Rockfish Chowder – Using the Whole Fish



Striped Bass, Stripers or Rockfish, as we correctly call them on the Chesapeake are a fish so tasty I’d put them up against any in the world.  Usually you hear Striper more often as you go north. We know what you mean but somewhere along the lines we adopted the Rockfish moniker. Rockfish is meaty, almost beefy, not fishy.  Yet not mild either. Full of briny flavor. There are other species, on the Pacific coast that are also called Rockfish. They are not Striped Bass.  The Rockfish is the pinnacle of food fish on the Chesapeake and probably all of the eastern seaboard as well.


Some of the best Rockfishing takes place in the Fall.  The cooling water temps and probably day length changes trigger the fish to gorge themselves.  October is my favorite time, Indian Summer is one reason.  October days are warm but nights are cool.  Evenings are usually slick calm on the water.  A guy I work with has a nice boat and offered a spur of the moment evening trip after work one day (of course we left at noon).  I quickly obliged. He lives on the Chickahominy RIver which is about an hour from his favorite stretch of the James River to fish.


Usually, Rockfish are caught by trolling.  You can bottom fish for them, but trolling seems to be more productive.  You cover more water and some real sows can be caught. It seems like in the Maryland portion of the Bay a lot of bucktails get trolled.  While down here, he uses diving stick baits with treble hooks.  Rock jetties are one of my favorite places.  Casting either a bucktail or jighead with a grub or a spoon usually produces some fish.  They like rocks, thus the name.


We got to the spot he likes which has a large submerged pipe sunk in the bottom like a piling.  An ice flow bent it over over in an L shape and most time holds fish. After only a couple passes one of the rods bent.  I jumped on it and at first I thought we had hung the bottom. Then I saw the surface roil and I knew it was a stud. My arm was burning after a few minute fight.  That fish went 35.5”. My #2 Rockfish ever. I didn’t weigh it before but yielded 8lbs of usable meat.


Too many people cut the fillets and toss the rest.  It’s a pathetic practice and I’m urging people to think about what’s left.  A whole lot of recreational fishermen agree that Rockfish stocks are declining.  I’m not one of those blow hard catch and release guys.  So, we owe it to ourselves, our children and the fish stocks to get as much out of the harvest that we can.  


Now, there is a point of diminishing return, I admit that.  But, after I had filleted this fish, I cut the collar out from behind the gills and took the belly fillet.  I then split up the back bone and roasted it with the head.  After it was flaking nicely, I picked all the meat with a fork.  And don’t forget the cheeks in the head. I came away with about 2 lbs of meat.  I love a good stew and that’s where this nice bowl of meat of which most people throw overboard for the crabs and catfish.  


After I picked the bones I put them in a pot.  Covered in chicken stock with an onion, carrot, bay, parsley, and salt and pepper.  The trick to a good fish stock is barely a simmer and a short cook time. So, no boiling and about 30 min cooking.  I have tried before to make fish stock as you would chicken or beef stock, cooking it a long time. Fish stock becomes very strong, and fishy when done this way.  The trick is short cook time.


Strain the stock well and discard everything else.  There is some adjustability to stew. But I like to keep it fairly simple and clean.  Carrots, finely chopped celery, diced potatoes. A small onion, or preferably shallots.  


You can decide if you want a brown stew or a cream stew.  The difference between a stew and a chowder is the addition of a thickener.  Stew is traditional on the Chesapeake. A chowder more so in New England. I like my stew with some cream.  Add thickener, corn starch or flour if you prefer.

Get 4 pieces of bacon, dice them up in tiny pieces.  Fry them up in your pot. Do not drain the fat. Add your vegetables and parsley.  Fry a few minutes. Add the stock and let cook at least 30 minutes. Then add the fish.  Add a pat of butter. Let it simmer, (do not boil) another 15 minutes. The fish is already cooked, so you don’t want it to fall apart.  You may add 2 cups of cream if you prefer a white stew.  If you like oyster stew, add the cream.


I like my stew with a shot of hot sauce and crackers.  Garnish with a couple small sprigs of fresh parsley.  I promise after you try it, you won’t be pitching so much good meat that the carcass holds.  It’s like adding at least another 25% to your yield. You can maximize your yield on any fish like this.  Try it, you won’t be disappointed.


At least 1lb of Rockfish meat, no more than 2lbs.  Any firm white flesh fish will do

4 pieces bacon, diced tiny- 1/4″

2 tbl butter

1 stalk celery, diced tiny

1 carrot, diced tiny or shredded

1 sm onion, or half large, diced tiny

2-3 potatoes, diced, depending upon preference

1/4 cup fresh parsely chopped fine.  Just omit if you don’t have fresh, dried is horrible

2 quarts of stock.  (I’ll make a dedicated stock post)  But use chicken stock and throw the picked bones in for no more than 30min max.  Important.

2 cups of light cream or half and half optional

salt and pepper to taste

Serve hot with crackers and hot sauce





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