Fresh From The Salt

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Feature Stories 2011

Volume 2, Issue 1, July 2011: Nothing Beats The Smoker Revisiting a local tradition in cooking fish


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Welcome to the July, 2011 issue of FRESH FROM THE SALT. This month's story is also featured as a print article in the Angler XTRAS section of the July 2011 Saltwater Angler Magazine, pg. 20. This month is a special occasion for us as it marks the one year anniversary of the birth of FRESH FROM THE SALT. As we dive into Volume 2, the beginning of our second year now, we'll aim to bring your more unique and interesting stories that attempt to stray from the mainstream media. In short, we'll do our best to stay away from the trout, redfish and snook forecast which seems to dominate so many print and online publications these days. Namely, there is so much going on in both our fresh and salt bodies of water that seems to get overlooked and deserves some time in the spotlight. So get ready for more stories and action from our large freshwater lakes and small ponds that holds so much diversity. Beyond the professional bass circuit there lies a plethora of other freshwater species that one can target for sport or for the kitchen table. Bluegill, bream, shellcrackers, mudfish, gar, pickeral, catfish, grass carp, tilapia, and numerous types of baitfish roam our local fresh water lakes and ponds and can prove quite exciting to hunt for whether using conventional tackle or on the fly. With proper permits, softshell turtle and alligator continue to make up this list. Our northernmost rivers and streams provide much of the same.

When it comes to the salt, there is just about no limit to what's out there. And this year we'll focus on even more diverse species and subjects as we hunt above and below the water in search of both our favorite game fish and other, less sought after species such as the southern flounder which certain anglers have been hammering weekly right here in Tampa Bay. Pompano, as well, have been dialed in perfectly among some of our more savvy anglers and this technique has nothing to do with traditional surf fishing or watching for them skipping in your boat wake. As well, we'll take a look at the unique world of shallow water free-diving and spear fishing and see what we come up with. Scallop season has just begun and right on its heals will be the beginning of the bug (Florida Spiny Lobster) harvest down in the Keys. Last, not every story will focus on the hunt. From time to time, we'll divert our attention to non-fishing activities that somehow, some way, involve the water fresh or salt. I've thrown a few of my favorite disc golf drivers into the fresh water at both USF Riverfront Park in Tampa and Cliff Stephens Park in Clearwater, with a few more having been lost in the saltwater estuaries of Maximo Park in St. Petersburg. So be sure to keep an eye open for a disc golf story or two during our second year.

Thank you very much to everyone who has become involved with FRESH FROM THE SALT during the past year. We will continue to print up more long sleeve t-shirts and soon will introduce our first vinyl stickers. So, as we continue to work on bringing you some unique stories and "how-to" stuff, enjoy this month's piece: Nothing Beats The Smoker Revisiting a local tradition in cooking fish, where we get back to our childhood roots of smoking mullet and Spanish mackeral. It was a Tarpon Springs tradition during my entire youth and remains near and dear to me to this day.

Sincerely,
Joshua W. Broer (pondfisher)


Roll out the Smoker – A West Central Tradition Carries on

By Joshua W. Broer

 

Most fish-eating folks I know who spend a day on the water chasing that one snook, or that one redfish, or those four or five trout bag limit depending on your region, like to throw their filets right in the oven or maybe even turn the knob on their expensive electric grill.  With the above-mentioned game fish having such small bag limits, it’s certainly the easy way to cook your catch.  However, if you find yourself with a cooler full of fish, Spanish mackerel or mullet, for example (that is – a fish with a liberal bag limit), and have a Saturday or Sunday to spare, go to your local hardware store and pick up a simple smoker if you don’t already have one.  Home Depot and Lowes both sell them for under $50.  Truth be told though, any old grill or hibachi will do the trick.

If smoking fish is old hat to you, this may be nothing new.  But for those who have not experienced the all-day event of getting your fish, smoker, and friends rallied around for the party, you’re definitely missing out.  Although I grew up in a small, Florida coastal town where mullet fishing and mullet smoking was king, my personal favorite fish to smoke is the plentiful Spanish mackerel.  Just about any time of year you can lure these fish to your boat with a chum block and catch all the mackerel you care to clean.  This is especially true in our own Tampa Bay waters where these fish seem to hang around throughout all the seasons.

Icing your mackerel immediately is key to keeping these fish fresh and ready for the smoker.  On occasion, I will have a friend or two back at the house, prepping the smoker and making sure that we have sufficient time to slow-cook these fish.  Slow and steady is what this is all about since it’s the smoke itself that’s cooking your catch, more than heat, and giving it that special, delicious wood flavor.  The process is relatively simple.  Line your smoker or grill with a generous layer of charcoal at the bottom.  Let that charcoal burn down to a nice bed of coals and you are ready to get that smoke rising.

Almost all grocery stores sell packages of different types of wood chips that provide the smoke you’re after.  Sometimes they are labeled “BBQ chips” but you get the idea.  My personal favorite are good ol’ hickory chips but these days they come in a wide variety of flavors including cherry, mesquite and others.  Most importantly, these chips need to be soaked in water in a ziplock bag, bowl, etc., for at least an hour.  This allows the wood to absorb the water, keeping the chips thoroughly wet and preventing them from burning during the smoking process.

Your next important step is to drain the excess water from the chips and fill an aluminum tray as full as you’d like.  I usually decide on the amount of chips based on the size of my bed of coals.  Aluminum foil is actually your best bet here, folding a large piece over itself several times and making a shallow, square pan.  When you have your container ready, simply pour in your wet chips, wrap another layer or two of foil over the top, then punch dime-sized holes into the tops of the pouch(es).  This is VERY important.  Without holes in the top of the chip pouches, the smoke will not rise and do the job.

Throw your chips pack or packets directly on top of the coals and close your smoker or put the lid on top of the grill. Whichever type of cooker you’re using, be sure it has vent holes in either the side or top to allow the smoke to exit.  Usually within 15 minutes to half an hour, smoke will be billowing out and it’s time to throw in the fish.  Be sure to line your smoker or grill grate with a thin layer of aluminum foil to avoid having your meat fall through or become burnt.  Depending on such factors as the size of the smoker, amount of smoke and amount of fish, you should be good to go within an hour or so.

Remember to periodically remove the lid of the smoker to see how your fish are doing.  Too much time in the smoke and the meat can become dry and hard.  Take a bite every now and then.  You might not be able to stop it’s so good.  And, oh yeah, watch for the neighbors as they’ll surely wonder just what in the world smells so darn good in the hood!