“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

If you doubt the veracity of that adage, just tell some mother that her child is ugly as a buck-tooth bull dog and watch her response.

Actually, that description has undoubtedly been applied more than a few times to a saltwater fish that frequents our inshore waters. But, there are still anglers who eagerly seek it for various reasons. One is the fact that it is among the first species to show up along our beaches and offer sport for anglers once winter relinquishes its icy grip. Another is that it has a reputation as one of the tastiest fish in our waters. A third may be its uniqueness; its quirky characteristics that make it

resemble a cartoon creature more so than an honest-to-goodness maritime denizen.

The fish being described is the northern puffer (Sphoeroides maculates).

Among its many special features is that the northern puffer has more aliases than a Brooklyn con man. It’s known as “swell toad,” “puffer,” “blowfish,” “blow toad,” “toadfish,” “sea squab,” “balloon fish” or “globe fish” depending on where

it’s being described, or maybe on the feelings of the person referring to it at any given moment.

The northern puffer belongs to a large family (Tetradontidae) that includes at least 120 species, most in saltwater but some in brackish and a few in fresh waters.

One thing that many of them have in common is that their body tissue contains deadly levels of neurotoxins – deadly poisons. In fact, the toxin in some puffer fish is estimated to be 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide.

However, Northern puffers, the species that inhabit the western Atlantic from New England to Florida, are not poisonous except for some of their viscera – internal organs such as heart, intestines, etc. – the stuff folks don’t generally eat. In

fact, they have a reputation as being one of the most succulent fish that swim. In some quarters, northern puffers are called “chicken of the sea.”

The key to getting the best portion of puffers for the plate is in cleaning them.

They are club-shaped creatures with a rough hide and four teeth – two on top, two on bottom – that protrude like they need serious orthodontic care. The cleaning process involves skinning them and then extracting the body structure that lies

above the entrails. One of the methods to get to that end starts with slicing crossways right behind the head of a fish, then peeling the skin back with a pair of catfish grips or pliers. Another one requires that a sturdy fork be inserted behind

where the cut is made and pulled back sharply, releasing the part that looks edible.

Before they can be cleaned and eaten, though, northern puffers have to be caught. That isn’t generally a tough chore. They aren’t large, usually 8 to 10 inches long, and weigh less than a pound. One fourteen inches and a pound a half is a

whopper. And, puffers are some of the most accommodating fish that swim in the ocean. The best bait is shrimp but they aren’t averse to biting pretty much anything they can get a grip on – artificial Fish Bites, cut bait, mole crabs – whatever is

available.

Northern puffers are uniquely equipped to eat anything. Their four protruding front teeth allow them to feed on mollusks and crabs. They also allow them to strip an angler’s bait off his hook without getting snagged if the fisherman isn’t really

alert. One way to avoid that is to use long-shank hooks – number 4s are good – and be ready to start reeling anytime a slight tic on the line is felt.

Landing puffers on light to medium-weight tackle isn’t usually a problem but it can be misleading. They aren’t hard fighters but do sometimes feel surprisingly heavy. That’s because they have the ability to inhale air or water into a special

chamber near the stomach when they sense danger. If it’s water, it makes the fish feel like the angler is cranking up a large boot. If it’s air, it causes the fish to inflate like a balloon. The latter is an interesting phenomenon, especially for kids who

might be hanging around.

Northern puffers can be caught anytime of the year but are more concentrated in shallows close to the beach in the early spring and fall. In the winter they generally move to deeper water off shore. They are not very efficient swimmers, moving

their tails back and forth like a paddle to propel themselves forward. But they manage to get around and often show up in swarms just when anglers are ready to shake off the winter doldrums and get their tackle out of the shed.

And, they make up with availability and flavor for what they may lack in size.

Northern puffers are called “sugar toads” by many Chesapeake Bay watermen.

Supposedly the name came about because they said the fish were “sweet as sugar and ugly as a toad.” Whatever they’re called, they are a good reason to get the rods out and head to the coast.

Ed Wall can be reached at edwall@embarqmail.com or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com.