"Whatever the fishermen catch and won’t eat, they’ll know to toss into my bucket."
This weekend, I took a hiatus from crabbing on the south shore and headed instead to the beaches of Port Jefferson. It was a clear and sunny day. Near the shore, a school of bluefish leapt out of the water in a feeding frenzy; for a moment, all we could see were their svelte bodies glimmering on the water. Silent and transfixed, the fishermen looked out over the scene. Bluefish, which are sometimes called the piranhas of the Atlantic, are mean, sharp-teethed creatures prized for their moist and fatty meat.
When the frenzy subsided and the bluefish returned to deeper waters, the fishermen resumed their posts by the ramparts. Lacking any fishing equipment of my own, I set down a few of my crab pots and waited. The docks are a great place to while away a summer’s day; on the piers, the entertainment is just as good as the catch.
Fishermen are some of the greatest company around. The majority of them are masterful storytellers, possessing a strong cadence and an easy, practiced rhythm. Their words are almost poetic and their tales, always tall. Some of them have had decades to hone their stories, each time adding a flourish here and there.
I’ve met all kinds of fishermen over the summer. Most of them do it for the love of the sport rather than the culinary value of their catch. Some won’t eat half the things they reel in, citing size and boniness as reasons for their distaste. Taking a cue from the crabs that I catch, I’ve become a scavenger myself when I’m on the piers. Whatever the fishermen catch and won’t eat, they’ll know to toss into my bucket.
In the past few months I’ve collected my share of sea robins—a gelatinous, bony, bottom-dwelling fish. Like crabs, sea robins feed on carrion and whatever else they can find. The fishermen I’ve met on Long Island insist that these fish are filthy and unfit for human consumption, yet in Italy, sea robins are highly prized. Known as gurnards in England and mazzola in Italy, these pinkish, spiky fish are sought after for their sweet flesh. Sea robins are wonderful in lieu of sculpin in a bouillabaisse; roasted whole with a bit of lemon and sea salt, the meat is tender yet firm.
There is only one other fisherman I’ve met who likes sea robins, and his name is Marty. Marty may be a Long Island native in his late-fifties, but in many ways he and I are kindred spirits. Relentless in his search for delicious seafood, he'll eat just about anything that comes out of the water. Unsurprisingly, he is also the consummate storyteller who is always on the lookout for a willing audience.
His favorite story is a harrowing tale about being caught in the eye of the storm on a long and rickety pier not far from Patchogue.
You shoulda seen the way the wind whipped around me. And then, outta the blue, the sun came around in a pure, golden blast and the fish were jumping on the water like devils. That day, we were bringing home bluefish fifteen pounds or heavier!
Marty and I have spent hours talking about nothing except blue claw crabs. He’s observed enough of them in his lifetime to be able to note intimate details about their behavior. I’d never known this, but a large, older blue crab is wily in its dealings with traps. When it smells the bait, the crab will circle the trap several times before gingerly stepping in to feed. Marty can also tell you the molting times for small to medium crabs (apparently, every fourteen days) versus large crabs (once every twenty-eight days.)
Once I asked him where he had been crabbing in the past few decades, and where he’d found the largest crabs.
Oh, this is a good one. Back in the eighties, I went to the edge of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, just for kicks. I tossed in a few traps with chicken and waited. Then when I went back to pull up the traps, I couldn’t even get them to close – they were so full of crabs!
They were a good nine inches from point to point, if you can believe it! And the meat was so sweet and full. I must’ve had a dozen that night. But I’ll tell you what: the next morning, my stomach was acting up, if you know what I mean. So I had to throw away the rest of the crabs. Who knows what pollution they’d been living in?
It was Marty who introduced me to Bergalls, a smaller-sized fish that is used for bait by most fishermen. Bergalls, also called Cunners, are considered pests because they eat the bait meant for larger game fish.
“Bergalls are good,” Marty assured me. “Some people won’t eat ‘em because they’re considered dirty, like sea robins. But they’re delicious even if they are on the small side. Just be careful when you’re cleaning them, though, because they’re really slippery.”
Taking apart animals is always engaging work. The first Bergall I tried to clean was dangerously slick, with stubborn scales that refused to budge. Instead of using my usual jarring motion to chip away at the scales, I made a forceful cut underneath the scales to remove them from the skin. Over the next two hours I gutted, scaled, and cleaned a dozen Bergalls and watched happily as my pile of fish guts grew larger and larger. When I finished, I stuck my nose down into the plate and breathed in the impeccably fresh perfume of these fish. They had been swimming in the sea that very morning, and even in the kitchen the fish smelled of nothing but the ocean.
Fried in a beer batter, the Bergalls were lean like trout but with a sweeter, more complex taste. They were accompanied by a few wayward rock crabs that had wandered into my pots that morning. The crabs were small but full, and as I snapped each body in half a rush of juice flowed from their shells. It was a meal that not all the fisherman at the piers would have appreciated, but I knew, as does Marty, that most things from the sea are delicious if given the chance.
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