Volume 12, Issue 38 ~ September 16-22, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Catching the Basse

We’re not the first to fish for rockfish dinner, but now’s your chance.

The Basse is one of the best fishes in the country … great codline, to which he fasteneth a piece of Lobster, and throws it into the sea, the fish biting at it pulls her to him, and knocks her on the head with a stick.
—William Wood:
New England Prospects, 1635

One can only imagine what fishing was like back in the colonies: no pollution, no overfishing, not much efficient netting to speak of, no license needed, no creel limits, and bays, rivers and the ocean teeming with fish. So there has to be a catch to it, and there is.

The early settlers really didn’t have time for sportsfishing as we know it today. Too much to do: forests to clear; shelter to build; land to break; crops to plant, hoe and harvest; Indians to watch out for; livestock to tend; and church and prayer meetings every Sunday.

It was basically the same with the Native Americans; fishing wasn’t for fun, it was for survival. Like today, a good catch meant work. The fish had to be cleaned, and seeing that in New England in wintertime, the basse — which we today call the rockfish, striper or striped bass — wasn’t so easy to catch, it had to be stockpiled for later meals.
What wasn’t intended for family consumption required preservation: salting, pickling or smoking. The cagey Yankees also realized that with rockfish, like salted cod, they had the makings of the medium of trade with the West Indies. Thus, in summer, they stretched long seines and weirs across coastal streams at high tide as a more efficient and productive way to catch rockfish galore.

Up New England way, tides come high and fast in tributaries. With seines and weirs in place, the fish wouldn’t be able to follow the tide downstream to deeper waters. Instead, there they were high and virtually dry. It was like picking cranberries, of which there were many in states far to the north.

I wonder what those of the colonial settlements thought when the catches were big; every fish had to be cleaned, and most had to be cured. Not infrequently, they turned to smoking filets, and prayed for no rain as the slabs of fish were hung from what Wood described as scaffolds. Usually, it was hot, with a fire “underneath them, by whose smoake the flies are expelled till the substance remaine hard and drie.

“Basse and other fiushes without salt, cutting them very thin to dry suddenly, before the flies spoyle them, or the rainee moist them having special care to hang them in their smoaky houses, in the night or dankish weather,” said Wood of the procedure.

Of course, methinks the men were pretty much excused from the drudgery of cleaning and smoking the fish. That was a chore that could be left for the wives and children; after all the men had to push the forest back and cultivate new fertile soil, saving fish scraps to fertilize crops. Then, too, they had to hunt. Good as rockfish, cod, salmon, herring and shad were, a little venison or roast partridge was welcome.

Native Fishing
The Indians, who were also frugal harvesters of fish and game, undoubtedly taught the colonists a thing or two about fishing as they did about planting corn with a fish head dropped into each hill to give the seed a jump-start.

These days we wait impatiently for the spring spawning ritual of the rockfish. It’s about then that the season opens, as well as when the bigger fish are available. That’s when the Indians liked to go fishing, which they did long before Wood and his cohorts arrived. Joshua Adams described the traditional technique employed by Native Americans on the St. John’s River:

“A few canoes would drop down-river, each with an Indian in the bow, spear in hand, and another in the stern gently paddling. A sudden splash closeby would indicate a spawning bass [rockfish] on the surface, and like an arrow, the birchbark skiff shot toward the spot while the man in the front, resting on his knees, with much force and dexterity sent the three-pronged harpoon into the fish.”

Afishing We Will Go
Hereabouts in trophy season, we’re happy just for the opportunity to troll a few hooks to try and catch a (just one each day) big (at least 28 inches) fish. In addition, I assume you noted that in Wood’s time, a piece of lobster was used for rockfish bait. Much as I like fresh rockfish, I’d have to think twice before squandering a chunk of lobster in the hope of trading it for a striper; that’s like stripping a fleshy piece from a flounder to try and catch another. Some things are too good to waste.

What we’re getting at in all of this is that it’s that time of year when we’re gearing up for our annual fall rockfish chumming trip out of Harrison’s Chesapeake House, Tilghman Island. As usual, all Bay Weekly readers are invited. The fishing should be good, and unlike those early colonists, you’ll have mates aboard the charterboats to do as much of the work as you desire. You don’t even have to clean the fish yourself.

Here’s the pitch. The date is Sunday, October 3. We leave the docks at 8am, setting the hour late to spare fishers on this side of the Chesapeake from rising too early to make it to the docks on time. Many of us will go to Tilghman the night before to enjoy a crabcake dinner and the fishermen’s breakfast buffet the morning before setting out.

About 3pm, we will return to the docks, where awaiting us in the dockside pavilion will be a real Eastern Shore buffet featuring crab balls, fried chicken, Harrison’s famous country coleslaw and much else. Beverages of all sorts are on tap as we talk over our catches.

The cost of the junket if $100 a person, which includes fishing, a box lunch and the afternoon buffet. If you’d like the breakfast buffet there’s an additional $5 tab. Also, if you’d prefer to arrive the night before, you’re eligible for a special price. However, you must make reservations with Harrison’s, telling them you’re with the Burton fishing party.

The first weekend in October is prime time for rockfish chumming; the fish are bigger and more plentiful. Boats will be assigned at breakfast. You can e-mail Alan Doelp at [email protected] to reserve a fishing slot, but for accommodations, or for the regular package, phone Harrison’s directly at 410-886-2123. Again, be sure to mention you’re with the Burton group.

We call it a fishing party, for there’s nothing you need do but catch.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.