The best fishing trip I ever had took place about 10 years ago (my, I am getting old) in a canoe launched off of Lucy Vincent Beach. My brother, a friend and I set out in a green canoe, patched with duct tape, with our rods, fishing tackle box and a cooler of beer. We headed out toward Windy Gates and on this warm, clear October afternoon we were treated to crystal-clear waters and schools of bluefish working themselves into a frenzy with terns dive-bombing them from above. Two of us would fish, one on each end, while the person in the middle would perch on the cooler and wait for a fish to be landed. An empty beer bottle would be used to bash the fish in the skull; it then would be unhooked and the line cast out again as quickly as we could. We were paddling up and down the beach following the schools, dogfish swimming beneath us, our boat spinning in circles from time to time when multiple fish were hooked. As fish piled up at our feet, the edge of the canoe got closer and closer to the water line and the wind would blow little whitecaps into the boat. We barely made it back to shore with 18 bluefish and one bass. We piled into my brother’s old truck, cranked the heat and turned on the radio, and headed back to clean and scale a lot of fish.
Bluefish are a tormented, often undesirable and sometimes mean bunch. They are voracious eaters with razor sharp teeth, and if they were any larger they would be feared the way sharks are. They have been known to eat their young if food is scarce, beat up the weaker members of their school, and there are unconfirmed tales of surfers who have lost their toes to churning schools of bluefish. But once captured and killed, the fun begins in the kitchen.
Nelson Bryant, the longtime columnist for The New York Times, outdoorsman and West Tisbury resident, loves bluefish and once wrote about them: “Eaten within two or three hours of capture, [bluefish] are usually first rate.” He threw in the disclaimer “usually” because there are some steps a fisherman must take to ensure culinary perfection. My dad bleeds and guts his bluefish immediately after catching, while the hearts are still active and able to assist in pumping all the blood from the veins of the fish.
For home and commercial chefs alike, an hours-old bluefish, bled and put immediately onto ice, is the gold standard, although practically speaking this is not always possible. A conversation with your fishmonger can shed light on how and when the fish was caught. If you want to buy and eat locally-caught fish, you cannot go wrong with bluefish, which reliably come from waters close by. My ideal is a whole fish — they are often no larger than five pounds, a manageable size and you can use as much or as little as you like, all the way down to the carcass which can be saved for burying under tomato plants or put in the compost pile.
I planned a meal last spring in the now-defunct Menemsha CafÃ© for about 20 people with a fish course based on what was best in the hours leading up to the meal (the menu was printed the day before reading only “fish”). Luckily for me, Jeff Lynch, a skilled young fisherman, came in to refuel on coffee about three hours before the meal, a fish tub in the back of his truck piled high with blues. He gave me four; the rest were to be used as chum or sold to lobstermen for bait (bluefish is ideal for both because of its high oil content).
I broke down the fish, cooking the fillets in parchment paper packets on tender beds of our homegrown spinach, with delicate sprigs of chervil over the top and dabbed with butter. The parchment packets were folded carefully so no steam would escape, baked in a 375-degree oven and brought to the table to be punctured by the diners, giving them the first enjoyable perfume let out in a cloud of fish-flavored goodness. As the fish lounged their spinach pillows, I turned my attention to the carcasses and decided to fry the heads, tails and all the bones in a hot pot of oil until crunchy and golden brown. I served them seasoned with a heavy dose of salt and a squeeze of lemon.
A part-time deejay and full-time rock and roller who married a cousin of mine told me the other day: “You can’t play what people want to hear. You have to play what they need to hear.” Applying that to our meal, on that evening none of our guests would have dreamed of eating fried bluefish heads and I have to admit that hours earlier, I would not have dreamed of serving them this way either. But sometimes your ingredients speak to you and if you listen hard, they will guide you.
If you find yourself with a glistening, firm and still-rigid whole bluefish in your kitchen anytime soon, consider yourself lucky and think outside the box. In the past few years I have started eating bluefish raw (it’s amazing!); all you need is some good olive oil and a little bit of salt. You also can fry the skin and serve it like potato chips, which goes well with mayonnaise, or keep it simple and roast the fish whole. If putting together a more elaborate meal, you could dedicate multiple courses to different parts of the fish. It would be easy to pick up a piece of cod or halibut and your guests or family would be well fed and happily sated. But then again, that would be playing the music people want to hear.