Removing Sculpin Spines

Removing Sculpin Spines

The California scorpionfish, also called a sculpin, is one of the most popular and delicious sport fishing species found along the Southern California coast. Sculpin are caught in rocky areas and in sandy patches near structure. Many sculpin are caught right off of piers, docks and in bays, making them an easy fish for anyone to target.

Sculpin, however, are also one of the most poisonous species of fish you’ll find on the West Coast. A single prick from one of the sculpin spines can render a whole new level of pain and infection if not taken care of promptly. In that regard, the scorpionfish is much like the East Coast’s lionfish. (For more information on cleaning lionfish go to “How to Clean A Lionfish.”)

But just because there is a slight chance of getting stung by a sculpin spine, you should not be afraid to handle one of these fish. Just be cautious.

To find sculpin, target a depth of 20- to 250-feet of water with a small grub or swimbait bounced along the bottom. Or, fish a strip of squid or a live anchovy off of a dropper loop with a 2- to 8-ounce sinker and a No. 2 hook.

Once you catch one, you’re on them. They stick together and there will be others around so stay in the same spot.

The Latin name for this species is Scorpaena Guttata (which literally translates to scorpionfish, spotted). The fish is colored a beautiful deep red with brown spots.

The red color should act as a caution to anglers landing these fish. The sculpin spines on their fins carry venomous poison that can cause terrible pain if you get pricked.

If punctured by a sculpin spine, immediately immerse the wound in hot water. The heat will break down the poison and/or venom that causes the painful reaction. Swelling and loss of feeling in the area of the puncture wound is common. The pain may also move from your hand to your elbow and you may feel some throbbing. Nausea and faintness are also side effects of the sting. Anyone who is stung by a scorpionfish should go see a doctor as soon as possible to prevent infection. While most stings are not fatal, the feeling of being stung by even one of the sculpin spines is often compared to that of a rattlesnake bite. You might feel like you want to die, but hang in there.

To avoid a painful sting, handle each fish by the mouth or using pliers or a BogaGrip type of fish holder until all of the spines have been cut and disposed overboard. Follow the steps outlined here and you won’t have to worry about those spines ruining your next trip out for sculpin.

Step 1: The safest thing to do is throw the sculpin in a bucket or fish box and let it die so it won’t be jumping around as you handle it. Once you can safely handle the fish, grab it by its mouth and cut the dorsal spines from front to back using a pair of heavy-duty wire or mono cutters such as the one’s found here. Wire cutters will work better than scissors. remove sculpin spine

Step 2: Remove the fish’s anal and dorsal fins on each side of the fish.

cut sculpin spines

Step 3: Continue to hold the fish by the jaw and remove the anal spines.

Remove sculpin spines

The sculpin spines on the gill plates are sharp and may cause infection but they are not poisonous so be aware of them, but you don’t necessarily need to remove them.

Once the danger of the sculpin spines is removed, the fish can be handled and filleted like any other fish.

Sculpin have a flakey mild flavored flesh that is excellent fried with beer batter or Panko bread crumbs. The fillets also make great fish taco’s or use them as fish ‘n chips. You can prepare the fish a number of ways. For a healthier option, try poaching or steaming the fish and serve it on a bed of greens or rice. However you decide to cook your catch, just make sure to do the right thing and remove the spines first.

Photos provided by Capt. Brian Woolley of the Sum Fun, a three-quarter day sport boat available via Dana Wharf Sportfishing. For more info, visit

Jason Hayashi comes from a fishing family, with more than three generations of California fishing knowledge coursing through his veins. Jason fell in love with the sport at an early age, catching his first fish, a rainbow trout, at the ripe age of two. In 2003, Jason founded the fishing forum Bloody...