I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a bluefish before yesterday. Lord knows I’ve caught dozens of them, mostly while surf-casting for them. The remarkable blues (Pomatomus saltatrix), confusingly also known as snappers or snapper blues when they’re young, are a fisherman’s dream — feisty fighters that will take just about any type of bait (though fresh cut mullet or other fish is what always worked best for me). I can think of no other fish about which so much has been written. Perhaps it’s because of their range, which is huge (see map, below); moreover, it’s probably due to their deserved reputation as the most voracious feeders of the oceans.
A.J.McClane, in his seminal Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery (1977) devotes four full pages to bluefish. “The feeding frenzy of bluefish is a phenomenon that has no parallel in the marine world,” he writes. “Even sharks must be stimulated by some unnatural condition such as the presence of a chum slick or quantities of fish caught in a net before blindly pursuing their prey en masse.”
There truly is nothing like a bluefish run in September along the East Coast of America. From an airplane, you can see — even in the silty inshore waters of the Carolinas — swaths of red, the blood of smaller fish the blues steamroll through in the shallow coastal waters, feeding. “Smaller” is too kind a word. Alan Davidson, the other great piscatorial writer, quotes the 1902 book, American Food and Game Fishes: “They move along like a pack of hungry wolves, destroying everything before them. Their trail is marked by fragments of fish and by the stain of blood in the sea, as, when the fish is too large to be swallowed entire, the hinder portion will be bitten off and the anterior part allowed to float or sink….The amount of food they consume or destroy is incredibly great. It has been estimated at twice the weight of the fish in a day, and one observer says that a bluefish will destroy daily a thousand other fish.”
The nomenclature is a bit confusing, even though the blue is the only extant fish in the Family Pomatomidae (from Greek, poma, -atos = cover, operculum + Greek, tomos = portion). I’m not sure what Linnaeus was getting at there. Perhaps the distinctive blue coloring of their backs. Saltatrix means jumper. No mystery there. (Some Italian-speaking friends call me “Salta Gianni” — Hoppin’ John.) When they take a fishing line (which they can easily saw through with their razor-sharp teeth), they will jump out of the water repeatedly, trying to disgorge the hook. Nimrod Wildfire, a fisherman quoted in the above mentioned American Food & Game book, said, “They can jump higher and come down quicker, dive deeper, and stay under longer than any other salt-water fish of its size.” This fisherman’s dream can also be a nightmare to land.
Hooks aren’t all they disgorge. The South Carolina Fish Finder reports, “They are voracious predators and will often chase prey species up onto beaches or against structure…. Bluefish are such avid predators that at times when they are attacking schools of baitfish, they will eat their fill, then, if there are still baitfish around, regurgitate their meal in order to be able to eat again. Look for flocks of gulls overhead to indicate a school of hungry blues lurking below.”
The rather small (2 pound) bluefish I bought yesterday came from the Black Sea. I’ve written before on the blog about Black Sea bluefish. Back last fall when Mikel and I spent Thanksgiving in Istanbul, I was hoping to sample the world-renowned çinakop, small blues that make their fall runs through the Bosphorus. I was steered away from the fish by food writers in Istanbul who told me that the taking of young bluefish has led to a decline in their populations, so the eating of them is discouraged. Researching the state of bluefish back home, I naturally turned to both McClane and Davidson. In Australia, the fish is called “tailor,” referring to those scissor-like teeth that can cut through nets. McClane, an American, says the juveniles are called snappers because their teeth “click like castanets…. A baby (under 1 pound in size) is soon known by another euphemism — ‘chopper’– which describes its lusty adult existence.”
The scrawny two-pounder I bought yesterday is child’s play. Blues up to four feet long and weighing over 30 pounds are the exception, but 2-footers are common. Their life span is about nine years. In Turkey, on the Black Sea, Davidson notes, “There are five names for this fish, bestowed according to size, thus: — tiny: yaprak (bay leaf); small: cinakop; larger: sari kanat (yellow wing); at its prime: lufer; very large: kofana.” At the time of Davidson’s writing (the early 70s), he noted that the fish caught in the fall migration are landed with “line and lamp.” I doubt that’s the case nowadays; hence, the overfishing.
I have long advocated calling plants and animals (particularly edible ones) by their scientific names. Common names can change when you cross the street in some metropolitan areas, and they certainly change as you go from village to village in Eastern Europe and Asia, especially as dialects and languages change. In Portuguese and Spanish, bluefish are called, respectively, “anchova” and “anjova.” (Not to be confused with anchovies, which they call “anchova” and “anchova.”) I’m always thrilled in European markets when fish and vegetables are labeled not only with their scientific names, but also with their provenance, and, if farmed, the conditions under which they were raised. For the purposes of this blog, however, I’ll stick to “bluefish.”
Since blues are such voracious feeders, it’s best to gut them immediately upon landing. McClane warns: “Since the meat has a high oil content it does not travel well unless icing is continued. For the same reason, be sparing in the use of oils or fat in creative recipes; the best recipes contain neutralizing acids in the form of vegetables such as tomatoes or onions, or citrus fruits such as lemon or lime. In common with other fast-swimming pelagic species such as tuna or mackerel, bluefish have a large amount of muscle hemoglobin in the form of a dark strip of meat which can be removed from the fillet.” (I never do.)
The bluefish my monger was offering yesterday had not been gutted. Not a good sign, but its eyes were clear and its gills were bright red. I opened the mouth of the best looking. It had a bright red bloody hunk of flesh still in its mouth (a good sign!). I smelled it. No hint of the putrid odor of the rotten innards of a carnivore. I asked Costas to scale and gut the fish. Its digestive system was intact and the flesh surrounding the belly cavity was firm and white. I brought it home, drowned it in freshly squeezed lemon juice, let it sit for about an hour, then lightly brushed both fish and grill with olive oil and grilled it hot while I steamed ronde de Nice squash with sweet onions. I had more luscious sliced Bulgarian tomatoes on the side. A perfect meal, though I was alone.