A Tale of Two Fish
Boston Globe Sunday Ideas, July 2003
by Paul Greenberg
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?"
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
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 is
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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.
"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.
* * *
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.
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