Burton on the Bay:

It's Do-It-Yourself Time -
Time to catch, clean, cook and eat your own rock

Here it is April, and within a couple of weeks we'll have the opportunity to catch our own rockfish - big rock, the kind that can be converted to filets or perhaps baked or broiled whole minus, of course, head, tail, fins and innards.

You might say it's do-it-yourself time: you catch, clean and cook it yourself, ideally on the day caught or the day after. Timing is everything in capturing the freshness of fish, regardless of species. That's why the fish you catch, if "processed" promptly, is better than the fish you buy at market.

I'll bet you thought it tasted better because you caught it. Conceded, that has a bit to do with it, but the big difference is freshness, which isn't to say the rock you buy at market isn't fresh. Your fish is fresher.

Also, you are assured the fish you catch is a truly wild rockfish. There is a difference.


Real Worms, Real Fish

Nothing against aquaculture from this corner, mind you. It's a way to enjoy fish that isn't in season - sometimes at less cost - and a way to buy fish that might be scarce. It also gives the "farm" economy a boost.

But, as an example, to compare a farm-raised rockfish to one from the Chesapeake is akin to watching a sailboat race on a calm day from a sky-box seat at the Super Bowl. An aquaculture rock is nutritious, yes, and even tasty, but don't tell me it has the exciting flavor of a rockfish that grew big from the bounty of the Chesapeake.

The rock of the Chesapeake - the ones you catch once the season starts - won't be sedentary creatures that loaf in a pond waiting for a daily ration of pellets. You are what you eat, and the wild rockfish ferrets out the things that make a real fish have the taste of a real fish.

From a, shall we say, mentally aesthetic point, uniformly shaped brownish pellets might appear more palatable (to squeamish people) than worms, grass shrimp, crabs, minnows, eels, clams, oily menhaden and herring - and anything else that swims or crawls in the Chesapeake. But all those bonafide "unprocessed" goodies somehow combine to make a fish taste like it should. Like a fish.

The aquaculture fish, with its monotonous diet of pellets, though laced with such things as fish oil, vitamins and other nutritious additives, might be healthier and fatter. But it's missing the exquisite flavor of its wild counterpart.

Consider a lobster, the tastiest of all seafood. If you knew its diet, you'd pass. The same with crabs. Take a wild freshwater trout, ditto. But ask anyone who fishes the streams, which he'd rather have - one straight from the hatchery and its carefully monitored pure waters and pellets or one that foraged on its own in natural waters?

If you know the answer it's not a question. Yet aquaculture continue to grow. Good; it has its niche. In fact, it's become more than a niche. According to the Marine Notes of Maryland Sea Grant College, Nations Food & Agriculture Organization reports that nearly all catfish and rainbow trout, about half the shrimp and about one-third of the salmon consumed in the U.S. is raised by fish farmers.

Maybe you've noticed. That salmon, smoked or not, might look so appetizing, yet once in the mouth it lacks zest. Same with the catfish and the rainbow trout. To a degree, maybe the shrimp, though I can't distinguish the difference.

As for rockfish, I can tell the difference. The aquacultured rock is good, but the wild rock is great. Trouble is, not infrequently the average consumer doesn't know whether the seafood purchased is wild or captive reared - until the ultimate taste test once the purchase is made.

Many rockfish now available in Maryland markets and in restaurants come from farms. Usually they are smaller fish; like chickens, they are sent to market when most economically feasible. It doesn't pay to raise them to say the 28-inches expected to be the legal minimum when the wild rockfish season opens later this month.


Not a Niche; a Corner

But let's not knock aquaculture needlessly. It's here to stay. The world fish market has grown from 20 million metric tons in the '50s to 112.3 metric tons in 1995, and much of that growth can be attributed to aquaculture. Twenty-seven percent of seafood consumption worldwide comes from fish farms.

And it's not the fish farms of the U.S. that produce the most. China tops the list. China along with India, Korea and the Philippines account for 80 percent of the world volume of "cultured" seafood.

And should you think that catfish top the list of cultured seafood, think again. Maybe so in this country, but worldwide the lowly vegetarian carp comprises about half the volume.

In our mid-Atlantic region, rockfish - whether straight or hybrids - show promise for the small fish farmers. But rock pose a problem on the environmental front. About 55 percent of a striped bass after filleting is waste.

Then again, there's the problem of fish droppings in the confined areas where the species are raised in captivity. A fish eats and subsequently has to go to the bathroom. Many fish farms are connected with our wild waters.

Aquacultural research is focused on what to do with the wastes, maybe converting them to fertilizer, which is what the chicken industry hopes to do with the product of its coop cleanups. As for the waste from dressing rock and other species, there are suggestions it might be used - via the byproduct route - for processing as fishmeal or fish oil.

If this works out it would not only be a boost for the environment but could also lessen pressure on wild menhaden of the ocean and bays. In recent years, we have come to learn that even with menhaden - the fish most caught in our hemisphere - there is a bottom to the barrel.


Replenish Your Tackle Box

As the wild rockfish season approaches, it's time to stock up on lures that catch. You don't have much time to shop. Some suggestions for the tackle box:

New and most promising is the Manns Stretch 30+, a large plug ideal for trolling; it's the hottest selling item among anglers preparing for trophy fish. Look for it in silver, blue or red and white. Another surefire fish-getter is the huge Bunker spoon in silver, green or white. It's cumbersome, but it targets huge fish.

Big Parachutes in either green or white with Sassy Shads attached have proven exceptionally good the past several years. The same can be said for extra large conventional bucktails (don't be cheap, choose those with lots of hair) if you attach the same soft plastic additives suggested for Parachutes.

Conventional spoons like the Tony, Drone and Crippled Alewive are okay, but they can't top those other baits, and surgical hoses are more appropriate for bluefish once they arrive.

Think big, big fish and big baits. Then go out and catch your own wild rockfish.


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VolumeVI Number 14
April 9-15, 1998
New Bay Times

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