Bluefish are nasty. I could stop there. Really, I could. If you’ve ever had much cause to interact with Pomatomus Saltatrix, then you know what I mean. If, like a scientist, you refer to Bluefish by their Latin name then you’ve probably never been covered in a slurry of regurgitated sand eels and blood, while removing a lure from one of their frothing, snapping mouths of teeth. Nasty. So nasty in fact that they are the only member of the family Pomatomidae. Think of the second nastiest fish you can. Ok, that fish doesn’t even want to be the Bluefish’s second cousin. Now obviously, they are fun to catch. Anglers spend countless hours on shore and in boats on the water fishing for them, some people even claim to like eating them, but if one were allowed only three words to describe the Bluefish to a farmer from Topeka, they would be the first three words of this paragraph.
The extent to which Bluefish are distributed around the globe is stunning. Their nastiness is experienced firsthand by fisherfolk from a broad sampling of nationalities and ethnicities. Few are the places where a fisherman has never cursed these nasty bastards while scrubbing slime off the deck of his boat and tackle. Simply put, you can’t say where they might strike next. Bluefish are like the threat of Islamists imposing Sharia law in Oklahoma, terrifying, in every way like Rush Limbaugh’s most fervid nightmare, except Bluefish are real. They range the seas from New England to Florida, skipping the West Indies entirely (this is perhaps a result of an innate aversion to rum and reggae music) before re-appearing, in slavering hordes, on the coast of Brazil, leaving, as evidence of their presence, a slimy trail down the South American coastline, all the way to Patagonia. The Bluefish is a sneaky bastard too, not above the use of alias; Aussies call them Tailor, in East Africa they are known as Shad, and on the West coast of the US they are called Elf. You can find them slipping through the Dardanelles, seasonally migrating between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. South East Asia? Check. Gulf of Mexico? Si Senor. If Mayor Quimby from the Simpsons mentioned them in a speech he would salute their vigor.
Every spring in New England, right around the same time the Stripers come in to our local waters, you also begin hearing that “the Blues are runnin’”. This statement could not be less true. Bluefish don’t run from anything. What is in fact running away is every organism the same size or smaller than a Bluefish possessing the means to self-propel, which has the misfortune of sharing the sea with them, including other Bluefish. Their voracity does not discriminate. Depending on location and season Bluefish are known to eat menhaden, squid, sardines, jacks, weakfish, grunts, anchovies, shrimp and the young fry of many species who upon reaching maturity return the favor by hunting Blues. Compared to the Bluefish Jeffrey Dahmer was a picky eater. What I’m saying is, Bluefish got teeth…and they ain’t afraid to use them. Sharp teeth that slash anything they get hold of like a serrated knife. A few years ago, a viral video appeared on youtube; as it begins an angler is hauling Bluefish from the surf on to the beach of Nantucket’s Great Point. Suddenly a seal charges out of the surf, grabs the fish in its teeth, rips it free from the line then ambles back to the water with its prize. Off camera we can hear the robbed angler shout, “HEY!” and some other dopey shit like, “that’s my fish!”, apparently distressed at the loss of his catch, he should of course been shouting, “YAY!”, celebrating the fact that he would not have to unhook his lure from that mouth full of nasty, snapping teeth.
One good thing about Bluefish is that they are really easy to catch. As noted above they will eat anything; they are extremely aggressive and greedy when feeding, so they can be caught using virtually any bait or angling method. Catch them surfcasting from a beach. If you need to make it difficult, use a fly rod off a boat in shallow waters. Troll for them using wire line in offshore rips. If you see a flock of terns diving into the water there is at least a 100%, if not 110%, chance that there are some Bluefish down below. Throw out some tackle, slow your boat down to 5 knots, crack a Bud can and wait. Crush that beer though, because you’ll be reeling one in soon. Fast retrieve a top water Ballistic Missile, troll a weighted parachute jig, sink a chunk of squid on a hook, bounce a diamond jig off the bottom, spend 20 bucks on a Yozuri Crystal Minnow or just throw something shiny with a hook on it in the water and they will go after it. Then after you’ve hooked one, enjoy the sinister spectacle of all the other Bluefish in the vicinity attacking their unfortunate mate. It’s like an undersea zombie apocalypse. You could even try that noodling thing that rednecks do, catching Catfish barehanded, if you weren’t needing to use your fingers any time soon thereafter. Just be sure that you have a wire leader tied on or one of those bastards will cut your line and, chrissakes Cap, have a gaff and a good pair of pliers handy to unhook them.
Bluefish don’t get the love Stripers or Bonito do. Even False Albacore, which are not just totally inedible, but are also incredibly finicky, get more respect; which neatly sums up the masochistic nature of the average sport fisherman. Maybe it is the cannibalism thing, it’s not pretty after all. Maybe it’s the coating of slime you must scrub off your hands every time you handle one or the attendant awesome smell. Maybe it’s because if they are not cooked immediately they will taste like canned tuna that’s been reconstituted with 10w40 motor oil. Bluefish are used to bait lobster traps. Bluefish are buried under plants as fertilizer, killed indiscriminately by charter captains, whose mates might even eat their still beating hearts for a ten dollar tip, and tortured by 10 year old boys on docks everywhere. They used to be, for people who grew up on the edge of the sea, what squirrel or crow are to country folk; what the poor kids had to eat when the cupboards were bare. There’s always someone at the party or on the dock or at the beach who wants to tell you about how they love to eat Bluefish; how if you get small ones or bleed them or prepare them the right way… really fresh, they are delicious. Oh really? What do you do, slather them with mayonnaise and then grill them skin side down? How did I know? Well let’s just say you are not the first matriarch of a mainline Philadelphia family who have been summering on Nantucket for 4 generations that I’ve met. There is only one good way to eat Bluefish and that is to turn it into smoked Bluefish pate.
There are many ways to smoke a bluefish. After considerable trial and not unsubstantial error I have settled on what I feel works best for my pate. First you fillet, no need to remove the scales or, if you are proficient with a fillet knife, even to gut the fish. The next step is probably the most critical: salt the fish. By which I mean completely cover the fillets with kosher salt until you see nothing but white. The salt draws moisture from the fish, which leaves the flesh firmer and flakier after smoking. Rinse the fillets with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Slather the fillets in the cheap fake kind of maple syrup, like my favorite, Log Cabin. Once upon a time I used grade B maple syrup, but on the advice of a local Nantucket fishing columnist I switched and never looked back. Something about the crap kind ( probably something horrible related to Monsanto’s genetically modified corn syrup) makes it cling better. Sometimes, like now, it’s better to not ask a lot of probing questions. Anyway, now you are ready to smoke. I use a two stage smoker so the heat is not applied directly to the fish. Using hardwood charcoal, never briquets, get some heat going, then cover the coals with the apple wood you saved when you pruned your apple tree last fall or those chunks your friend gave you when he cut his tree down or lacking my esoteric supply chain, buy some if you must. Close the smoker’s lid, keep air flow limited and wait. The best time to do this is in the evening. I have found that letting the fire burn out so the fish cools down overnight makes for a firm, nicely colored product.
I make quite a bit of smoked Bluefish pate these days. I sell it on days when my raw bar is set up at the Cisco Brewers beer garden. Also, I include a complimentary bowl on the dory when my services are retained for private events. As is the case with my chowder, everyone who tries my pate agrees, in testimonials generally obtained through limited coercion, that it is the best they have ever tasted. They ask if they can get it at stores, if I will ship it to Connecticut and of course what the recipe is. The answer to all these queries is no. Unless you are the world famous Michelin star awarded chef Daniel Boulud, who once attended an event I where I was shucking and at the urging of the establishment’s GM tried it. “Is it bound with cream cheese?”, he asked. It was Daniel Boulud, so I told him the truth, yes it is, but that’s all he or you will get from me ingredient-wise. He smiled, nodded and moved on, which means I’ve been awarded a Michelin star, by proxy, on my pate. It is also like my chowder in that the recipe is one I got from my wife, which she in turn learned at the knee of her grandmother, the inimitable Marjorie Schwartz. I have modified the proportions over time but not one ingredient have I added or subtracted from the original. The recipe, known only by myself, my wife and key Yoho Joe Wyatt, needless to say will not follow. The idea of trying to get the pate mass produced has been floated and rejected at high level Yoho board meetings, so for now, if you want some for yourself, you must either show up at the Brewery on one of my days or hire the Yohos to shuck at your event.