With seafood, man should not live by breading alone
First, let us praise panko, the bread crumb mix that burnishes even a bland seafood concoction to spun-gold perfection.
"It's great on rockfish, great on perch, great on fried oysters, great on soft crabs," says George Turner, who knows his Chesapeake delicacies from a lifetime of catching, cooking and eating them. "If a little piece of panko falls off the fish while you're cooking, eat it like a potato chip. I think you could fry cardboard and it'd be good."
Turner and I are recent converts to the Japanese-style concoction. I've always made my own breading for fried seafood -- half cornmeal, half flour and a few shakes of Old Bay seasoning. Never again. Nor will I bake, grill or broil, at least not till I'm pankoed out.
The culinary revelation comes at a good time because late rockfish season is here, when the Bay's signature delicacy, Maryland's flaky, snow-white state fish, is abundant and hungry. I called Capt. Ed Darwin, dean of the mid-Bay charter fleet, last week to see if he'd been doing anything. "Haven't you heard?" he marveled. "It's all you want out there."
Well, not quite. First you have to find them, and even Darwin himself can have a hard time on certain days. Then state regulations limit recreational fishermen to two rockfish a day, which still is plenty for a panko pig-out.
Turner, Andy Hughes and I were on the water shortly after dawn Tuesday on Turner's 25-footer. You couldn't ask for a prettier daybreak, with the Severn River's forested shoreline glowing rich reds and golds and the air brisk and clear. We had our itinerary mapped -- Tolly Point, Thomas Point, then south to the mouth of the West River if we hadn't yet limited out.
The most effective way to fish in fall, when rockfish are schooled near the bottom and fattening up for winter, is bottom-bouncing small bucktails. This old-school technique involves heavy lead sinkers and stout trolling rods. The rods must be tended by hand to keep the bucktails hopping along the bottom where they won't hang up or get fouled with mud.
Most trolling is a bore but not bottom-bouncing. The angler is in constant touch with the sea floor, adjusting line length for depth and gently jigging the lures while awaiting the satisfying bump that signifies a strike. You get so focused, you can feel the difference between oyster shells, mud, sand and rocks down below. Oyster bottom is what you want.
Tolly Point and Thomas Point are old oyster bars that poke a quarter-mile into the bay from the Western Shore below Annapolis. We got a few strikes in 30 feet of water off Tolly, the first stop, but the fish were scarce and mostly small. A half-hour later Darwin steamed up in his old, wooden charter boat, Becky D, stopping briefly to troll alongside. He left abruptly, heading south, which suggested he'd heard from one of his colleagues who'd found a pod of hungry fish.
To follow or not? We were still pondering a half-hour later when the radio crackled. "Angus, you on here?"
"You'd better find me."