A fair blue ribbon winner shares some, but not all, of his secrets

Jerry Hawke fed the hungry Times staff some of his blue ribbon smoked bluefish. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Jerry Hawke downplays his smoked bluefish success in the annual Ag Fair. There were only two entries the year he won a blue ribbon, he said. I suspect that is not true.

Jerry is a longtime Vineyard Haven seasonal resident, former Treasury official and not quite retired lawyer with the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold and Porter. But as is true of many Islanders with impressive professional resumes, in local conversation he would rather be known for his fishing skills, or more specifically his ability to smoke a bluefish.

Bluefish in the whole does not generate the same culinary respect accorded flashier species. Some people say it has a strong taste, others find it oily. Perhaps. I find striper to be pretty bland.

Where bluefish excels is on the end of a line, as a hard fighting fish, and in the smoker, where it picks up the smoke, but true to its nature, is never overcome by it. Many fishermen, unless they are fishing for the market, seldom keep more than one or two fish, if any. Buy a smoker and you will gain a new appreciation for bluefish.

Ken Berkov, Jerry’s morning coffee buddy and sometime supplier of bluefish, told me Jerry makes superb smoked bluefish. He suggested I give him a call, which I did, because I wanted to pick up some pointers.

I have a Masterbuilt smoker I share with Tom Robinson. It is electric and digital. Jerry uses a Lil Chief smoker, a minimalist aluminum box that is one step above a tin can.

Jerry said he likes to fish. He owns a 26-foot twin-engine Mako and likes to go out to Middle Ground, Hedge Fence and sometimes Wasque, all popular spots to find blues. Although of late it has not been that easy, he said.

“There was a time when we could go out to Middle Ground and come back with a dozen bluefish in an hour or an hour and a half, and I had to figure out what to do with them,” he said about how he became a smoker. “And my friend Art Buchwald always made fun of me because I tried to give away the bluefish and he didn’t want to have any part of it.”

At some point along the summer social circuit he encountered some pretty good smoked bluefish. He figured he would try his hand at it.

“I started getting pretty good results and entered it in the Fair,” he said, where he won a number of blue ribbons. With some pride he noted, “The way I characterize it to my kids is that the smoked bluefish contest at the Ag Fair is open to anyone in the world so if you get a blue ribbon it is the equivalent of a world championship.”

He began vacuum sealing his bluefish, a sign of advanced technique, and began handing it out to friends, a sign of confidence in the product.

Jerry told me his Lil Chief smoker harbors the secret of his success. “It creates a lot of smoke, but not much heat,” he said. “And if I were going to reveal the secret of producing nice, moist fish, that’s it. Because I think a lot of people smoke their bluefish in a charcoal grill, or smoker, but it dries it out, it cooks it. The Lil Chief doesn’t cook the fish.”

He brines his fish the night before then lets it dry before putting it in the smoker. The brine is comprised of one cup kosher salt and one cup brown sugar dissolved in water along with several “secret” ingredients. I pressed. “The one secret, after it’s all dried I sprinkle it with dill weed and the dill weed gives it a very nice flavor.”

Jerry said he likes to eat his bluefish with cream cheese and Triscuits. “It’s really delicious,” he said.

One problem is that the main ingredient has been tough to find. “I was out with my son the other day on Middle Ground and we came back with one fish,” Jerry said. Then he dropped the bombshell. “So I went out and bought a few fillets.”

I recoiled in horror at the thought of buying bluefish to smoke. What was Jerry thinking? He admitted, four years ago he bought some bluefish to smoke. His grandson was horrified. “He went around telling people, ‘it may be good fish but he didn’t catch it.'”

On Tuesday, Jerry was headed back to D.C. with several packs of smoked bluefish. He offered to drop one off at The Times. I said any piece of food left in a newspaper office is devoured like a pig in a piranha-filled Amazon tributary. And I was correct.

The bluefish was peppery and moist. Quite tasty. I forgot to suggest he stop by the White House and give frequent Vineyard visitor President Barack Obama a taste. He could use a bit of a kick.

Mystery patch

David Christensen of West Tisbury came by The Times office with a well worn patch he discovered in his house. The patch bears an image of the Island under the name, “Roccus chasers.” He assumes it is a long-forgotten fishing club. Can anyone solve the mystery and tell us something about this patch?

Derby begins Sunday

The 67th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby starts at 12:01 am, Sunday, September 15. There is a lot going on so check out the rules carefully. Also, Kids Day is Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Oak Bluffs Steamship wharf from 6 to 8 am. Free for kids and no derby pin is required. The awards ceremony is Sunday, Oct. 20, at 1 pm at Farm Neck Golf Club.

Heart-breaking loss

I speak for many fishermen and members of the Derby committee, on which I once served, when I describe Ed and Maryanne Jerome as part of the bedrock of the Derby. Together, Ed at the front and Maryanne behind the scenes, they have helped guide the Derby over more than three decades.

Ed, a well-respected school principal who, when called upon, returned from retirement like Cincinnatus from his fields, has always brought a quiet confidence to the Derby, and the ability to navigate the shoals and bring often quarrelsome fishermen together — not easy.

Under normal circumstances, I would have expected to find Ed and Maryanne anticipating the start of the 68th Derby with their characteristic enthusiasm. But on Sunday they suffered the grievous loss of their son, Joseph Edward, 24, to illness.

It is a heavy burden. One their community will help them bear when they bury Joseph on Sunday.