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Getting Fishy Without Getting Wet

January 12, 2010

May 26, 2009

There are plenty of fish around, but I’m not catching. My favorite honey holes have been suspiciously barren of the normally ubiqitous 22- to 25- inch almost-keeper striped bass that make me pine for a slot-fish system like the one in Maine, which allows anglers to keep fish from 20 to 26 inches and those bigguns over 40. There have been some small schoolies taken in some of the regular spots, while other tried and true schoolie spots have remained totally fishless. At the same time, Cape Cod Bay has been hot with keepers, the Canal is cooking and the Sound has yielded some nice big fish. The tip of Nauset inlet is already closed off for piping plovers or some such thing, which is depressing as the big schools have not yet arrived. P-Town has had some large fish, and the blues are already getting hooked from the beach as near as Harwich. The appearance of bluefish casts a pall over my squid-fishing fantasies, which, at present, remain one part imagination and one part reminiscence (and another part sheer frustration.)

I promised myself I wouldn’t go nutty for surf-fishing until the baby was at least 3…or maybe 5. I just can’t juggle living according to the diaper change clock while I’m living and breathing the tide chart and the moon phase and the fish reports and the wind and the bait situation. If you have been caught by the beach fishing bug, you know what I mean. I swore I would completely abandon the hunt for bass, but that declaration may have been a castle made of sand.

We’ll see what happens, but I don’t think nights on the beach are in my near future. I have made a few casts, and the tell-tale thunk I wished for came from the baby grabbing the butt of my rod from his roost in the backpack. He has a great sense of humor. He likes hikes; he just likes it when he’s doing the hiking. He loves the water; he just loves being in the water. As best I can figure, I have about 3 casts at any one location, which is a pretty good technique, as long as there are fish in a few of those spots. I haven’t had that pleasure.

My idea for doing a little spring-run fishing (no pressure, just for yucks) was to hike Nauset’s Outer Beach with the baby in the pack and cast around for stripers. Unfortunately, the surf-fishing season is a little delayed, maybe by a few weeks. And the baby is hip to the beach and wants his feet in the sand, not dangling out of a pack. We fished the turn of the tide at the inlet recently, and he was keen to reel in the lure. I sat on the sand and made myself  into a fighting chair, holding the rod as he reeled. He is very strong and surprisingly adept at handling a reel – an old pro at 20 months with an honest pin-worthy white perch on his record as the first fish he’s reeled in on his own, with rod-holding assistant, of course.

It’s been pretty hard to cry about not fishing much because A – that’s not what I signed up for when I got in line for an angelic infant and B – my kitchen has been completely overrun with fish. There has been a flurry of fluke and a bounty of bass, with local oysters to boot and the periodic appearance of squid in the sink. The fluke were…um…a fluke – a gift from an offshore gillnetter. And the bass represented a small fraction of those caught by the big guy. I harvested big, salty oysters in Orleans (who knew?) and we had a taste-off with some Wellfleets brought around by Evan Brunige. The Orleans batch averaged larger than the ‘Fleets and had a more tan-colored meat than the gray Wellfleets. The Wellfleet oysters had more of a briny taste, but the Orleans group was rated as more flavorful (What?!!?)

The menu went from fluke tacos to bass tacos; from pan-roasted fluke with brown butter and capers to fish chowder with bass. There were some deep-fry experiments involving a tip from a fisherman and a box of Colonel so-and-so’s yummy MSG coating, but I kept to the milk and flour pan-fried filets with thyme and was quite happy.

So far, the chowder is the winner. I manage a pretty good collection of seafood cookbooks, but Gillian Drake’s Cape Cod Seafood Cookbook almost always wins out when I’m trying to find a good recipe for any salty fish or clam. And that is not just because a photo of my love with a giant bass graces one of the pages. Instead, it is because she mixes classic Cape Cod seafood dishes with more labor-intensive ‘gourmet’  recipes, many of which come from local restaurants. I keep Jasper White’s Summer Shack Cookbook very close at hand, too. I am dying to cook his Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew with bluefish, bass, squid and chorizo.

Here is the recipe for our most popular dish of the week, with my wish for you to catch a small keeper and try it out. Tight lines. (If you can’t catch a keeper, bug a fisherman friend for one or make the chowder with haddock…or you can wait until commercial striper season opens on the Cape sometime around July 12.)

Cape Cod Fish Chowder, adapted from Gillian Drake’s Cape Cod Fish and Seafood Cookbook, available at Nauset Fish Market, Route 6A in Orleans, Mass.

  • 1 1/2 lbs of fresh striped bass, red meat excised and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb bacon
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 potatoes, diced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • water to cover
  • 2 Tbs flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 2 oz butter
  • paprika, salt and pepper

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, cook the bacon to render the fat and remove to drain on paper. Pour off excess fat, if desired, to leave about 4 Tbs of fat remaining. Saute the onions until golden. Add the potatoes and bay leaves and add enough water to cover. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, around 20 minutes.

Mix the flour with the milk and stir until no lumps are present. Add to the chowder and stir gently. Add the fish and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the cream and heat through, being careful not to boil.

Stir in the butter, a pinch or two or paprika and salt and pepper to taste. Let rest for about 10 minutes for the flavors to meld. Serve with the bacon, crumbled, or make BLT’s for a side dish. This chowder tastes even better the next day.

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