Cutlassfish Fishing Guide — How to Catch Trichiurus lepturus

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Want to catch a cutlassfish but don’t know how?

We’ve put together this Atlantic cutlassfish guide to help you!

cutlass fish held in hand
Atlantic cutlassfish have ridiculous-looking features. Source: Fishes of Georgia Photo Gallery

The cutlassfish (or cutlass fish) may be funny looking, but it can be difficult to catch. Let’s figure out how to make it easier for you.


There are over 45 species of cutlassfish across the globe, but they share similar features. It is a predatory fish that is long, slender, and usually steely blue or silver in color, thus the name. Most don’t have pelvic and caudal fins, a feature that gives them an eel-like appearance.

cutlassfish trichiurus lepturus
A vintage illustration of a Trichiurus lepturus. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library

It is also the reason why they are also called ribbonfish. The large head hairtail fish or beltfish are semi-transparent and are silvery steel blue in color.

Some cutlass fish are also called silver eels, scabbardfish, hairtail fish, ribbonfish, and frost fish, depending on their location and the seasons they emerge in. The fish are in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans, where they feed on other fish.

Cutlassfish Facts

Scientific NameTrichiurus lepturus (largehead hairtail)
Common Name(s)Cutlassfish, cutlass fish, Atlantic cutlassfish
Identifying CharacteristicsIt is long, slender, and is usually steely blue or silver in color. Most don’t have pelvic and caudal fins and look like eels. Its pectoral fins are mid-sized. The pectoral fins are directed upward – 1 spine & 11 to 13 rays. They don’t have pelvic fins and their anal fin has 100 to 105 rays.
Depth Range50 to 500m
HabitatThe fish can be found over muddy bottoms of shallow coastal waters in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans.
LimitsCheck your local regulations
Largest Recorded4 pounds, 3 ounces

Cutlass Fish Habitat

Atlantic cutlass fish swims 50 to 500m in tropical and temperate marine waters around the Gulf of Mexico, the West Indies, and the US South Atlantic coast. They can also be found in coastal waters across the globe.

In the daytime, juveniles and small adult Atlantic cutlassfish congregate in schools in the depths. At night they gather in large numbers in coastal areas, bays, and estuaries. Most are along muddy bottoms in the shallow coastal waters.

How to Catch Ribbonfish

Atlantic cutlassfish are not sought after by anglers and are used as bait to catch larger fish such as wahoo, Spanish mackerel, and king mackerel. Yet, if you are angling for some for the same purpose, you can attract a school using shrimp, small fish as ribbon fish bait, or artificial lures. The fish feeds in a vertical position (tail down and pointed snout up) and floats under the surface, always ready to strike.

If you are using this fish as bait, use a simple nose hook rig complete with 3 or 4 treble hooks. You can also use a jig for the nose hook to keep the fish upright in the water and prevent it from spinning. Otherwise, the fish will not look natural and will not attract strikes.

Cutlass Fish Fishing Tactics

  1. The Atlantic cutlass fish has very sharp teeth, which make short work of monofilament. Use long shank 2/0 hooks and add 6 inches of no.3 wire to prevent bite-offs of your ribbonfish bait.
  2. Keep watch near structures such as piers, jetties, and seawalls. Ribbon fish are cunning predators and will often coral smaller fish right next to these places.

Cutlassfish Fishing Tips

  1. Look for cutlass fish in estuaries, commercial/cruise ports, or anywhere you can find deep water with muddy bottoms.
  2. To attract cutlass fish to the surface, shine a fluorescent light on the surface of the water to attract small foraging fish that it feeds on. The ribbon fish will follow soon after.

Cutlassfish Seasons

Adult Atlantic cutlassfish move to warm waters northwards to feed, while females spawn during the spring and summer. Their larva is usually on shelves and slopes.

Juveniles can be found in coastal waters while young adults remain on the shelf break during thermal fronts. The fish goes into a feeding frenzy during the wet season when the number of crustaceans and shrimp increases.

How to Clean Cutlassfish

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  1. Lay the cutlassfish on a chopping board and use a pair of large scissors to cut off the fins.
  2. Use a sharp knife to make an incision diagonally over the gills about 2 inches in without cutting off the head completely.
  3. Use the fillet knife to slice open the belly of the fish right to the tail.
  4. Pull out the guts a little at a time till you get to the head. At that point, use the knife to cut through the head, and the guts attached to it and remove both from the body.
  5. Clean the fish with water inside and out to remove residual blood and guts.
  6. Cut the entire fish into as many fillets as you can get.

How to Cook Cutlass Fish

Cutlass fish are marketed fresh and sold commercially in abundance. Commercial fishermen love fishing for these. If you want a taste of this fish, here’s a simple recipe to try.

Cutlassfish Recipe

  • Spread ¼ cup of cornstarch on a plate and coat the fish (skin side) in it. Shake off the excess.
  • Heat some olive oil in a large pan and sauté a medium sliced onion and some pepper in it. Then add ginger and garlic and cook till the garlic turns golden.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each of rice wine vinegar, chili sauce, brown sugar, and half a cup of chicken broth.
  • Boil and cook until the sugar dissolves.
  • Add the fish skin side down and cover the pan. Simmer on medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until the fish is cooked.
  • Add salt and pepper as needed and serve with sautéed scallions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you eat ribbon fish?

Atlantic cutlassfish is sold as live bait for anglers and isn’t a primary food fish in the US. But, it is considered a delicacy in Japan, where it is eaten dried.

Is ribbon fish good to eat?

The taste of this fish is a cross between flounder and sea trout. The texture is delicate, and the meat is white and flaky.

Does the cutlass fish have scales?

The fish has no scales. Its long and tapering body is covered with shiny and metallic silver skin.

Insider Advice

Make sure that you catch many Atlantic cutlassfish if you plan on using them as bait. You can always cook the ones you don’t use, so your efforts aren’t wasted.

Share your fishing strategies and tips in the comments below, and do share this Atlantic cutlassfish guide if you liked it.

Jon Stenstrom
Founder & Angler
Jon Stenstrom is a fishing enthusiast. He has over 25 years of fishing experience, and 6 years of spearfishing experience, and is currently learning how to boat. Jon has his Open Water PADI Certification and FII Freediver Level 1 Certification. Jon has traveled the world to fish and dive, most notably in the Great Barrier Reef, Baja Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia. More Articles
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