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Rocktober

Time to fill your freezer

Mike Ebersberger, of Annapolis, with a 25-inch rockfish caught off Podickery Point.
      Long before the Colorado Rockies baseball team trademarked the term Rocktober, Chesapeake anglers used the clever moniker to describe the fall rockfish feeding frenzy on the Bay. Rocktober is prime time to put some fish in the freezer for the long winter ahead.
     Freezer fishing differs from fishing as a sporting encounter. Leaders tend to be a little heavier, rods and hooks stouter, boat crews more numerous (for a larger legal limit) and releases reserved for stripers with leaner and less table-worthy physiques.
      There are differences, too, in how all types of fish intended for the freezer are handled. First and foremost is prompt processing. Same-day fish cleaning is essential.
      Other niceties are also in order. In cutting skinless rockfish fillets, for example, it is wise to excise the darker meat along the lateral line. The oil in that dark flesh tends to have a gamier flavor and can migrate to the rest of the meat when frozen.
      All fish should be well-cleaned, rinsed and pan-ready, then promptly frozen in packages clearly marked as to species and date of harvest. Masking tape and indelible, soft-tip pens help do that job. 
       Vacuum-packing is the preferred way to ensure freshness, but it is not essential. Essential is the elimination of all air within the packaging. Trapped air accelerates the onset of freezer burn, which is the arch-enemy of maintaining freshness in the freezer.
      Plastic zip freezer bags with all air forced out (try pressing down with a dry towel as the bag is sealed) are the next best way to protect the meat. Don’t pack more fish in one bag than can be consumed at a meal. Once the fish is thawed, it will lose its freshness promptly.
      Rockfish is not the only species that stores well for wintertime enjoyment. White perch, the premier tablefish of the Chesapeake, are also very good for freezing, retaining their freshness for at least two to three months when properly handled. 
       Proper handling means catching, processing and freezing the same day. Filleted perch can be packaged in units of six to eight fish for dinner for two people with a good appetite. If fish on the bone are preferred, scale the perch, cut off the head and eviscerate. Then run your blade down the length of the dorsal and anal fins. Grasping the tail end of the fins and twisting will remove both of these sources of excessive fish bones.
       Scatter your packs of prepared fish loosely around your freezer so they are quickly frozen through. Don’t organize them in one place until later.
       Fish packs can be force thawed in containers of water prior to cooking but should not be exposed to heat sources, even mild ones, for thawing. 
       No attempt at preserving bluefish by freezing has ever ended well for me, though I’ve often been told that if they’re cleaned, thoroughly smoked and well-packaged, they can remain edible for a period of time. Seatrout, Norfolk spot, croaker and Spanish mackerel also do not fare well frozen.
      Though there is nothing like the gustatory experience of dining on fish procured from the Bay within hours of dinner, it’s going to be a dark, long and lonely winter. A Chesapeake dinner harvested from your freezer can be just the thing to chase the cold weather blues away.
 
Fish Finder
      For rockfish, trolling is catching the better fish. Water temperatures are falling by the day, so shallow-water angling is taking off, especially around rocky structures near the tribs. Chumming at Podickery Point and Love Point is still garnering limits though the channel cats have become a nuisance.
       White perch have vacated the shallows and schooled up in deeper water (14 feet plus), concentrating in enough numbers to warrant serious attempts at filling the freezer. Worms and crab are the best baits. Shore-bound bait anglers using fresh menhaden and crab are bragging of the evening bite at Matapeake, Romancoke and the Bill Burton Pier at Cambridge. Jigging is coming on strong now with soft plastics producing fish all over the Bay.
      Crabbing is enjoying a last surge, but it won’t last long. The jimmies will burrow down in the mud soon.