Grilling a whole fish is dramatic and thrifty all at the same time: You get to deliver a gorgeous, smoky grilled fish to the table -- and you lose far less meat than you would had you filleted the fish beforehand.
Start with a scaled and gutted fish that has had the gills cut out (There are instructions on how to do this linked below.). First you need to slash the fish on both sides every three inches or so. This helps the whole fish cook evenly. If you did not do this, the thick part would still be raw when the tail end was overcooked.
This step-by-step uses a striped bass, known as rockfish in the South, but other excellent candidates for this treatment include: bluefish, red drum, large walleyes, trout, landlocked salmon, smaller salmon such as sockeye, black seabass, porgies, white seabass, Pacific rockfish, weakfish, snapper and grouper.
2. Oil the Fish
Grilling fish can be tricky -- they stick to the grill a lot. So minimize this by making sure your grill is very clean, very hot, and very well oiled. Do this by soaking a paper towel in canola or some other inexpensive oil, then wiping down the grill with it just before putting the fish down.
As for the fish itself, it should get a coating of a tastier oil such as olive or sesame oil. This helps prevent it from sticking to the grill and helps the seasonings adhere to the fish.
A quick tip: Have a "wet" hand and a dry hand. You will need to handle the fish frequently as you deal with it before cooking, and you do not want to keep running to the sink to wash the oil off your hands. So keep one hand oily, the other dry.
Salt your fish -- more than you think you need to. There is something about a salty, grilled fish cooked over a hardwood fire. Yum! Liberally sprinkle salt over all parts of the fish, including the head, tail and inside the body cavity.
Do not add other seasonings at this point! Most other seasonings, even black pepper, will burn on the grill and taste bitter when you eat the fish. Save the additional seasonings for when the fish comes off the heat.
Lay the fish down on the grill with the tail facing farthest away from the heat. It will cook much faster than the head end, even with the slashes you made. It is very important that you do not grill large fish over very high heat! They will burn to a crisp on the outside before the center is cooked through. Steady, medium heat is what you want.
How long? About 10 minutes per side on a 20-inch fish such as this striped bass. The general rule is ten minutes per inch of thickness.
Only flip your fish once. It is a difficult operation that requires you to carefully lift the fish with two spatulas (or one long one), and GENTLY flip it over. If you have done everything correctly, you will get little or no skin sticking to the grill.
Does sticking happen? You bet. Don't fret, the fish will still be tasty!
Once the fish is done -- you will know by looking at the exposed backbone in one of the slashes and seeing that it's cooked through to this point -- carefully lift it off the grill and set it on a platter to rest a bit. Enjoy the "oohs" and "aahs" of your guests.
To serve, slide a spatula under a section that had been scored and simply lift it out and onto a plate. For the section closest to the head, move the spatula into the top of the fish over the ribs, which start below the backbone, then around the top and down toward the ribs in a semicircular motion. This ensures a boneless piece.
Oh, and don't forget the cheeks of the fish, which are my favorite part. They will be orbs of yummy fish right under each eye. And the tails, if not burnt black, are crunchy and nutty-tasting. You can also pick at the meat between the ribs, as well as in the belly.
Eating a whole fish makes for a primal, deeply satisfying meal. It may not be dainty, but it sure is good!