It had been a perfect day on the Chesapeake Bay. The sun had been warm, the wind benign, and the fishing-boat ice chests had filled up trophy-size rockfish, the best-tasting fish in the bay, if not the world.
As the boats docked at Harrison's Chesapeake House in Tilghman, the prized rockfish -- 24 in all caught by some 40 fishermen -- were held up for much admiration and for many photographs. Among those inspecting the fish was Bill Burton, outdoorsman extraordinaire and the organizer of the bay outing -- a yearly event.
Those of us aboard Capt. Mike Lipski's boat, Tradition, had been so boastful that Gibby Dean, skipper of another fishing boat, threatened to spray us into silence with a dockside hose.
Once the hooting and swaggering had died down, it was time to proceed to the next part of the rockfish ritual, cleaning the fish and cooking them. Some fish were filleted at a fish-cleaning operation tucked under the drawbridge leading into Tilghman. One rockfish, a 45-pound beauty, was so massive that its fillets were passed around -- like the Bible's loaves and fishes -- to feed the multitudes. Other fish, of less miraculous proportions, were iced and carried to other kitchens around the state.
I kept my fish whole. When I got it home, there was more showing off to do, this time to family members and neighbors. Then I sharpened a knife, fired up the barbecue grill and carried the fish out to the parking pad behind our rowhouse. There I scaled the fish and filleted it. It was a messy process. Fish scales went everywhere -- on me, on the parking pad and on the table I was using. When I finished cleaning the fish, I hosed down everything, including my shoes.
By then, the coals in the barbecue grill were just about ready. They were ashy, white and so hot that I could hold my hand over them only long enough to count "one Mississippi, two Mississippi" before the heat forced me to pull my hand away.
I stashed half of the fish in the fridge. I would cook it later. I brushed the other half with olive oil and grilled it until a fork could easily pass through the fillet. This took about 10 minutes per side, which was longer than it takes to grill most fish fillets. But this, of course, was exceptional fish. It was so fresh, so thick, so moist that it required a little more cooking time. It also had remarkable flavor, which I helped along for this meal only with a little salt and black pepper.
I got curious about what my fellow fishermen had done with their catch so I called a few of them.
In Queen Anne's County, Mike Rossbach said he used "the mistake method" to come up with a new style of cooking rockfish. He said he rubbed the fillet with olive oil and red wine vinegar, sprinkled on some black pepper crab seasoning, topped the fish with basil and parsley and baked it in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
He pulled the fish out of the oven and rested its pan on a burner atop the stove. He did not notice it, but the burner was turned on. "I heard this sizzling," Rossbach said. When he checked on the fish, all the pan juices had been seared by the burner.
This "pan-seared" rockfish turned out to be magnificent, he said. So a few nights later, when he cooked the rest of the fish for his wife, Lori, and their three boys, he used the same mistake-inspired method of baking and searing.
In Pasadena, Eileen Hyson was surprised when her husband, Bob, came home with something to cook. He had been going to such outings for years, she said, and "had never come home with a fish."
When the rockfish fillet showed up in her house, she knew she wanted to put some dill on it. "I like fish with dill on it," she said. So she made a basting sauce by sauteing some sliced shallots in butter, and sprinkling in some ground-up dill. She brushed the sauce on the fillet, and broiled it for about 10 minutes. "It was delicious," she said. "It was so fresh, so moist. It did not taste or smell fishy."
In North Linthicum, Alan Doelp gave his rockfish fillet the simple treatment. He brushed it with olive oil, coated it with bread crumbs, topped it with butter, then cooked it in a 475-degree, "not quite broiling" oven for 10 minutes, when he thought it was done.
When he tasted the fish, its moist texture made him think he had undercooked it. His wife, Carol Benner, had him put the fish back in the oven for a few more minutes. When the fish emerged the second time it had the same texture, Doelp said. "Until I cooked my own, I had never thought of rockfish as a moist fish. Every one I had eaten in restaurants had been dry. I had never had a more delicate, moist or tender piece of fish."
Doelp spoke for many of us when he summed up the experience of paying to go on a charter boat to catch our own supper.
"It was the best rockfish I have ever eaten. I figure it cost me about $70 a fillet." It is one of those experiences -- like eating in fine restaurants -- "that every so often, you owe yourself."