Sushi Over the Gunwale

Sushi Over the Gunwale

I grabbed the striped bass by the lip and hoisted him over the gunwale. He was a good fish, a perfect fly rod fish in fact— a scratch over 34 inches in length and weighed 15-or-so pounds. He was an easy spot on the flats some 15 minutes earlier with his pronounced, vibrant, black-and-purple coloration. This fish hadn’t been inshore for very long, because if he had spent some time cruising the skinny, sandy water, his coloration would have faded to tan. Sea lice crawled over his pure white belly and flat tail—a gorgeous, healthy fish.

To keep a striper in Bassachusetts, it needs to be 28 inches or longer. I held him up to my rod butt and his lower jaw extended beyond the hockey tape wrap I wound on to indicate legal length. I held him back in the water, pulled out my knife, placed the razor-sharp edge at the base of his gills, and slit his throat.

The first cut severed his ventral artery and I continued upwards until I cut the dorsal artery near his backbone. The bloody water looked grim, but dispatching a fish this way is the most humane way I know. Immediately bleeding fish always makes them taste better later on, and I rolled him on his back and made another incision. This cut ran from his vent to his gills. I removed his entrails, cut out his gills, and ran my thumbnail along the inside of his backbone. That latter part is important, because the kidneys and blood sack contains bacteria.

The local crabs would feast tonight for sure. I rocked the bass back and forth for a saltwater rinse, then I packed his cavity with crushed ice and stored him in the top third of the cooler. He’d cool from the inside-out, and his delicious, white flakey flesh wouldn’t soften in the melted water at the bottom.

But before I did, I would have lunch: fresh striped bass sushi and sashimi.

My boat is a shallow-draft skiff, perfect for gunkholing around the flats. It doesn’t have a galley with a stove top on which to boil water and rice vinegar to cook short-grained, sticky rice. I don’t have a spice rack where I can grab a dab of sugar and salt to add that delicious sweet and salty flavor. To be authentic I should have set the anchor, waded the flats, and harvested kelp to dry.

I didn’t do that; instead, I came prepared. I pre-made rice, bought dried seaweed and wasabi from the Japanese market, and nabbed a bottle of soy sauce from my fridge.

When I come prepared for a sushi meal like this, I normally get jinxed and catch no legal fish. On those days I eat fishless rice wrapped in seaweed with no fanfare—but this time was different.

Today I was going to eat the freshest sushi possible, and to do so requires properly handling of the meat. I started by removing one side of the fish as a filet. Once removed, I skinned it and cut it into blocks. Blocks are key because they make for easier handling. The quality of eating comes from the quality of the fish, so precise cuts of appropriate thickness is the goal.

Next, I removed the filet’s rounded sections near the gill plate. I cut the tail section right where it becomes progressively thinner. I keep all of those scraps to dip in batter, fry, or to add to a boiling pot of water to make fish stock for chowder. After removing the scraps, I had one block of meat of consistent and uniform thickness.

I run my fingers along the meat to feel for bones. They’re easily removed with a pair of needle-nose pliers or forceps. Points of connection to fins usually have tendons, so I’ll feel for those and remove as well. In the end, all that remains is one block of delicious-looking fish.

I was now ready to slice the fish with my razor-sharp filet knife. Slices can be cut as thick or as thin as desired, but beware of the common cooking mantra. I think it started with Julia Child, famous for her concept of “more is better.” Her reference usually pertained to butter, lard or wine, and when it comes to sushi slices, more can be way too much. Determine the thickness of your fish and slice at a 30-degree angle. Slice against the grain because if you cut with the grain, you’ll be chewing until the tide turns. Thinner slices are better for rolls (maki), and they’re great for raw fish dipped in soy sauce mixed well with wasabi (sashimi). The thicker slices are better when served over rice (nigiri).

Many species of saltwater fish are especially good raw. Sarda sarda, the common bonito, is my favorite. Football-sized bluefin tuna are tremendously good, too. Some friends enjoy mackerel, but their rich, oily, red flesh is too strong for me. Your taste buds can dictate choices in fish, but know that eating raw fish comes with some precautions.

The first factor is getting the fish in the boat quickly. Lactic acid builds up when fighting a fish, and that lactic acid affects the flavor. The longer the fight, the more lactic acid develops. Anglers should beef up terminal tackle and tighten down drags to haul a fish onboard quickly. A side note is that commercial, sushi-grade tuna are typically harvested by stick boats. Spotter planes locate the school, radio the coordinates to a boat with a pulpit, whose fishermen then toss a harpoon at the fish. The harpoons deliver electricity, 40,000 volts or higher, and that juice kills giant fish in seconds.

Next, commercial grade sushi is frozen immediately to kill the bacteria, worms or other parasites that can cause sickness. When I’m eating fish fresh out of the ocean, I inspect the filets to see if any worms are visible. Anyone concerned about parasites should freeze their fish when they return home. Thaw just prior to slicing.

Finally, there are various legal requirements for different species of fish. Striped bass, for instance, can be cleaned at sea, but in order to determine their legal length their heads must be intact with the boat hits the dock. Each state has unique length and daily catch limits, so that determines what size fish can be harvested. Recreationally fishing for tuna requires that HMS Angling Permits be secured prior to leaving the dock. Those permits are mandatory when fishing in federal waters, between three and 200 miles from shore.

Preparing sushi right out of the ocean is a real treat. But, bear in mind, it will change your outlook on fishing. The school of striped bass that you see feeding across a flat can quickly start to look like a tray of white meat perched on top of rectangles of sticky rice. When that happens, you’ve got a mind-bender for sure.

Feature image via H. Earl Evans

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