SE­CRET OR­DER OF SCUP

THE FUSE ON A FISH­ING LIFE WAS LIT BY THIS UNDERAPPRECIATED SPECIES

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By JOHN LEE

A boy­hood sum­mer day spent land­ing scup by the dozen — think cut-offs and bi­cy­cles — planted a seed that grew into a life­time of fish­ing.

We all have a fish that kicked things off:

bull­head, cun­ner, bluegill, mack­erel, snap­per blue, hick­ory shad. Of­ten th­ese are the fish that still hold some weight, a por­tal back to blue-jean shorts, bi­cy­cles and badly or­ga­nized tackle boxes. For me it was scup, and the goal was the same as ev­ery kid’s: to catch as many as pos­si­ble. There was no thought of food or sport or money. Those are adult con­cerns. The value of my ex­pe­ri­ence was purely quan­ti­ta­tive: “Got an­other one. Here we go. A good one!”

My fa­ther was a sailor, a boater, a lover of small wooden craft. His en­joy­ment of fish­ing was much more about the boat than the catch­ing. He didn’t teach my brother or me how to fish, and I think that by soft-ped­dling the fish­ing end of things, he taught us more than had he played the high-handed role of teacher, over-ex­plain­ing and get­ting tech­ni­cal with facts and jargon. There was rarely, in the early years, an adult present. We biked to the pond, the salt marsh, the pier, all on the end­less re­peat of boy­hood sum­mers. And then on a late sum­mer af­ter­noon in 1979 near Pada­naram, Mas­sachusetts, the rou­tine was cast in sil­ver, drilled for­ever into my me­mory. We crushed them. Or that is how my me­mory re­plays it. Not blue­fish, squeteague or stripers, but scup. It was the first time my hands ac­tu­ally bled from un­hook­ing fish. I had ac­tual punc­tures from spines in my hands. (See, Mom, see?) Scales cov­ered my arms, my face.

My brother and I stum­bled into this blitz, which is of­ten how it works when you’re young and call­ing your own shots about fish­ing.

There was no pre­fish­ing con­ver­sa­tion, no chat-

ter rife with tech­nique and method­ol­ogy, no, “Hey, John, it’s gonna be a moon high this af­ter­noon, lots of clouds, a drop­ping south­west­erly. I bet the scup are gonna be run­ning the bar to feed be­neath the pier piles on a lady-crab molt.”

Hell no. Likely, we were bored out of our skulls and had been driv­ing my mom crazy all af­ter­noon with long, plead­ing an­guish, telling her there was never any­thing fun to do. So we grabbed our gear and some old clam necks from the freezer and biked to the pier. The tide was high, un­usu­ally high. The dinghy dock was float­ing as high as I’d ever seen it. And it was over­cast, and the breeze was dy­ing off, and some kind of molt or hatch was pulling those scup in from deeper wa­ter.

Raw­ness of Youth

We had never caught them like that off the pier — and never would again, though we tried and tried. One-ounce bank sinkers, hooks plated in rust and un­shapely knots, noth­ing Bi­mini-twist about it. We banged them. One af­ter the other, no adults telling us to watch the dor­sal spines, grab the fish be­hind the eyes on the gill plate, hold ’em firm boys, wait for the nib­ble, the tug, the tap, you’re set­ting too early, let the rod do the work. Th­ese were big scup, way larger than the small ones we gen­er­ally ran into out in the moor­ing field. Fish as big as plat­ters. As fast as we could un­hook them, bait up and drop down, we were on. Fish lay about the pier on the wooden planks and dried in the sun — no cooler, no bucket, no ice, no rags, noth­ing. That day was the raw­ness of youth, of fig­ur­ing things out, of be­ing there, just us and a few gulls stand­ing by, wait­ing for a chance at a meal.

And then they came, from the beach, a group of men and women, adults with their words and ques­tions: “Ex­cel­lent ac­tion, boys!” “What great luck!” “What a catch!” “By the way, what are th­ese?” “Scup,” we told them, qui­etly, as if we were part of some se­cret or­der.

In truth, that’s how it is with scup fish­ing.

Not ev­ery­one catches them — or wants to.

But those who tar­get them reg­u­larly and catch them con­sis­tently tend to love ’em qui­etly. Like most fish­er­men east of New York, I’ve al­ways called them scup, but I have good friends — friends who’ve caught them by the tens of thou­sands — who re­fer to the fish as por­gies. That’s what most se­ri­ous bottom fish­er­men from New York west and south through the Mid-at­lantic call them.

All About Struc­ture

By any name, th­ese fish, anatom­i­cally, have a clas­sic pan­fish ap­pear­ance, look­ing like a sun­fish or a grunt, and they come in many hues of sil­ver and sil­ver-bronze. The scup is in­fa­mous for the dor­sal spine that runs along its back. This spine will pierce a boot, a shoe or your hand. Sooner or later, all scup fish­er­men fig­ure this out. Scup are, in the words of a fish­ery bi­ol­o­gist, a struc­ture-ori­ented species, mean­ing they fa­vor harder seabed, cob­ble bottom, boul­ders with kelp, bar­na­cle-cov­ered pil­ings or bridge abut­ments, ledges, drop-offs, reefs, shoals and wrecks. Dur­ing the sum­mer you’ll find scup way up Rhode Is­land’s Nar­ra­gansett Bay and deep into west­ern Long Is­land Sound. Scup are a school­ing species, though con­cen­tra­tions tend to be less for­mal than with mack­erel or her­ring.

In many parts of the North­east, the scup bite peaks in au­tumn, even as the fish­ing drifts farther and farther from shore. As a kid in

July and Au­gust, I caught them from piers and docks. (Ev­ery coastal kid does this — or they did, and I hope some still do. Ev­ery time I see a

kid on a bi­cy­cle with a rod, a kid in a row­boat or a kid on a dock, I don’t care what he is fish­ing for — I just feel like so­ci­ety has im­proved for a brief mo­ment.) Around Septem­ber, the fish pull away from shore, bunch up even more and start to mi­grate. Along they way, they feed. Fall is one of the best times to catch big scup. They are said to cover a range from the North Shore of Mas­sachusetts to Vir­ginia, but the epi­cen­ter lies some­where be­tween Long Is­land’s east end (Mon­tauk or Ori­ent) and the south side of Cape Cod around Hyan­nis.

A Fish For Every­man

A sport fish? Not quite. Then again, if you dou­ble up on 3-pounders and re­peat 10 times, they will def­i­nitely hurt your arms. Most scup en­thu­si­asts are look­ing to bring home din­ner. A scup sea­son, from the spring bo­nanza in the shal­lows off Hyan­nis to the Novem­ber bite south of Block Is­land or Mon­tauk, draws a crowd rep­re­sent­ing ev­ery kind of Amer­i­can. Scup fish­ing is not ho­moge­nous, and it’s not rich. It’s the op­po­site of a bill­fish in­vi­ta­tional.

This is to not say that there isn’t a dime to be made on scup; in fact, many peo­ple make money catch­ing them. Trap boats, skiffs, win­ter trawlers, char­ter boats and a head­boat fleet have been help­ing to sup­port lo­cal economies for decades. Rhode Is­land’s trap­boat fish­ery, one of this coun­try’s old­est fish­eries, has been scup-de­pen­dent for a cou­ple hun­dred years.

Af­ter my boy­hood years, I got in­volved in the scup trade, pin­hook­ing them off Point Ju­dith, Rhode Is­land, and work­ing deck off­shore on win­ter trawlers. The trawler is a good way to get a first­hand look at a pile of dead fish. We’d have 10,000-pound tows of scup in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary off Mon­tauk or Cape May, New Jersey. Big tows, big trips. Al­most all the scup, no mat­ter where they crossed a dock, would head for Bal­ti­more, New York or Philadel­phia by the truck­load. It was mil­lions of pounds a year.

So why is this fish so hard to find lo­cally today? Amer­i­cans, when they even eat fish, fa­vor fish that re­sem­bles the chicken ten­der — tilapia, cat­fish, Alaskan pol­lock — or fish that is white, bone­less and in­of­fen­sive, such as sole or cod­fish. Stores stock what Amer­i­cans buy.

To catch scup for sup­per, find a piece of bottom that on the chart looks sus­pi­cious — a place that’s hard to an­chor on, maybe the reef around Watch Hill, Rhode Is­land. If you can find rock near a patch of sand, even bet­ter. Drop a tan­dem rig: two drop­per loops with 2/0 hooks baited with squid, sea clams and a bank sinker on the bottom. You’ll know if the scup are there. They aren’t shy or wary. Wait for the tap tap, then set, which is more of a lift than a hook set.

Main­tain the Mys­tery

The glare of the ocean, the glare of th­ese fish — they hurt your eyes if the sun is up. Scup are work. Catch­ing is the easy part. Maybe that’s why so few peo­ple suc­cumb to it. A few fish are sim­ple, but bring­ing home 50 is dif­fer­ent. When I was young, I’d let Dad or Mom take care of it. I’m sure half of what my brother and I brought home ended up (af­ter we played with the dead fish in the sink, like hack ichthy­ol­o­gists) on the other side of the stone wall.

As an adult, you need to de­cide: fil­let or whole fish for din­ner. Re­gard­less, the process is de­fined by the scales. Ex­pect your arms to be cov­ered. And your shirt, your boat, your drive­way. Later, the scales will find their way into your home. Af­ter all of that, I like my scup cooked whole on the grill with a belly rub of gar­lic, olive oil, salt and pep­per. De­li­cious.

At 47, I fish com­mer­cially way less than I used to, but I still love New Eng­land’s old­est in­dus­try, not ev­ery part of it, but the soul. I’ve be­come like Dr. Seuss’ Lo­rax, a de­fender of na­ture. Fish­ing for a liv­ing can put too much mon­e­tary value on the fish, which is ob­vi­ous enough. But look­ing at the fish as dol­lar

Those who tar­get scup, or por­gies, reg­u­larly tend to love ’em qui­etly.

The author (right) and skip­per Ja­son Jarvis work a piece of hard bottom.

Catch­ing scup is the easy part. It’s tap, tap and set. Clean­ing a mess of them is work, with scales wind­ing up ev­ery­where.

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