The weather is overcast but warming. The marina and harbor are peaceful this early in the day. Ours is the only motor we hear. The waves and wind are so calm that we zip over to the South end of Fishers Island, NY. Isabella Beach and Wilderness Point are some of the first stops for migrating fluke and they’re just beginning to arrive. Our small skiff planes smoothly and quickly over the water. We breathe deeply and smile. We don’t realize it immediately but our contented smiles will last all day. We’ve waited months for these perfect conditions and will enjoy every minute of our time on the water.
Fresh strips of squid weave onto the sharp hooks of brightly-colored lures and are dropped into calm blue water. Each of us drops an extra line into the water. My rod bends dramatically and I jump into action. I set the hook and feel weight. Reeling in quickly to keep tension on the line causes my muscles to strain more than usual. What a great way to start the day! I see a sleek, gray shape. My first fish of the season is a 36 inch smooth dogfish shark. Its counter-clockwise barrel rolls wind the fishing line many times around its body. Untangling line by holding its tail and alternating hands, it is soon back in the water breathing easily. He’s completely unharmed. I dub him “Twister” and re-bait my line.
A slow drift allows the boat to move with the tide and produces an entertaining array of ocean life. A tiny scallop swallows my bait and hook. Who knew that was even possible. We also catch a sea robin, two short fluke, two beautiful black sea bass, and six more dogfish of all sizes. Yes, a total of seven sharks for the day. Leo insists I’m attracting the sharks. Should I take that as a compliment?
We motor over to the Stonington breakwater. A single lobster is stuck upside down in our lobster pot and appears to be practicing yoga. She becomes a gift for visiting friends. Other lobster pots contained tiny lobsters, a full-sized lobster with no front claws, and several conch (sea snail). Something big and mean is decimating the smaller lobsters but a recent female carried an astounding abundance of eggs. Her arrival boosts my hope for the survival of the species. The ocean’s complexity, beauty, and abundance feed body and soul.
One of the sharks entangles itself around two of our fishing lines. It takes both of us 30 minutes to successful remove all lines as I’m unwilling to sacrifice either my new braided line or the fish’s life. We gently support the exhausted creature in the water until it regains strength to swim away. The sight of these acrobatic creatures thrashing and rolling violently is similar to how alligators move in the water. I ponder this intriguing similarity and for the rest of the day when a line feels heavy we refer to reeling as “walking the dog.” Although we’re officially in pursuit of fluke, the dogfish are fun to catch.
Dogfish are plentiful and in-season but I haven’t been willing to harvest one just yet. New England fishermen are catching more all the time and the commercial boats ship most of their catch to England or other parts of the U.K. With limited access to cod, Brit’s use dogfish for beloved fried fish. For decades, Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips achieved widespread success serving dogfish but I don’t know if they still use it. Online and in person, commercial and sport fishermen readily share grilling, taco & stew recipes. Ralph, my fishing expert, advises how critical it is to harvest fillets immediately from the fish while still on the water then keep the meat very cold. He strongly recommends keeping only the upper filets as they are away from vital organs. Correct handling of the meat is key.
When the time comes, it will be the largest fish I’ve filleted and I may invite Ralph along for moral support and handling pointers. All my fillet knives are sharpened and this fishing season has tremendous potential for a wide range of delicious success. We’re fortunate to have amazing fishing in this beautiful place. Here is my favorite fish & chips recipe. Super simple to make with any mild fish.
Easy Fish & Chips… Plus Onion Rings!
4 pieces fish fillets
1 cup all purpose flour (chilled, if you have time)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup ICE water
Optional: a dash of chili powder and a dash of adobo (garlic) powder
- Preheat 2 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy pot making certain you have at least 2 inches clear between the oil and the top of the pot. Heat until the oil is 450 degrees OR until a drop of water spatters wildly when dropped into the oil. Make certain you have the pot cover and two potholders ready.
- Whisk together 4 batter ingredients just until combined. If desired, add a dash or two of additional spices.
- Dredge each piece of fish lightly in plain flour.
- Dip pieces in batter and immediately slip into the hot oil. The first side will turn golden brown in about 3 minutes. Turn over and brown the other side. When the oil starts to spatter, place the lid over 90% of the hot pan while still allowing steam to escape.
- Scoop fish pieces out of the oil and drain well on a paper bag. Dab the tops with paper towels. Sprinkle immediately with salt and serve hot with French fries OR onion rings (recipe below). * This simple recipe works incredibly well if the fish and batter are very cold and the oil is very hot.
Onion Rings: Use the same technique and batter to make onion rings. Cut large rings of Vidalia onion and watch them cook FAST. Drain well, sprinkle with salt and serve hot. These are fabulous!