Do you remember King Friday XIII, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? The King serves to remind us both that Fred Rogers was extraordinarily good at crafting children’s entertainment that was accessible without being insipid, and that surprises come in two kinds. “Is it a good surprise or a bad surprise?” Friday would ask, whenever someone was brave enough to surprise a king.
And so it is with bottom fishing.
Until this week, all our fishing expeditions this year had been for bluefish and striped bass. We did reasonably well; I think we caught 24 bass, and we’ve boated about that number of bluefish. Now it’s high summer, though. Although the bluefish are still out there – and we plan to get more of them –there are plenty of other fish in the sea. And a lot of them hang out at the bottom.
One of those fish, fluke, makes for some of the best eating the ocean has to offer, so we set off last week to see if we couldn’t get some. We decided to try Middle Ground, a long, skinny shoal in Vineyard Sound that’s supposed to be prime fluking territory. We’d never fished it before, so we didn’t know what to expect.
We went out to the deep water just off the shoal, and dropped down weighted lines, baited with strips of squid. We shut off the engine and started drifting, jigging to make the weight bounce off the bottom. Almost immediately, there were nibbles.
It’s weird, feeling your bait being eaten by something 100 feet down. That’s ten stories of water between you and your unsuspecting fish. And the clue to what’s going on is traveling up through a string, like those telephones we all made as kids, with cans on the ends.
The fun of bottom fishing is deciphering the clues. Scup and sea bass nibble; sometimes you hook them, sometimes you don’t. The better you are, the less you don’t. Dogfish are a definitive bite, and feel a bit like a dead weight coming up – there’s not much fight in the dog. Fluke hit stealthily. You’re not sure you’re on and then, suddenly, you are sure. There’s barely a twitch on the way up, but sometimes a thrashing at the boat.
As you reel in the fish, you try to figure out what it is, but you never really know. So, is it a good surprise or a bad surprise?
When you’re fishing, some fish is always better than no fish, but certain fish are better than certain other fish. A fish that’s below the legal size limit is not a good fish. Back it goes. A scup or sea bass that’s just barely legal is a tough call. That’s not a lot of fish for the life taken, so we usually throw them back unless they’re injured.
Then there’s the dogfish, a small shark we see a lot of around here. I have never eaten a dogfish, but I’m told that, properly handled, they’re good. The problem is that proper handling requires bleeding, gutting, and skinning them on the boat. Although Kevin and I definitely want to give this a shot, trying to do it, with small dogfish, as you’re busy with other fish, is distinctly sub-optimal. Dogfish are a fish for another day.
We came home with ten good surprises – six fluke and four sea bass. I lost count of the other fish, but we threw back more than we kept. I did, however, keep the species count: it was five. Besides the fluke and sea bass, we got scup, dogfish, and a lone sea robin.
My parents came over for dinner, and Kevin sautéed several of the fluke with butter, lemon, capers, and anchovies. The biggest of the sea bass we cleaned and salted, and refrigerated to be grilled, Greek-style, the next day, and served with a sauce of olive oil, lemon, and oregano. The three remaining sea bass we gave to Gus, the Greek who taught us the Greek style, and one of the fish eaters who believes that sea bass are the best-tasting fish in these waters. The remaining fluke we’ll pan-fry tonight and make into sandwiches with roasted vegetables and tartar sauce.
I’ve long since learned not to do the math on what the boat costs and what the fish would have cost. Boats aren’t investments; they’re luxuries. Still, that was about 14 meals of really tasty fish out of one trip to Vineyard Sound. Nobody would call that a bad surprise.