A lifetime ago, I would spend two weeks each August on the Jersey Shore. It consisted of beautiful white sand beaches, tropical blue water, and bluefish. Lots of bluefish!
Striped bass pass along the Jersey coast in the spring, and again in the fall during their north and south migrations. We are very fortunate that they spend the summer here in the waters off Cape Cod.
With the abundance of blues during the summer months, I've learned that they can in fact make excellent table fare. How you care for bluefish after catching will make all the difference come dinner time!
New Jersey anglers spend their summers chasing bluefish, often from a New York and New Jersey phenomenon called the “party boat” or “head boat”.
This name comes from the fact that anglers are charged a fare by the head or as an individual. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for a charter and having to organize a group, one person can step onboard for a ¾ day trip for $60.
Head boats do come with their challenges though, as over 100 anglers can be on each trip.
Fish are often put in dry bags then left out in the hot sun, which makes them not suitable for eating. If you take care of bluefish after catching, they will taste delicious when you bring them home.
After many trips and lots of trial and error, I developed a protocol for caring for my catch.
Bring a very large oversized cooler about 2/3 filled with ice. A large fish placed in a small cooler will stay in a curved position after rigor mortis sets in. This will make them more difficult to fillet and should be avoided.
Also bring a smaller cooler ½ filled with ice, and about 10 zip lock plastic bags in the gallon size, as well as a very sharp fillet knife.
I opt to keep the smaller cooler inside the cabin, and keep the larger one next to me where I'll be fishing.
Critical Step: Catch a Bluefish!
When you start to catch bluefish, put them in the large cooler immediately after landing them
You can cut by the gills or the arteries by the tail to cause the fish to bleed out. However, I never had the heart nor took the time to do this.
Even if you don’t make a cut, bluefish will bleed somewhat into the cooler. If blood is allowed to pool in the fish as it dies, the meat will be darker and have that “gamey” taste that people don’t like.
The poorly prepared fillets will look like this:
You'll notice later in the post how much fresher they appear when they're cared for properly!
"Get the Blood off Them"
Use a pull bucket tied to a rope to get enough seawater to cover the ice and fish. You want to create a slurry of very cold icy water that covers the fish.
Just keeping them cold in ice is not enough. An old timer once told me, "you have to keep the blood off them."
You need to keep replenishing the water as it drains out. The draining is very important, as each time you add more fish to the cooler you add more blood.
Bluefish that have just been caught will puke up baitfish or bits of chum in the cooler. The bits of baitfish may eventually clog the drain. Be sure to check that water is running out of drain.
You may need to add more water, or clean out the drain with a small metal object. You don’t want them to sit in bloody water.
Filleting your Fresh Catch
The captain heads back to port after a long day of fishing. Most fishermen will take this time to relax, pop a few cold ones or take cover inside the cabin.
This is when I spring to action, especially if it will be a short ride back to the dock.
You want to take care of your fish outside of the inlet where you can toss the carcasses overboard and rinse the blood off the boat and your equipment. You can’t do this once the boat is inside the inlet or at the dock and it’s too messy and smelly to do at home.
Your position on the boat is important: you want to pick a spot on the leeward side so you won’t be drenched by spray as the boat motors through the waves, and towards the stern so you're not near the crew as they scrub down the boat on the ride in.
I bring the small cooler out from the cabin and put it next to me, then remove my fish one at a time from the large cooler and lay them on the top using the lid as a cutting board. I also have a draw bucket next to me about 2/3 full of fresh seawater.
Holding the head, I make a cut down to the spine from just behind the pectoral fin, then curve the blade towards the tail and cut above the vertebra of the spine all the way to the tail.
Then flip the fillet over so that the skin is on the cutting board. While tightly holding onto the very end of the pointed part of the fillet, make a cut through the meat down to the skin without cutting the skin.
Then turn the blade away from your fingers that are holding the fillet. While keeping the knife slightly tilted towards the skin, pull the skin back and forth so that it is cut from the rest of the fillet. Keep the knife still and steady, and just move the skin. Once you're done, turn the fish over and repeat the process.
As each fillet is completed, I dip it in the water in the bucket to get any scales or blood off, then put it into a plastic bag, which goes into the small cooler.
I throw each empty carcass and the skin over the side as I finish with it. When I am finished I wash down the cooler and the area where I was working.
Some people prefer to have the mates on the boat fillet their fish. In Jersey, the going rate is about one dollar per fish. I choose to do it myself, as some trips I reach my 10 fish New Jersey limit.
Final Fillet Prep
This is a clear light colored fillet. This fish was bled out so the blood was not allowed to pool inside this fish.
However, the dark sections in the Bluefish fillet are not good to eat. You can see them below as dark red down the center or almost black in the area that was just underneath the skin.
These areas contain fat deposits and are where toxins such as PCBs and heavy metals accumulate. Larger, older fish will have more fat deposits and more contaminants. Once I get home, I further process the fillets to get rid of this part by holding my fillet knife flat against the fillet and slicing off the dark part.
Cooking Your Catch!
Though there are many ways to cook Bluefish, I believe the best way is to grill the fillets. I brush the fillets with some Italian dressing before, and again during cooking.
A fish screen or rack will prevent pieces from falling through the grates as the fish cooks and starts to flake. Additionally, the fillets should be turned at least once.
In this picture you can see the dark part that should have been removed. You can remove it before cooking or scrape it out with the corner of a spatula once the fillet has been cooked.
The end results should not only be tolerable, but quite delicious!
What do you think?
Let me know by commenting below.
Dex has been fishing since 1963, and has been a member of My Fishing Cape Cod since 2013. He and his dog Gracie can be found exploring and fishing anywhere from Block Island, to the Canal, to Chatham. You can learn more about Dex by clicking here.