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Friday, February 14, 2014

Man Eating Fish

caught dorado trolling in exuma sound bahamas on our sailboat
Wayne and our first fish – a big danged dorado!
We did everything wrong.  And yet…

Two complete neophytes to fishing, we managed to successfully land a stunning 4’ dorado (also know as a dolphin fish or mahi mahi) our first try out, and eat it for supper a scant few hours later.

With some trepidation, I attached my $3 lure and leader to my brand new fishing pole line clip and plunked the butt of the pole into the holder Wayne mounted to our boat’s side rail.  I released some line, streaming it behind us as we sailed across Bahama’s deep Exuma Sound.

Before long, reading a good book in our cockpit while we sailed smoothly along, I forgot about my fishing pole.  “Hey,” Wayne said, pointing to the tip of the pole.  “It looks like we may have a bite!”  Indeed, looking aft, we saw an aquamarine – silver splash.  A big one!  Wayne started reeling it in.

“Ten degrees more!” he commanded while he tried to reel in our catch.  It was the first of many boat maneuvers before Wayne figured out we needed to depower our sail and power up our engine to pull that big fella (or gal) in.  Meanwhile, we dragged that poor dorado along at 6 knots for quite a while…. Untangling our line from our dinghy, from our aft ladder, through the maize of struts that form our dodger….

Eventually, Wayne reeled the dorado in and over onto our side deck, with a flick and gaff hook.  His colors -- a magnificent marlin-like electric blue – started fading as soon as he came out of the water, to a blue-green and yellow.  I sloshed his gills with just about the last of our gin, to numb him. Wayne felt terrible about repeatedly clubbing such a beautiful, wild creature on the head with our rolling pin.  We knew killing it quickly as possible was a kindness.  Later we found out the correct kill technique is to find a soft spot between the fish’s forehead and eye, and quickly drive an ice pick through it.

resource for fishing in the bahamas and beyond
The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing”
by Scott & Wendy Bannerot is now
a relevant book for us!
Dorados are major bleeders. “They’ll look like a murder scene,” I’d been warned. Worse, I was plagued with very bad memories of the tuna massacre and the multi-day odious fish stink from them on a boat we crewed in August 2012.  It made me nauseous.  I absolutely did not want to replicate that experience on our boat. 

No other other boats were around.  We were far from any potential lookie-loos from shore.  Not wanting to mar my clothes with fish blood or guts, I stripped down and attempted to figure out how to bleed, gut and steak the fish.

“Read the book,” Wayne suggested, referring to Scott and Wendy Bannerot’s seminal “The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing.”  Already covered with fish slime, and kind of freaking out, I was not about to pollute the boat or book with fish essence at that time.  Nor was I in a place to coolly flip through the pages as easily assimilate and use its info.

bleeding a fish sailboat fishing resource used in the bahamas exuma sound
How to bleed a fish -- the first rigor mortis step on fish prep
fromThe Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing.”
“Just tell me what it says,” I hollered back.  Meanwhile, I tried out a variety of dull knives to slit the fish’s underside to remove its guts.  I reached into its abdomen and removed the slimy organs mostly intact. I’d nicked one organ, most likely its butt, as I cut through rather than around its anus. 

“We need to bleed it, drape it over the side of the boat,” Wayne said, handing me a rope.  I looped it through the dorado’s gills and mouth. Wayne tied it and I draped it carefully over the side, sure it would come back with shark bite.  Thankfully, it was fully intact when I hoisted it back onto the deck.

sailboat resource for fishing in the bahamas exuma sound
How to gut a fish -- -- the next fish prep step from
The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing.”
I found out afterward I was supposed to gut it later, and bleed it first with a slash behind the pectoral fin and one in the gill collar.

Back on the side deck, I tried repeatedly in vain to trim off the slippery, spiny, fins and hack out a steak.  No dice.  I did not have the right implements or the skill.  Plan B.  Skin and fillet.

It would be a gross understatement to say I was felt completely overwhelmed.  For 50+ years, fish fillets are something that I bought on a Styrofoam tray, or wrapped in white butcher paper.  Someone else who know what the heck they were doing did the work; I just brought it home and cooked it.  I was comfortable in that role, not in the role of a hunter and butcher.

how to skin a dorado sailor fishing resounrce used in the bahamas exuma soun
How to skin a dorado for filets, from
The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing.”
I spent the next 40+ minutes badly separating the skin from the dorado.  Our book claimed “Dorado skin comes up easily with hand pressure.”  Maybe so, done properly.  From there I doggedly hacked away, attempting to free some of the dorado meat from the bone, making a series of haphazard cuts, in my utter ineptitude, donating vast quantities of this gorgeous fish back to the sea.  I never did bleed it properly.

Then it was time to rinse the fish, the deck, and me. I did manage to get the boat relatively fish remnant free. All told, after spending an hour and half (which felt like an eternity) on the side deck au naturelle, I’d managed to get a substantial sunburn on my lower back, a rarity for me. 

Then we had to figure out where to put the fish.

We have no ice chest and no ice.  Our tiny freezer was quite full, room for just one frozen fish dinner for two. 

Upon arrival at Little San Salvador, we offered ¾ or more of our fillets to a neighboring cruiser family.  “We have fresh fish we just caught, but we always make room for Mahi!” Jodi of Mojo said.  “They’re hard to land.” once she was assured there was indeed nothing wrong with the fish, other than my utterly inelegant filleting, she happily took it.

It was time for our supper.

How to filet a dorado fromThe Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing.”
With fish that fresh, I wanted its flavors to sing. Its prep?  Super simple:  kosher salt and pepper, in a skillet with olive oil and butter, a quick douse of lime juice once it was done.

“That didn’t taste like fish,” Wayne declared with some disbelief.  Coming from Wayne, that’s a high compliment.  He doesn’t like fish.

“Our first fish.  We should give it a name,” I told Wayne.  “Primo,” Wayne responded, “That’s ‘first’ in Spanish.”  “Prima,” I countered.  “I think it was a girl.” Prima, I am sorry I did not do better by you.  You are our first, and will always hold a special place in our memories, filling us with amazement and awe. 

We ate two fabulous dinners from Prima.  “I wish we hadn’t given so much away,” Wayne lamented.  I agreed, though at the same time so many other cruisers incredible generosity was something we’ve both wanted to pay forward.  It felt good to do that for a change.

Afterward, in a much calmer and more focused and motivated presence of mind, I carefully re-read “The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing” section on killing, gutting and filleting. I took notes.  Next time, I’ll do better.  We even have a knife recently sharpened for that very purpose (though we broke its tip in the process) and an ice-pick-like quick-mercy-kill implement.


We’re ready.  Now all I have to do is catch another one!

Location, Location
Feb 14, 2014. BAHAMAS. Long time no internet!  Current location:  Warderick Wells Cay, Exumas (N24.23.624  W.76.37.975). Recently traveled posts to come:  Palm Cay Marina, Nassau, Highborourne Cay, Little San Salvador, Compass Cay, Exumas.  Next stop: TBD – somewhere in the Exumas.