What Is A Northern Puffer Fish – Full Breakdown of this Cool Fish

By Get Fishing •  Published: 05/04/23 •  6 min read

If you’re fishing along the coast of the Atlantic, you might be surprised to reel in your line and find a Northern Puffer Fish on the other end. These little fish can be a pleasant surprise, even when you’re not going after them. With their distinct and funny appearance, habit of puffing up, and claim to fame as a delicacy, you’re guaranteed to get more than you bargained for.

What Is A Northern Puffer Fish

What is A Northern Puffer Fish?

The Northern Puffer, Sphoeroides maculatus, belongs to the pufferfish family (Tetraodontindae). It’s one of many pufferfish species, but stands out for the fact that it is not poisonous to ingest. With a wide range and classification of ‘least concern’ according to scientists, you shouldn’t be surprised if you come across a Northern Puffer when fishing the east coast of North America. 

Why is it Called a Northern Puffer Fish?

This is an easy answer: this fish is called a Northern Puffer in part due to its physical appearance, and in part due to its habitat range. The Northern Puffer can be found in the northern hemisphere along the Atlantic coast. 

“Puffer” refers to the fish’s ability to puff up when agitated, ballooning into a larger version of itself. The Puffer does this by inhaling either water or air (if it’s out of the water) into a chamber near its stomach, expanding its body. While cute, this action is a common self-defense mechanism, and if you catch a Puffer you’re likely to see it do so.

What Type of Fish is a Northern Puffer Fish? 

Northern Puffers belong to the Tetraodontidae family, a group of fish that has the ability to blow up. Species under the Tetraodontidae family also have spines that become visible when the fish has puffed up in self-defense. Northern Puffers are also called blowfish, chicken of the sea, or sugar toads by locals. 

What Does A Northern Puffer Fish Look Like?

These fish have a very distinct appearance that may be shocking when you first pull them out of the water. Their bodies are stocky and club-shaped, often rounded more towards the head. Puffers vary in color from a light yellow to a dark brown or olive body with mottled coloration around the head and mouth. Their bellies are often light yellow or white. 

One of the stand-out features of the Northern Puffer is their beak, a sharp bony protrusion they use to crush shells and crustaceans. 

Northern Puffer Fish Habitat

Finding Northern Puffers is relatively easy. They live along the Atlantic coast in bays, estuaries, and river mouths. These fish prefer calm, shallow water with sandy bottoms – where they usually find prey. It’s not unusual to catch them off piers or jetties when fishing for species like Bluefish or Striped Bass

Where Can I Find Northern Puffer Fish? 

The range of the Northern Puffer is a large one, stretching from eastern Atlantic Canada all the way down to Florida. They can occasionally be found in the Gulf of Mexico as well. 

What Do Northern Puffer Fish Eat? 

Puffers use their beaks to break shells, living primarily off of shellfish and crustaceans. They can be easily caught with clam or mussel bait. Puffers will go after crabs with an impressive attack using bubbles to disorient and flip the crab over. They will also occasionally eat other small fish that share their habitat.

How to Catch a Northern Puffer Fish? 

The easiest and most common way to catch Northern Puffers is with live bait. They’ll happily go after clam or mussel meat as well as squid, and are often caught while anglers are going after flatfish in sandy-bottomed areas. If you’re intentionally going after Puffer fish, make sure you use the correct size circle hook jig – they have small mouths. You’ll also want a pair of pliers on you to help remove the hook.  

How Big Do Northern Puffer Fish Get?

The average size for a Puffer is roughly 5-8 inches, however specimens have been caught reaching up to a foot in length. 

How Fast Do Northern Puffer Fish Grow?

Within three days of hatching, Northern Puffers form their “beaks” and start to resemble fully mature adult fish, just on a much smaller scale. 

What is the World Record Northern Puffer Fish Fish?

The IGFA does not currently have a record for largest Northern Puffer Fish, however they have been reported to reach over 1 ft in length.

Are Northern Puffer Fish Good to Eat?

Unlike other blowfish or puffer fish, Northern Puffers are edible. Some scientists believe that there may be toxins in the skin and viscera, so fishermen clean the fish before preparing. Northern Puffer is sold in some markets as “sea squab.” 

Do Northern Puffer Fish Reproduce?

There is very little known about the Northern Puffer’s lifespan and reproductive cycle, but scientists do know that these fish spawn from May to August near the shore. Eggs are attached to the bottom of the habitat by females, and males guard the eggs until they hatch. 

Are Northern Puffer Fish Poisonous?

No, unlike other blowfish and puffer fish, the Northern Puffer is not poisonous. Some scientists believe their skin and viscera may hold low-level toxins, but cleaning properly before consumption prevents any harm. 

Is the Northern Puffer Endangered?

No, the Northern Puffer has a steady population and is currently listed as of “least concern” on the conservation scale. 

Can You Eat Northern Puffer?

Yes, Northern Puffer Fish are edible. 

What Does Northern Puffer Taste Like?

This species has gained the nickname “sea squab” due to their similar taste to chicken. Some anglers even claim that, when fully cleaned, the flesh looks like chicken as well. 

What is the Difference Between Northern Puffer and Southern Puffer?

The main difference in appearance between these two species is that the Southern Puffer lacks the dark barring and black spots along the body and are much darker in coloration. In terms of range, the Southern Puffer is found in the Caribbean Sea.  


Whether you’ve caught one by accident or you’re setting out with the intention to find some Northern Puffer Fish, this is a cool species that will delight even an old school fisherman. Their fun appearance can be deceiving, though, as their bite is often worse than their bark. Happy fishing!