Monday, February 23, 2015

Fish Stories

Warning -- if you don't want to read the details of killing a fish, you should skip this post!

As Jolanda mentioned in her post of today, we caught a fish on Friday while motoring up the coast.  I have to say that I'm really not an avid fisherman.  While we've been cruising, I will throw out a trolling line when we're on a long passage, as long as the conditions aren't too rough.  I have a fishing pole on board, but in five months I've not used it once.  So you can tell I'm not crazy about fishing, but it's something to do while on passage, and I do like to eat some wonderful freshly-caught fish!

Obviously, this kind of fishing -- trolling -- is rather dull most of the time.  I simply trail a surface lure (in this case a cedar plug) on a long 50-lb monofilament line behind the boat.  The line is attached to the boat in a way that a fish could pull it out with some friction, to avoid having a very abrupt snap from a line simply attached hard.  After I deploy it, I occasionally look over to see if the line has moved... and more often than not, I forget about the thing until we are pulling into the destination!

Actually, the line isn't that long -- I was told by a guy at the fish store that the trolling line should be about 3/4 the length of the boat.  The idea is that the noise of the boat moving through the water will attract the fish, and when the get close they will see the lure bopping around in the wake of the boat.  If the lure is too far behind the boat they may not see it.  I had also always wondered if it is detrimental to be motoring versus sailing, and the guy told me just the opposite - the sound of the motor and propeller will attract more fish.  I'm not sure if that is true, but all of the fish we've caught have been while motoring.
Bringing it up is always exciting and a little frightening!

Of course, it gets exciting when I glance over at my trolling line and I see that it has all payed out, and then I look back to see a fish jumping around!  This one on Friday hit while Tessa was taking her afternoon nap, and Jolanda was below.  Pulling a fish like this up close to the boat by hand is easy enough -- although I got worried a couple times that it wanted to swim under the boat and I was concerned it would get the line wrapped around the propeller.  However, it is sometimes tough to bring the thing on board.  If it is not completely tired out, it thrashes a lot as I begin to lift it out of the water.  With the weight of this guy -- I'm guessing 15 pounds, and it was 32 inches long -- I was worried that it might rip the hook out of its mouth while thrashing, or break the line.  And I also worry about having the thing on deck!  So, in this case, I pay out the line again, we slowed the boat, and I worked it for a few minutes.  Then I was able to get a gaff in and bring it onto the aft cabin, where I clear off a little working space, and we have a plastic tray that I use for this.

The working area is not too bad, compared to some sailboats.
But still it's uncomfortable, and messy!

Strapped down ... not very securely, as
I later realized!
One of the big difficulties I still have is actually killing the fish.  This one was causing quite a commotion at first -- I had a strap around it to hold it on the tray, but it was still thrashing a bit and actually broke the edges off of the plastic tray.  As recommended in my fishing book (The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing -- thanks again Cathy & Liz for that!), the best way to quickly kill a fish like this is an ice pick into the brain.  I thought I had successfully done this, but even after that it was still occasionally thrashing, and at one point even slipped out of the strap and was threatening to slide off the back of the boat!

It has to be said that dealing with ocean fish, even of this size, is not without danger. I wear heavy leather gloves for dealing with these fish, and I'm pretty cautious.   I like this section from my fishing book:
Watch out for sharp teeth, fin spines, scutes, and other hazardous fish body parts.  Dispatch fish quickly before they inflict damage on you, your crew, or your vessel.  Even a 15-pound mahi mahi or tuna can dish out significant punishment. 
Be especially careful of the incredibly sharp rows of teeth on wahoo of any size.  Light contact -- for example, accidentally brushing your heel across the jaw of a motionless fish on deck -- can easily slice you to the bone.  A strong slash across an artery from a live wahoo coming aboard could have extremely serious consequences on a slow cruising boat far from help.

I also still am not good at bleeding the fish.  Theoretically one should make some specific cuts to allow a lot of blood to come out; and then you should put the fish over the side (at least partially in the water) with a line secured around the tail or through the gills.  On this fish, I wasn't very successful with my bleedout cuts.  But I put it in the water anyway with a tail line, with the boat moving slowly, for about five minutes.  When I brought it back aboard, it was still thrashing a bit!  Crap... still not dead!  At this point I was becoming sick of the whole process!

Anyway, eventually the fish died, and even though it was not correctly bled, I decided I had to go ahead with cutting it up.  The seas were not too large, but were still significant -- probably about 5-foot waves, occasionally breaking over the bow of the boat, so there was a lot of water running down the gunnels where I was standing.  Luckily we were motoring directly into the waves and wind, so the motion of the boat was only pitching, not rolling much at all.  I find pitching much easier to deal with ... both from the perspective of physically not falling down as well as not getting seasick.  Nonetheless, I wanted to get the carving up done as quickly as possible.  In this case, I entirely omitted the typical first step: gutting of the fish.  Instead I simply cut very crudely the fillets from the sides.  Doing this as crudely as I did probably wastes half of the usable meat.  But in this case I really didn't care -- together the two huge pieces I removed totalled more than 5 pounds.

Finally, we tried to identify this lovely fish.  We have another great book, Sport Fish of the Pacific, that is really critical for me, since otherwise I wouldn't have a clue about what these fish are!  Although not quite identical to the image in the book, I believe this guy was a Pacific Crevalle Jack.  There are many types of jacks in the Pacific, and experienced fisherman are mostly not too excited to catch a jack.  I remember talking to a guy who was complaining that, while crossing the Sea of Cortez, all they were catching were jacks, while they really wanted some tuna or dorado.  In general, many jacks are not very tasty to eat.  In my book, for the Food Value of many types of jacks it says things like "Poor" or "Not bad, but usually used as bait".  Fort this particular species, is says "Food Value: Fair; most of the flesh is red."  And that was indeed the case -- it was a dark red flesh, which became brown after grilling.  It has an OK flavor, but a bit unusual.  I ate a lot of it; Tessa tried it but didn't like it; and Jolanda never tried it due to being really sick (she's only now working up to some bland couscous).

The beautiful dorado that was my first catch of a serious
ocean fish, back in November.  The colors of this fish as
it is fighting are remarkable -- blues and greens
flashing the whole time as it jumps and dives underwater.

All in all, this was a better experience than the first big fish I caught, a dorado.  That first one was as we were approaching Turtle Bay after a double-overnight passage.  I was so tired then that I was miserable through most of the process, but I was happy with the end result -- it was a great fish for the first big ocean to catch, and it was also really tasty!  So I guess it will get easier each time.

Another view of the dorado.  I never did measure it, nor guess
its weight.
The only other things I've caught in the past months was a small sierra (which I released), and a bird!  The bird was a disturbing event.  After catching & releasing that small sierra, as we approached Banderas Bay about a month ago, I had two trolling lines in the water.  I noticed a group of sea birds -- I don't really know what type, maybe shearwater -- following close behind the boat, and saw them swooping down, going after the lures!  I could foresee the potential problem -- the last thing I wanted was to snag a stupid bird!  I was bringing the lines in -- I got one line in, and was working on the second.  All the while the birds -- maybe five or six of them -- were diving at the lures and lines!  Then one of them got snagged!  I yelled out "Crap... I got a bird!"  Tessa was in her car seat at the time, watching with great interest.  As I brought the line in, and was hauling the bird up along side of the boat, I was contemplating how I was going to deal with this, and imagining that one way or the other it was going to result in a dead bird, and quite possibly a big mess of feathers flying!  I asked Jolanda to take Tessa below so she wouldn't have to see the gory proceedings.

As I brought the bird up close to me, it was trying to bite my hands.  I couldn't really see were the hook was ... it was buried under feathers around the birds neck, and I could just see the line coming from around it's mouth.  I assumed it had swallowed the thing.  I was honestly about ready just to cut the line and jettison the bird.  But, I worked up some guts and grabbed the bird firmly where I thought it couldn't bite me, and tried to find the hook.  Remarkably, I found that the hook was simply around its neck, and came off rather easily!  Then I immediately dropped the bird in the water... and it just sat there, flapping and struggling.  I was pretty sure it was close to dead, or at least had sustained a broken wing in the process.  But, after about 20 seconds, it regained it's composure, and got airborne!  It flew weakly at first, but then seemed to gain strength and started to fly normally.  I was thrilled to see it go!

I wonder if roasted shearwater would have been tasty?  Probably a bit "fishy"! I guess I'll have to wait for next time to find out.



  1. You da man dude! Nice catch!

  2. Wow so many "Ocean Adventures"! I think I would have wanted to be below with Tessa for all of it except the eating part. Mom

  3. fantastic post. it's great to hear details of your at-sea adventures!

    1. I'm glad you thought so! I sometimes wonder about whether people really want to read a lot of details ... but I realize that it helps really get a sense of the experience. In any event, it's good for me because I will forget the details otherwise, and the feelings.

  4. Excellent fish story embellished with a bird story and you told it so well. I think you need a billy club. Does sound dangerous, sharp knive, rolling wet deck and a fish that won't hold still. Dad

    1. You know, my fish book also recommends a billy club. Lacking one of those, I thought a ball-peen hammer would do the trick. But when I tried that on the dorado, back in November, it seemed to just annoy the fish!

  5. Great post. It seems like getting the fish to die is always your problem (like that one you caught when you guys were up north of San fran. Hope you catch some good tuna soon and your lovely wife feels better! Matt and Sarah

  6. If your hitting a fish with a hammer and your just a annoying it, I think your doing it wrong. Or you need a bigger hammer.😂😂😂😂. Dad

  7. I love the details! Can now visualize the whole process. Quite a bit more exciting than fishing in the Swedish or Norwegian archipelago, and cooking the fish over a camp fire on a small island... petra


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