The fuse on a fishing life was lit by this underappreciated species

Photos by Michael Cevoli

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

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

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 chatter 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 wasdying off, and some kind of molt or hatch was pulling those scup in from deeper water.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

Scup have prominent dorsal spines that will easily pierce boot, shoe or hand.

Scup have prominent dorsal spines that will easily pierce boot, shoe or hand.

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 signs changes your fishing. The fish becomes a stock, a resource, something to be managed. It can swell your ego — anyone who doesn’t catch thousands of pounds doesn’t know a thing. We become experts. The youth and mystery are gone, evaporated. All that is left is hard rock. It’s as if the initial smell and colors of the fish are no longer even noticed — a loss that represents the enemy of midlife. Getting those colors back is no simple feat, to become the boy on the pier again, seeing things for the first time. Oh, to be lost, happy, bored, swept up in the moment and agenda-free.

Fresh Eyes

In time, we often come back to a new starting place, and so I’ve taken up free diving. It’s one breath and down, nothing but lungs. To me, it’s a new way of seeing. I’m far from being the next Rachel Carson; often, I’m diving with a speargun and the full intention of bringing home dinner. But at the bottom, I like the colors of the Rhode Island ocean, the monotone green, the rocks and the kelp. In summer, I see lots of baby scup hanging over shallow reefs, moving cloudlike about 4 feet off the bottom. I get a sense of the scup’s abundance when I swim into these herds, which stretch, end to end, as far as I can swim.

I love to see the juveniles, tiny and more transparent than the adults, more pelagic, less benthic. Usually around these scup shoals are a few predators, maybe a sea bass or a striper. Sometimes I’ll spear dinner; sometimes I won’t.

For whatever reason, adult scup spook easily underwater. When I see them, I almost always see a fleet of tails moving away. And most of the fish seem to be outside of my free-diving comfort zone. Striped bass and blackfish will often be in water less than 10 feet deep, but scup, at least where I dive, are generally outside of 25 feet, out in the green murk, in water that can get eerie, giving me the sense of being more prey than predator.

Diving near the entrance to the West Passage of Narragansett Bay a couple of years ago, I took a breath and swam down along a rock wall. I kept swimming until I hit the bottom. I knew I was deep because the water got dark, cold and creepy. I looked up the wall toward sunlight and began to move up, using my hands. Everything was swaying: me, the water, the kelp. Then, above me, I saw them. At first the sight was just their outlines, their silhouettes, backlit against the sky. It was a pair of them. Big ones. Jumbos — the biggest scup I had seen in four years of diving.

I got closer. I could’ve speared one for dinner, an easy shot. But I wanted to observe, not harvest. One of them rolled its body, which shot a flash of silver at me as bright as tin foil. I let it be. And back at the surface, instead of a scup on my stringer, I had an image in my head. There’s a value in that, a value that is hard to measure, part of a story worth remembering.

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