No longer feeling blue if bluefish is on menu

September 01, 2004|By ROB KASPER

MY OPINION OF Maryland bluefish changed when I caught one. Until then, I had considered the fish virtually inedible. Now I crave it.

The seismic shift occurred last week on a day when both the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the sky above it were carefree blue. Bobbing on a boat near the mouth of the Severn River, I reeled in the fish - about 12 inches long - and marveled at its fierce fight and its brilliant color.

Its hues were closer to marine green than deep blue. Bluefish are bluer when they are swimming in New England. That is what Rob Deford, another fisherman on our charter boat, the Becky D, told me. I believed him because Deford, who makes wine for a living at Baltimore County's Boordy Vineyards, had recently been fishing in New England.

Moreover, he seemed to be about to start another career as a professional angler. He was catching more fish than anybody on our boat, including Capt. Ed Darwin. He was boating bluefish, rockfish and white perch from the bay, even when the rest of us "fishermen" were on lunch break, sitting in the cabin eating sandwiches.

Rockfish, or striped bass, was the preferred catch of our fishing party. Its moist flesh is a treasure and freshly caught rockfish has a texture that is unparalleled. We caught plenty of rock, but most of them were not keepers, fish that were at least 18 inches long.

If there was going to be fish for supper, it seemed likely that it would be bluefish, a prospect that did not fill me with delight. Usually when bluefish is on the menu, I pass. I have enjoyed a bluefish supper in Nantucket, Mass., where the markets sell fish caught that day. But most of the bluefish I had in Maryland have been too strong, too oily, too fishy for my taste.

For years, bluefish fans have told me that my bad feelings about blues stemmed from the fact that I was not getting fresh fish. Bluefish has a lot of oil and when the fish gets out of water and starts warming up, the oils begin to turn. More than any other fish in the bay, bluefish is temperamental and requires quick movement from the water to the ice chest to the table.

The timetable is so demanding, usually no more than a day or two, that the surest way to get really fresh bluefish is to catch it yourself.

I caught my first blue last week, but even after I had boated it, I was having second thoughts about putting it on my supper table. My reluctance melted when George DiPaula, the mate of Becky D and a man of few words but with strong opinions, allowed as how bluefish of this size - between 1 foot and 2 feet long - were good eating.

We ended up catching a lot of bluefish, more than Darwin said he had seen all summer. (Later Harley Speir, a fisheries biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, confirmed the captain's observation, saying the bay's bluefish population was increasing but was still a long way from the peak it had reached in the mid-1970s.)

We also caught a few keeper rock and a handful of perch. DiPaula cleaned the keeper rock and the right-size blues, and as the Becky D headed back to its Mill Creek mooring, tossed the perch to some osprey. The big birds scooped up the perch from the water, then - being polite creatures - shook their wings in a gesture of thanks to DiPaula.

Our catch was divided among most of the members of our fishing party. The group included Jeff Wilson, the pianist at Baltimore's Prime Rib restaurant; Steve Kaiser, a Baltimore public-relations mogul who organized the adventure as a way to mark his 51st birthday; Deford, and myself. Angus Phillips, who writes a weekly column for the sports pages of The Washington Post, was also part of the group. While Phillips did not catch a lot of fish during the day, he did sing a lot of country-western songs. He declined to take home any of the day's catch, saying his fridge was already full of fish.

Back in Baltimore, we divvied up the chilled bags of bluefish fillets and went to our kitchens.

Deford covered his bluefish fillets with a "glazing compound," a homemade mayonnaise recipe perfected by his father. After smearing the fillets with the glaze, he sprinkled them with paprika and put them under the broiler until they began to brown. Then he sat down and enjoyed the bluefish with a glass of his seyval-vidal-chardonnay, a blended wine.

Kaiser drizzled the bluefish fillets with olive oil, lime juice and a bottle of seasoning he had brought back from a trip to the British Virgin Islands. Then he cooked them quickly on his barbecue grill.

Wilson covered some of his fillets with mayonnaise and a sprinkling of Old Bay and put them under the broiler.

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