Smokin' the Martha's Vineyard Blues
I generally do my best to avoid situations where I might encounter creatures that are mean and have the potential to inflict bodily harm — hunting Cape Buffalo or shopping in a mall — the exception is fishing for bluefish.
On Wednesday, the last week in May, I finally had a day off from work when the wind was not blowing out of the north more than 20 knots. It was my first trip of the fishing season in my Tashmoo-18 skiff, and sea conditions were mirror calm as I exited Tashmoo Pond and headed west.
I planned to fish for black sea bass in the depths off Seven Gates. But I changed my heading when I saw a flock of terns gingerly picking bait off the sea’s surface as rising fish dimpled the water just past Cedar Tree Neck.
Pomatomus Saltatrix — Latin for Cuisinart with fins — is as ornery as anything that swims in island waters. Terns instinctively avoid diving into the water when blues are present, wisely picking off frantic sandeels from the surface on the fly.
Generally, when blues are actively feeding, a section of broom handle with a hook cast into their midst will draw a strike. But not always, and this was one of those days.
The blues were slurping up tiny sand eels and showed little interest in my trolled offerings. But when I cast a thin, reflective metal lure known as a Deadly Dick (I don’t name ‘em, I just fish with ‘em), I finally had a strike from a big blue that weighed about 8 pounds — no easy fish to bring to the net.
With one fish in the boat, I sought two more — the recreational limit is three fish. Enough filets to fill my Masterbuilt Smoker.
I worked hard for my second fish. But before I could catch a third fish, the tide went slack and the fish disappeared. I spent some time drifting for sea bass, but after forty minutes and one keeper-sized fish I was bored. I returned to Cedar Tree and added a third bluefish destined for the smoker to the cooler.
When I fish for blues I use a lure with a single hook, which reduces the risk of one of several things occurring when you attempt to unhook a fish, all of which will ruin your day: the bluefish clamps down on your finger; the bluefish jumps, and you hook yourself on the lure; the bluefish bites you, and you hook yourself — Ouch.
Mean or not, blues deserve respect for their table qualities. They often get a bad rap which I think is attributable to poor handling the moment the fish leaves the water. If I keep a blue for the table, I cut its gills to bleed it and get the fish on ice as soon as possible.
Respect for the fish encompasses those fish we plan to release. Honestly? There is no need to treat a bluefish like a member of Congress. Blues may be tough, but they are not indestructible. Don’t stomp on a blue to hold it still. It’ll damage its internal organs.
I prefer to smoke my bluefish. It’s a bit of a process when done correctly, but well worth the time. I skin my bluefish and cut it into sections that I soak in a brine overnight. There are a lot of brine recipes. This is one I adapted that I found on “Dave’s Cupboard.” You’re not refining uranium. Be creative: 1-quart water, ¼ cup soy sauce, ¼ cup kosher salt, ¼ brown sugar, 1 tbsp Old Bays, 1 tbsp mustard … and anything else you like.
Ensure all the ingredients are dissolved, and the brine is cold before you soak the fish. I use a plastic tub, but in the past, I put it in the refrigerator’s vegetable bin (I have an understanding wife).
The next day I rinse the fish and dry the fish with paper towels, then let it sit on a grate until it gets dry and tacky. This is a necessary step that helps the smoking process. You can do this in the refrigerator or in a cool, dry basement. I let this batch sit for three hours.
The final step is the smoke. I used apple chips and let the fish smoke at 200 degrees for close to three hours. I took out a few thin tail pieces when they were good and brown. I’ll use those to make bluefish dip.
This season, Island fishermen will pursue bluefish, and dedicated striped bass fishermen, who eschew the use of wire leaders, will rue their presence with grudging respect. In that sense, little will have changed in more than a century.
In 1881, writer and fisherman Francis Endicott traveled to the Cuttyhunk Club, just across Vineyard Sound. It was one of many private striped bass clubs, that included the Squibnocket Club, where men of wealth and privilege caught big striped bass that regularly exceeded forty pounds from “bass stands,” walkways from which to cast, erected over the large boulders along the shoreline.
A local known as the “chummer” would ladle bits of menhaden into the water to attract the bass. The chummer was also responsible for breaking up the lobster the fishermen used as bait.
“It is true that chumming attracts other less desirable fish,” Mr. Endicott wrote of his experience fishing at the club. “Your bluefish has an insatiable appetite and a keen nose for a free lunch. We say this ruefully as we reel in and put on a fresh hook to replace the one just carried away. Egad! That fellow struck like a forty-pound bass, and cut the line as clean as though he had carried a pair of scissors! What a game fish he is! He fights to the very last and only comes in when he hears that the struggle is becoming monotonous.”