. Needlefish are a seafood experience not to be missed for any intrepid angler or fish lover!

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