Big, Bad, Basted: Cooking Record-Sized Fish

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Everyone loves a good fishing story, and anglers love recounting a battle between rod and beast, the story growing more exaggerated each time it’s told. The details become bolder, more colorful, more intense. We only wish that, when they’re cooked up for dinner, the larger-than-life record-sized fish featured in these escapades hold a flavor just as big, and bursting with surprises. 

A fish strikes the bait, the hook is set, the rod bends into a steep arc as the tip is pulled toward the water, and the fight begins. It’s not simple pugilism, but a dance—releasing the drag, allowing the fish to run and take line, with the angler keeping enough tension to reel in slack as potential prize begins to tire. After what might seem like an eternity, cramped muscles turn the last few rotations of the reel before a massive, potentially record-sized fish crests the surface and is hauled aboard or ashore. 

The catch could remain a fish story, growing in size and hyperbole upon every recounting. Or, if you act fast, the prized fish could be enshrined in the record books and set the new benchmark for its species. Its fate, however, depends on which record the fish qualifies for; it could be released to live another day or it could be brought home and cooked for dinner.

The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) is the global body that certifies world record-sized fish. Within the United States, however, state records are tracked by individual agencies that manage recreational fisheries. Records differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can be classified by either length or weight and can include catch-and-release requirements.

The IGFA’s most popular record category, accounting for 70 percent of record submissions in 2022, is the All-Tackle Length World Record. This requires anglers to find the length of the fish on a certified IGFA measuring device on a flat surface, confirm with a photo, and release the fish to the water in a healthy condition so that it can swim away with no signs of injury.

Record size catches are relative to species, from the 1,402-pound IGFA world record Atlantic blue marlin landed off the coast of Brazil in 1992 to the 3.2-ounce Wisconsin state record alewife, a species of herring, caught in May 2023. Both are record-holders, though the former could stock to freezers of friends and family for a year while the latter would barely whet one’s palette as an amuse-bouche.

“I caught a record fish recently—a 31-inch mutton snapper,” says Zack Bellapigna, Florida-based fisherman and the Angler Recognition Coordinator IGFA. “But it’s one of the best eating fish out there so I decided to skip the record books and stock my freezer.”

Bellapigna simmered the potential record-length mutton snapper in tomato sauce with onions and garlic. But, a record length does not mean a record weight. Had that 31-inch scaly creature named after a mature sheep been a bit more plump, 30 pounds and 4 ounces plump to be exact, it would have beaten the current record. Bellapigna could have, in fact, had his world record and eaten it too.

Anglers who decide to keep their record haul might be disappointed when it comes to eating their prize, as there is often a negative correlation between the size of the fish and its flavor, similar to lamb having a lighter, less gamey taste and texture than mutton. “In terms of table-fare quality, a record fish [more than 100-pounds] probably wouldn’t be the best example of that species,” Bellapigna says.

Furthermore, larger fish are often older fish, and could have been subject to years of bioaccumulation of toxins and heavy metals like mercury, making them less healthy than their smaller species counterparts. In fact, the FDA recommends that children under 11 and pregnant women avoid eating marlin, swordfish, and bigeye tuna, among others, because of high levels of mercury.

Fermin Núñez, executive chef of Austin, Texas-based restaurants Suerte and Este, says the flavor of a huge fish depends on the type. 

“We often use cod or branzino in the restaurant, which, in my opinion, decays the bigger it gets,” Núñez says. “But fish like halibut gets more flavorful when it’s matured in size, and you’ll not only get good yield, but amazing texture. It will have these big flakes after you cook it.”

Fermin Núñez
(Photo: Fermin Núñez)

Núñez utilizes both farm-raised fish, which are often more uniform in size, and wild fish, which he says is exciting because it’s really up to what the fishermen bring in. 

He recently handled a 520-pound bluefin tuna that he was thrilled to butcher. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the bluefin record holder – 1,496 pounds – it was quite the task to prepare. The fish had to be taken to a warehouse, hoisted onto a palette, and lifted onto a table by a machine. 

“It wasn’t easy, because this was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen in my life,” Núñez says. “And it’s not something we do often. We used, generally, the same tools as we’d use for a regular-sized fish, but moving it was the most challenging part. It took two hours to butcher it.”

The fish was dispersed to both of Núñez’s restaurants and lasted about a week and half. Núñez says the benefit of such a big tuna is that he could use it in a plethora of applications. The 10-pound tuna collar – the fattiest part of the fish – was roasted, thrown on the grill with a tamron glaze, and made into tacos. The tuna belly, a fatty meat he likes to cut into large sections, was served raw over oysters. The leanest part of the loin was served raw with avocado, allium salsa negra, and fried leeks. 

For the average angler who catches a massive fish and wants to invite it to dinner, Núñez suggests slowly roasting it over an outdoor fire. But if you don’t have access to a fire pit that large, you can also break the fish down and fry or bake it in smaller portions. 

“You have to have the right equipment and space, though,” Núñez says. “You also don’t want to just throw it on the grill. I would salt it, marinate it, and cook it low and slow over flames. That usually requires an outdoor space.”

Anglers who don’t have an appetite for their trophy fish also have the option to taxidermize it for posterity, but the process has changed over the past decade from using the actual fish, called a skin mount, to fiberglass recreations. This allows the fish to swim free while also having a trophy mounted on the wall.

Although a cool memento to have, we can’t help but think a prize-winning catch would be better suited seasoned, roasted, and in our bellies.