The New Generation:
My only nephew is now 14 years old. He lives in a tiny suburb of San Diego. Although my sister has devoutly tried to keep him connected to his east-coast, ethnic Italian roots, he is a product of his generation and environment. He suffers like most kids, from the general societal paranoia who treat kids like Faberge Eggs. He grew up more comfortable with touch screens than with backyard streams. I don’t know is he’s ever gotten on his bike and ridden to somewhere he didn’t know or if he’s ever walked in some kind of nature just to explore it. He didn’t have a next-door friend teach him to dig up worms and walk down to the local pond to catch sunnies in the summertime. He didn’t look under rocks in rivers for crayfish, or make home-made fishing nets out of mom’s old stockings and coat hangers, or dangle live minnows to predator fish and get to feel powerful and elated, and also sad and guilty for the bait. He never had any of that growing up. So when he got to be around 10 years old, my father and I took him out into the New Jersey bays to fish the waters that we have fished all of our lives, so he could begin to take his rightful place among men. He loved it. I think it helped that his first few outings were in the best blowfish and snapper blue seasons I’ve ever witnessed. The action never stopped. Fish were everywhere. It was only a matter of honing your skill of setting the hook and landing the fish. Each year now when he visits the Jersey Shore in the summer, his one request to me is to take him fishing. Very little makes me happier.
This year he was of that age were he came with a friend, and they both looked forward to a fishing adventure. I was more nervous then usual, because I had read the reports and you could tell that the fishing was bad and the reporters were just trying to sell bait and not feel too guilty themselves for being liars. I stocked up anyway and made a plan to fish three species: tossing metal for bluefish at sunrise (decent chance of hookup), then switch to drifting squid in the inlet for fluke (long shot) and finally, (the sure thing, practically cheating) anchoring and chumming for blowfish, seabass or any other junk fish that hangs out on the bottom. I mean, something was going to jerk our lines even if I had catch sea robins and skates.
We went out, and my father, my nephew, his friend and I all got skunked. And we were out all morning, and I tried a ton of spots and even creeped up on boats that looked like they knew what they were doing. Being young teenage boys, they don’t talk much anyway, but they were especially quiet during this skunking even for them. I felt really bad, and offered to take them again the next day if they weren’t too discouraged. They didn’t hesitate to say yes, which kind of surprised me. I was thinking that these soft, computer kids wouldn’t have the attention span or understanding that this is how fishing often goes. My nephew has never been skunked like this, so I admired his desire to go another round.
I told the boys that they should get up next morning at 5am and we are leaving right then. At 4:59am both of them impressively walked bleary-eyed down the stairs and were ready. Of course, I’d been up since 4 and had all the rods rigged the night before. My father decided to sleep in. My plan was this: screw the bait fishing. Put all effort into light tackle casting to bluefish at dawn. I know the fish are there, for I saw them yesterday just as we arrived. We had left too late around 6am, for I’ve found that NJ bluefish are done with breakfast early and are hard to entice later. However, just at first light, they are usually very active and almost always along the jetty in the inlet at this time of year. This was our best shot. This was why I dragged these two kids up so early. It was all or nothing. And in my book, there is nothing like hooking a bluefish on light tackle in the Jersey summer.
It was still dark as we fired up the 1989, 2-stroke mercury engine and made the 20 minute run to the inlet. The weather was perfect, warm, slight west wind, a few clouds. The night before, at the last minute, I put on a lure from Bontempi’s tackle bag that he had left with me for our flats trip in a few weeks. He had killed the bluefish last year with his black Bomber long-A salt lure. It’s something I’d not imagined would ever work, but something about the big black profile at first light seems to be irresistible to the yellow-eyed devils. We arrived and the birds were up and working. The bluefish like to trap the bait along the wall and partially submerged jetty and chomp on the little fish as the waves and ripping currents disorient them. We were all alone with the birds and I handed the boys their rods strung up with metal lures. Now a word on the tackle: these chunky rods and reels were bought by my father the same year as the boat. The fact that they work at all is a miracle, but they could explode at any minute. The line has probably never been changed. Also, these boys are just learning how to cast, and I’m asking them to cast metal lures with crappy rods in the most dangerous inlet on the whole east coast. I had to keep the engine running and be at the wheel at all times to keep us off the rocks, on the fish, and out of the way of all the commercial and recreational boat traffic in the inlet. On my nephew’s friend’s first cast, the reel blew up. I had other rods rigged and gave him the one with the Bomber on it. He kept casting, as we drifted too close to the rocks. I was quietly mummbling and grunting to the bluefish to frigging hit those lures…come on, Come on. Then I hear my nephew shout and then in disgust, “Awww, I had one!” he reeled in and the lure was gone. The fish didn’t chew the line, the crappy old line snapped. I quickly took a about 20 feet of line off the reel, started to retie when I saw his friend’s rod bent.
“‘Are you on, or snagged on the rocks?”
“I don’t know”
“In think you’re on.”
Though I actually couldn’t tell myself. His line was stalled in the submurdged rocks, but it looked like he had a fish on. I grabbed the rod from him and still couldn’t tell. “You’re snagged…no you have a fish….no you’re snagged on kelp or something…”
So I gave a good pull on the line because I was running out of time as the boat drifted towards the rocks. Boom! A bluefish sprang out of the water and over the rocks. The fish must have been trapped on something, but now was tugging and swimming like crazy. I threw the rod back in the kid’s hand and he started fighting. The fish was a good size and of course, fighting back the way only a bluefish can. The kid muscled the crappy reel and rod along and brought the fish broadside. I helped him heave the fish over the rail as we were no longer skunked! Fish in the boat, and cheers from the boys. Now as the fish came close I could already see blood in the water coming out of it’s mouth and when it hit the deck blood spattered everywhere. I got the crushed-barb treble hook (good job Bontempi) easily out of its mouth, and threw the fish in the hole of the boat. Now I looked at the line and it was frayed where it got hung up in the rocks and amazingly the 3lb blue didn’t break it off. I re-tied the Bomber back on, got a horn blown at me by a big commercial steamer as I had drifted into the channel, maneuvered the boat back on the fish and handed the hot Bomber lure to my nephew. In a matter of minutes he was on, too. It was a slightly smaller fish and he landed it like a champ. This is not quiet fishing, this is full contact blood sport, and it was a total success, as both boys got a nice fish each. More blood sprayed everywhere when second fish was landed. They delighted in taking pictures of the stern of the boat that looked like a murder scene, and immediately posted the photo somewhere in cyberspace.
They fished another hour and my nephew had another fish break the crappy line and take off with my another one of my metal lures and his friend hooked two more with the Bomber, but lost them both on the way in. But no matter, it was a grand morning with two fish in the hole and an experience I’ll cherish.
When we arrived home, the family was waiting on the dock and the boys proudly displayed their catch. After they scrubbed the blood off the boat, I got a filet knife so they could clean their first fish. I grew up watching my father clean fish, so when it was my turn, it came naturally. I remember the first time I gutted a fish, it was also a bluefish, a small snapper I caught on my own one day…I slit the fish up the belly just like when my dad did it. These boys haven’t had that kind of childhood, but I wasn’t going to be easy on them. I felt I had little time and opportunity to teach them how to prepare and honor the fish that they had caught. They scaled the fish and got grossed out pulling the guts and gills out, and I have no idea what sense they made of this ceremony in which I obviously put great importance. My father cooked and the boys served their fish to us for lunch. It it’s how things have been going for centuries, and it made me proud.
And after all these years of catching, cleaning and eating bluefish, last year my farther and I finally found a way to make them into a delicacy. The key is tomatoes and below is the family recipe…enjoy it sometime with family and friends.
Thanks again to Bontempi who always has what you need, when you need it.
Keep your line tight and your rod up,
Bluefish Mediterranean Style:
Preheat oven to 400°
Bluefish: whole. scaled and gutted. heads and tails on, 1lb to 3lb fish work best. Fish must fit on a deep baking pan
Salt and pepper inside of fish and place in deep baking pan. Salt and pepper outside of fish
Generously pour olive oil over fish. At least 1/2 a cup.
Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley. At least 1/2 a cup
Fill pan with a light white wine. At least a full cup.
Bake at 400°
Key Step! After about 15 min, add 2 cups chopped up tomatoes. (Peeled raw shrimp can also be added at this point if you want to get fancy).
Continue to bake for 25 min total for a 1 pound fish adding 5 minutes for every pound heavier (3lb fish 35 min). Stick a fork in just behind the head to check if it is done.
Transfer to serving plate and pour all juices around and over the fish. Enjoy…and don’t forget to eat the head, it’s the best part!