And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summertime..., and the Fishing is Lazy

I've gone out kayak fishing a few times since late June, but so far there hasn't really been anything worth reporting, other than some decent croaker fishing.  In fact, every time I go, I keep six nice ones, to fillet and give to my Father-in-Law, who loves fried croaker.  And with ultralight tackle, catching croaker can be fun.  But I'm ready for the speckled trout and puppy drum to come rolling in.  (They usually show up in August, which isn't long from now; but I don't think they will show in any huge numbers like they did a couple years ago.  I still suspect our bitterly cold winter two years ago killed off the local juvenile population.)

Anyway, while the fishing may be "slow" for our preferred gamefish, that doesn't mean we aren't going to go and try.  After all, someone has to catch the first pup of the season.  And we have seen a couple; they just haven't bitten what we're offering yet.  Always the eternal optimist, I am.

The last week of June, before Parke's 20th birthday, he and I went out and fished an absolutely beautiful evening, when the water was calm, the moon was near full, and the sunset was stunning.  We caught enough croaker to make "PaPa" happy, in addition to a couple of cownose rays,  but the rest of the time was just a matter of enjoying a peaceful, tranquil, evening on the water.  Wonderful father/son bonding time....  The only way it could have been better, was if the pups had been around.  But they weren't so we made the most of it, anyway.
When the conditions on the river are like this, it's hard to complain that the puppy drum or speckled trout aren't around yet.  Because, as I've said countless times before, if all you are searching for when you are fishing, is fish, then you are missing out on most of the reasons for fishing....

Then, on the July 4th weekend, I took Parke and my nephew Michael out on the Nansemond, and while even the croaker fishing was slow that day, we did catch enough to make their Grandfather happy.  And leave it to Michael to catch a fish that we have never caught on that part of the river....  (And so far, I've been just as glad for it....)  He caught an Oystertoad!
Although not a huge oystertoad, care still had to be taken with this vicious little critter, to make sure that neither Michael's nor my fingertip was removed by his powerful, toothed jaws.  And they are one slimy fish!

Speaking of Oystertoads, the man who made them famous during our early Boys' Weekend, Mark, called me up last weekend and invited me for an evening/morning of flounder fishing at their "cottage" at the mouth of the York River.  On my arrival Saturday afternoon, I presented them with some fresh picked blueberries from my bushes, and a big tub of backfin crab I had picked and frozen from the leftover crabs from Parke's 20th birthday party.  A nice Italian Pinot Grigio was put in the refrigerator, and I even made the comment that you had to come prepared if you planned on catching a nice "doormat" flounder.  Mark and his wife Susan appreciated my confidence....

That afternoon we set out across the York River to the refinery.  I'm not sharing any huge secrets by saying that is a good place for flounder fishing.  It's deep (for the ships to berth), there are plenty of pilings to provide cover for all kinds of fish, and the bottom is sandy.  The trick is knowing what works for the flounder.  And the truth is, just about any bait or jig bounced on the bottom will attract strikes.  It's just a matter of whether it's a keeper flounder, or some other fish.

We drifted with the incoming tide away from the pier, and upriver in Mark's little johnboat.  With a cooler full of ice, and beverages, ready to accept whatever fish we threw in there, we were set for a nice late afternoon of fishing.  The weather was beautiful, and the fish were cooperative.

It wasn't long before we pulled in a couple of nice-sized croaker.  They weren't monster "horse croaker" like we've caught there before, but they were definitely keeper sized.

*Sidenote regarding large horse croaker:  Last August we were fishing the same place and caught numerous horse croaker -- croaker as big as small puppy drum.  In anticipation of catching a puppy drum or two that weekend, I had brought along my cast iron skillet, as well as some blackening seasoning, so that we could eat "blackened redfish".  (I even brought along a nice Russian River Pinot Noir to go along with it.)  

We caught no pups all weekend long, so I decided to try something:  Knowing that Red drum and croaker are "cousins", I filleted the horse croaker and looked at the flesh.  It was firm enough....  I got my cast iron skillet white hot (outside, of course), dipped the croaker fillets in melted butter and seasoning, and "blackened" the croaker.  It was absolutely delicious, and indistinguishable in flavor from a puppy drum, or "redfish".  Everybody was so impressed, and the Pinot Noir did not go to waste.  I encourage you to try it sometime....
the Atlantic Croaker, when 15", or longer, can be "blackened" just like it's spotted cousin.
A spot on the tail is one of the only noticeable differences between a puppy drum and croaker.  I've caught croaker large enough where for a moment I thought it was a spotless drum.  And when you blacken a large croaker, you may still think it is a spotless redfish.  Try it. 
And since I'm giving out secrets:  two years ago, during the summer of Puppy drum, I tried numerous different blackening spices, including several home made and online recipes.  If you want seasoning that is spicy, without being overwhelming, and allowing you to still taste the underlying fish, Emeril's Original Essence has become my favorite.
 Meanwhile, back on the boat:  After catching an undersized flounder or two, I got a hit.  A nice hit.  I knew I had a decent fish.

"Mark, quietly get the net for me.  I've got a nice flounder here."  I didn't want him drawing attention from the other boats around us.  Finally after a minute or two fighting the fish on my six foot "light" rod, the fish came up to the surface.  It was a beauty!  "Nice Fish!"  exclaimed Mark, as he deftly netted it, and put it in the boat.  The flapping of its tail on the aluminum hull was like a chorus of drums banging.  I was sure every boat around heard it!  SHHHH!  I was thinking.  There was no doubt it was a keeper, but I took my tape out and measured it anyway.  22 inches, I proclaimed.  I then gently lifted it, opened the cooler, and put the fish with the others.  A while later, Mark caught a keeper flounder, himself -- 18 inches.  We would have a good dinner!  A few croaker later, Mark got a nice hit.  "Dan, I've got a 'doormat' here, myself.  Get the net."  A minute later when the fish surfaced, it was all I could do to not bust a gut laughing.

"Well Mark, if citations were given out for those things, that one would definitely qualify!"  Mark had caught the largest oystertoad I had ever seen.  it's head was as big as a grapefruit, and it was probably close to a foot and a half long.  The King of the OysterToads still reigned!
Mark's largest fish of the day, was also the ugliest!  Fortunately, he had pliers to retrieve his jig.  Otherwise this thing could have taken off his whole hand, I think!
We headed back home, across the river, and got back to the cottage.  Then, of course, it was time for the obligatory photo of me with my nice little doormat.
One of the largest flounder I've caught in recent years, as I don't get the opportunity too often to target them.  Still, I knew it would be delicious!
As I went and picked up the other flounder, however, I noticed something.  While my flounder was "right-eyed", like most summer or southern flounder, Mark's was "left-eyed".  Which meant it was most likely a winter flounder, or it was just a very unusual summer flounder.
A nice summer flounder in my right hand, and a winter flounder in my left.  Both are delicious!
We cleaned the fish and went upstairs to join the rest of the crew.  Dinner was already made, so the flounder would have to be the next day's meal.  We had a delicious seafood/pasta meal, none-the-less, and good wine and conversation capped a delightful evening.

The next morning, by 6 a.m., Mark and I were back on the water.  The tide was outgoing now, so we fished the other side of the refinery structure, and "variety" was definitely the key word of the day.  In addition to me catching another keeper (18") flounder, I caught croaker, and then I caught an undersized black sea bass.
Also known as "black gold" among fishermen, the black sea bass is one of the sweetest and most delicious fish in the Chesapeake.  Unfortunately, when in a restaurant, "Sea Bass" usually refers to "Chilean Sea Bass", which is neither from Chile, nor a type of bass.  In fact at one time the "Patagonian Toothfish" (which is the Chilean Sea bass' other name) was considered a trashfish, and discarded.  the Black sea bass is superior in every way.  Unfortunately it is overfished.  Having said that, when it is available, I HIGHLY recommend it.
The Patagonian Toothfish, aka Chilean Sea Bass, is no comparison to the Black sea bass of the MidAtlantic.
A few minutes later, my jigtails started getting bitten off, as I then hooked into several small bluefish.  Fun to catch, but too small to keep.  And they were destroying my lures.  We had to move away from them.
The teeth on even a small blue, are sharp and painful to your finger -- and quickly destroy your supply of "softbaits".
Next, Mark caught yet another oyster toad.  Long live the king.

And then I caught a fish I hadn't caught in years:  A sea robin:  a fish that "walks" along the bottom looking for food.  He found some, alright -- not!  But he was also released unharmed, and none the worse for wear.
The sea robin "grunts", he doesn't "sing" like a robin, when you catch him.  And you have to be careful of his spines. 
By 8:30 we were on our way back to the cottage to make breakfast.  Once again, I had out-fished Mark, as the only fish in the cooler was my keeper (summer) flounder.  But then again, what else was new.  (I have to say that when I can, because I know it bothers Mark.  Yes, the same Mark that was "skunked" during last Boys' Weekend.)

A beautiful day on the water was followed by us stuffing my 22" flounder full of crabmeat, and then baking it for an hour at 300 degrees.  It was delicious, and fed eight people.
Not the best photo in the world, but you can still see how Mark's "fat hand" had no problem fitting in this flounder, as he prepared it to receive over a pound of crabmeat.  It was delicious.  Hopefully, Mark had washed his hands first.
When dinner was over, we divided up the remaining fillets, and went home.  I gave my croaker to my father-in-law, again, but kept the other flounder for our family.  Fried with some shrimp this week, I had forgotten how delicious fried flounder is.  Indeed, I can't wait to catch another keeper.  At least the flounder are biting, while we wait for the pups and specks to show up....

Until next time,

Fish on!


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