Today’s WSJ (link above) contains a story of bluefishing off Nantucket and the author quotes several local chefs who never eat, serve or think about these feisty creatures. Not fair. First, they fight much harder and much longer than striped bass, so they’re more fun to catch. Second, they’re usually easier to catch and when you’re casting into a bluefish feeding frenzy on the surface of the sea, you’ll experience more excitement in 15 minutes than you will in a week of striper fishing.
It’s true, as the author claims, that bluefish do have very sharp teeth that can leave lifetime scars. Ask my boyhood friend Teddy Sumner or have my daughter Kat show you her scar from a snapper (a baby bluefish!) earned years ago. The answer, I have found, is to crush the barbs on your lure’s hooks with a pair of pliers so you can achieve an easy release without going near those teeth. You’ll lose a few fish but when the blues are biting, you’ll never notice the difference and when you boat the creature a flip of the wrist and he’s free again. No one needs 15 dead, stiff bluefish stacked like cordwood in the hot sun in the stern of his boat. One does nicely, so let the rest go.
And how do you treat that unlucky one? Easy, if you have any facility with a fillet knife. Place the fish on a board (if you can find a chest-high fish cleaning station at your marina, you’re in luck). Cut right behind the head down to the spine, then slide the knife blade along the spine to the tail. One fillet. Set aside, flip fish, repeat. But you’re not done! Slap a fillet skin-side down and carefully insert your blade between the skin and the meat. Slide backwards towards the tail again, making sure to keep the blade pressed against the board underneath, while gripping the skin with your left hand (assuming the knife’s in your right). Now you have a nice, skinless fillet that’s almost ready to cook.
But there’s a final trick, taught to me years ago by Riverside resident Buzz Harris. Again picking up your fillet knife, carefully remove all of the reddish flesh you find on what was the skin side, leaving only opaque whitish flesh. The red stuff gives bluefish the strong oily flavoring that only a mackerel lover could enjoy.
Cook it any number of ways. I prefer to grill it over coals with not much of anything except perhaps a bit of lemon. Baking it with tomatoes and onions works, but hides the taste, I think. If you’ve been diligent about trimming, you shouldn’t need to mask the taste.
One other note: you don’t need to fish from a boat. They’re nice to have because you can scoot around, searching for feeding frenzies (and if you do find one, cut your engine way before you reach it and glide into casting range. Otherwise, you’ll put the fish down) but surf casting for these puppies is a blast. Try Tod’s (I’m usually unsuccessful there) or the end of Steamboat Road (crowded) but best, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket or really anywhere with a decent surf. If you catch nothing,you’ll still have enjoyed a meditative spell on the water’s edge, casting rhythmically, admiring the birds and the clouds and perhaps even a deep thought or two. It’s my church.