A Down East family picnic with Des FitzGerald, a champion of fresh and smoked seafood.

By Debra Spark
Updated March 31, 2015

Maine's Rockport Harbor is virtually empty--pleasure boats gone for the season, fishing boats not yet in with their catch--and the weather is edging into a November chill when Des FitzGerald, founder of Ducktrap River Fish Farm, decides to embark on a last-chance-this-year picnic on an island just off the coast. As he and his friends board his lobster boat, some of them reminisce about childhood summers in Maine. Liv Rockefeller, who with Kristie Trabant Scott came up with today's menu as a showcase for Ducktrap's superb smoked seafoods, joins in. She recalls her family's daily excursions to islands in Penobscot Bay, when her father would drag a bottle of Sauternes behind their sailboat. Fortunately, there's ice to chill the French Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie she's picked to accompany the steamed mussels and the seafood chowder, as well as the California Tablas Creek Blanc she'll pair with the corn griddle cakes and smoked salmon. The boat heads for an island that Lucinda Ziesing, FitzGerald's wife, spotted while she was out kayaking. "I'm not cooking," says Ziesing, an actress and producer. "I scouted the location and"--she taps the cobalt-blue mugs she's brought along for the seafood chowder--"I did the props."

FitzGerald bucked family tradition when he moved to Maine. He grew up inside the Washington Beltway: His father was a deputy director of the CIA. His older sister is Frances FitzGerald, the Pulitzer Prize- winning author. He had a job waiting for him after college in the Department of the Interior, but he was determined, as he puts it, "to re-create the best part of my childhood"--the summers his family spent on Maine's Mount Desert Island.

It was a love of trout that started him on the path to Ducktrap. "I'd always been attracted by the critter," he says, recalling what drew him to a California trout farm on a brief break from Harvard in 1971. There he sampled smoked trout for the first time, and the taste was a revelation. After postgraduate work at the University of Washington's College of Fisheries, he moved to Maine to work on a research project involving wild salmon. In 1978 he set up Ducktrap River Fish Farm in Lincolnville--just north of the island where today's picnic is taking place--and started experimenting with smoking trout and oysters.

At first he got his guidance from a government handbook on building smokers. He also toured English and Scottish smokehouses--"Before Ducktrap existed," he recalls, "most quality smoked fish came from Europe." But even the best European fish had its drawbacks: It was salty and--given the makeup of English and Scottish forests--oaky. FitzGerald realized he could produce something more distinctive in Maine, since he had access to a wide variety of woods for smoking. He tried them all, ultimately settling on a combination of sugar maple, red oak, apple and cherry.

Eventually his obsession with smoking got the upper hand. In 1985 he stopped raising trout to concentrate on smoking ("I had to choose," he says), and eight years later he moved the business to nearby Belfast. Ducktrap now offers 30-odd products, including smoked tuna loin, haddock and, of course, trout and salmon. The hot-smoked salmon for this afternoon's lunch is a cooked fish--as opposed to cold-smoked salmon (which Ducktrap also produces), the cured fish you put on a bagel.

These days FitzGerald often looks far afield for the best possible seafood: Idaho for trout, the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, for mackerel. But the mussels and shrimp for today's meal came from the same stretch of Maine waters that he and his group have just crossed. Once the boat arrives, the kids fan out to gather seaweed, which FitzGerald uses to steam his mussels, and the guests settle down for a hearty meal against the rugged backdrop of the coast.

Debra Spark's novel The Ghost of Bridgetown is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She lives in North Yarmouth, Maine.