There may be someone, somewhere, who smokes bluefish better than Calvin Tyler, but I haven't found him. And I've been looking. Tyler runs Tyler's Tackle Shop and the adjoining fish store in Chesapeake Beach, which is about 30 miles east of Washington on the banks of the sparkling Chesapeake Bay.
The beauty of doing fish-smoking business with Tyler is that he not only comes up with a consistently rich, aromatic, spicy and delectable product, he also tells you how to catch the raw material, and offers a variety of arrangements on the smoking.
The deals are these: You can buy his fresh smoked bluefish fillets at $2.75 a pound; or he will smoke fillets you bring him for $1 a pound; or he'll smoke fillets you bring him for free, but he keeps half the end product.
My preference has always been to pay for the smoking and keep everything, but in these bountiful bluefish times practically anyone can catch 100 pounds of blues, especially if you let Tyler tell you where to try, and the 50-50 split becomes more appealing.
Sometimes the 50-50 split even can be effected on the spot, which is to say you bring in fish you caught that day and Tyler, with a backlog of finished fillets in the cooler, gives you half as many smoked fish in return, there and then.
I struck such a deal the other day, and when I got home was able to tell my wife I'd not only caught a mess of blues, I'd caught smoked ones.
That was largely Tyler's doing. I'd called him in the morning to see if he was smoking.
"Come on," Tyler shouted into the phone, "and bring your little boat with you. The blues are breaking water all around here. I can see 'em from my store window. You can catch all you want in an hour and a half."
I brought the little boat, went 10 minutes out of the inlet at Chesapeake Beach and was instantly surrounded by rapacious hordes of surface-feeding blues, which turned the water into a froth as they cut away at schools of helpless menhaden. Using surface lures, the most entertaining fishing there is, I did catch all I wanted in an hour and a half.
"This whole season has been unbelievable," said Tyler, echoing the general consensus among bay fishermen that blues have been as thick this summer as anyone could remember.
Happily, the abundance should continue through September and October, traditionally the most hectic bluefishing months on the bay, as the predatory blues go on a feeding spree before heading out to sea for the winter.
Fall is also the time to get a mess of blues smoked and set them aside for winter feasting.
Something wonderful happens to a bluefish when it is smoked. They are not particularly sought-after table fare in general, even when fresh-caught, because the flesh is coarse and oily. And under no circumstances do fresh bluefish keep or freeze well, because the oil in the flesh breaks down and becomes mush.
Smoking bluefish, by contrast, dries up some of the oil and creates a delicacy that lasts for months in the freezer.
Tyler's product is so good Bill Brener, a Washington businessman and bluefisherman, tried marketing it internationally. He took it to the German and Swedish trade missions, thinking they would have interest in a quality smoked fish, and got rave reviews. But the missions also advised him that their countries already had enough smoked fish to feed western Europe, and probably didn't need to import from America.
Brener took the fish to New York, where delicatessen types refused to believe he was giving them smoked blue. He's convinced he could have made a go of marketing Tyler's fish, but in the end decided to go fishing, instead.
So what's the secret?
"This right here," said Tyler, holding up a five-pound bag of sandy brown, grainy stuff. "But I can't tell you what's in it."
He gets his secret smoking mixture from the fellow who invented it, Chesapeake Beach resident and ex-fish-smoker Zane King, who tells nobody anything, according to Tyler.
"I can tell you two things I know are in it -- salt and brown sugar. But there's three other things in there, too, and I don't know what they are and he won't tell me. And he cooks it. That's all I know."
Tyler liquefies the mixture by adding honey and water, then paints it on fresh fillets, which should have the skin and scales left on to provide an anchor for the meat to cling to.
He sprinkles on black pepper and lays the fillets on sheets of white printing paper, into which he has pricked holes to allow the smoke through.
The fire is of apple, oak and hickory and is made in the bottom of a castoff, stainless-steel commercial refrigerator for which his son, Calvin Jr., paid $10 about five years ago. Tyler can cook up to 150 fillets at a time on about 20 racks, and a batch generally takes four to five hours to complete.
These smoked fish are cooked, but not preserved. They last about 10 to 12 days in the refrigerator, after which they start to mold, and they last half a year or more in the freezer.
It's hard to describe the taste, other than to say it's superb. The oil in the fish makes the smoking work, which is why shad, mackerel, tuna and marlin are other excellent choices for the smoker. Whiter, drier fish would crinkle up and be tasteless.
Smoked blue is a rich gustatory mix of smoke, honey, spice and semi-dry meat. Each fillet has separate, enjoyable parts, the tails being drier and tougher, like something preserved by smoke, and the thicker sections up forward moister and meaty.
We eat them all winter, in sandwiches, on crackers, or as a fish course at dinner. For a big treat, we might mix up a dip of half mayonnaise and half Dijon mustard to dunk the fish in.
But that's gilding the lily.
Bluefishing should be excellent until first frost, according to Bay tradition. Charter boats are available near Tyler's place at the Rod 'n' Reel Dock in Chesapeake Beach; at Scheible's in Ridge, Md., and at Happy Harbor in Deale, Md., among many places.