Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman Smokes His Way to Social Acceptance
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Fishermen like to tell each other fishing stories. And while an angler may hold a listener’s interest in a tackle shop — fish protocol dictates that if you listen to my story, I will listen to yours — a summer cocktail party is not the best venue for a discourse on a bluefish blitz at Wasque Rip
But that takes an awareness that I do not always possess at social events. Given a pause in polite conversation, I will joyfully switch topics and describe the details of my fly rod battle with a big striped bass on Lobsterville Beach.
My wife Norma may be correct — she usually is — in her post mortems on the drive home when she says that no one was really interested in hearing me talk about catching fish.
But I have learned that there is considerable interest on the seasonal social circuit in eating fish. Bring along a package of freshly caught smoked bluefish or bonito and you will hold the rapt attention of your fellow partygoers who give not a fig about the details of how a fish was hooked and fought.
Sharing the Island’s natural bounty is rooted in Island tradition. Knowledgeable hosts and guests appreciate the time and effort associated with the harvest and preparation of clams, oysters, and fish pulled from Island waters.
I enjoy the smoking process. There is an element of alchemy involved in tinkering with the brine recipe, seasonings, and the choice of wood. Then there is the anticipation as I watch white smoke curl up from the vent.
Bluefish is my first choice. In part, because it is often readily found in our waters, and its oily nature lends itself to the smoking process. But nothing beats bonito. It’s just rare for me to catch one, let alone the several fish that justifies the prep time.
Irrespective of the species, it is important to bleed any fish destined for the table — I slice the gills — and ice it down immediately in order to preserve freshness and quality.
Smoking fish is as simple or as complicated an activity as you choose to make it. Advice from obsessed individuals is easily found on social media. Basically, the fish sits in a brine for several hours and then is left to air dry until it forms a pellicle, a thin, tacky skin that will help the smoke adhere to the fish.
The brine helps the fish retain moisture during the smoking process. My basic fundamentalist recipe is one quarter cup kosher salt dissolved in one quart water to which I add a quarter cup brown sugar. Then, depending on my mood, I add a few heaping tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning. But creative sorts may add all sorts of other flavor enhancers and experiment with substitutes, for example, maple syrup in place of brown sugar sounds delicious.
I dissolve the ingredients in warm water but it is vitally important that the brine be cold before the fish is added. I generally let the fish sit in the brine overnight.
Having said that, I know people that skip all the steps and just throw the fish in the smoker — the Paleo method inspired by people who managed to live without Google guidance.
My first smoker was a Little Chief, essentially a tin box with four racks and a heating coil in its base. In a past conversation, seasonal Vineyard Haven resident Jerry Hawke, winner of an Ag Fair blue ribbon for his smoked bluefish, told me he owed his success to a Little Chief because it created a lot of smoke, but not much heat and that is the secret to producing nice, moist fish.
I upped my game and the capacity of my smoker when I purchased a Masterbuilt. It is the size of a small cabinet and features digital controls, which makes it quite versatile. After some trial and error I figured out that I needed eight average size bluefish in order to have enough well-trimmed and skinned fillets to fill the grates.
Of course, fishing is not always catching. But I have found that other fishermen are happy to retain fish they might otherwise throw back for a share of the bounty. Last August, a private captain handed me six fresh bonito for smoking he caught well beyond the range of my boat.
This summer I am dancing with the big boys. I have a new Traeger smoker/grill, well known in those parts of the country where cooking brisket the size of my wife’s Kia is a religion. I think an entire smoked fish would make quite a buffet table centerpiece.
The Traeger operates by feeding wood pellets into a heat box. The advantage is all encompassing smoke and low heat. Basically, set it and forget it.
I recently discovered the perfect way to cook a top round venison roast (the muscle shaped like a football) so that it comes out tender and flavorful. I liberally coat the meat with Traeger Big Game Rub and leave it in the refrigerator for several days. I set my Traeger at 350 degrees and take the roast out when my meat thermometer reads rare (not overcooking it is critical). Then I let it sit for at least twenty minutes.
The other day I took a roast fresh from my Traeger, placed it in a small cooler in foil, and drove to a party in Aquinnah, giving it plenty of time to sit. Once I arrived I sliced the roast thin and served it as an appetizer. It disappeared in moments to much praise.
Irrespective of the equipment, smoking fish or meat is a method of food preservation that dates back to campfires in caves. You can extend the shelf life by vacuum sealing it.
Bring smoked fish caught in Island waters or venison to your next party and expect to answer the question nobody will ask you if you bring a bottle of wine: Did you make this?
A version of this story, “What Are You Smoking?” previously appeared in the July issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.