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Fishing For My Supper

Out of a Job, I Learned To Land Free Food At the End of the Pier

By Nancy Tucker
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page F01

I imagined the dreamy stillness of life on the water, telling time by the sun, the moon and the tides.

What I didn't imagine was that after a year of living in this picture postcard, I would still be unemployed and fishing for our dinner. I'd never cleaned a fish before or scaled it or cut out the fillets. Fish used to be handed to me over a brightly lit glass case, wrapped in butcher paper, ready to cook.

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Not anymore. Now I spend endless hours peering into the dark water, rod in hand, trying to think like a fish.

Admittedly, fishing is an unlikely avocation for a middle-aged, urban woman who gets seasick even in a paddle boat. But as weeks of hunting for a marketing or advertising job turned into months, I turned to fishing. And now I'm hooked.

My husband and I left the perpetual winter of Vermont and moved to the Magothy River in Maryland, which lies between the Severn River to the south and the Patapsco River to the north. Our little 1930s knotty pine-paneled cottage was formerly a family escape from the dulling, oppressive heat of Baltimore summers. It was built before there was a Chesapeake Bay Bridge and still has that closed-up, faintly musty smell that speaks of vacations past. There aren't many of the cottages left. Ours sits five miles up the Magothy from Annapolis, with Kent Island and the Chesapeake Bay in our view.

I am a great lover of birds, and since I have the time, I watch with patient interest the seasonal comings and goings of kingfishers, ospreys, cormorants and the great blue herons. My neighbor, Kenny, a true waterman, watches the water birds, too. He came over for our nightly beer and told me this story: He was catching panfish (a term used for any fish small enough to cook whole in a pan) to bait his crab traps. He was pulling them in so fast that he hadn't time to stash them in the live trap, so he tossed them down on the dock for the moment. To his complete surprise, a great blue heron flew onto the dock and ate one. And then another. Right there, three feet away from him. This was very unusual, as herons are skittish, flying away whenever humans come near. Hearing this story sparked something in me and set the whole fishing thing into motion. I found an old rod and reel and proceeded to fish.

By the next morning, I was feeding the heron, whom we named Dexter. He perches lazily on one of the pilings while I tell him about all the great jobs I haven't gotten. He listens politely, poses and preens, straightening his glossy feathers just so, stopping occasionally to look sideways into the water like he's trying to help me locate a fish. This gives me plenty of time to examine his long frilly neck feathers, his long curving neck, his long sturdy legs, and his long intimidating beak. Then I catch a fish. It's usually a white perch, sunfish, chain pickerel or rockfish. Dexter won't eat sunfish. None of the birds do. I can't blame them because there's not enough meat to make it worthwhile. But they are beautiful. Sunfish are the most tropical-looking of all the fish in our brackish river. They are turquoise and green and yellow, all mottled together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Farther upstream, closer to the headwaters where there's hardly any salt in the water, you can catch crappie. A freshwater fish, they, too, are showy and colorful. They swim in pods of a hundred or more, and when you tap into a pod of crappie you can get enough to cook. There are plenty of white perch big enough to fillet, and so common in the Magothy that in one morning you can catch enough for dinner. Their meat is flaky and sweet and white, which is why the herons prefer them.

We prefer them filleted and fried. Ten or 12 perch will feed two hearty eaters along with fresh sweet corn or homemade Vidalia onion rings. And fried perch makes a terrific summer sandwich with a slice of an Eastern Shore tomato and freshly made tartar sauce.

So passionate am I about fishing now that I didn't give one thought about going out rockfishing in the Bay. My last horrible seasickness was 10 years in the past but it is as vivid as if it were yesterday. Nonetheless, at 5 a.m., Kenny and I headed out armed with soft-shell crabs, eels and lots of little white perch as bait. We arrived at his secret spot 20 minutes later. The Bay Bridge loomed overhead. The air was stifling, and we were rocking and pitching, but I didn't care. My rod was in the water and fish were jumping all around us. The first rockfish I caught was at least 30 inches long. It put up quite a fight but there was no way I was letting my first one get away. The creel limit, the number of fish you can keep, is two per person per day. And each one must meet the legal limit of 18 inches minimum length. Only one can be 28 inches or over.

I was so excited that I think I was holding my breath. But like so many rockfish these days, my first one had lesions on its body, the result of a prolific bacterium, so I threw it back. The next four were perfect shining specimens. To my surprise, each of their faces looked different to me, and I tried not to get too attached. Soon enough we were headed home with our two apiece.

Back on our dock, Kenny taught me how to clean and fillet the rockfish. Their delicate flesh is somewhat transparent -- sort of pink, sort of white. Lots of people cook them whole, and I've listened as my neighbors argue about the best way to prepare them.

I was too timid to cook one whole the first time around, so I kept the preparation simple. With butter and shallots in the pan, the fillets got a light dusting of flour seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and paprika and a quick saute. I served orzo with olive oil, fresh basil and lots of lemon zest and a green salad. That was my first fish dinner, a satisfying success.

The next time, I went for the exotic. I coated one side of the fillets with Indian seasonings and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, then broiled them for a very short time. A side of coconut rice with fresh cilantro and mint, spinach sautéed in ghee with roasted sesame and brown mustard seeds, a few spicy pappadams heated up in the toaster oven, and it was Indian Rockfish a la Tucker.

But the best of all our rockfish meals was the night I rinsed off the seasoning from the leftover steamed crabs we'd had the night before, picked the meat and set it aside. Then I cut the rockfish into bite-sized pieces and sautéed it in olive oil, with garlic, a little Vidalia onion, fresh minced zucchini and summer squash, halved yellow cherry tomatoes and a few red pepper flakes. A splash of Pinot Grigio to finish, the crabmeat mixed in at the last moment, and then I tossed the whole affair with angel hair pasta. No one even noticed the grilled eggplant and red peppers or the green salad until every strand of pasta was gone.

Now my daydreaming has changed from short commutes and fat paychecks to long, lazy days on the dock and fat fish to fry. Chores go undone, job applications sit on my desk, and telephone calls go unreturned because I'm out on the dock fiddling with lures, thinking about better bait or just imagining the fish below the surface. No matter what I'm doing, I've got an eye on the water.

Nancy Tucker can be found at the end of her dock or at greenlamps@yahoo.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company