Like everything else in life, there is more than one way to hunt a lionfish. We will try to give you a basic outline of our preferred methods for safely harvesting the invasive species of lionfish in the Atlantic, but bear in mind that new gear and new strategies are constantly being developed as more and more people are discovering how delicious the lionfish tastes.
Because wild lionfish only eat small live prey, they are seldom caught on hook and line. (We have noticed that when they are it is usually on live shrimp) This leaves the culling operations up to divers. Many lionfish have been removed by freedivers who are going down on a single breath hold to spear them, and we applaud the efforts of these divers. However, the vast majority of lionfish hunting is done with scuba gear because of the many advantages scuba provides including deeper depths, longer bottom time, and the ease of carrying a lionfish container.
We are often asked, “Where do you find lionfish?”
Lionfish can be found almost anywhere in their invaded range. We have seen them in just a few feet of brackish water in inshore areas, and they have been spotted by submersibles in over 1000 feet of water. There are several tips for locating lionfish which we can share with you. For one, lionfish are social creatures and tend to cluster together in locations, so where you find one look around closely because there are probably more nearby. We have also observed a tendency to prefer the same sites, so it is worth revisiting the popular lionfish hangouts on a regular basis once you find their preferred spots. A tendency of all invasive species is to prefer artificial habitat over natural habitat, and lionfish are no exception. We often target these artificial structures such as wrecks, bridge rubble, and other man made debris because they will often hold higher densities of the lionfish than in the natural reef areas. This does not by any means imply they don’t like the natural reef, you can still find plenty of them on even the smallest of ledges in most areas. Lionfish prefer to feed at the twilight periods of dusk and dawn, and during the day they tend to seek cover and find a place with a ‘roof over their heads’ whenever possible. We often find them brazenly sitting out in the open as if they have no care in the world, but it’s helpful to always look in the holes and caves for the sheltered lionfish.
How to spear a lionfish
Because they have no natural predators in the invaded range, the average lionfish is essentially fearless allowing a diver to approach within inches with his spear before the fish attempts to flee. Short pole spears are the preferred tool for hunting lionfish, although there are other unique devices available that are well suited for the task such as the lionfish slayer, the ELF, and a few other tools. With the short pole spear, a diver can usually get his tip within a foot (or 30 cm) of the head of the lionfish. The full grown lionfish averages from 12-18 inches in length, so it is always best to target the head of the lionfish so as to preserve the meat for eating afterward. Always be aware of what is behind the lionfish so that when you release the spear you do not damage any coral that is behind the fish as you shoot it. We prefer to take our time and set up the best possible shot on the lionfish by aiming for the head but at a slight angle from the tail towards the head, so that the lionfish can then be easily inserted head first into a container and its spines lay down toward the back as it is being inserted. If you shoot the fish at an angle from the head angled toward the tail, you will be trying to insert your lionfish tail first into the container which is more difficult because the spines flair out as compared to folding along the body.
An important note on those ‘missed shots’ when the lionfish escapes. While the average lionfish has no fear and looks at an approaching diver the way you would expect it to look at a rock, they are amazingly quick learners. A lionfish that has been shot at or chased will almost immediately learn that it now has a predator and will begin to fear divers. It’s easy to notice a lionfish that has been shot at before because they will see a diver and begin to swim away when the diver is as much as 10 feet away. For this reason if we ever miss a shot we take the extra time to follow through and try to remove that lionfish right away because it will only become more difficult to take later.
I speared the lionfish, now what do I do with it?
There are two schools of thought on dealing with the speared lionfish. Some divers prefer to ‘defang’ the lionfish right after shooting by using a pair of shears or scissors to clip all of the venomous spines off so that the fish can be carried on a stringer or in a mesh bag with no further worries of being stung. For many this is the easiest and preferred method, but it is the writer’s opinion that it is far safer to use a hard puncture resistant container for carrying the lionfish. With this method we insert the whole lionfish into the container, spines and all, for later cleaning and filleting back on land after the lionfish has been iced into submission. There are many commercially available lionfish containers such as the Zookeeper, and many divers have also made their own low cost versions using water jugs, pvc pipe, and sliced funnels as a one way entry valve. Anything that prevents the spines from puncturing through and poking you will work, and in our opinion is safer than trying to clip the spines of a moving, shaking lionfish on the end of a pole spear.
What spines are venomous on the lionfish?
The following picture explains more than a paragraph of my words could.
What about feeding lionfish to predators after spearing?
This has been experimented with many times and is now widely considered to be a poor practice. Many species have been shown to eat a wounded or chased lionfish, such as sharks, groupers, mutton snapper, trigger fish, and moray eels, but there is little to no evidence that these species will prey on a healthy lionfish in the natural environment without divers present to encourage the feeding. On the other hand, we have been chased all over the reef many times by belligerent and aggressive sharks and eels that were trained by other divers to accept lionfish. Just like Pavlov’s dog, these fierce predators quickly learn to associate human divers with food rather than simply seeing the lionfish as food. Because of this we adamantly encourage divers to remove the lionfish from the water rather than feeding it directly to predators.
How do I clean and eat the lionfish?
Once on land and iced into submission, the lionfish can be filleted just as you would fillet any other fish. Keep in mind that being on ice does NOT reduce the toxicity of the venom in the lionfish spines. Only heat will render the venom inert. We have found that sitting at room temperature for a half hour or more will greatly reduce the potency of the venom, but we have seen people get stung by lionfish that were on ice for more than 4 hours, and there was a report of a researcher who was stung by a lionfish that had been in a freezer for 3 months.
There are many types of puncture resistant gloves and we recommend wearing them whenever you are handling a lionfish or cleaning them. We often wear one glove on the off hand for holding and manipulating the lionfish and keep our knife hand glove free for better dexterity, but whatever works safely for you is the right choice.Since the venom in the spines is rendered inert with heat, many people and chefs prefer to cook the lionfish whole with the spines and head attached. Simply gut and clean the lionfish and then bake for a striking visual presentation. Some have even used the cooked spines as ‘toothpicks’ for serving the lionfish bites.