When it comes to catching Atlantic croaker and Norfolk spot, two of the most abundant and desirable fish in the Chesapeake Bay, Deale charter boat captains Dick Grimes and Shawn Brumley agree on the fundamentals.
The two Maryland seamen concur that bottom-dwelling croaker and spot are most active at night and will likely bite on shrimp or squid. They believe that July and August are the peak months of the croaker fishing season. They say the best places to drop anchor recently have been at the Gooses, northeast of Calvert Cliffs, an area noted for the mild, pleasant-tasting fish.
And they swear that when you pull a fighting croaker from the water, the fish makes a distinctive sound, similar to that of a tree frog. "There's no mistaking it," says Brumley, captain of the 48-foot Lucky Strike.
But when it comes to cooking croaker and spot, Grimes and Brumley part ways. Brumley, 37, skins and fillets the fish, covers them with either mayonnaise or Italian salad dressing, wraps them in aluminum foil and tosses them on the grill. Grimes, 65, simply deep-fries the whole, cleaned fish, covered in cornmeal.
"I don't like to doctor them up," says Grimes, captain of the 41-foot Bay Lady. "They're so good, why would I want to put anything on them?"
When people think about the Chesapeake Bay, blue crabs and rockfish come to mind along with flounder, bluefish, mackerel and sea trout. But it's the less fashionable Atlantic croaker that outsells, pound for pound, other fish for many vendors at the Maine Avenue Municipal Fish Wharf in Southwest Washington. Croaker, also called hardhead, and spot are members of the drum family and have one of the largest followings among folks who grew up on the bay.
"They are meaty and good-tasting. And price has a lot to do with it," says Pruitt Seafood salesman Bob Ewell. He sells croaker for $1.49 per pound. The same amount of rockfish goes for $4. Ewell, who lives on Virginia's Eastern Shore, prefers his croaker baked with potatoes, onions and rendered salt pork -- "the way my mother always fixed it."
Annapolis native Chris Dollar, a naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says croaker and spot and are a great way to introduce wary children to eating seafood.
"Croaker, particularly, is very succulent and not too fishy," says Dollar, who fished with his father every summer from Sandy Point to Thomas Point, concentrating on areas of oyster reef with lots of plant life. The pair could have brought home a trophy rockfish but instead set their sights on small game.
"My father liked the simplicity of croaker and spot. Armed with simple bait, you were guaranteed to bring breakfast home," says Dollar. He enjoys the subtle, sweet flavor of the pan-fried croaker accompanied by grits, home fries and fried green tomatoes.
And the good news for fishermen is that the forecast for croaker is encouraging. "Abundance is high," according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service.
The recreational catch of croaker over the past 20 years along the Atlantic coast, from Delaware to Florida, has risen from about 2 million pounds to a high of more than 13 million pounds in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. Commercial landings in 2002 totaled more than 28 million pounds.
Still, the croaker fishery tends to be cyclical and dependent on weather conditions.
Overall, the United States fish stock is "looking good domestically," says Susan Buchanan, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Since 1996, Congress has homed in on conservation, cut fishing and has been rebuilding our stocks. But some programs are more successful than others."
At Horace & Dickie's Seafood Carryout on 12th Street NE, folks line up and request bonefish when they want a whole, butterflied, deep-fried croaker. "That's what we call it around here," says owner Richard Shannon. The $4.86 menu price includes sliced white bread. "My customers want a fish with bones, with a decent taste and without a fishy flavor," says Shannon.
He grew up in Atlantic City and has eaten croaker all his life. "Boats would come up the inlet where we lived and we would buy it right off the boat," he says.
On the counter are large squirt bottles of deli-style mustard, ketchup, vinegar and hot pepper sauce. But most people choose a fifth option. "All they want is our tartar sauce. It's crazy how popular it is," says Simone Shannon, Richard's daughter and a cashier at the carryout.
Still, despite their flavor, croaker and spot are rarely featured in white tablecloth restaurants. For some, there is the bone issue. Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan is an exception.
"They don't sell well. And most people don't want to deal with them," says chef and co-owner Ann Cashion. "But it's nice to offer something from this area for people who grew up here and know how good they can be."
For more information on night fishing trips for croaker and spot, go to www.dealecaptains.com. The average price for an eight-hour trip for six people is $550. The Rod 'N' Reel at Chesapeake Beach is the launch site for croaker and spot trips ($45 per person) from 6 p.m. to midnight every day. Call 800-233-2080.