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Fish Tales of the Other White Meat

Whether you call them striped bass, greenheads or squidhounds, those of us who relish that precious moment where rod, reel and monster fish come together live for catching one these legends of the deep.

Never mind that rockfish, as they are called around the Chesapeake Bay, taste absolutely divine breaded and fried, baked in parchment, seared in a cast-iron pan or grilled over hot coals. Fans of the almighty rock argue there is no better fighting fish to land than one of these shiny, green-tinged creatures.

Rockfish are members of the Moronidae family, and are characterized by their silver-green-tinted exterior accented with long, dark stripes that run along their sides.

An anadromous fish (one that lives in saltwater but migrates to freshwater for spawning), rockfish can be more than 6 feet long and can weigh up to 125 pounds. Rocks are considered a prized sport fish, not only for their size, but also for their fight. Whether you catch your rock while surfcasting with a bomber plug or trolling by boat with a live eel, when you finally land one, you'll know it.

And nothing tastes better than rock filets from fish caught that day. Freshness, along with simple preparation, is key to the gastronomic success of this flaky, white-fleshed fish. Whether you've caught the rock yourself or picked up a pound or two at the local fishmonger, breaded rock with piquant sauces, grilled filets simply dotted with butter and a slice of lemon, or baked whole fish stuffed with fresh herbs is all you need for a perfect spring supper.

It wasn't that long ago that I landed my first, big rock while fishing the freshwaters of the lower James River in Richmond, Va. Every spring, rocks begin their spawning run from the ocean and Chesapeake Bay into the freshwater, tidal rivers, and it is during this time, when the waters start to warm, that these typically lazy feeders are a bit more active.

It was one of those unusually hot, humid late-May afternoons we often have in Virginia, and I'd spent much of the day shore fishing for another hefty, trophy fish — the jumbo blue catfish, or blue cats, as we call them.

The river had flooded a few days before, so the water was high, and I was up to my ankles in receding mud. The horseflies were biting, the sun was burning, and I was tired of reaching into my half-rotted plastic bin of slimy chicken livers for bait. I grabbed one last liver, slid it onto my hook, and quickly checked my split-shot sinker weight to make sure all was intact. Then I cast out for the last time that day.

I watched the burgundy-colored liver sail into the air and gently plop behind a large rock, swiftly sinking into the moving water. I slid over my foldout chair, cracked open a beer, and settled in to do what we all do when the fish are slow and the day is long — wait.

Yet, just as I was about to take my first sip of lukewarm beer, I felt it: a little jiggle, then a tug, then whoosh. My line began spinning away from my rig at an incredible rate, and my rod suddenly curved hard toward the water as if I had a 20-pound weight attached to its end. I loosened the drag, letting the fish take it out, so my line didn't snap. I pulled back and futilely reeled in as hard as I could. In that moment, I felt powerless, yet I knew I was in the presence of something truly remarkable.

After many minutes, the fish began to tire. Little by little, I dragged my trophy toward the shore. As I pulled the fish closer, I could see her glistening green-gray body and trademark black stripes emerge from the water's surface. She was turned on her side, her one eye staring up at me, uncomprehending, yet still seeking reprieve. I gently removed the hook from her mouth, and pushed water through her gills, and in a split-second she effortlessly darted away.

That was the first and last time I caught a rock that size. As much as I wanted to keep her, this was a time when anglers released their catch, doing their part to help a dwindling rockfish population bounce back. And it worked. Today, the Chesapeake Bay rockfish population has increased dramatically.

Every time I tell this story, the size of that fish gets just a tad bigger. Maybe this is why so many of us love to fish, so we can transcendentally connect with the mysteries that lie beneath the water. And, when we finally sit down to partake of the day's catch, we can all find reassurance in knowing that every fishing day has the potential to end with a tall tale and a good meal.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: Swiss chard.

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Kendra Bailey Morris