Thursday, May 8, 2014

Memories of my Grandfather

My Grandfather on my Dad's side was a true fisherman.  It was more an avocation with him than a sport or hobby.  It centered him and gave him peace.  This is something I can identify with totally.

My best memory of my Grandfather was brought to the fore, yesterday, when I was fighting that big Stingray.  The memory took me back to when I was around 5 years old, just before my Grampa died.  We were down at the channel by the boathouse at Cedar Point.  I had just caught my very first fish......a tiny little Bluegill.  I was using a toy fishing pole he'd bought me to play with with white cotton string and a hook and a bobber.  Simplicity itself.  When I caught the fish, I think Grampa was likely more surprised than I was.  I learned a couple lessons or so that day.

First lesson:  A fisherman always baits his own hook.
Second lesson:  A fisherman always takes his own fish off the hook
Third lesson:  If a fish is too small, put it back to grow up, and if a fish is really, really, really big and full of eggs, put it back because it keeps fish there for us to catch as part of the fish vs fisherman cycle.

After we were done with the fishing, we were at the hand pump, washing our hands to get ready to make a tomato sandwich from his little tomato patch by the boathouse, he  told me he had a secret to tell me that all fishermen eventually learn.  This secret is that fishing lines can sing.  All it takes is a fish big and heavy enough that it takes the line tension right to the edge of it's breaking strain for a steady pull.  This tension is a lot higher than the sudden breaking strain rating of, say, 30 pound test monofilament.  The tension on the line, the breeze, and the vibrations the fish imparts to the line trying to pull away, create a ringing, high pitched tone, much like how a guitar string or violin string creates a tone......there just isn't a sound board to amplify it, so you just barely hear it.

This brings me to my fight with the stingray yesterday.  I finally heard the line sing, yesterday.  I was fighting a near 300 pound fish on 30 pound test, and the ray was pulling the line right to it's edge of strength and stripping line in spite of the drag being cranked down tight.  Underneath the reels drag ratchet, I heard this clear ringing tone right at the top of my hearing range, a ringing tone that got deeper as the length of my line increased and the harmonic oscillation of the line changed frequencies, and went up in pitch again as I was able to win back line as well.

That was when I had the Eureka moment and realized that this must have been what Grampa L had been talking about to me.In fact, I remembered so clearly that I could literally see him, and hear him talking to me.  It was a perfect recollection.  It was a connection that stretched over a 50 year span, but was like it was just yesterday, at the same time, and it took me back to an innocent time.  I'm very grateful for that!  I'd love to be able to go fishing now with him, and now, in a way, I am.  As long as we're remembered BY someone, we still have an existence and attachment in this world, and fishing is my connection with him.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bonnethead Shark, It's What's For Dinner!

Today was a nice day over at Jensen Beach causeway.  Fishing was slow with only 3 bites all day, but it was still profitable, so to speak.  I had a good solid catch of a 3 foot Bonnethead Shark, for one thing.

3 foot Bonnethead Shark
Meet Ms Bonnethead.  This is a female.

I'm thinking how good this fish is going to taste, smoked with Applewood
Fish score today at the causeway:  Me, 2 wins-1 tie-0 losses, fish,0 wins-1 tie-2 losses.  Landed fish were the bonnethead and a hardhead catfish I tossed was an anticlimax after the shark.  Last fish, I actually managed to get to the causeway pier before it had to be cut loose.  It was a really big stingray, about 4 feet across the wings and about 10 feet long, counting the tail.  It had to weigh in around 250-300 pounds, give or take.

We had to cut it loose, because:

 a) it was just too big for the landing net.  It woiuldn't even fit in to the hoop and I have a big hoop on my net and even if I got it into the net, it was too heavy for it!

b), I didn't have the 5 or so guys with gaff hooks to haul it out and onto the pier.  I still count that as having successfully catching the fish, though, and only wish my wife had been able to get the picture of the fish.

The coolest aspect of the whole ray fight is I finally got to hear something my Grandpa told me about when I was a wee kid and he was teaching me to fish with my little toy fishing pole in the channel behind the cottage:  I got to hear my fishing line singing, right at the edge of it's breaking strain.  There was this high pitched musical note ringing off the line, right up at the top edge of my hearing range.  How cool is that?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Gaftopsail Catfish Fishing

The subject today is Gaffies, or Gaftopsail Catfish, or Sailcats, as they are referred to. 
Gaftopsail Catfish (courtesy to Florida Wildlife Commission)

They are an interesting fish to catch.   They're pretty staunch fighters and hit fast and hard.  Their fighting style is very similar to Channel Cats in fresh water.  They are regarded down here in Florida as an undesirable fish if you're fishing for table fare, though.  They have 2 barbels on the chin, and enormous, serrated spikes in their dorsal and pectoral fins and if you get horned by one, you're going to be visiting your doctor for some antibiotics and a tetanus shot, I'm afraid. 

Their skin, like their smaller, more common cousin in salt water, the Hardhead Cat, is covered with a slimy mucus.  I wear gripping gloves when I handle them to reduce getting horned, and help me hang on to the fish a lot more easily.

note the gripping gloves as I remove the fish from the landing net (Photo:  Earlena Leonard,
2014 all rights reserved

Gaftopsail Cats get their name from the way that their dorsal fin looks like the topsail on a sailing ship.  They don't get to be huge fish, with the world record being a hair over 10 pounds.  The Florida State Record is 8 pounds, 14 oz, and mine missed that by weighing in at 8 pounds, 6 oz.

Still, record fish or not, they are a nice fight when you get one hooked.  You'll know when you have a hit because you'll start spooling out line fast fast enough to make the drag ratchet clicker sing until you tighten down the drag and set the hook.  Personally, I use Kahle hooks, because like the circle hook, they are essentially a self setting hook, unlike the J Hook.

Kahle Hook

Octopus Circle Hook
Now, there is an ethical debate on Kahle ves Circle hooks surrounding "gut hooking" a fish.  Here's the deal....if you're going to catch and release, the circle hook is less likely to be swallowed by the fish and gut hook them.  The Hahle hooks I use are equally effective, I've found, and are easier to bait with live shrimp.  The other thing:  I'm not a catch and release fisherman with most of the fish I catch......I harvest and eat them.  For me, the Kahle hook suits my needs better, to put it simply.  Both are self setters as the fish spins away to take off, but the Kahle just does it better, especially with catfish, either fresh or salt water varieties.  The reason is because the circle barb points inward toward the back of the hook shaft and the kahle points at the eye of the hook.

So, what bait works for Sailcats?  Well, I've caught 'em on both live and frozen shrimp, frozen white shrimp from the grocery freezer, cut bait from various baitfish such as Pinfish, Finger mullet, Croakers I've caught, Greenies from cast netting.  I've also caught them on freezer burned fish from the stuff I may have lost in the freezer, and of course, squid works, as well.  They are a predator fish, much like their freshwater cousins, Channel and Blue Cats.\

The habitat of the sailcat is inshore and continental waters, estuaries, and lagoons.  They will enter brackish water, as well.  Their diet is small crustaceans, smaller fish and minnows, and the opportunistic bits of floating fish from larger fish predation.

Note the sail like appearance of the dorsal fin, and the really big barbs on both the dorsal and pectoral fins
Now, you've caught a mess of Sailcats, what do you do with them?  Well, you clean them, fillet them and fry 'em up in cornmeal, or you can make this recipe below.....but before we get into that, let's talk about cleaning them.  Fact is, you aren't going to get as much meat as you will, from a Flathead, Blue, or Channel Cat from fresh water.

Step 1:  Wash the catfish down in a vinegar and water solution to get the slime off of the fish and remove the head and split the belly and clean the cavity, so far, so good.  I like top cut the barbs off before I start cleaning the cats, though, because I really don't want to get stuck!

Step 2:  Skin the fish.  Salt water cats skins are a bit harder to pull off using the score and plier method, but it works.

Step 3:  Fillet the fish and cut out the red meat.  That's where the gamey and oily taste comes from, and leave that nice firm, pretty white fish meat.

Step 4:  Blanch the fish fillets in cold water with some citrus like lime or lemon juice in it.  I like to use Ponzu Sauce, myself for the nice flavor it gives the fish.

A nice recipe for sailcats
Personally, I fillet the fish rather than cook it whole.  I'll put the ginger in small slits in the fillets and serve this with a side of brown rice and drizzle Ponzu on the rice as well as the fish.  If you do cook the fish whole, the meat will come right off the bones, though, and either way you are in for a taste treat!  Bon appetite, and keep wetting those lines!