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As not only a coastal city, but straddling the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul is famous for many species of fish. But among these, one has a special place. This is lüfer or bluefish, whose shoals have always been eagerly awaited; which has been written about by Ottoman poets; for which the sultans had special boats made, and anglers along the Bosphorus used silver hooks. Bluefish is therefore justly known as ‘sultan of the Bosphorus’.The bluefish is one of Istanbul’s legends, and its flavour is at its most exquisite here. Clearly the cool waters of the strait are the secret.
So when speaking of Istanbul and its fish, the bluefish is the one which first comes to mind. Pomatomus saltatrix, to use its Latin name, begins its travels from the south in spring, the shoals swimming from the Aegean into the Marmara, and along the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.On rafts moored to the banks of these gently flowing branches of the river are several restaurants nestling amongst greenery. Here you can enjoy a delicious meal of fresh trout and the local pastry known as gözleme.

During the summer months spent in the cool waters of the Black Sea the fish become well nourished and their fat content increases. In September they begin the journey southwards again, lingering for some time in the Bosphorus.

Catching bluefish was a popular and festive pastime among residents of the Bosphorus shores until just thirty or forty years ago. When the first spate - known as katavaşya - began in September, these anglers thought of nothing but catching the first bluefish of the season.

The anglers would also vie to get the first catch each morning, taking up their places early on the Bosphorus shore at Kavaklar, Kandilli, Kanlıca, Ortaköy, Çengelköy, Beylerbeyi, Sarıyer, İstinye and other good fishing spots. All would throw their lines out at the same moment. There was also competition between anglers on the European and Asian shores of the Bosphorus. Unlike the professional fishermen, amateurs fished purely for the pleasure of it. another. 

They included teachers, journalists, writers, and artists who all lived on the Bosphorus shores and knew one The fish they caught would be distributed to the whole neighbourhood, and in the evenings they would invite friends to suppers of bluefish at tables set up by the sea. They were the ones who created the fish culture, indeed the entire Bosphorus culture, of Istanbul.

Fishing with line and lamp by night from rowing boats was the traditional way for amateurs to catch bluefish. In his book ‘Fish and the Rod’ Ali Pasinler quotes Muammer Asaf of Kandilli as saying: ‘Those fishing parties of old times were like sacred rituals... Just as there was once a Tulip Era in our history, so there was a Bluefish Era... The gentlemen living on the Bosphorus used to go out at night to catch bluefish, and most evenings some of the royal princes would join them.

Elaborate decorum, elegance and courtesy marked those occasions. If it happened to be full moon, music, poetry and wit mingled harmoniously to lift the bluefish expedition to a quite different plane.As they fished, people in nearby boats recited poems to one another and engaged in witty exchanges. Compositions by Dedeler and Sadullah Ağa would be played, and sometimes a deep voice would be heard out of the darkness joining the strains of the musical instruments.’

Of course it was not just the wealthy inhabitants of the Bosphorus who went out in pursuit of bluefish. The fishermen who caught fish for a living awaited their coming just as eagerly. Those who remember the abundance of the past complain about the depleted shoals of the present day. Professional fishermen use special nets for the sultan of the Bosphorus. They will tell you that ordinary nets are no use for bluefish, and they must make the most of the two months or so that they continue to swim through the Bosphorus. But the most enjoyable way of catching them is with a long rod off the rocks where the fish feed. Expert fishermen know exactly where these rocks are, and in season take their boats there. Fishing for bluefish is as much a delight as the eating of them. Grilled bluefish accompanied by side dishes of seafood and vegetables make an exquisite feast, above all when surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the Bosphorus. That is how the people of Istanbul have done it for years. Today the people who catch, sell or buy just three or four bluefish count themselves lucky, and who knows if those former times of abundance will ever return.

Skylife 10/2000

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