A Tale of Two Fish

 

Boston Globe Sunday Ideas, July 2003

 

by Paul Greenberg

 

CHILMARK, Martha's Vineyard -- as the fog lifted over Menemsha Bight, Captain Buddy Vanderhoop guided his charter fishing boat "Tomahawk Too" between the harbor's twin jetties and turned us east toward the shoals off of America's most star-studded shore. The striped bass had just woken up from a long, cold winter and Buddy was in a good mood. He told me he'd taken 35 stripers earlier in the week.

      "What about bluefish?" I asked. "Are the bluefish in yet?"

      Vanderhoop's face darkened. "Yes," he said. "Unfortunately."

      Unbeknownst to fish, certain of their species are celebrities while others are just hangers-on. In May, when striped bass head out to sea and bluefish move inland from the continental shelf, they collide in Vineyard waters to face a host of unfair comparisons. Talk to any sportfisherman and it's clear which fish swims atop the A-list and which plays the underwater understudy. Striped bass are described in whispers, with words like "majestic" and "noble." Bluefish, meanwhile, are "vicious" and "feisty." Every fisherman remembers his first striped bass. The only bluefish "first" he remembers is the first time he got bit.

      The good-fish/bad-fish dynamic is as old as sportfishing itself. In the classic manual "The Compleat Angler," which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year, Izaak Walton wrote that "the mighty Pike is taken to be the tyrant as the Salmon is the king." Walton then goes on to argue that pike are formed from pond grass and hatch when exposed to sunlight. But no matter. What's important here is that when two fish cohabitate -- cod and pollack, marlin and tuna, stripers and bluefish -- fishermen will always assess one as intrinsically superior.

      These preferences are at once emotionally specific and generally ridiculous. With stripers and blues they are based on prejudices that Americans have been imposing since both fish were consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner. This past Memorial Day I decided to look into the fish-discrimination issue on Martha's Vineyard, the place where the striped bass launched its celebrity career and where the bluefish is now attempting to do the same.

 

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      Buddy Vanderhoop's fishing pedigree runs back centuries to the days when his Wampanoag ancestors fished for stripers and blues with spears and traps up and down the Vineyard's shores. And so it was with an easy confidence that he baited up my hook with fresh herring ("striped-bass candy" he calls it) and popped a Bonnie Raitt CD into his shipboard sound system. "Bonnie's great," Vanderhoop said, "and a pretty good fisherman." Keith Richards, Jim Belushi, and Spike Lee have also used Buddy's "candy" at one time or another. They all come for the bass.

      If bluefish really cared, they might be encouraged to know that striped bass did not always mingle with the beautiful people. In colonial America, when Atlantic salmon could be found throughout coastal New England, the first American sportfisherman aped the English upper-class fashion for salmon fly-fishing and judged stripers to be mere nuisances.

      It took a collapsed aristocrat to alter perceptions. In 1831 Henry William Herbert left England and took up residence on New Jersey's Passaic River, where he fished his life away and wrote about it under the name Frank Forester. In his 1849 book "Frank Forester's Fish and Fishing," he challenged the snobbish Anglophilic obsession with freshwater angling, asserting that freshwater fish were "not to be compared with . . . pure sea fish." His favorite among these was the striper. "The Striped Bass," Herbert wrote, "is the boldest, bravest, strongest and most active fish that visits the waters of the midland states, and is . . . to be surpassed only by the Salmon."

      In the following decades, the striper continued its social climb as dams, pollution, and overfishing laid waste to the salmon. With the backing of Daniel Webster, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt (Teddy's uncle), and other upper-class anglers, "striped bass clubs" began springing up. At full-service establishments like the Squibnocket Club on the Vineyard and the Cuttyhunk Club on the island of Cuttyhunk, robber barons had their hooks baited with lobster tails and called in their stock-market trades to the mainland via carrier pigeon. The old fly rod, once used by aristocrat-wannabes for salmon alone, was broken out again and employed to capture the striped bass.

      As with Hollywood stars, a fish solidifies its status by making itself scarce. But since fish don't have publicists, they must rely on fishermen to engineer their disappearance from public life. In 1869, the founding year of the Squibnocket Club, members hauled in 620 stripers with a combined weight of 5,040 pounds. In 1888, the peak of the striped bass craze, only 13 fish were taken. By the 1920s the Cuttyhunk and Squibnocket disbanded, mostly for lack of bass. . . .

      Striper stocks have boomed and busted repeatedly over the last 100 years, hitting their worst patch in the late 1970s and early '80s. Now, thanks to a multistate moratorium from 1985 to 1988, the bass are back in force.

      Indeed, within seconds of letting our herring to the bottom, all of us aboard the "Tomahawk Too" had stripers on our lines. Almost every fish topped 15 pounds. My best was a gorgeous 30-pounder that roared up from the bottom and crashed my bait on the surface just as I was about to trade it in for some fresh candy. Since Massachusetts law allows each angler only two bass over 28 inches, Buddy parsed them carefully, making sure we kept only the nicest. He used a lip gaff to hold the stripers in the water as he gently released the inferiors, whispering "This is your lucky day."

      For bluefish such lucky days come rarely. Catching bluefish has always been considered a, well, blue-collar sport. In the 19th century, Vineyarders cast lures into the surf as an amusement and left much of their catch to rot. Praise was bestowed less on the fish than on a fisherman's casting skills. According to one local historian, "Distances to which these Vineyarders could cast a bluefish jig were unbelievable, fifty fathoms being considered only moderately fair."

      The wanton slaughter of bluefish has taken its toll. As recently as the early 1970s, bluefish were so thick around the Vineyard that they were called "black tides." To get into bluefish in any numbers today, the shorebound angler has to go to Wasque, all the way on the island's most southeasterly point.

      Not that the public seems to care much. Mark Terceiro, a fisheries biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, notes that when bluefish stocks hit new lows in the early '90s, fisherman merely noted that they "weren't 'bothered' by the bluefish very much." While no one knows for sure the relative populations of striped bass and bluefish, anglers are allowed to keep five times as many blues as bass, with no size limit at all.

      I find this strange. If you take a step back from the striper's eye-catching stripes and celebrity endorsements, the bluefish compares favorably to the bass. It may be a smaller fish, but it makes up for its weight with fight. Unlike the striped bass, a bluefish never surrenders. It has endless tricks in its arsenal, from head-shaking to deep, dogged runs to top-water tail-walks. And if all else fails, a bluefish will often say "Screw it" and bite through the line.  A bass barely has teeth.

      But there are signs that the bluefish's star is rising. Perhaps it started with John Hersey's 1987 bestseller "Blues," in which a guy called "Fisherman" takes a know-nothing "Stranger" on a series of fishing dates on the Vineyard's Middle Ground. On each outing, Fisherman and Stranger kill only one bluefish and throw the rest back. They always manage to eat the fish the same day, flamb[e]ed in gin and garnished with a poem by John Donne or Robert Lowell.

      The day after my trip with Vanderhoop I traveled to Wasque Point and witnessed Hersey's influence firsthand. I found myself flanked on either side by fly fishermen, the very ghosts of Anglophilic anglers past. And with a few exceptions, when a bluefish was brought to shore it was handled gently, raised up for a photograph, and then guided back into the surf as if it were the most precious salmon. Of course throwing back a bluefish is tricky business. You can reach your hand right into a striped bass's mouth and unhook your lure. Try that with a bluefish and he'll take your finger off.

 

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      Back in the kitchen, the high-endurance muscle that enables the bluefish to fight like a champ on the line dooms it on the plate. This "red" muscle doesn't freeze well and is oily, stronger, and -- to some palates -- just plain "fishier."

      Our relationship to "fishiness", however, is also subjective. Everett Poole, a twice-a-day fish eater and founder of Chilmark's oldest fish market, insists that "Bluefish is the most flavorsome fish in the ocean, while the striped bass is one of the least." But over the past 50 years, Americans have turned away from fish that taste like fish even as they consume more overall tonnage. "Typical American today," Poole says, "wants a fish that's white flesh, no bones, and preferably no taste and no skin and they cover it with tomato sauce and they're very happy."

      It doesn't stop with tomato sauce. Buddy Vanderhoop likes striped bass the way his mother makes it: baked and stuffed with lobster meat, onions, celery, and bread crumbs. Stephen Morris at Dick's Tackle in Oak Bluffs says one fisherman he knows catches so much striper that he's taken to making something called "bassafish": bass boiled up with onions, mixed with mayo, and spread on a sandwich "just like tunafish." Lacking the stomach for bassafish, but curious about Poole's culinary theories, my companion and I went on the fishmonger's diet and ate fish twice a day for a week. We made striped-bass wontons, striped-bass tacos, striped-bass croquettes, and even striped-bass sushi. All of it was firm, moist, and tasted exactly like the sauce in which it was submerged.

      Bluefish responded better to brute simplicity. Poole's favorite

recipe: "Scale it, chop the head off, throw it on the grill, leave the tail on so you have something to grab hold of." Chip Vanderhoop, Buddy's brother and a rival charter boat captain, recommends bleeding a bluefish while it's still alive, soaking it in milk for half an hour, and then broiling it with salt and pepper. But eat it quick: Fresh-caught bluefish is a delicious Jekyll; a day in the fridge and it's a stinky Hyde.

 

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      I have to admit, I'm ambivalent about backing the bluefish. It's not always good when a commoner becomes a king. The salmon, the swordfish, the bluefin tuna, and the striped bass have all at one time or another been crowned masters of their domains, only to see too many of their fellow sovereigns put on ice and sent to New York for the blue-plate special. But celebrity sometimes has its consolations. Even if you go bust in the wild, at least some of your genes will be preserved on fish farms. Today, salmon and stripers are among the most heavily aquacultured fish in America.

      Not so for the bluefish. The blue's unruly demeanor makes it unfit for the farm, and its quick-spoiling flesh means that you have to eat it near where it lives to enjoy it. This seems appropriate. I hope I never see "wild bluefish" on the menu at my local brasserie. "Wild bluefish" would be redundant.

 

 

Paul Greenberg is the author of the recent novel "Leaving Katya".  His essays, fiction and humor have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Forward, and on NPRs All Things Considered. His latest fiction is featured in the anthology "Wild East".