WELLFLEET — I parked at Newcomb’s, front row for a surf check, and had not yet left the car when my friend Al walked over, rubbing the head of his newborn son, riding in a Bjorn on his chest.
“I’ve got some news I think you want to hear,” he said, smiling.
“The squid are washing up on shore in P’town today.”
“Where did you hear?”
“Missy. She works up in Truro. Everybody’s talking about it.” He rubbed the baby’s head again. “I think it is going to be a good night at MacMillan,” he said.
“We’re gonna have to get some ice,” I said.
“I might bring my kayak,” he said.
“If it’s like last year’s die off, you are gonna need a bigger boat.”
We went to see the mayor of South Wellfleet to fill the cooler. Then off to P’town, bubbling with anticipation. Last light was two hours away.
The tide ebbed into sunset — not the best setup for catching squid. But with squid literally littoral, the tide moved in our favor for beachcombing. We would assess the shoreline before sunset and if there were live fresh squid available on the receding tide, scoop them. Then hit the pier after dark for jigging.
Immediately after we parked on MacMillan, we overhead a young woman on the sand below, clearly new to this place: “There are dead squid everywhere. A boat must have hit them.” She was right about their being dead.
We could not help but admire the iridescent reds, oranges, and browns on the squid whose colors still matched the wet rocks. They had not turned white yet, but were still too dead to collect for eating.
Shoals of squid came and went. We watched them all night through calm, clear waters. They sidled up to our jigs before turning quickly 180 degrees and snapping out a tentacle to strike.
Squid for Dinner
Suddenly the entire shoal fled, like when the cops show up at a high school party. For a long moment, the water was empty and still. No squid. Nothing. Then a fat black blob came from under the pier and twirled around a pylon.
I once read that a squid can swim about one mile per hour faster than a seal. Fast enough to get away, if you see the seal coming.
Years ago, I saw a six-foot blue shark move effortlessly across the surface of these same waters. It was graceful and beautiful. My spine still tingles when I remember it.
Everything loves to eat squid: blue sharks and birds, sea mammals and fish. Wolves in the Northwest have been caught on film eating squid from the tide pools. Sperm whales wash ashore dead with basketball-sized suction-cup marks on their heads from battling the 40-foot giant squid in the dark depths below.
This night, as we unhooked our squid into the buckets, we felt those same suckers, albeit smaller, grab our fingertips, fighting.
“Like a cat’s tongue, but with suckers,” Al’s friend said. “It stirs up a deep-seated fear response. Like a prelude to certain death.”
Which it was — for them, not us. A few final squirts, sounding like a heavy sigh, and they resigned to their fates in the bucket.
Squid are among the best seafoods to consume, given they generally live less than a year, take on a low heavy metal content, and have a high reproduction rate. They are also delicious when cooked properly.
We noticed later the rims of our beer cans were stained with diluted ink and saltwater. The squid flavored our drinks with a taste of cool savory ocean, a flavor no hipster brewer could replicate.
We filled two five-gallon buckets of shortfin, aka Ilex or “Boston” squid, by the 11 p.m. curfew. The next night’s dinner was grilled squid stuffed with pork sausage and tentacles, bread crumbs, green onions, and fresh dill.
So You Want to Squid
If you care to go and are new to squidding, be respectful of others. Social distancing rules apply, though being outside makes this safe-ish in pandemic times.
Don’t wear your Sunday best, as squid will squirt you with ink and stain your clothes.
All you need is a bucket or a cooler with ice, a fishing pole, and a 10-dollar squid jig. You may care to supplement the line with a weight, but basic jigs are heavy enough and work when the squid are in.
You can cast and reel, or just jig up and down directly below. Best spots are under the lights on the pier. There are hidden ropes on the sea floor that might snag the jig, so don’t drop your jig to the bottom.
Jig or jerk it quickly, then reel in fast. You’ll feel it when you have one on.
When you land one, drop the squid, tail down, into the bucket; turn the jig upside-down, letting gravity do the work as the squid tentacle slides off the barbless hook.
Voila. You are now a squidder.
The next night was completely different. There were squid, but far fewer; they worked a ball of small bait fish just beneath us. It was amazing to see them hunt and fish the bait; fish scales silvered the water like sparkly glitter as they swam slowly away with prey in their tentacles held to their mouths.
These adolescent shortfin squid will grow fast and probably be around to catch in the coming weeks. But not by us — we got all we needed.
Al’s New England Stuffed Squid
for six people
This recipe is inspired by a good quahog with a fluffy pork-and-herb stuffing. Seared on the grill and sliced into thick rings, it’s a simple no-sauce-needed appetizer.
12 medium squid, cleaned
1 lb. pork sausage
3 Tbsp. butter
1 sweet onion, chopped
About 1/2 cup panko
About 1/2 cup chicken stock
A few scallions, chopped
A handful chopped fresh dill
Salt and pepper
Skewers for closing the squid
Clean the squid, separating the head and tentacles from the bodies. Peel off the skin and wings. Discard the beak, any innards, and the cuttle — the clear shard of cartilage inside the body.
Chop the wings and tentacles, sauté them in a little butter, and set them aside in a bowl.
Chop the sweet onion and sauté it in a little more butter until collapsing and caramelizing. Add it to the bowl with the sautéed wings and tentacles.
Remove the sausage from its casings and brown the meat, chopping it up as you go. Pour off any excess fat.
Gently stir the breadcrumbs into the sausage. Add the onions and tentacles, then the chopped scallions and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Gently stir in chicken stock, a little at a time, and just until the stuffing is moist but still fluffy, not dense.
Stuff the squid bodies with the sausage mixture, but don’t fill them tightly. You need room to close the tops, and you don’t want the squid to split as it shrinks when it cooks. A toothpick works, but I do several squid on one larger skewer so they can be easily turned.
Grill the stuffed squid over a hot fire, turning them so they are golden brown on both sides. Slice and serve as an appetizer.