An in-depth look at a popular Northeast species—scup.
Scup or porgies to some, (stenotomus chrysops to scientists), these small to medium panfish average between 9 and 12 inches in length but the largest ones can exceed 20 inches. These fish look like they swam into a brick wall too many times, with their somewhat flattened face and squashed body shape. These silvery panfish are striking to look at, giving off an entire rainbow of colors when struck by any light source.
Scup can be found from Maine to North Carolina. This species migrates extensively between offshore waters, typically south in the fall and north to inshore coastal waters and bays during springtime.
In addition to the name scup, this fish is also known as a porgy, fair maid, maiden, northern porgy, and ironsides.
Scup will have a familiar shape to anyone that grew up fishing worms under a bobber, outside of their blunted faces, porgies closely resemble a slightly more robust bluegill. Their coloration is usually a dusky brown with bright silvery reflections below and spiny fins on top. Their scales reflect a rainbow spectrum of colors. Adult’s fins have a mottled coloration mixed in with dark brown, with younger specimens’ fins appearing slightly barred. A scup’s front teeth are conical and very narrow. They have two rows of molars in the upper jaw. When handling this fish, fold back the dorsal fin to remove your hook, so the spines do not dig into your hands.
Porgies grow slowly and may weigh up to 4 pounds. They can live to be up to 20 years of age. This species can reproduce when they are about two years old and reach approximately 8 inches in length. They spawn over sandy and weed-covered habitats in southern New England, ranging from Massachusetts Bay south to the New York Bight from May through August, with peak spawning activity during June. This species will only spawn once each year. Most fish spawn at night, but researchers speculate this fish can also spawn in the morning. Females release an average of 7,000 eggs, which are fertilized by males milt while floating in the middle of the water column.
Scup are opportunistic feeders. They will feed on several species of invertebrates that live on the seafloor. They can grab hold of their food with their powerful jaws and sharp teeth and also have the ability to crush hard-shelled animals.
Several fish and shorebirds feed upon both adult and juvenile scup.
There are also two stocks of porgies: Mid-Atlantic/New England and South Atlantic. According to the most recent stock assessments from NOAA. The New England/Mid-Atlantic stock is not overfished and not subject to overfishing, according to a 2021 stock assessment. Scup is contained in the South Atlantic Porgy Complex in the South Atlantic. Scientists have not assessed the Porgy Complex in that region, so the population status in the South Atlantic is unknown.
With vastly improved reproduction and survival rates and low fishing rates since 1998, the Mid-Atlantic spawning stock biomass, which measures the amount of scup that can reproduce, has steadily increased since the mid-1990s.
While fishing off a charter boat out of Hyannis several years ago, my family caught 90 legal-sized scup between the five of us in less than four hours of fishing. The only thing that held down our total catch was in Massachusetts, there was a minimum size of 9 inches for porgies, so we released about 40 additional specimens which did not measure up.
Scup have lean and flaky meat, but they also have many bones, making them very difficult to fillet. As a result, porgies are usually sold and prepared as whole fish, not as fillets. Before cooking, the scup is typically scaled and dressed. Since scup are a very bony fish, they require careful filleting to remove all of the small bones from the meat if you choose to consume them that way. This species is well worth the fight to land and consume. All kinds of anglers enjoy catching this species, equating the experience with pursuing freshwater panfish, including pumpkinseed and bluegill. The porgy can compete with tastier white fish meat such as flounder with proper seasoning. Between their hard-fighting spirit and being excellent table fare, this species is a favorite target for many anglers throughout the season.