- PanfishSpot On
“There’s something about him when he’s fried. You leave that skin on, cut him, and just eat him from the inside out. Spot is good, buddy, I can tell you that.”—overheard at the Bayford Oyster House, Bayford, Virginia, November 21, 2011
“I fry mine hard and eat the bones, the tail, and all … I always cook that head because I like crunching on it. I love crunching on it! I leave the tail on. The head and tail, I leave on.”—Katie White, Painter vic., Virginia, August 6, 2014
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Late summer the phone rings in the Bayford Oyster House on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. “Bayford,” H. M. Arnold answers. “Yes ma’am,” he says a few seconds into the conversation, “I don’t have any spot today. They don’t seem to be running. Nobody I know has them. I have some hardheads though, if you want to drive down and get them. Thank you.” H. M. shakes his head and sits down in his plastic chair by the stainless steel counter where he shucks oysters for the winter trade from Thanksgiving to New Years. The afternoon steams August hot, a bit of breeze ruffles the water on Nassawadox Creek outside the door. The tide is rising and soon enough will seep under the sills and into the dock end of the venerable shucking house, sheeting over the old concrete floors, compelling H. M. and his visitors first to walk on boards and then to slosh their way past the soft-shell crab shedding tanks now all but closed down for the season. Tank, the monumental Chesapeake Bay retriever who lives up the hill, stands in the boat launch with a chunk of pine branch clenched in his jaws, waiting for someone—anyone will do—to seize the wood and pitch it into the water. Strangers shy away from the massive dog; regulars ignore him. Tank perseveres. And so do the callers seeking spot, a panfish deeply savored in this corner of the world. The phone rings. “Bayford,” H. M. answers.
Spot, it seems, have diminished in their numbers since 1890, when a fish census noted: “Large numbers of young spot from 3 to 4 inches in length were seined in the bay at Cape Charles City. They were present in abundance, numerous schools being seen … As a pan fish, the spot is the most highly prized of all fishes sold in the Norfolk market.”1 Writing from North Carolina, Hugh M. Smith reported in 1907, “The spot, which gets its name from the round mark on its shoulder, inhabits the east coast of the United States from Massachusetts to Texas, and is one of the most abundant and best known of our food fishes.” Smith concludes, “The spot ranks high as a food and is by many persons regarded as the best of the pan fishes. There is a good demand for North Carolina spots in Baltimore, Washington, and other markets of the Chesapeake region, and the fish is also rated high as a salt fish for local consumption.”2 Spot, another observer reported, “are the smallest members of the croaker family that are sold with any regularity. Most specimens weigh only about ¼ pound. Spots are easy to recognize by their spot right behind the gill opening.”3 The spot’s distinguishing markings, Pooh Johnson, oysterman and cook in Onancock, Virginia, asserts are the marks of Christ’s fingertips imprinted when He divided the loaves and fishes for the multitude in Mark 6:41.4 Communion of a different variety causes H. M.’s phone to ring.
Uncommonly common in the lower Chesapeake and in North Carolina’s sounds, the spot (also known regionally as Jimmy, chub, roach, Goddy, and Lafayette) lives inshore from late spring through autumn and winters in deeper offshore...