A Missed Dish With A Fish

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

May 29, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Tilghman--If the biggest fish is the one that got away, then the tastiest fish is the one you have to toss back.

That is what I told myself as I watched the 41-inch-long rockfish that I had just reeled in being tossed back into the Chesapeake Bay. It was not magnanimity that kept the fish from my supper table, it was the law. I had caught the fish the day before Maryland's spring season for rockfish opened.

This great fish, a fish that could have provided many magnificent meals -- a succulent grilled fillet, a juicy baked slab stuffed with crab meat -- was returned to the brilliant waters. As its great tail disappeared, I was awash with emotions. I felt proud and lucky that I had been be able to catch such a creature. But I felt disappointed that I was not able to feast on it.

The only thing that calmed me down was eating lunch: two

pieces of fried chicken and a ham sandwich. Catching the big rockfish was the highlight of a day of eating, storytelling and snoozing aboard a Chesapeake Bay charter boat. Charter boats operate from towns all around the Chesapeake Bay, taking would-be fishermen out for a day of adventure on the water.

The boat I was on was the Halcyon, skipped by Bill Bradshaw. It was one of six that set out from Harrison's Chesapeake House, a rambling restaurant, hotel and boat dock on Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore. This was the 37th year that this fishing party, composed of acquaintances of outdoor writer Bill Burton, met on the last Saturday in April. Like many fishing expeditions, this one was primarily social. But while I was grateful for the new friends I made on the outing, the one creature I wanted to take home with me was that rockfish.

It was big and beautiful, and so heavy -- an estimated 35 pounds -- that it took two hands to lift it. It qualified as a "trophy" rockfish, meaning it was over 34 inches long. That is how long rockfish have to be to be kept during the the "trophy season" that runs through the month of May. During the fall, the other season for Maryland rockfish, catching smaller rockfish is permitted. The limited fishing seasons are improvements from a few years ago when the rockfish stocks were so low that the state put a moratorium on catching any of them.

The rockfish has a reputation as a battler, and the one I reeled in lived up to the billing. When the fish struck my lure, it was about 200 feet away from the boat. The big fish ran another 50 feet or so with the lure before one of my five fellow fishermen, Francis Connor, helped me pull the rod out of its metal holder fastened to the roof of the boat.

The fish was pulling so hard that as I yanked the rod from its holder, I almost went overboard. Carefully I handed the rod down to Connor who, after adjusting the reel so that the fish couldn't swim even deeper, handed the rod back to me. Reeling the fish in was no small task. I began what I called the "bow and reel routine." Slowly I pulled the pole and its tense line up toward my head, then I would bow to the bay, and let the pole fall toward the water. As the pole and I bent toward the water, I would reel in the slack line.

After what seemed like an eternity, the rockfish appeared near the boat and Captain Bradshaw eased it into a net. When the fish arrived on board I was not sure what was pounding harder, my heart or my aching arm muscles. After a brief photo session, the mighty fish was back in the water.

It was the biggest fish I had ever caught. I was exhausted and hungry. I drank a beer, then a soda and plowed through lunch. As others on the boat took their turns trying to reel fish in, we talked about which fish was the best-tasting fish in the bay.

The bluefish had several supporters, but I said that if I caught one, I would not be salivating. I think the fish has an oily flavor. Several of my fellow fishermen admitted that bluefish also left them cold. We agreed that bluefish tastes best when it is smoked, thereby removing most of the oily flavor. We agreed that black drum, the fish some call "floating pork chops," has wonderful flavor, especially if grilled. But our culinary discussion was interrupted by the screech of a reel, a signal that another fish was on the line.

In all we landed four rockfish. They were admired, measured and returned to the water. By midday when the tide had slackened, the main activity on board switched from reeling in a fish to catching a nap. Soon we headed back in. At dockside, I prepared to brag to the fishermen in other boats about my monster rockfish.

No one was interested. A young woman had caught a bigger fish. One that measured 48 inches and weighed close to 45 pounds.

I offered my congratulations, and slipped away. On the way out of town, I stopped at the Island Grille, a waterfront restaurant. I slipped up to the bar, ate a crab cake, and after making a few remarks about the weather to the fellow sitting next to me, could not resist telling him about my big rockfish. I figure this fish story will be good for a year. Maybe next year I'll catch that fish again, when it is even bigger.

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