Simple Grilled Whole Fish

5 from 8 votes
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I’m always surprised when I hear someone saying that grilled whole fish to somehow too hard to pull off. It’s really very easy once you know how, and I aim to help you here.

Why grill whole fish? Several reasons. First, they look cool. Second, cooked properly, a grilled whole fish will stay together better than a grilled piece of fish. Third, you get crispy charred bits, which we all know and love.

A grilled whole fish over the coals.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Finally, and probably most importantly, you get to eat more of the fish by wasting less. You get the collar, the cheeks and those amazingly nutty tail fins! (I am serious, try a crispy tail fin and tell me I’m crazy. I dare you.)

What are the best fish to grill whole? Anything that isn’t too soft, such as herrings, or too weird, like, say, monkfish. Primarily, however, I grill bass-like fish that have substantial skeletons and relatively thick skins.

Some options I like: small striped bass (pictured above), Pacific rockfish, Atlantic black seabass, small snapper or freshwater bass, porgies, small carp, small drum, croakers, speckled sea trout, yellow perch, pompano, triggerfish, trout, even pink salmon.

If the fish are small enough to fit into a wok, sometimes, I crispy fry them, Asian style — especially in winter. And even if they are small, I love grilled trout.

Here are some tips on making grilled whole fish.

  • Size. You will have to flip the fish on the grill, so I generally won’t grill a whole fish larger than about 20 inches.
  • They need to be scaled, gutted and gilled. Gills impart an off taste to the fish and must be removed. Crispy fish skin is amazing.
  • Slice the fish several times, more or less perpendicular to the backbone — this opens the fish to heat better, so it cooks evenly. Three to five slashes is good.
  • Coat them in olive oil and salt only… for now.
  • Get a hot fire and have your grill grates very clean. Dirty grates = sticky fish. No one likes that.
  • The smaller the fish, the hotter the fire. Sardines need a raging hot fire, while a large striped bass would want a cooler one. This is so you get crispy skin without over- or undercooking the fish.
  • Grill a bit longer than you think. Slightly overcooked grilled fish is better than undercooked; this is opposite of most indoor cooking.

Flipping a whole grilled fish is an art, but not a hard one to master. If your fish was well oiled, your grates are clean and you happen to have one of those long, flat spatulas that short-order cooks use to flip pancakes and eggs and burgers and such, you’re in business. Two regular spatulas work, too.

You flip a grilled fish when it’s ready. And when is that? When it wants to come off the grates easily. You can carefully test this as it cooks by gently trying to lift the fish off the grates. If the fish is still stuck, leave it until it lifts off. Patience, young padawan!

Flipping a grilled whole fish
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

After the fish are grilled, I will often sauce them with an herb vinaigrette. I have a recipe for this method, using porgies and oregano oil, in my first cookbook, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.

Sometimes I stick with just salt, pepper and lemon, sometimes I use that oregano oil or another herb-infused oil. Basil is great in summer, pine or juniper in the winter, but really any herb you love will work.

You make these oils by chopping about 1/2 cup of the herb and pureeing it in a blender with 1 cup of oil, usually a neutral one like safflower or canola. A pinch of salt in the mix works well, too. Once you’ve pureed the mix, pour it into a fine strainer set over a bowl to catch the strained oil, leaving the debris behind.

Or leave the sauce out completely.


If you’re interested in grilling other types of fish, you might like my recipes for grilled pompano, grilled fish on the half shell, grilled trout or grilled tuna steaks.

Whole fish on the grill
5 from 8 votes

Grilled Whole Fish

Grilling a whole fish is not difficult, but there are a few tricks to doing it without having the fish stick to your grill grates. Any whole fish will do, but you generally want them less than about 20 inches long. Make sure they are well coated in oil, well salted and make sure your grill is nice and hot, and you will be fine.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes


  • 1 or 2 whole fish, scaled, gutted and with gills removed
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper


  • Wash the fish well and make 3 to 5 slashes in the meat perpendicular to the backbone on each side of the fish. You are doing this to open the interior of the fish to the heat, so it will cook evenly. Make more slashes closer to the head, where the fish is thicker, than toward the tail, which cooks first. Snip off any sharp fins with kitchen shears or scissors if you want. Leave the tail, as it will crisp up and taste wonderfully nutty. Seriously. Try it.
  • Coat the fish with olive oil and salt it a little more than you think you ought to; salty fish tastes good! Let the fish sit at room temperature for 20 minutes to an hour.
  • Get your grill crazy hot, at least 500°F, and scrape the grill grates well to clean them. When you are ready to lay the fish down, dip a paper towel in some oil and grab it with tongs. Wipe down the grill with the oily towel and them immediately lay the fish down on the grill grates. Let them sizzle nicely for a minute or so.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and cover the grill if you have a gas grill, or just leave the fish on the open grill if you are using wood or charcoal and the grill is very hot. Let the fish cook for a total of 5 to 10 minutes on this side, depending on how thick it is. A general rule is a fish will need 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Estimate this thickness measuring to the fish's spine - remember you are flipping the fish.
  • To turn the fish, have your tongs in your "off" hand and a big spatula in your good hand. Gently turn the fish over. It should come off the grates cleanly. If not, don't force it. Let the fish back down and come back at it with the spatula, using pressure to pry it off the grates. You don't want to pull the fish away from the grates and have half the skin and meat stick to the grill. Once the fish is flipped, let it cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Once the fish is ready -- check by making sure the meat closest to the bone in the slash that is closest to the head of the fish is fully cooked -- put it on a platter and serve, with a sauce or not.


One last thing: Make sure your fish are scaled, gutted and have their gills removed -- you don't want to eat scales, and gills can make the fish taste bitter, so cut them out with kitchen shears. Watch out! They are sharp.


Calories: 218kcal | Protein: 40g | Fat: 5g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 180mg | Sodium: 155mg | Potassium: 576mg | Vitamin A: 200IU | Calcium: 34mg | Iron: 1.9mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Hank,

    Tried to ask last week but my post never went through: what is the grill pictured here, with the cross-hatch grate?

    I love my Weber, but I may lust your….whatever grill that is?

  2. I’ve cooked rainbow trout this way and what seems overly simplified is really special! Don’t forget to eat the crispy tails, (never thought I’d say that), they are nutty and delicious! Best, “chip”, you’ll ever eat!

  3. I love to cook, since I live in Mexico I usually buy Red snapper or Pargo which is the big Red Snapper. I’m kinda afraid that it might stick to the grill even if I oil it, so I was wondering about putting down some tin foil, what do you think?
    Thank you

  4. A neighbor just brought me two red tailed Perch. Both had about twenty baby fish in the bellies. Can you do any thing with these or toss? Thanks.

  5. I caught several nice crappie yesterday and kept a couple of 1.5# whole to try. Any suggestions for Crappie? Was thinking of an Asian flair with lemongrass, cilantro and ginger in cavity.

  6. Mitch: I’d grill it over lower heat for longer, to let it cook without the outside burning to a crisp. I’ve eaten a sheepshead’s Atlantic cousin, the tautog. Awesome fish.

  7. How do you feel about grilling a 3 lb sheepshead? Its about an inch bigger than what you reccomend but theyre a pretty thick hearty fish (diet of shellfish). If youve never had one of them I highly suggest it, great taste, and im glad someone else eats fish tails besides me haha.

  8. Thx Hank.
    I never have the intestinal fortitude to grill my whole fish. I know the the technique, still never do it. After reading your post, i decided to give it a go. 1.5lb South Florida mangrove snapper with some ground fennel seed and lemon slices in the cavity came out perfect. Thanks again.

  9. Krystal: You really don’t need a scaler, although you can buy one at your local sporting goods store. I used nothing more than a butter knife for years before someone gave me a scaler…

  10. Thanks for another great instructional article. After pulling in a few nice sized Croakers over the weekend, we gave this a go. Stuffed them with lemons and herbs. I’ll never throw back or cook these fish another way again! It’s time to buy a scaler. Any recommendations on the easiest type to use?

  11. Ben: I have oiled and salted whole fish on the grill for 25 years, always with good results. Salting a long time beforehand will pull moisture from the fish, but it will also season it and tighten up delicate fish, too.

  12. I am going to grille a 3lb – 18″, Yellow Pike over charcoal this evening. This is my first attempt. I was watching the food channel a week ago and they said never salt or oil the whole fish. They said that this tends to draw out the moisture in the fish during the grilling process. Comments?

  13. You can also rub the grill with a cut raw potato, I’ve heard (thanks, Martha Stewart!), to prevent the fish from sticking to the grill.

    I have cut my hand on rock cod dorsal fins before. Not pretty. Though to be fair, I have also cut my hand on a frozen chicken breast…

  14. By black and olive, are you talking the mid-water black and green “bass” or bombers; technically yellowtail and dusky rockfish?

    If so, in B.C. I found that smaller bombers (like around and under 1 foot) had a lot smaller ribcage, probably due to a more variable swim bladder — I’ve caught them on the surface and down 200 feet — and a lot larger fillet. They were the prime sandwich fish. I take the fillets and roll them in cornmeal and pepper and fry them up as a sandwich fillet; just perfect.

    You’re totally right regards each species having it’s own niche for cooking. I find cabezone to be a marinate and grill fillet/chunk fish; boccacia/bombers are the best for fried; yelloweye/copper/vermillion/china are for baking and flaking into pasta etc. Greenling et al are best made into salt cod; dogfish into mash for fish patties; ling are a deep fry.

    But then when you say that everyone says you’re crazy…

  15. You mentioned that you often cook yellow perch whole. I’ve never heard of this in my life! I am an avid perch fisherman and we always filet them (even the small ones). Do you scale/gut/remove gills same as the cod recipe?

  16. Tyler: Yep, says it right there in the recipe – scale, gut and remove the gills from the fish. 😉

    I do know some people who don’t scale the fish when they grill, but that is to use the skin as a sort of shield against the fire. They then take just the fillet off the grill and toss the skin. Another decent option, especially for fish with thick or nasty skins, like triggerfish…

  17. Do you not scale the fish prior to cooking it? I was always taught to scale them if we were leaving the skin on. Otherwise I skin all my fish.