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With the spring bluefish bite developing up and down the coast, save a few fish for the smoker and treat yourself to a culinary delight.
By Toby Lapinski
"They’re baaaahaack," said John Gibbons and other anglers along the north/south stretch from New Jersey to Delaware, where 5- to 15-pound (Dream Boat size) bluefish have invaded local inlets and bays. John hit this gator on an SP Minnow on May 9, 2019. The blues have been moving up into New York waters as well this week, and hopefully New Englanders too will be finding a hot bluefish bite soon enough, ideal for smoking.

There is an age-old recipe for bluefish that many have tried. It goes something like, “Grill some fresh bluefish fillets on a cedar plank for 5 to 7 minutes, throw away the fillets and eat the plank.” I wouldn’t go that far in my general opposition of eating bluefish; in fact, there are things that can be done to fresh fillets to not only make them palatable, but perhaps even desirable. Tops on the list for me is smoking them, but before we get that far, there are several steps that should not just be done for bluefish, but with any and all fish.

First up, bleed them out! The difference between a bled-out fish and one that was just tossed in the cooler is immeasurable. In my opinion, if you’re not going to bleed out your fish then you might as well not even harvest them.

Once bled out, the next step towards ensuring the best possible product makes it to your plate is to put the catch on ice. A saltwater-ice slurry is preferred, but tossing them on ice cubes works fine, too. And don’t just throw a few ice cubes in that massive 100-quart cooler; fill it up (before you make the first catch) and have the cooler readily accessible for when the fish start coming over the rail.

Once back at the dock, take the time to clean the fish to the best of your ability. This involves removing pin bones and skin if applicable, and placing the fillets in a re-sealable plastic bag before putting them back on ice or in your refrigerator ASAP. Nothing puts a damper on a good fish dinner faster than biting into a bone, so I take extreme steps to remove all bones at the time of processing.

Eat the fish when fresh. Sure you can vacuum-seal the fillets which will not be immediately eaten, but if you’re not going to have an opportunity to eat them fresh then perhaps you should reconsider taking your full limit, regardless of the species. Some fish hold up better than others when frozen, but simply nothing compares to fresh, never-frozen fillets.

Okay, with that all out of the way, we can proceed to smoking some bluefish. I’ll assume you know how to catch a few. If not then take a peek at this week’s fishing reports and be sure to renew that Fisherman Magazine subscription—we’ll tell you how to catch ‘em!

When filleting the fish you should leave the skin on the meat, but the choice between removing the scales or leaving them alone is up to you. I have done it both ways and now just leave them as it’s easier. That said, I accept the reality that I’ll ingest the occasional scale as a small price to pay not to have to have one more step in filleting a handful of fish.

Once filleted, rinse the fillets and place them into a bowl. The bowl should be large enough to hold the fillets and liquid without overflowing. I use a 5-gallon bucket when preparing a really large batch of fillets, just be sure it’s clean! In a separate bowl, combine 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 cup of salt, 1 tsp of ground pepper, 1 whole chopped garlic, 1 large chopped onion and 1/2 gallon of pineapple juice and stir until everything has dissolved. Pour the liquid over the fillets (you can add more water if needed) and set them in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours. It doesn’t hurt to stir the contents a few times during the brining process to evenly distribute everything.

Once the fillets have soaked, remove them from the brine, rinse with fresh water, pat dry with paper towels and place them on drying racks on cookie sheets. Put the fillets back in the refrigerator and let them sit overnight once again. This process is not 100% necessary but by doing so you’ll get the smoke to “stick” better.

When the fillets are ready to be removed from the refrigerator, fire up your smoker and set it at 225 degrees. As the smoker is heating up, you can prepare some of the fillets with flavoring if you choose. I have added Cajun seasoning, maple syrup, garlic powder and so-on to the fillets before smoking, and each has its pros and cons. For the most part I prefer the fillets au-natural, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

Once the smoker reaches temp, add some wood. I use apple wood for most of my smoking as it is flavorful but not too strong. You can cover the shelves with tin foil (be sure to poke holes to allow smoke to flow through), buy commercially-available rack protectors for fish or just put them right on the shelves. No matter which way you proceed, be sure to place the fillets skin-side down on the shelves.

Smoking time will vary by the tendencies of your smoker as well as the thickness of the fillets, but I usually check them at the 2-hour mark and rearrange the shelves - 4 to 5 hours is probably the maximum time you’re going to smoke, but again, keep an eye on your fillets and keep track of your findings for next time. Adding more wood throughout the smoking process is also a matter of personal preference. I usually only add wood during the first hour to keep the smoke from becoming too overpowering.

Once the fillets are done smoking, remove them from the smoker and allow them to cool to room temperature. They can be stored in the refrigerator, stacked with wax paper between the layers, but I find if I seal them up too tight the moisture that comes out of the meat can make them mushy so I usually leave the container’s lid somewhat open.

Smoked bluefish can be eaten straight, mixed with sour cream and horseradish for a dip, mixed with mayonnaise for a salad-type sandwich, made into soup, or any of a number of other options. No matter how you decide to eat your smoked bluefish, odds are very high that you’ll look at the old yellow-eyed demon much differently from this point forward!

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

Mix the dry ingredients in the water until dissolved.

Pour the salt, sugar and water mixture into a bowl or bucket large enough to cover the fillets.

Add a full can of pineapple juice to the water mixture.

Roughly chop the garlic cloves.

Thickly chop the onions.

The brine ready for fillets.

A cleaned and prepped fillet, ready for brine.

A batch of fillets goes into the brine for at least 6 hours. Once complete they will be rinsed, dried and placed back in the refrigerator overnight before smoking.

Not quite done yet, these fillets are about 3/4 cooked.

The final product ready to be removed from the smoker, allowed to cool and feasted upon by bluefish converts everywhere!