Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘fishing’

It has been a long time off the blog; but finally, as we are gearing up for another Fat of the Land and Sea Week, I really should post the outcome of the original. All in all, a great challenge but a great success too. In part, the success can be credited with a reinvigorated wild and homegrown food passion that dragged my focus to some new collaborations and efforts away from here, but plans to ramp this up are still drifting around in the mix.

At first, I thought that going for a week eating only homegrown and wild food wouldn’t be that hard. But it was. And then it wasn’t, and it wouldn’t be a second time around. I learned a lot.

Day 1

It all started a bit shaky with me failing at my hunt and finding my bees didn’t have any honey to spare. I left our bush block empty-handed except for some quinces – the worst forage for a hungry man as they need a lot of slow cooking to make them edible. Things were looking up with a huge haul of roadside apples, at least 30kg, on the way home. Mostly crabs too tart to eat out of hand, but fine for cooking or cider (it made the lack of honey even more of a shame, because it would have given a boost to either of those options).

Opening the beehive – when there are no combs fully capped, no combs can be harvested

Opening the beehive – when there are no combs fully capped, no combs can be harvested.

The first forage was a load of quinces. We’d decided on starting from scratch on Day 1, which meant that all I had to start on was something that needs a lot of cooking.

The first forage was a load of quinces. We’d decided on starting from scratch on Day 1, which meant that all I had to start on was something that needs a lot of cooking.

Breaking fast with some roadside apples – which are typically very tart and crabby (or worm-ridden if sweet). There was one tree that had some fruit that just worked for eating out of hand, but two tart apples were about all an empty stomach could approach until dinner. There were at least 30kg of these (of which half remain prepped in my freezer for Winter pies and booze).

Breaking fast with some roadside apples – which are typically very tart and crabby (or worm-ridden if sweet). There was one tree that had some fruit that just worked for eating out of hand, but two tart apples were about all an empty stomach could approach until dinner. There were at least 30kg of these (of which half remain prepped in my freezer for Winter pies and booze).

By the end of the day, things were looking positively rosy when I got back to find others converging on my house with very large amounts of hunted goat, speared fish and a fair bit of foraged and homegrown fruit and veg. A quick hit on our garden and we got busy dividing up so we could all go off with a few days survival secured. In celebration, I feasted on fish and stewed pears; and, because it was one of my two exceptions along with olive oil, I drank wine.

Calamondins brought to the day 1 food-share. In my view, citrus is among food’s ‘critical infrastructure’, but very few are fruiting in Autumn, so these tart little kumquat-like babies were a godsend.

Calamondins brought to the day 1 food-share. In my view, citrus is among food’s ‘critical infrastructure’, but very few are fruiting in Autumn, so these tart little kumquat-like babies were a godsend.

Day 2

Day 2 started badly and got little better. Through what I assume was a virus helped along by combination of exhaustion, being underfed and drinking too much wine, I was practically bed-ridden. I had been up in the night vomiting stewed pears and fish. All I know is that it wasn’t the food – it is not that often that 7 other people are signed on to eating the exact same stuff as you, and they were were all fine. I awoke with no options other than stewed pears and fish as a ready-to-eat meal and couldn’t face either. What’s more I was faced with the prospect of cleaning a very sizeable haul of fish and getting it in the freezer before it went off. That did not go well. If you have never gutted a surgeonfish, which I hadn’t, do not do it on a weak stomach. While the flesh is reputedly perfectly palatable, the gutting is disgusting. It was more of a tainted retch than a full vomit I’d have to say, but with that, I had no real desire to eat any fish at all. Things stayed that way for the rest of the week – I forced down one piece of kingfish ceviche on day 7, but that was it. This was unfortunate, given that there was lot of fish in my freezer.

Halfway through fish cleaning; normally something I enjoy, but not when wracked by nausea and when surgeonfish (not pictured) are involved.

Halfway through fish cleaning; normally something I enjoy, but not when wracked by nausea and when surgeonfish (not pictured) are involved.

Day 3

Day 3 found me still in pretty bad shape. I had slept 13 hours, but still felt like more. Or some caffeine. With milk in it. With cheese and butter also off the table, I realised how much I like dairy. There was also another forager down with a virus or something. I wasn’t the only one struggling. And another who had to cancel his fishing trip for the day because I was too ill to take to the waves. I’d managed to get a rabbit, some goat and half a roadkill wood duck in the slow cooker the night before and I managed to dig up and clean a kilo or two of edible canna (Queensland arrowroot) in the morning; it joined the meat with some herbs and I figured I had dinner for four – including the man down.

Day 1 had brought in some hunted goat and (of all things) a roadkill wood duck, and the Day 2 hunting party came through with rabbit. Food was clearly not lacking in either quality or quantity, there was just a bit of lifestyle habit and illness to shift before it could become easy.

Day 1 had brought in some hunted goat and (of all things) a roadkill wood duck, and the Day 2 hunting party came through with rabbit. Food was clearly not lacking in either quality or quantity, there was just a bit of lifestyle habit and illness to shift before it could become easy.

A harvest of Queensland arrowroot for carbs (supplemented cursorily with some sorghum and maize that had seeded from chook food when their bedding is re-used as fertile mulch) and the stew became hearty as well as fancy.

A harvest of Queensland arrowroot for carbs (supplemented cursorily with some sorghum and maize that had seeded from chook food when their bedding is re-used as fertile mulch) and the stew became hearty as well as fancy.

This was probably the first meal after I had properly embraced the FOTLAS idea properly – a delicious mixed game stew with garden starchy bits, parsley, chilli and Thai basil.

This was probably the first meal after I had properly embraced the FOTLAS idea properly – a delicious mixed game stew with garden starchy bits, parsley, chilli and Thai basil.

I delivered some stew to a couple of others en route to trade some fish for some bunya nuts. A mate was house-sitting an empty mansion with a bunya pine in it and just happened to send an email expressing his surprise at the size of the pinecones that were falling. Great big bombs laden with carbs – just what we were after! Things were looking up again. But we had lost one forager to the temptation of boardroom catering – and then there were seven.

Bunya nuts in abundance, the famed feast food of the Bundjalung people. From this point on (about halfway) it became clear that hunger would only be a consequence of not finding the time to do the huge of amount of processing involved with a lot of wild food.

Bunya nuts in abundance, the famed feast food of the Bundjalung people. From this point on (about halfway) it became clear that hunger would only be a consequence of not finding the time to do the huge of amount of processing involved with a lot of wild food.

Day 4

I discovered bunya nuts. I had tried them before on a trip where we gathered some from a park in Wellington (NSW) en route to a few weeks in the bush, back before the internet was on phones, and worked out that they are not quite right uncooked, hard as rock overcooked and delicious when done just right. A tricky feat for novices with only a campfire to work with. Now with online suggestion and fancy new oven, we nailed it – 25 minutes at 200 degrees C. Figuring pine nuts were a pesto ingredient and with plentiful basil, pasta pesto was reinvented with a basil sauce over roast bunya nuts playing the part of gnocchi. I was back in good health and back on track.

Bunyas used like gnocchi with a basil sauce – pasta pesto without the pasta.

Bunyas used like gnocchi with a basil sauce – pasta pesto without the pasta.

Day 5

I was loving it! After doing the school run, I popped by the sea and had a dive for sea snails, picked up some sea lettuce and returned home. I set them aside (to become sous vide tenderised nuggets on skewers at the final feast) and replaced them with someone’s abalone from the previous weekend and some bunya nuts done with my favourite Thai combo of chilli and Thai basil (plus sea lettuce). Another forager had traded with a neighbour for some hunted venison – I took the time to give a backstrap fillet 8 hours sous vide with oil and a lot of herbs and had my first crack at ‘forager’s bread’. It was a recipe that I was later unable to recreate; a sheer luck combo of boiled Queensland arrowroot, leached acorns and bunyas, blended, flattened into rounds in a tortilla press and pan-fried (I’ve lost the picture and don’t know how to get it off Instagram, but it’s here). With tender venison in a perfect nutty flatbread following the abalone and chilli basil bunyas, I wasn’t just subsisting by the end of the day but laying a happy head down after two of my finest meals in memory.

An early morning snorkel and forage.

An early morning snorkel and forage.

Chilli basil stir-fried bunya nuts and abalone.

Chilli basil stir-fried bunya nuts and abalone.

Day 6

Having dug up a rather meagre harvest of kumara in the shady, sandy side garden on Day 1, I got around to snooping underground in the sunny front bed. 10kg of tubers came up easily from just a quarter of the bed. A pang of guilt that some others would have liked to know about this bonanza earlier was assuaged by knowing that the offer to come digging had been declined by all. I lunched on chilli basil super stew of rabbit, venison, goat, duck, bunya, arrowroot and roadside pears. Dinner came as huge roast kumara with bunya pesto (using native spinach, rocket and amaranth with the basil) topped with chilli and chives. For the first time of the week I was actually stuffed at the end of the day.

Day 7

Feast day. Up at 7 am to start the coals and rig up a whole goat on a spit on top of them, 3 kilos of kumara stitched up inside it. I try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the pliable forager’s flatbread, but nonetheless get some fried flatbread through with the help of the Squeeze. Fish arrives in perfect order – freshly speared kingfish. Home-made wine, shop-bought beer, vodka with foraged mint / lemon myrtle / stevia syrup and we settle into celebrating our success and laughing over the struggles.

Most of the Fat of the Land and Sea Week crew - a finer bunch of fishers, foragers, hunters and growers may never have assembled!

Most of the Fat of the Land and Sea Week crew – a finer bunch of fishers, foragers, hunters and growers may never have assembled! (photo credit: @mostlyfish)

Fat of the Land and Sea Week Spring is coming!

Plans are now confirmed for Fat of the Land and Sea Week Spring 2015. Sunday 11 – Saturday 17 October. To make it more accessible, especially for people with limited wild and homegrown resources or limited time while still working through the week full-time, we’ll be tweaking the rules. In some form or other, pretty much anyone can get involved. Dates to be confirmed, but we welcome anyone and everyone to come aboard.

FOTLAS 2015 Rules:

  1. Wild and homegrown food every day for a week. This may be that something is wild or homegrown every day or in every meal or, at the full-on end of the spectrum, that everything is.
  2. You can nominate some specific ingredients as exceptions. As many as you like for whatever reason. This would usually be things that are central to your cooking (olive oil, some seasonings), personal health regime (yoghurt, turmeric, oat bran, your weird kale-based kombucha, whatever), small pleasures in life (coffee, wine, chocolate) or a staple to keep you from starving (rice, potatoes, bread) while you make the challenge about what goes with it.
  3. You may require of yourself that it is all gathered within the week or you may allow yourself to get a start stockpiling some wild and home-grown food beforehand. That might be just the previous Saturday or that you start stocking the larder and freezer now (I’ll be allowing larder use so I can keep a better handle on the day job).
  4. Trading, gifting and generally doing the week in collaboration with friends or strangers is encouraged. It is a week to celebrate and a week to make you think about your own personal engagement with food and your place in a food network. Making it local means people can do things like drop in for something someone else has lots of (like fish or greens) midweek or make a dish and drop it around to others.
  5. It runs from a Sunday to a Saturday; and on that Saturday, there should be a feast!

Read Full Post »

Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix)

Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix)

Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix; ‘bluefish’ in many parts of their very wide distribution around the world) aka ‘choppers’ around here for their predatory method of coming in behind their prey and chomping with razor sharp teeth, are a fish that have recently made me feel a little guilty, truth be told. While I am quick to defend the culinary virtues of some fish that some anglers are quick to leave behind as bait or ‘rubbish fish’ (like slimy mackerel, bonito, Australian salmon, leatherjacket and even yellowtail scad), tailor has strangely been the fish I’ve been happiest to bypass.

Soft fleshed fish, to the point of being hard to work with for many recipes, hasn’t suited my idea of sea meat, I suppose. And yet allowed to be just that – tender even with quite careless cooking – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But perhaps the bigger thing is that tailor fishing has rarely fitted in with my ideal of a day out on the water. They are estuary fish, and in my part of the world that means Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. Beautiful in their own right, but busy.

Botany Bay vista, with Sydney Airport, container terminals, city skyline and no shortage of other boats

Botany Bay vista, with Sydney Airport, container terminals, city skyline and no shortage of other boats

Approached from the sea, Sydney is (unbeknownst to most) the world’s most spectacularly walled city. Huge, sheer sandstone cliffs rise up like ramparts no castle will ever match. There is an extraordinary ocean wilderness on one side and one of the busiest modern cities in the southern hemisphere on the other (check out my mate Normy’s paraglider crossing of the heads youtube video for some spectacular imagery). The thing is, I so much love fishing outside the walls that tailor have somehow seemed like second class fare to be taken en route. Kind of like a pastry from a petrol station – hard to resist but eventually unsatisfying.

From the offshore perspective, the same view in the photo above is gorgeously hidden by these city walls

From the offshore perspective, the same view in the photo above is gorgeously hidden by these city walls

But with an onshore sou’wester and choppier seas than anticipated on a recent outing keeping us from the open water, bay fishing it was. The vast spectacle of the open Pacific would have been all too likely interrupted by the threat of small boating disaster and the inevitability of seasickness. So, a backdrop of container terminals, airport runways, city skylines and scores of other boats on Botany Bay became the setting of a dedicated harvest of the best return on offer. Tailor.

The catch was mostly taken not long after dawn broke, between 6 and 7 in the morning. They are savagely ravenous hunters. We (2 of us) trolled small lures until one of us had a hit, then as they retrieved the fish, the other cast small silver lures in the direction of the action, usually hooking up. When that dried up, we moved on to another troll and repeated, diving birds generally leading the way. We stopped well short of a bag limit, figuring we were missing out on other options that never came through, only to come back to find them (and the Australian salmon chasing the same baitfish) a lot more picky about lures in the full light of day.

Most fisherman tend to favour pan-fried or battered and deep-fried tailor – but a lot of fishermen tend to prefer almost all fish that way. Served with beer. Other fishers’ favourites include smoking and the cheeky recipe offering of “use as bait to catch a snapper [Pagrus auratus]; then cook the snapper”. Whole baked fish seems the best idea to me though. For one thing, and who hasn’t over-cooked firmer non-oily fish like flathead, you are unlikely to get it wrong and dry it out. Tailor are indeed soft and they do indeed taste a bit oily and fishy. Some find baking mutes the slightly strong taste. You can still catch that flavour and use it well by catching it in pan juices and then a sauce. A sorrel sauce (like here), or in any case something with both lemon and herbs (parsley, basil, mint) to balance the strong tailor taste, but using less oil than most recipes may advise and perhaps a bit more salt. Or in my case, pie gravy – this time a variation below on a recently posted recipe (here) – because I am currently a little bit obsessed with the delights of fish pies.

I tend to top and tail all fish these days, feeding the offcuts (less the razor teeth) to the dog; and for whole baked tailor this seems to work very well

I tend to top and tail all fish these days, feeding the offcuts (less the razor teeth) to the dog; and for whole baked tailor this seems to work very well

Recipe: Tailor and mussel pie

Lay four tailor out, just overlapping in a baking dish. Drizzle with oil and salt, giving it a rub if you are inclined (don’t worry too much about adding any other flavours because they come later). Cook for 30 mins at 200C; skin should be crinkly but not burnt and the flesh should pull easily from the bone. Let it cool and deflesh; keep the skin with the meat. Pour the pan juices and the fish frames into a pot with a big bunch of herbs (any or all of (in my personal choice of priority) kaffir lime leaf, lemon myrtle, Thai basil, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, dill, sweet or perennial basil, mint, fennel, marjoram, oregano, celery and/or lovage). The amount of herbs should be pretty huge, to the extent that it would be silly expensive if they were all shop bought, so it will probably hinge to a great extent upon what you can lay your hands on. Add a cup or so of water and lay 1kg of mussels on top (NZ greenlips, pretty affordable as far as seafood goes, a good sustainable option and a great contributor of both meat and stock flavour – always buy them frozen (outside of NZ) because they all leave the country this way, so why compromise freshness with ‘thawed for your convenience’). Steam the mussels (in the shell ideally) and stop before they start to lose any plumpness. Allow it to cool enough to pick out the mussel meat. Strain the stock and put enough of in a jar to shake with, and disperse, 3 Tblsp flour. Sauté a diced onion and then some crushed garlic in the pot with a generous chunk of butter and when it is golden/translucent, put everything back in with it (with a tsp of smoked paprika if you like) and stir, stir, stir. Sprinkle extra flour if too runny or add milk if too thick, all the time stirring. Hopefully the mix can take ten minutes of this so the flour gets a decent cooking. The tailor will be broken down into a fishy gloop with the nuggets of mussel suspended in it. Add a cup (or otherwise to taste) of grated cheddar cheese, stir in and pour the lot in a baking dish that works as a pie dish. Allow it to cool before covering with puff or other pie pastry and bake until the pastry is right.

Serve with a topping of sour cream and a pie sauce of choice – in this case a wild plum ketchup from a recent forage

Serve with a topping of sour cream and a pie sauce of choice – in this case a wild plum ketchup from a recent forage

Read Full Post »

With a decent haul of summer fish, it feels good to be able to put a little more seafood on the table. My share of a recent catch included one kingfish (Seriola lalandi), three nannygai (Centroberyx affinis), two flathead (Platycephalus sp.) and a blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii) (something else (probably a morwong) stolen on the retrieve by a fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) of all things). After a little sashimi sampling of kingfish and some fresh nannygai fillets in fish burritos, attention turns to the offcuts. Time for fish head pie.

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Nannygai, kingfish and flathead heads

Anything filleted (kingfish and nannygai) or beheaded before freezing (flathead) gets frames and heads thrown in the slow cooker with just enough water to cover. The tails are omitted as it turns out the dog has a penchant for crunching them down; although she’d have not got it off the pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus) that the skipper took home, because the seal had already helped itself to it.

Once cooked, the fish heads are taken out and all the flesh is picked off and set aside; then the remains go back in the cooker along with a big bunch of herbs (thyme, sage, kaffir lime, lemon myrtle, lemon grass, Vietnamese mint, parsley and Thai basil). Once fragrant it all gets strained to become a very herby fish stock.

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

A lot of herbs smells at first like it might be overdoing it, but by the time it gets into the stodginess of a mornay sauce it mellows a lot

The concentrated stock then becomes the base of a fish and herb mornay (white sauce with cheese), has the picked flesh stirred in and allowed to cool. After an optional additional stirring through of a raw egg or two, it is topped with puff pastry and baked as fish head pot pie. Summer is here and it is a wonderful thing to live near the sea and a herb garden.

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Cheese and flour turns the reduced herby fish stock into a kind of mornay sauce through which the recovered fish meat is stirred

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

Topped with pastry and baked, you have a beautiful fish head pie

Read Full Post »

Flathead (Playcephalus sp.)

Despite a rough run of weather leaving many Sydneysiders missing the stormless drought, crisp, sunny winter’s days with gentle westerlies flattening out the sea were always going to make an appearance at some stage; it’s just La Niña after all, not the apocalypse. The Pacific Ocean is all too often a dreadfully misnamed body of water, but occasionally it lives up to its promise. With the cool water, trolling lures for pelagics like summer and autumn bonito doesn’t yield so well; but long relaxing drifts across the deep offshore sand for flathead (Platycephalus spp.) and the occasional other interloper (like leatherjacket, flounder or rays) comes into its own.

A calm winter sea, held flat with offshore westerlies

We motored in the tinny (aluminium dinghy) to the north end of a surf beach, stopped and threw out the drift anchor (like an airstrip windsock on a rope) to slow the wind’s westerly push. An offshore current pushing southwards did the rest of the work – setting us off on a long relaxing 2 hour drift to the southeast. We’ve done this often enough not to worry if the fish aren’t biting because soon or later on a 3 kilometre journey ending 2 kilometres out to sea they always eventually will. As the shore receded, the quiet solitude of the open ocean started to envelope us. On the edge of a huge city, bobbing in a seemingly endless calm, fishing heavily weighted paternoster rigs in inky blue depths of around 50 metres.

A modest but legal-sized flathead in the net

Often distracted by tending my line, bringing up or netting the occasional legal-sized keeper and releasing back the equal or even greater number or undersized ones, I would sometimes look up like someone waking surprised in a wilderness. Whales, seals, penguins and albatross (in addition to the usual shearwaters and gannets have all been seen in these winter outings, like the great cold south has come visiting (even though the penguins are local). This time a Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), landing by our lines and ducking its head under to see what was going on down there, diving and underwater flying for any skerricks of bait within reach. Then a Great Skua (Catharcta skua), a strangely fat mongrel-brown maritime scavenger from the south, sitting like a feathered stray dog waiting for cast-offs, not begging nor even hardly acknowledging our existence; just waiting with the patience of an opportunist.

A scavenging Great Skua (Catharcta skua)

Over time we lost count of the number of keepers in the box, muddled by the calm rhythm of the fishing, the numbers of undersized returns and the hypnotic slap of water on the metal boat. But we knew we were doing well enough, with enough to need to open the freezer for, and the catches only getting more consistently legal-sized with either distance offshore or the light fading towards sunset or both. Keeping just enough time to do the boat ramp thing before darkness we reluctantly headed in: 12 good flathead (bluespotted I think; Platycephalus caeruleopunctatus) and 1 flounder (Pseudorhombus sp.).

Back in the kitchen, each fish is carefully opened rather than quickly gutted, each time a 50-50 party game with the prize being a female’s roe. I have a peculiar love of these, buried in salt in a bowl and put in an oven on as low as it goes for however many hours it takes to suck it dry. The salt dusted off it can be simply chopped finely and sprinkled as a garnish (particularly if mixed with dehydrated sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) given the same treatment) that tastes deeply of the sea; of the deep sea no less, of fish hauled up from 50 metres below. Problem was, from my cut of 6 fish, only two females, one very light with roe. That said, this stuff goes a long way.

Salting flathead roe

Salted flathead roe – the taste of deep water in a condiment

Read Full Post »

Blackfish (Girella tricuspidata), the rabbit of the sea – under-appreciated, algae-grazing small game

Blackfish grazing on a seaweed bed

There are 2 ways I know how to get blackfish (Girella tricuspidata), also known as luderick: One is to fish with a float dangling a tiny hook off rocky shores baited with sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) – a technique I have yet to succeed at; and the other is to get in after them snorkelling with a spear. This last method was a favourite of mine as a teenager around Sydney, and then again in my early thirties as a student doing research on the North Coast. I would use a hand spear (‘Hawaiian sling’ or ‘gidgee spear’) – an aluminium rod with barbed spikes at one end and a large elastic loop at the other that you slide up the shaft to propel the spear when released. They require getting close to the fish, stalking them, a snorkelling version of creeping, around rocks and through kelp, predicting their movements, and taking quick-reflex shots in the tiny window of time before they flee. The elastic digs hard into the space between thumb and finger, still scarred on my right hand from the broken blisters that failed to heal well with the saltwater and repeated wearing away at raw skin. Now, for the first time, I have stepped up a notch with the gear, getting the most basic of spearguns. Now a long thin stainless steel shaft with hinged barbs is loaded up with an elastic loop released by a pistol-grip trigger – double the power, double the distance. Accuracy will probably double too once it becomes the spear that I am used to.

A speared blackfish with an old barbed hand spear head

The favourite blackfish lagoon

For my first outing with the new toy I ventured into my favourite blackfish spot – a pebble beached lagoon, the most beautiful piece of shore I know, a hidden paradise kept still by a rock reef behind raging seas. The water, although at times crystal clear, was murky from recent storm seas and floodwaters off the land. Armed with the speargun, my shooting range was actually further than I could see, drifting slowly, stalking around rocks, making out the familiar shapes, sometimes their distinctive stripes, and all too often the way that they turn on their side to flee from view and from range (a technique that allows them to escape through the shallowest of water that would bar a larger predator – like a shark… or me in fins). My first shot is too late, delayed by vain hopes of a better opportunity to shoot until it becomes a last ditch hope of hitting a fading shadow in the murky gloom. The next is at a fish perfectly side-on, still cruising away but not panicked; and it hits, down towards the tail, threading the fish body on the steel needle inescapably. With my not unjustified paranoia of holding quivering fish in water where sharks may take an interest, I lift it flapping clear of the water and swim on my back to shore in seconds to dispatch it, beach it, and plunge back in. After two more misses, a clean shot hits close to centre (actually not a perfect shot because of damage to good meat) and a second fish is landed. The second of two fish I would not have got with the range of the old hand spear.

Blackfish swimming

A speared blackfish with the new weaponry – the cheapest speargun in the shop

The truth is I have spent a lot of outings launching old bent, degraded-rubber, blunt tipped hand spears vainly at blackfish just that little bit too far away to hit. And so it is also true that I really do like the new edge I get from the speargun. The challenge remains and I’ll take a bit of credit alongside the weapon, gleaned from having hunted these little sea rabbits (because they are jumpy, sea lettuce eating small game) on and off for a quarter of a century. I will not go so far with spearfishing as to head offshore for bigger targets (I’ve a mate who has jumped off ocean-going boats to spear big game fish and then be towed for an hour around the sea dreading the appearance of sharks); but I will keep hunting blackfish, knowing that I’m not the lithe predator I was in my youth, but recalling those days with fondness every time; tasting it in the small boneless fillets fried fast in butter almost burning then quenched with lemon juice and served within half an hour of the kill.

A closing tip: If you are going to cook a blackfish whole, the black gut lining needs scrubbing off – conveniently done with beach sand

Read Full Post »

Bonito: Sarda australis

From January to perhaps April my enormous preference for fish, both to catch and to eat, is bonito (Sarda australis). And to be honest, these four months are when I do most of my year’s fishing. A trip on a boat can be relied on for a half-dozen or so of them (sometimes many more), trolling around the headlands. Our last trip last week scored exactly that. In some years (like last year, but unfortunately not this one) there is also a chance that one of the smaller tuna (like striped or mackerel tuna) will hit your lure. While they are the smallest of the tuna, they are still a tuna; and they cook like it and catch like it.

With my lure usually running a little further back than my mate’s, he will often get hit first and drop the boat into neutral (or a slow heading away from the rocks) to begin reeling in. This means I start hauling my lure in on the fastest retrieve I can pull off. It gets my line out of the way of a possible tangle with his and it means that I am hopefully retrieving through the school. Last week, 2 of his 3 hook ups had me onto fish as well this way. It is that little bit more fun to get hit like this, in anticipation of it and ready to really feel the strike through rod and line. Being rigged to handle a possible larger tuna (or kingfish even), the gear isn’t light enough to need to mess around with playing the fish, it is just straight skull-dragging to the boat. Followed by landing, slitting of gill arteries to bleed the flesh as much as possible and into the iced kill box. Then it is a quick turn around and back for more. With a box filling with fish quivering blood into an iced slurry, no one would say it is pretty, but there is a satisfaction to this annual harvest that lasts a whole year. And it is fun, a lot of fun.

Last week's catch of 'bonnies'

With the bad weather of this summer, I have gotten out on only two boat trips. I go on a mate’s pretty small dinghy and we are a little more shy of big swell now after an incident with a wave on a bombora last year put me first in the hospital casualty room and then in bed for a week of back spasm agony. We may manage another outing before the bonnies move on, but failing that there is also spinning off the rocks.

Shark Point on a good day

On a good day, Shark Point juts passively into the Pacific far enough to have a reasonable chance of getting you in the way of passing near-shore pelagic (open ocean) fish like bonito. On a bad day it gives you a more than reasonable chance of getting taken roughly into a less than pacific sea (rock fishing is said to have more deaths than any other sport). On too many mornings in the current weather, the ocean view is like today’s (below), even though on shore it seems like a reasonable day of patchy cloud, gentle wind and just a slight chance of rain. Last week I chanced it, up before dawn and down to the headland to cast into the first rays of the rising sun – I pushed my luck long enough to lose one lure because of fishing too far from the surging water’s edge before quitting while I was ahead and still dry. A lot of rock fishing trips go like that for me – a walk down to the headland to make an obvious choice to walk home again. It’s a very nice walk though. On other times the walk does get to include some vain lure casting into a seemingly empty sea (this also means a spell staring at that sea, that greatest of all wildernesses and therefore a precious interlude in a city life). And then others, the ones easiest to remember, there are fish like the bonito in the first picture of the post. I will keep trying until the water cools to wetsuit temperatures, and then wait again for next year.

No fishing today

One of the beauties of bonito is the ease of eating it. Being great for sashimi and without scales (or at least tiny ones that do not need removal, you could even start chowing down on it straight from the water (although a habit that we reserve for harbour kingfish when we take soy and wasabi out with us in anticipation). With a good sharp knife, fillets come off with an easy and obvious slice. Cuts on either side of the row of bones down the middle (see below) then give you two fillets of which the lower one with ribs gets another slice to remove those. From that piece with the ribs you can then cut a delicious fat little belly flap and have little overall waste. From 3 fish, you get 12 decent  fillets and 6 little belly flaps. They freeze well. You might not want to keep fish in the freezer long enough to see you through until the next bonito season, but a few good hauls can still keep you in fish for good part of the year. I’ve had success with a Basque country fish stew called marmitako, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’sgravad max’ recipe and have heard hot smoking also works well.

Filleting bonito

The final bonito product

Ask a lot of fishermen about bonito and they will tell you it is great bait; and some will tell you that it is only bait. But if it is bled and fresh it is better than some of the other tunas and really a perfect example of the ‘chicken of the sea’ fishes. Unlike other tunas though, bonito is generally abundant and not overfished. As a commercial catch it is a ‘better choice’ with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, which means that as a recreational catch without bycatch or waste it keeps you on the right fish-eating track.

Read Full Post »