Why Do Small Fish Taste Better Than Big Ones?

Most of the time, younger fish are better for the dinner table than older mature ones.
big redfish
Bull redfish are known for their fighting ability, not the way they taste. Staff

Recently, a buddy of mine hooked a large amberjack. As he was fighting the fish, I started talking about how AJs are underrated as table fare. On a scale between tuna and mahi, I’d say they fall somewhere in between, with an added kind of buttery flavor. My friend agreed, but said the one he was hooked up with was too big to eat. “The only way I’ll eat this fish is if we smoke it and make fish dip out of it,” he said. 

Small fish eat better than big ones. I’ve heard that statement about so many fish species: Redfish, black drum, cubera snapper, mackerel, bluefish and the list goes on. Also, some species such as tuna tend to taste great no matter the size. Why is this?

Why Bigger, Older Fish Taste Different

One reason is that  larger fish have more contaminants (like mercury) in their flesh. Another is that older, bigger fish are more likely to have parasites like worms in their meat. But I’ve also watched folks carefully clean a big fish to remove worms and then eat those fish without noticing any diminishment to the quality of the meat.

My grandfather also used to swear that the meat of bigger redfish or amberjack became fibrous and unpalatable. I asked a buddy who happens to be both a renowned guide in southwest Florida and a professional chef why he thinks this is.

spotted seatrout
Angler Scott Hampton landed this perfect eating-size speckled seatrout.

Eric Henson points to the differences in the diets of younger fish, explaining that with inshore fish, most smaller fish “pretty much key in on crustaceans like smaller crabs or shrimp because they are an easier target.”

According to Henson, this likely contributes to the meat of the smaller fish having a sweeter taste. He also says that the fibers in the meat of younger fish are smaller, making them flakier and more delicate. He suggests, too, that it is also more likely that younger fish are healthier fish, not having been exposed to as many ailments or injuries that might affect their meat over time. As he puts it, healthier fish equals healthier meat. 

What’s your theory? Would you rather keep a big fish with more meat, or a small fish that tastes better? Let us know in the comments or on social media. We want to hear from you.