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Jerry Vovcsko

First dunked a worm in Otsego Lake (upstate NY) some 68 years ago and began pursuing striped bass in Cape Cod waters 40 years ago. Pretty soon I should be able to get it right...maybe.

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January 29, 2014

Kettle Ponds And a Bowl of Portagee Stew

by Jerry Vovcsko

Mid-summer water temperatures in Nantucket Sound can easily reach the high seventies while the sunbaked beach sand sizzles under air temperatures pushing ninety and beyond. That's when we head for air-conditioned destinations and gripe about "…this dammed heat!" Of course, things feel a little different right now what with water temperatures in the Sound hovering at thirty-one frigid degrees while the air registers a brisk nine degrees overnight. Thirty one degrees in the water! That's one degree cooler than it takes to freeze water, folks.

We're talking serious ice here…and some of the real down-Cape Old Timers can recall winters where it froze all the way across from Woods Hole to Edgartown and the ferries sat ice-bound at the pier waiting for a warm spell and surging tides to break them free from Jack Frost's icy clutches. Well we haven't seen it that bad – at least not in the forty-some years I've meandered about the Cape wetting a line in both salt and fresh water fish-harboring locations. And I've learned along the way that come early May striped bass will find their way to Cape waters and come the fall those fish will head back to whence they came from. This year will be no different.

In the meantime, we anglers will make do with what we can find when Old Man Winter clutches us in his frosty embrace. Once four inches or more of ice forms on local ponds we can auger out a hole through which we'll drop a line baited with chub or shiner; dangle a shiny jig or spoon and wait for perch, pickerel, trout or salmon to take notice and swallow our offering. Cape Cod is the chief beneficiary of the last ice age when glacier and pack ice dragged huge boulders across the land scooping out a host of kettle ponds in the process and blessing local anglers with a bonanza of fishing destinations. Like so many watery grocery chain stores these ponds offer nearly every freshwater species imaginable. And not just a stringer of pan fish…nossir, double-digit northern pike inhabit Barnstable's Lake Wequaquet, salmon upwards of twenty pounds can be taken from a number of Upper and mid-Cape ponds and just last week one local angler hauled a twenty-nine inch brown trout from an un-named location.

There are big fish a-plenty to be had in these parts.

I don't know about anyone else but when the thermometer dips below freezing my thoughts turn to hot coffee and rib-sticking food. Back in 1958 when I was a young Marine attached to the Sixth Fleet for an eight month cruise around Mediterranean ports-of-call, a grizzled old Navy Chief Bosun's Mate told me the secret to brewing great tasting coffee. Fresh-ground coffee beans were imperative and required a handful of broken eggshells plus a pinch of salt in with the grounds. Percolate the coffee through that mixture and pour it steaming hot into a thick, white porcelain mug. Nectar of the gods.

As to food, here's an old-timey Portuguese recipe for a stew that'll fill your stomach and warm your toes:
Portagee Stew:
•1 ½ lbs fresh eel cut into 1-inch pieces
•Seasoned flour for dredging
•2-4 Tablespoons lard
•2-4 Tablespoons olive oil
•1 1/2 cups onion, small diced
•2 garlic cloves, minced
•1/3 cup white or red wine
•1 cup fresh diced tomato
•1 sprig mint, chopped
•1 sprig parsley, chopped
•Herbs for garnish
•Hot sauce (if you've a mind to)

Heat the lard and olive oil in a large cast iron skillet. When the oil's ready, add the onions and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and let sauté until it begins to get brown around the edges. Add the tomato paste and stir well, then deglaze the pan with the wine. Let reduce for a moment, and remove the onion mixture from the pan. Add a little more oil if necessary, and heat the pan back up. Meanwhile dredge the eel in the flour. When the pan is hot, add the eel pieces. Cook the pieces for a few minutes on each side. Then re-introduce the onion mixture, and add the fresh tomatoes. Cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook for about 10 minutes, and check to see if the eel is done. Add the fresh herbs, then taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper (and hot sauce) as necessary. Divide into four bowls and serve. (From an old Nantucket Island recipe)

Three weeks to go until the equipment-laden eighteen-wheelers pull out from Fenway Park and head off down Interstate 95 bound for Florida and spring training. As long-time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione would say: "Can you believe it?"

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