Stars and stripers

Fishing for stripers is a New England tradition dating back to the mid-19th century. Photo by Ernest Merritt III

September 2022

By Jean Kerr

“No angling can surpass

The taking of the Basse.”

Anonymous

Although striped bass are sought after during high summer, in September, they are migrating south off the coast of New England, and the striper quest is still in full swing. Sitting at my desk in Maine on a September morning, I often see a fishing boat or two fishing off the rocks on light tackle. They nudge the boat as close to the shore as they can and cast their lines in long graceful arcs. On some mornings, there are even skilled anglers fly-fishing for these notorious sport fish.

Anglers on the rocks use heavier gear. Surfcasting for stripers is a time-honored tradition up and down the New England coast. And on bridges over saltwater estuaries, anglers (oblivious to passing cars) focus on hooking a striper within the legal range, these days between 28 and 35 inches, with a limit of one fish per person. Commercial limits tend to be higher, leaving more manageable (and arguably tastier) fish for recreational anglers.

Fishing for stripers is indeed a New England tradition. In the mid-19th century, “The American Angler’s Guide” was unequivocal in its appreciation of the striped bass. “This noble and highly prized fish is peculiar to our own country and parts of it. As an object of sport, for perfect symmetry and beauty of appearance, and as a dish for the table, it is considered second only to the salmon.”

Stripers can grow to be enormous. According to Sport Fishing magazine, “In 1891, commercial fisherman recorded a weight of 125 pounds for a striper they hauled up in their nets in North Carolina.” A more recent world record holder weighed in at 81 pounds and 14 ounces, caught in August of 2011 in the Long Island Sound.

While stripers were previously considered overfished, careful management has resulted in more stable stocks. There is also an aquaculture industry that has grown up around making striped bass more sustainable. I’m in favor of this effort, but to my mind, nothing will ever match the flavor of a fish caught and cleaned that afternoon before its debut on the dining table.

There are many ways to prepare striped bass – whole, gutted, cleaned and stuffed with herbs and fresh lemon slices, rubbed with olive oil and salt and then grilled or roasted. Working with filleted fish is a bit more manageable for most of us.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor Magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.

Crispy Bass Filets with Chive and Lemon Butter (one of my favorites)

The method used here is one I learned (and, of course, adapted!) from the wise chefs at “Cooks Illustrated.” It involves dry brining and cooking the fish quickly at very high heat. Skin on filets are called for here, and you can substitute any other thick skin-on filet.

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon of grated lemon rind
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh chives or herb of your choice

1. Mix salt, sugar and dried herbs in a small bowl.

2. Score the skin side of the filets about 1/2 inch apart without cutting all the way through the skin. Rub the salt mixture evenly over the skin side of the fish. Refrigerate on a wire rack over a pan for 30 minutes to an hour.

3. Heat the oil mixture in a heavy frying pan until almost smoking. Place filets skin side down and press with a spatula to be sure the skin will crisp. Lower heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 6-8 minutes, making sure the filets don’t burn.

4. Remove from heat and cover for 1-2 minutes. Place filets on a platter and keep warm.

5. Wipe out the pan to remove any skin. Return pan to high heat and add butter, lemon zest and fresh chives. Heat until butter is bubbling and swirl to combine. Pour butter over fillets and serve immediately.