Tentacled delicacies

Sun, 10/25/2015 - 8:15pm

October usually marks the beginning of the end for the fishing season.

Docks are shut down and boats hauled out, the long anticipation for next spring gets many of us through the winter. For those who wait it out as long as possible (like us), there is still some decent fishing to be had when the weather cooperates. Sea bass are thick around the island, as are tautog, and both make perfect "freezer fillers" for some winter meals. Striped bass are on the move with waves coming past the island periodically. Those putting in the time have been rewarded with fish up to 38 inches from the boat and the beach. There are still a few albies in New Harbor and the Coast Guard Channel is still the best place to target these fish. Hank Hewitt caught a five-pound blue runner last week while fly fishing in the channel, definitely an anomaly for these waters, as they generally aren’t seen north of New Jersey. The water has cooled a bit hovering around 62 degrees and massive schools of bait have been moving around the island, making for a potential November Fall Run bonanza for striper fishing at the beaches.

The other fall run involves the tentacled delicacy loligo pealei — or common squid. These 10-armed cephalopods occupy the harbors and surrounding waters of Block Island from May into November. Cephalopod translates into “head-foot,” and includes octopi, cuttlefish, and nautilus, and all are considered intelligent creatures. Point Judith lands more squid than any port on the East Coast, and Rhode Island had named calamari as the state appetizer. What many do not know is that most of the squid caught and landed in the U.S. gets shipped to China to be cleaned and packaged and then comes back to the U.S. as "local squid."  It does freeze well, which is important, since most of the squid is caught in a short time period each year, meaning squid served in April may very well be from the May harvest the previous year. It’s served in nearly every coastal restaurant and is an excellent vehicle for whatever condiment or flavoring chefs add to it.

We recommend trying fresh calamari — caught, cleaned, and cooked on Block Island. First step is catching them.

Squid are smart creatures, expert ambushers and can hunt in packs. They feed mostly on small fish and are known to be cannibals. ‘Squid jigging’ is the rod and reel way to fill a bucket with squid and is simple in nature and a ton of fun. Squid jigs are an artificial lure specialized to catch squid and they come in an enormous array of sizes, colors, styles, and weights. There is probably no other lure that has more variety and variation that is specifically designed to target one species than the squid jig. Here at Block Island Fishworks, we have 46 different squid jigs, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Depending on the time of year, the forage fish available, and water temps will dictate what jig to use. Like anything, it can be made as complicated as you want it to be. But it is the simplest form of fishing when you break it down. All you need is a cane pole, line, and a squid jig. My kids use the little three-foot Zebco fishing combo with the push button reel, but any small spinning rod combo will work. 

Use light line — 10 pound test will do — and have a variety of jigs to try. To fish for squid, you typically go at night and find a dock that has lights on and drop your jig near the glowing water. But day time squidding can be just as effective, with Old Harbor being one of the better places to catch a few pounds. The strike zone is usually right when the jig disappears in the depths, as if the squid know they can’t be seen attacking the jig. When the squid attack the jig it can be aggressive or subtle — but the jigs barbless hooks are pretty good at snagging a few tentacles. A defense mechanism cephalopods possess is squirting ink so remember while reeling squid in, let them ‘ink’ before putting them on the dock — and please don’t get ink on anyone’s boat nearby! 

Cleaning your catch can be time consuming if you want the nice little rings found in most dishes. I recommend finding a video on YouTube and use a product like the Squidezy, a tool that speeds up the cleaning process. But if you’re not a stickler about the geometric shape of your calamari, then simply grab the head (where the eyes are) with the tentacles, pull it from the mantle (body), and lay the mantle flat with the fins out to each side. Slice down the mantle lengthwise and scrape any remaining guts out. Flip it over and grab the fins and gently pull down, the skin should come off with the fins. Next cut the tentacles from the head, right below the eyes, and keep the tentacles only. Rinse everything really well and you’re ready to cook it any way you wish.

Deep frying is the traditional way to serve calamari. Mix salt, pepper, and a touch of baking soda with flour, dry the squid, heat some oil, dredge the squid in the flour mixture and drop in the oil for no more than two minutes. If it’s chewy, it’s overcooked. Fresh squid tastes vastly better than frozen products — tender and sweet and rarely needs a dipping sauce; it really is a gastronomic delight. The best dish I’ve had was at The Barn here on Block Island. Chef Tom Arnold created a sautéed squid in tomato sauce last fall by quickly sautéing the squid with some vinegar, then adding fresh tomato sauce, cranberry beans and pickled cherry peppers from the garden at the Spring House Hotel. This simple dish was fantastic and hopefully will be on their menu when they open on Nov. 3. 

Squid is fun to catch, simple to cook, and makes a great family activity for the fall here on Block Island, so go catch 'em up!