Also known as the California scorpionfish, the Pacific sculpin is found in coastal waters between Santa Cruz, California and the upper two thirds of the Baja peninsula. There is also an isolated population of sculpin that occurs in the upper portion of the Sea of Cortez. They are usually caught over hard, rocky bottoms from just below the water’s surface, to depths of over 600 feet and occasionally over mud or sand.
Anyone who has ever spent much time around tide pools on the Pacific coast during low tide has probably seen smaller members of the prehistoric looking Scorpaenidae family. They dart quickly between the limpets, barnacles and sea anemones, and then nearly disappear as they sit motionless; their natural camouflage blending with the mottled rocks around them.
The sculpin’s body is stocky and slightly compressed; the head is relatively large and their dorsal and pectoral fins can be painfully sharp. They range in color from a dark orange/brown to bright red, with occasional, darker blotches found on various areas of the body.
How do you handle a live sculpin? ...very carefully! The sculpin is the most venomous member of the Scorpionfish family on the Pacific coast. You should be forewarned that its dorsal, pelvic and anal fin spines are connected to glands and are capable of causing an extremely painful wound. Penetration of the skin by any of these spines is followed almost immediately by intense and excruciating pain in the area of the wound.
Many treatments have been used for sculpin stings, but immersion of the affected part in very hot water seems to be the most effective.
Having said that, sculpin can be safely handled and filleted by using a sharp pair of clippers to carefully snip off all of the dorsal and pectoral fins prior to placing them into the live well, burlap bag or onto a stringer. They can then be filleted in the usual manner. It is also a good idea to place a rag over the fish's head while pressing down on the cutting board, so that your hand can be shielded from a few of the other prongs or spikes that should also be avoided.
Pacific sculpin usually spawn between 3 to 4 years of age. They may live as long as 15 years or more, and rarely exceed 2 kilos in weight when mature. Their diet includes mussels, small crabs, squid, octopus, and a variety of the small fish that share their territory. Sculpin will readily take a piece of squid, mussel or anchovy that has been lowered to the bottom in one of the rocky areas that they are known to inhabit. A lot of time can be saved by using bait such as squid strips, which are harder for the fish to steal from the hook. At times, chumming with small pieces of squid, mussel or sea urchin will help attract them to the area.
Although they are not noted for their fighting qualities, once landed, the sculpin is highly prized as table fare. My favorite way of preparing sculpin is to lightly dust the small, boneless fillets in flour, then dip them quickly in beaten egg and then roll them in panko, Japanese style breadcrumbs. Let them set up in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, then fry until golden brown in an equal mixture of olive oil and garlic butter. Serve with fresh lemon wedges, rice pilaf, steamed vegetables and, if you like, a cold glass of your favorite white wine.