All You Need to Know about Cocktail Bluefish (And Why They Taste Better in Montauk)

bluefish_Michael GallinaFour cocktail bluefish caught by rod and reel off Montauk. 

Once again, Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish has given us more information than we ever thought possible about a species of fish. He’s told us about striped bass, about tilefish and this week about cocktail blues. Read on and then get thee to a local fish market and ask for the bluefish caught that morning. 

As we approach peak summer harvest times on the land and sea, the synchronized seasonal abundance of both becomes ever-more transparent while the annual heyday of local Long Island seafood and produce sourcing nears on the horizon. Just as a recent rush of ripe eggplant, squash, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers began flowing in from the fields and gardens of our favorite local farms, so too are a broad spectrum of seasonal fish now appearing in the waters and on the docks of Montauk, in droves.

This week we are excited to feature fillets of an adventurous selection, day-boat cocktail bluefish, which are a highly migratory late summer favorite. Although an eyebrow sometimes raises on the face of those who are unfamiliar with these fish, many of our fishermen and senior members are dedicated bluefish believers and revere this species as an absolute seasonal treasure, but only when you are vigilant to the clock and know how to handle and prepare them appropriately.

This haul was caught by Captain William “Billy the Kid” Carman on a solo-mission aboard his boat F/V Billy the Kid, using only a rod-and-reel to troll and jig. Billy intentionally targeted cocktail-sized bluefish in the three-pound range which tend to stay high in the water column closer to the surface and yield the perfect length fillets for grilling. He also safely released many larger “gorilla” blues, which tend to be too thick for the grill and packed with intense flavor, unlike the milder and more delicate cocktail bluefish.

Historically bluefish have gained a fearsome reputation for not holding up well after traveling to your plate via the traditional market route, which typically takes the fish days (if not weeks or months) to go from dock to dish. However here in the harbor, it is not uncommon for many of our veteran salts to rank same-day-sourced cocktail bluefish as their number one favorite largely because they know the tricks of the trade.

One of the many benefits of knowing your fisherman is learning finer details about his or her work, and today we are happy to share with you the wisdom that Captain Billy, and many others in this close-knit fishing community, have long known about cocktail bluefish from Montauk.

Exceptionally fast, aggressive and voracious predators that hunt in packs, cocktail bluefish have razor sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Pictured here above are four cocktail sized bluefish that were caught on rod-and-reel by the kitchen staff from Blue Hill at Stone Barns while trolling an umbrella rig near the Montauk Lighthouse on their second annual Dock to Dish fishing trip.

Rules for Making Cocktail Bluefish Delicious

1. Eat Them Fast
The primary reason why bluefish are rarely seen in the market or offered at restaurants is because they are highly perishable, more so than almost any other local fish, and it is of critical importance that they be enjoyed when extremely fresh optimally within 48 to 72 hours from when they are caught.  Starting at the very moment a bluefish is taken from the water, a unique biological hourglass turns upside down and it is imperative that the small amount of sand at the top not run out before that fish becomes your dinner. It cannot be overstated that extreme freshness is absolutely critical for the flavor and texture integrity of cocktail bluefish to be maintained.

2. Gut Immediately in Cold Salt Water and Keep Cold
Of nearly equal importance to freshness are the methods used during and immediately after capture. In order to preserve their unique flavor profile and texture properties, a sequence of events must unfold as soon as bluefish are reeled in and brought on board the fishing vessel. Captain Billy’s technique includes that the fish be dispatched instantly with a sharp blade managed in a very specific and skilled fashion where key components of the vascular system are removed so they can bleed out completely submerged in a saltwater-slurry ice bath until filleted, and then maintained at or under 38 degrees right up until the point of preparation. The strict freshness criteria, coupled with precision handling and temperature requirements, are the main reasons why bluefish are seldom made available to consumers far from where they are caught.  In the past, these barriers to the general marketplace kept bluefish fillets very close to port and reserved exclusively for fishermen, their families and close friends.  Accordingly, Dock to Dish is proud to present you with this “fisherman’s fish” which was handled with extraordinary care for a level of freshness and quality that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to source otherwise.

3. Eat Montauk Bluefish Because They Eat Better
From Maine to the Carolinas, migratory bluefish can often be found chasing and feeding on schools of menhaden or bunker, which is an oily forage fish.  Once consumed, the high oil content of the menhaden transfers and stores in the fillets of the bluefish, which often makes for an excessively viscous texture and fishy flavor. However, the unique intersection of three bodies of water off Montauk help create a different menu for local bluefish. Although they do prey on some menhaden at times, there are massive populations of spearing and sand eels here in the summer that make up much of the local bluefish diet.  The result is a much lighter, cleaner and tastier fillet.