Fish Local

Catch-and-eat in the Pioneer Valley

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By Laura Sayre, Photos by Dan Little

You either see it or you don’t. On Route 116 between Amherst and Sunderland, a small brown sign: TROUT HATCHERY. If you fish, you know what this means. If you don’t, you may not see it at all. Trout?

We hear a lot these days about the overfishing of the oceans, about the sustainability of different fisheries, about the healthfulness (or otherwise) of consuming different types of fish. But virtually all of these discussions assume you are standing in a supermarket or sitting in a restaurant. That sign hints at the fact that there are other places to stand: at the water’s edge, for instance, with a fishing pole in your hands.

Commercial fishing is overwhelmingly concentrated on marine fishing, but freshwater recreational fishing dwarfs saltwater recreational fishing in terms of numbers of participants and time and money spent fishing (according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Americans collectively spent 383 million days freshwater fishing, vs. just 75 million days saltwater fishing). The State of Massachusetts, via the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (aka MassWildlife), does a great deal to support recreational freshwater fishing.

Central to their efforts is the trout stocking program, of which the trout hatchery in Sunderland is a part. Nearly half a million trout, most of them 12 inches long or longer, are stocked between April and May each year, along with another 60,000 or so in the fall. The fish are put into hundreds of publicly accessible locations—lakes, ponds, rivers, and brooks—across the state (a full list can be found at mass.gov/trout).

The primary mission of the program is recreation, explains Marion Larson, chief of information and education for MassWildlife. The agency also engages in conservation, restoration, and monitoring activities, but the trout stocking is designed as a “put and take” as opposed to a “put and grow” system—they are there to be fished, free for the taking (while respecting daily catch limits and other regulations) once you have purchased your fishing license. Kids ages 14 and under can fish without a license, and the first weekend in June is traditionally designated as “free fishing weekend,” with no licenses required.

The primary rationale for the trout-stocking program is the economic stimulus that fishing provides—the bait and tackle shops, the boating, the travel, the gear. (At the national level, the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the economic value of fishing at $46 billion a year.) The program is also largely self-supporting, funded by license fees and via a federal excise tax on fishing equipment. Approximately 200,000 fishing licenses are purchased in Massachusetts each year.

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Trout have been grown in hatcheries for a hundred years or more. They are both popular for fishing and respond well to hatchery production, says MassWildlife Assistant Director of Fisheries Todd Richards. The Massachusetts program currently raises four types of trout: brook trout, native to Massachusetts; rainbow trout, the most numerous in the hatcheries, native to the western United States; brown trout, a European species; and tiger trout, a cross between male brook trout and female brown trout.

Four of the five state trout facilities are in the Pioneer Valley (in Sunderland, Montague, Belchertown, and Palmer). The fifth is in Sandwich, on the Cape. The brood stock are maintained in Sandwich and Palmer and then the hatchlings are grown out in open, outdoor “raceways”—long rectangular basins with through-flowing water—at the other facilities. The trout are fed on fish pellets made from whole wheat, fish meal, soybean meal, and other ingredients for 1½ to 2 years until they reach the 12-inch release size.

The hatcheries themselves are interesting places to visit, particularly with kids. The McLaughlin Fish Hatchery in Belchertown is the biggest, with 10 paired raceways about 500 feet long located just west of the Swift River, near the base of the Quabbin. The Sunderland and Montague hatcheries are older and more scenic, with old stonework and tall pines shading the raceways. You can buy a handful of fish food from a dispenser for a quarter, and watch trout of different sizes swirl and surge around in the water. Great blue herons stalk the edges of the raceways, while gulls circle overhead.

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Of course, there are many other types of fish to be caught in the Valley—including shad, bass, pickerel, and walleye—and many anglers practice catch-and-release as opposed to catch-and-eat. Some areas are designated as catch-and-release only. Advocates of catch-and-eat point out that an unknown number—possibly 50% or more—of caught-and-released fish won’t survive, so you are not necessarily conserving fish by not consuming them.

There are, it should be emphasized, fish consumption advisories, particularly for certain species and certain waters. The major contaminants of concern are mercury and PCBs. Because trout that have been stocked by MassWildlife will have had little time to accumulate contaminants in their bodies, these are considered to be among the safest fish to eat. The official guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health state that pregnant women, women intending to become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children under 12 should not eat any freshwater fish caught in Massachusetts except for stocked trout. Guidelines for other people depend on the species and the body of water, but many types of fish are fine to eat in moderation. (See mass.gov/dph for more information.)

“Being able to eat something that you’ve caught is one of the motivators for people being out there,” says Larson. In terms of popularity among Massachusetts fishermen and -women, according to Richards, “Bass are number 1; trout are number 2.”

Jeremiah Kermensky, who grew up in the Valley and fished with his father and grandfather and now fishes with his young daughter, says they catch mostly bass and stocked trout, throwing the bass back. “Our family ate a dozen trout over the winter. Anything you can get that fresh is going to be delicious,” he says.

What he enjoys about fishing in the Valley, too, is the range of places you can go. “We go to Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton, to the Ware River, to Ashfield Lake, ice fishing on Cranberry Pond, between Sunderland and Montague. People have their little places they like to go, but there are always new places to discover.”

That attitude points to the other value of recreational freshwater fishing, intimately linked to its food value: It gets people out into the woods and on the water, where they can observe the state of our local environment firsthand. “Fish are the classic canary in the coal mine,” Richards says. “The fishing opportunities in the state have dramatically improved since I was a kid … Water quality in particular has gotten quite a bit better since the 1970s, thanks to the Clean Water Act.”

Challenges today are more often linked to water flow and to habitat than to pollution issues per se, he says, “although we still have the challenges associated with a high population density in a small state.” MassWildlife continues to improve wild fish populations through habitat restoration and protection, but in the meantime stocked trout function as a kind of farmed-fish-in-the-wild, getting us out of the supermarket and into the woods.

More information about freshwater fishing in Massachusetts, including regulations, public events, and waterway access details, is available online at mass.gov/trout and related pages.

 

Wallow in the Blues

A truly fresh fish yields a happier tune

by Sanford D’Amato
photo by Kevin Miyazaki

There is a solid rap at the back kitchen screen door of the restaurant. I look over and see that the bright morning sun is completely eclipsed by the husky outline of a local fishmonger, self-named Chubby. 

“I’ve got a surprise for you today!” he calls out as he wedges himself through the doorway, each of his large paws grasping a three-foot fish. As he points one of the fish, as rigid as a board, toward my face, he proclaims, “They’re still in rigor mortis!”

Chubby was a local legend in the East Quogue area of Long Island where I worked in the late ’70s. He would arrive daily with bags of the most pristine Peconic Bay scallops that, because of their inherent sweetness, you could pop straight into your mouth like lush, briny candy.

But today, he has caught a beautiful 12-pound striped bass and a slightly smaller bluefish. They are so fresh that I expect them to start flipping. “Well, do you want them both?” he asks. The striped bass is for sure but, as blue things go—I love blueberries, I’m a huge blues music fan, and I’m a true-blue friend. But I hate bluefish.

All my experiences with bluefish up to this point were from my time at the Culinary Institute of America. Students were responsible for receiving fish (steward class), prepping fish (butchery), preparing fish (kitchen class), and serving it (service class). We also had to eat whatever we made.

Bluefish has high oil content and is very perishable. Slow and inexperienced student handling, slightly improper trimming and cooking, and delayed serving made this fish the scourge of lunch and dinner classes. The mere mention of bluefish was enough to send student diners scurrying for the exits to escape the funkiness.

I relate my misgivings to Chubby. “I’ll give you this one for free,” he says, “because I know after you have a really fresh bluefish, you’ll be buying all I can get you in the future.” 

I fillet the glistening fish and remove the skin and its red outside bloodline to yield thick filets that look like slightly darker-hued striped bass. I grill up a piece with just a bit of salt and pepper. The oil content of the fish helps it grill up with a golden, crunchy exterior and a moist, flavorful interior. This bluefish has zero relationship to my previous frightening experiences. As usual, Chubby didn’t disappoint. 

Thirty-plus years later, Angie and I are luxuriating in our first visit to the Pioneer Valley. Our friend David, the self-appointed guide for the day, takes us on his personal “Best of the Valley” tour. We start on River Road for blueberries, cross Christian Lane and go down to Golanka’s for corn and tomatoes, then into Northampton to Northshore Seafood for fish. As we enter the corner fish market, I am immediately smitten with the concise repertoire of the East Coast’s greatest piscatorial hits: sword, cod, hake, stripers, sea scallops, cherrystones, and mussels. David, with the excitement of a lottery winner, looks past them all and exclaims, “Yes! Bluefish!” 

Within an hour, we are scarfing down succulent, crusty bluefish between bites of sweet corn and a perfectly balanced tomato salad. It’s hard to seal a deal in one meal, but it is the start of the journey that brings us from Wisconsin to our current home on the banks of the Connecticut River in Hatfield. 

 

PEPPERED BLUEFISH WITH GLAZED TURNIPS AND TURNIP GREEN BROTH

This preparation makes full use of the Valley’s vibrant farmers’ markets. Find a nice bunch of just-dug early turnips with really fresh green tops to use when enhancing the broth. (If you can’t find turnips, radishes with tops will do.) The key, as Cubby taught me: It’s all about the freshest blue.

Serves 4

1 cup unsalted chicken stock

4 small (about 4 ounces each) turnips with fresh green tops, greens removed and reserved. Turnips peeled and cut in 1-inch wedges.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Zest of ½ lemon and juice of 1 lemon (need 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon juice)

2 tablespoons crushed peppercorns, strained in a fine strainer to remove any pepper dust

4 (6- to 7-ounce, about 1-inch thick) skinless bluefish filets (can substitute striped bass)

2 shallots (1½ ounces), peeled and thinly sliced 

2 garlic cloves (½ ounce), peeled and finely chopped

½ cup dry white wine

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cover the turnip wedges with stock, add a pinch of salt, and bring up to a simmer for about 4–5 minutes, until just tender. Strain and reserve the turnip stock. Place a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon of the oil. When oil is hot, add the turnips, season lightly with salt and pepper, and sauté for about 4 minutes, until golden brown. Add the sugar and lemon zest and toss together. Add ½ teaspoon of the lemon juice, glaze, remove from pan, and reserve warm. Clean the pan and put back over medium-high heat. Divide the pepper evenly over tops of the bluefish and press in. Season all lightly with salt. Add the remaining oil to the pan and sauté the fish until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the fish to a plate. 

Add the shallots and garlic to the pan and sauté for 1 minute. Add the wine and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and reduce by half. Add the reserved turnip stock and reduce to ⅓ to ½ cup. Place the reserved stock and reserved greens in a blender and purée until fine. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the fish and turnips between 4 plates and divide the turnip green broth around and serve. 

Talking Trash

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Talking Trash … 

...Fish, that is.

When I ran my restaurant I was spoiled for seafood. I had a great group of suppliers and was frequently overwhelmed with options. Right now, I’m a “civilian” kitchen-wise, and the fish I used to be able to get my hands on is not as easily landed. So when Chefs Collaborative (I’m a member and local chapter leader) announced that they and the James Beard Foundation were hosting a teaching workshop on the subject of “Trash Fish” at Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, I jumped at the chance to attend. 

The day started with some lovely breakfast nibbles provided by Chef Derek Wagner and his staff. Fortified with strong coffee and jam on toast, we sat down to talk Trash. After introductions from Kris Moon, Director of Charitable Giving and Strategic Partnerships  at the James Beard Foundation and Sara Brito, Chefs Collaborative’s Executive Director, Derek took the floor.

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Derek and fisherman and Captain Steve Arnold talked us through the story of how they came to work together. As Derek describes it, “I was serving local produce, local meat, but when I called my seafood suppliers to ask about where my fish was coming from, and they’d say ‘I’ll have to get back to you …’ I mean, here we are in the Ocean State, after all.” He and Steve met with a few other like-minded folks to discuss the problem: How to get fish from the boat to a restaurant’s door within 24 hours.

As the two described it, they just decided to give it a try: Steve brought Derek a collection of fish the next day. Derek started cooking and the project was off to a start.

There were many challenges, primarily related to health department regulations around the distribution of seafood. The two wanted to be above board and follow the regulations in place. As a result, for a period of time, Steve had to “sell” his fish to a processor and then buy it right back to get it to Derek. Ultimately he got HACCP certification for his operation and now can directly distribute the fish he lands.

Derek and Steve talked through a few definitions for us: 

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Trash Fish: This is fish frequently not seen as valuable in the market. You could also call it “underutilized” or perhaps unappreciated fish. Derek pointed out that today’s Trash Fish is not necessarily tomorrow’s. Lobster could once have had that label, as did monkfish. Both are definitely prized now. Today’s Trash Fish are species like scup, dogfish, redfish, and bluefish. I’ve eaten and served all of them and can attest to their deliciousness. There is some debate in the seafood community around creating a new label. Some feel that “Trash” is a bad thing to call good, delicious food; but I can’t argue that the term has kept people talking. Until we have another option, Trash Fish it is.  

Trash fish can be, but is not always:

Bycatch: Bycatch is what is caught when fishing for something else. When a fisherman goes out he’ll be targeting a species or group of species––flounder, for instance. Despite best efforts to use the best equipment for that species, other species get caught also (maybe some sea robin gets into the nets, for example). That is bycatch. (In my restaurant, we served crab that was caught in lobster traps. That my lobsterman’s bycatch and he was thrilled to have someone to sell it to.) A lot of fisherman simply toss that fish overboard––if they don’t have a buyer, it can be more bother than it’s worth to bring bycatch into the harbor. But with a buyer like Derek, Steve can text him, letting him know he’s got a few sea robin, or fluke, or one monkfish, for sale.

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The group of us, about 20 chefs and food professionals, spent a good 90 minutes grilling Derek and Steve on all aspects of catching, serving, and selling fish, and then we took a few steps into Derek’s open kitchen for a cutting demonstration.

Derek showed us his technique for cutting scup and bluefish. It’s valuable to watch another chef at work––there’s  always something new to pick up. Derek was a treat to watch at work (although he’s crazy modest, so I can hear him now saying that it was no big deal)––he clearly cuts a lot of fish, so his motions were instinctive and smooth. But, he never stopped pointing out tips for safer and cleaner cutting.

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For me, Derek’s method for cutting fish was a new one, but it made perfect sense once I saw it. Instead of cutting one fillet from one side, then flipping and cutting the other side, he cuts both sides in tandem, a little a time. This method (hard to explain, easy to watch) results in a more consistent and stable cutting experience and made for beautiful, even fillets. The technique was basically the same for the scup and the bluefish, despite the bluefish being nearly 10 times as large as the scup.

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Most valuable were tips on utilization. Derek demonstrated how to scrape a rack to get the most meat possible (for fish cakes, tartares, chowder meat, etc.), his method for roasting heads (again for meat for cakes, salads, etc.). He also showed how to cut collars and cheeks––a hidden source of revenue on larger fish like the bluefish he was working with.

The day ended with a vibrant collection of salads: lentil, grilled corn, bluefish, heirloom tomato, and generous glasses of rosé!