From the Bay to the table: Rockfish season is here and these recipes await your use

by Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Oct 23, 2013 - 03:34 PM

Photo: The fall rockfish season in Chesapeake Bay is open. Anglers can keep two fish a day that measure between 18 and 28 inches; one of these fish, however, may be longer and heavier. Virginia awards citations for rockfish caught-and-released at least 44 inches long, or caught-and-kept of at least 40 pounds.

The fall rockfish season in Chesapeake Bay is open. Anglers can keep two fish a day that measure between 18 and 28 inches; one of these fish, however, may be longer and heavier. Virginia awards citations for rockfish caught-and-released at least 44 inches long, or caught-and-kept of at least 40 pounds.

You have until December 31 to catch, no more than two at a time, the top recreational sport fish in the Chesapeake Bay, the striped bass. This popular fish is more often called rockfish in Tidewater Virginia, and will be in this story. Once heavily overfished, rockfish are now at sustainable population levels thanks in part to implementation of a fishing moratorium (in Virginia from 1989-90) and science-based management controls since.

The rockfish has been a prized catch in this area of the bay since colonial days. In 1607, Captain John Smith found the Chesapeake Bay waters clean and clear, free of the phytoplankton clouds that followed in later years. He wrote in 1614 that fish seemed so plentiful that one might walk "dryshod" across their backs over the river. It is recorded that in 1634 the "New England Project" captured thousands of rockfish using seine nets. They were salted and used for winter meals and as fertilizer for agriculture purposes. But in 1649 the colony of Massachusetts, realizing the misuse, forbade the use of this fish as fertilizer, keeping the plentiful fish for the dinner table.

The rockfish became such a highly valued resource that in 1670 the Plymouth Colony established a free school with income from coastal rockfish, making it one of the first public schools in America.

Striped bass is a silvery fish that gets its name from the seven or eight dark colored stripes along the side of its body. On the Atlantic Coast rockfish range from Canada to Florida, although they are more prevalent from Maine to North Carolina and are in numerous inland lakes and reservoirs. They were successfully introduced to the Pacific Ocean in 1879.

If you haven’t been lucky enough to catch your own rockfish and must buy it from the market, look for the rockfish that smells like the ocean (it should never smell fishy) with clear bright eyes that look almost alive. The gills should be fresh and the skin moist and with tightly adhering shiny scales. Fresh rockfish flesh will give slightly when you press it with a finger, then spring back. When choosing rockfish fillets, look for white flesh free of pink color.