The Last Blackcod Fishing of 2012

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The crew with a nice looking blackcod

I Should clarify… The year’s last blackcod fishing FOR ZED!  He finished the season longlining on the Pacific Hustler and took some photos on the last trip, so I thought I’d share.  These were all taken off the Washington coast.

Now to get ready for Dungeness Crab!

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Zed’s finger after getting snagged by a hook. Yuck!

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Al and Remo at the rail

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an aerial shot of Al and Remo at the rail

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Al and Remo at the rail

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left to right: Brad, Mike, and Andrew

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the “fish stripper” stripping fish off the hooks

What Ever Happened to the Blues?

I think I’m way overdue for a Blue family update.  I’ve been writing new blog posts, but I realize that I’ve been leaving out details of our new boat/fishing/business operation.  I think I’ve just been too stressed out and depressed about the whole situation to write about it and share it with the world… until now!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ve probably been thinking, “didn’t they buy a boat?”  If you are new to this blog you are probably thinking, “what the hell is she talking about?”  So first, for any new readers, I will try to summarize what our family has been working on for the last year.  One year ago, my husband (Zed) and I purchased a sixty foot commercial shrimp boat in Alabama, fixed it and converted it to a crab boat for fishing on the Washington State coast.

Our boat in shipyard in Alabama last year (and our dog, Dora)

As these types of projects seem to go, we went over schedule and way over budget.  Zed spent four straight months in Alabama working on the boat and then two months traveling, bringing the boat around through the Panama Canal, and up the Pacific coast.  By the time he arrived in Washington with the boat, the crabbing season (our main source of income) was mostly over.

We have spent the last six or seven months just doing whatever it takes to stay afloat (literally and figuratively) until next crab season.  Essentially, our boat has been docked for most of the year because it is only rigged for crabbing and we couldn’t afford to set it up for any other fisheries.  Zed used our boat to tender for crab, but he’s mostly been working as a deckhand on another boat longlining for blackcod.  I have picked up several odd jobs to help make ends meet, including some freelance writing for www.alaskajobfinder.com, babysitting kids in our neighborhood, and teaching a preschool art class (okay, this last one is more just for fun).  I even painted our neighbors fence!

Essentially, I have spent the last year raising two kids (and two dogs and a cat) on my own.  I’m not gonna lie to you – it’s been a rough year.  We have been barely scraping by, not even able to pay our bills some months, let alone pay off any of the personal debts we have recently acquired.

Captain Larkyn, you might want to turn those around

But I am happy to report, things are just starting to turn around!  We are slowly finding our way out of the woods, so to speak.  Last week we signed the final papers to refinance our boat loan and to finance some much-needed improvements to the boat.  This loan has been in the works for months now and I can hardly believe it is over and done with!  I’ve been sleeping better the last few nights knowing we are in a safer financial situation.

Between now and the start of the crab season (sometime in January) we have a lot of work to do – putting our boat in shipyard and installing a refrigeration system and a new generator (to start), getting our crab gear in order, buying new crab pots, painting buoys, cutting line, and all the other fun preparations that happen before a season.  All of this work will happen here in Bellingham, or nearby, and I look forward to having my husband home every night.

stack of crab pots last year

big pile of lines and buoys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I don’t have any expectations that things will get any easier just because Zed is in town.  I am well aware of the never-ending duties of a boat owner.  This is a very important time of year for us – it is absolutely essential that our boat is ready to fish when the season starts or we could miss out on our most profitable fishing of the year.  In short, Zed will be burning the candle at both ends and I don’t expect to see too much of him, except maybe when I’m bringing him lunch down at the harbor!

Zed and Atticus on the boat

I think we have another rough year ahead of us – I don’t see any breaks in sight until the summer, at least – but we have hope that this coming crab season will be profitable and bring us further out of debt.  That’s what fishing is all about: working your absolute hardest and hoping for the best.  Wish us luck!

And Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

 

 

An Authentic Thanksgiving Dish: Roasted Salmon

I am currently hard at work planning my Thanksgiving day menu and, as usual, trying to fit as much seafood into the day as possible. Swapping out “traditional” fare for seafood is pretty easy for me, considering my proximity to the ocean and my general ambivalence toward turkey. It’s not that I dislike turkey, I’m just not overly fond of the birds. If turkey was on my plate, I would eat it, but I would be much happier if fish was on my plate.

For the main dish this year I’m thinking of serving a large salmon, stuffed and roasted whole. This idea appeals to me partly because I just love salmon, but also because fish was one of the foods served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Fish was a staple food for both the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag taught the pilgrims to catch fish, grow crops (pretty much saved their asses) and joined them in their first Thanksgiving feast.

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Still life with salmon, a painting by Edouard Manet

I don’t plan on having an entire historically authentic Thanksgiving meal, but I was curious what that might look like. After doing a little research I discovered that the only foods we know for sure were at that first Thanksgiving feast between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims were deer (five of them to be exact) and fowl (most likely waterfowl like duck, geese, or swans, but possibly wild turkey). It is most likely that seafood (fish, eel, lobster, shellfish, etc..) was served because it was such an important part of everyone’s diet at that time.

Pilgrims (I’ve read) often stuffed whole fish with onions and herbs – a great and timeless combination – but I wanted to take the recipe a little farther.

If you wish to roast a salmon for Thanksgiving this year, seek out the biggest wild fish you can find. An eight pound fish will serve around twelve people. If you can find a fish with the head and tail on – wonderful! Often the head has been removed from the fish before it reaches your grocery store, and that is just fine.

Roasted Whole Salmon

  • A large whole salmon, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 large onion, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • 2 lemons, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
  • Bunches of fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, fennel, or basil
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 2 TBSP lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Place a sheet of parchment paper or cheese cloth in the bottom of a large roasting pan or sheet pan and place the fish on top. Cut three shallow diagonal slits in the skin of the salmon on both sides. Season the salmon generously with salt and pepper inside its cavity.

2. Stuff as much of the onion, lemon, and herbs (leave them in sprigs or chop them up) into the cavity of the fish as you can. Measure the thickness of the stuffed salmon with a ruler.

3. In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the lemon juice. Baste the outside of the salmon withe the butter-lemon mixture and place on the middle rack of the oven. For every inch of thickness, bake for 10 minutes (for example, if the fish is three inches thick, bake for around 30 min). Click here to read more about this technique. Baste the fish thoroughly every 10 minutes with the butter-lemon. Test the flesh every 10 minutes as well, and take the fish out of the oven when the flesh flakes apart with a fork. If the tail or head are looking too brown or are getting dried out, cover them lightly with aluminum foil.

4. After pulling the pan out of the oven, pour the white wine into the pan to help loosen the fish from the paper or cheese cloth. Carefully slide the fish onto a platter to serve.

If you would like to cook a side dish at the same time – and save room in your oven – roast your salmon on top of a bed of vegetables. Green beans, squash, or potatoes would all work well if you cut them into smaller pieces so they cook quickly. Just toss your veggies in olive oil, lay them in a single layer in you roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt before laying your fish on top of them. You might need to add a few more minutes to your cooking time.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of presenting a whole fish with the head and tail on. It seems very appropriate for a feast, and a good reminder to be thankful for the bounty that our oceans, rivers and lakes provide. May we keep our waters clean and healthy so they continue to feed us for ever and ever!

Community Supported Fisheries: The Future of Family Fishing?

Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) is a concept that is growing and spreading across the country as a way for small-scale farmers to connect directly with consumers. Generally, the way C.S.A. works is that an individual can buy a share of the season’s harvest from the farmer before the growing season begins. The revenue from those sold shares covers operational costs for the farm, and when crops become available they are picked up by the shareholder in weekly or bi-weekly installments.

An example of a weekly CSA delivery, photo by Steven Walling

The farmer benefits from this arrangement, incurring less risk throughout the season, increasing revenue by eliminating a middleman, and decreasing the need for the farmer to compete with industrialized agribusinesses. The consumer, meanwhile, receives fresh locally grown produce and gets to participate directly with the farm and farmers that grow their food. Kind of a win-win situation that could potentially rescue our nation’s small family farms from impending extinction.

Unfortunately, our fisheries are headed in the same direction as the rest of our economy – fewer and fewer people owning and controlling larger and larger portions of the industry. In the case of the fishing industry, those with money are buying up permits and quota, boats are getting bigger and bigger, and the small-scale family fishing operations are finding it more and more difficult to compete.  Although it is difficult for small fishing operations to compete with factory fishing boats, the small-scale fisheries have an advantage in one way – the increasing desire that consumers have for a local connection to their food. People want to know where their food comes from and I believe this is a trend that is going to stick around.

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An example of a factory fishing boat, a factory trawler in Poland. Photo by Magnus Manske

Fishermen are beginning to catch on to the C.S.A. model now, with several C.S.F.s (community supported fisheries) now operating out of American and European fishing towns. Consumers pay for a share, or subscription, and then get weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly installments of freshly caught seafood directly from the fishermen.

Read this recent  New York Times article about how struggling fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine escaped their demise by teaming up and forming a C.S.F. in their home town.

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A 16th century Flemish fishmonger painted by Joachim Beuckelaer

For the customer the advantages are plenty:

  • The freshest seafood available
  • Exposure to new species of seafood
  • Relationship with the fishermen
  • Directly support their local economy

The only disadvantage to the customer is the payment of a lump sum up front.

For the fishermen the advantages are just as enticing:

  • Set their own prices instead of being at the whim of the market/buyer
  • Eliminate the middleman
  • Fish for what is available and plentiful
  • More stability and predictability in their earnings

For the fishermen, there might also be some disadvantages:

  • Added work load of marketing and customer relations
  • May need to process their own fish (clean, filet, and freeze)
  • Time of educating their customers on cooking methods for each species

Both C.S.A.s and C.S.F.s encourage a way of life that is not only healthier for the individual, but healthier for the environment as well – EATING IN SEASON!  This means not shipping tomatoes half way around the world to be consumed by Washingtonians in the winter, and it also means not shipping farmed shrimp from Asia to be consumed at American tables.

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A fishing boat in New Zealand, selling direct off the boat

Realistically, if Zed and I were to attempt a C.S.F. operation, the entire management of it would be my responsibility, as I suspect would be the case for many fishing families.  Historically, this was often the case as well, when “fishwives” sold fish in the market while their husbands were out at sea fishing.  Honestly, at this point in my life (with little kids) I’m not sure I could handle the extra workload.  Even though I have thought about direct marketing our seafood, I think I need to wait until both kids are in school before I seriously consider an undertaking of that magnitude.  It is an interesting possibility to consider though…

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Fishwives in Copenhagen 1932, photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13007 / CC-BY-SA

Just as direct sales are the history of commercial fishing and agriculture, is it possible that direct sales could also be the future?

So, I present this question to my fishing readers – does a C.S.F. sound appealing to you?  Would you be willing to put in the extra effort in order to direct market to your customers

And to my non-fishing readers – does this appeal to you?  Would you be willing to pay up front for a season of fresh local seafood?  (Obviously this business model doesn’t work so well for those of you living inland… maybe an overnight Fed-Ex delivery?)

What if these crab showed up on your doorstep?

The Foolproof Fish Trick

“There’s a trick to cooking fish that few people see to know about.  Maybe that is why fish isn’t as popular in this country as it deserves to be – it is usually so badly cooked”.  – James Beard

This tip for cooking fish comes from the “Dean of American Cooking”, James Beard, one of the most influential chefs this country has ever seen.

What I am providing here, courtesy of James Beard, is a simple tip for determining the precise amount of time to cook a fillet of fish in order to prevent overcooking.  Overcooking is, by far, the most common crime against fish because it happens so easily.  And it is such a tragedy when a beautiful fresh piece of fish is converted into a dry hard chunk that fights its way down your throat.

Not that I am completely innocent of this crime.  I have overcooked more fish than I care to admit.  I only really started cooking fish when I began dating a fisherman (now my husband) and it took me years before I realized just how quickly fish cooks.  After one too many fish was forgotten in the oven until it was a barely edible mass, I overcompensated by hovering over the oven, checking the flesh with a fork every couple of minutes to test if it flaked apart yet.  If only I had known about this trick years ago, I would have saved myself from countless dried out fish and hours of my time.

The trick is: measure the thickness of your fish and cook it at 450°F for ten minutes for every inch of thickness.

That’s it!  This rule works for any type of fish, any size, whether it is filleted, whole, stuffed, or breaded.

  • Preheat your oven to 450° F
  • Line a baking sheet with foil or butter a baking dish and lay down your room temperature fish
  • Measure the thickness of the fish at its thickest section
  • Season your fish however you like (salt, pepper, lemon, and butter work for any fish)
  • Pop your fish in the oven and set your timer for 10 minutes for every inch of thickness

Something you might want to consider: if your fish is significantly thicker in one section than another, make a compromise and use a measurement halfway between the thickest and thinnest sections.  For example, if the thickest part of the fish is two inches and the thinnest part is one inch, use the measurement of 1.5 inches and cook it for 15 minutes.  Also, you can cook your fish from a frozen state, just cook it for twenty minutes for every inch of thickness instead of ten minutes.  And if you want to seal your fish in a foil “envelope”, just add 5 minutes to the total cooking time.  

my fillet of sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay

I tested this out myself with a fillet of sockeye salmon that I pulled out of my freezer the other night.  I thawed out the salmon, laid it on a foil lined baking sheet and measured its thickness.

Why does my hand look so wrinkly?

I drizzled it with lemon juice and generously salted and peppered it before placing a few pats of butter on top.  After my ridiculously old oven took forever getting up to 450° I placed my baking sheet on the middle rack and set my timer.  Because my salmon measured just a tad over one inch, I set the timer for 11 minutes.  I backed away from the oven and resisted the urge to open the oven door and poke it with a fork.  I wanted to make sure I was doing an accurate test of this fish formula so I didn’t open the oven door until my timer rang at 11 minutes.  I immediately pulled the salmon out and let it cool on the counter for about 10 minutes before cutting into it.

Success!  I am happy to report that the salmon was perfectly done – barely cooked all the way through, and still moist and soft.

Testimony to my success. If only you could taste it too.

As you can see from the photo above, the flesh flakes apart but is still semi-transparent and deep pink in color.  When salmon is overcooked the color of the flesh changes to an opaque, light pink.

In case you can’t tell, I’m really excited about my discovery here!  I’m excited that I won’t have to guess and worry over baking fish anymore, and I’m excited to share this tip with my readers.  As a fisherman’s wife, I get asked all the time for advice on cooking fish.  It seems that many people in my part of the country feel uncertain about it and I really do believe that most people would buy fish more often if they felt confident in their ability to prepare it.

Hopefully this post will encourage a few people to pick up a fish from their market and test out the “ten minute per inch tip” themselves (or maybe you already know this trick?).  Any readers that try it, please report back to me on your results!  I would love to hear how different types of fish turn out in different ovens.  Just remember, 10 minutes at 450° for every inch of thickness.  Happy cooking!

Fishermen Always Miss Out

A fisherman’s work schedule does not follow any calendar. Fishermen do not get weekends off. Fishermen don’t get a 40 hour work week and they sure as hell don’t get paid overtime. Most fishermen are lucky if they get one lunch break in their 20 hour work day. If you are a fisherman your work schedule goes like this: if it’s fishing season, and the weather isn’t total crap, you will be on the water catching fish (or attempting to at least). Fishing continues until the season is over, or all the quota is caught.

Now, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. Most fishermen do not fish on Christmas day. Since Zed and I have been together he has never had to work on Christmas day. He has had to work the day before and the day after, but never the day of Christmas. Also, the birth of a baby is generally considered grounds for a short leave of absence (how short depends on the generosity of the skipper). We were lucky that the birth of our first baby happened between fishing seasons, and when our second baby was born Zed’s skipper gave him a whole month off.

But over the last eight years (that’s how long Zed and I have been together) we have spent many a birthday, holiday, and anniversary apart. This last year has been the hardest of all. Since purchasing our own fishing boat last October, Zed has spent nearly every day working. During this time period Zed has missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, our son’s 5th birthday, my (un-numbered) birthday, Valentine’s day, our anniversary, Mother’s day, and untold numbers of friend’s weddings, BBQs and other random celebrations. Add to this all those little moments, like the first lost tooth, or just a lazy summer day at the beach. And then last Friday Zed missed our son Atticus’s first day of kindergarten.

Our son Atticus on the morning of his first day of kindergarten

Just to be clear, I do not intend this as any sort of criticism of Zed as a parent or spouse, only as a demonstration of the sacrifices that a fisherman makes in order to support his family.  I know that Zed deeply regrets his absences…  He spent most of our son Larkyn’s first year of life in the Bering Sea crabbing and I think we can all agree, it was a miserable year that we wish we could get back somehow.

Zed crabbing in the Bering Sea in 2009

As a deckhand, Zed has zero say in when the boat leaves or comes home. As the captain of his own boat, Zed will have a little more control over his schedule. What is important to remember though, is that sometimes in fishing you only get short windows of opportunity where the fish are biting, or the crabs are the right size and in the right place and at the right time. The profits from a couple of weeks of fishing might be the majority of your earnings for the entire year. So, if you miss the peak of the season because you wanted to catch a school play or a soccer game, you could miss out on tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of dollars in earnings. This is just the way it is in fishing.

While I understand the necessity of Zed’s odd work schedule, it is difficult to explain to 4 and 5 year-olds. I try to tell our kids often, “Dad really wants to be here right now, but he has to catch fish so that we have a house to live in and food to eat”. It’s a harsh reality for little kids, but it is our reality nonetheless and I want our kids to understand that their dad is doing what he has to do, not what he wants to do.  I want them to grow up appreciating the sacrifices that their dad is making.  So far they seem to understand.

At this very moment Zed is somewhere off the Washington coast longlining for blackcod.  He’s probably wet, cold, and covered in fish blood and slime – coming to the end of a 20 hour day on deck – maybe stumbling inside to eat dinner at midnight before crashing in his bunk for his two hours of sleep so he can wake up and do it all again.  So, to my hard-working husband I say – sorry for all the moments you miss out on, and thank you for the sacrifices you make.

The Kids Caught Crawfish for Dinner

the signal crayfish, photo by David Perez

Did you know that crawfish (aka crayfish aka crawdads) live pretty much everywhere in the world? And they are not onIy edible but delicious? I didn’t until last year when some friends turned us onto crawfish trapping. I knew we had them in our lakes and rivers here in the Pacific Northwest, and I knew that crawfish are a big part of Southern cuisine, but for some reason I had never thought to catch and eat them here (seems obvious now!).

So last summer we bought three crawfish traps at our local fishing supply store and headed to a nearby lake to try our luck. We got some fish scraps from the grocery store seafood counter to use as bait and tossed out our traps off the public dock. Within a few minutes we pulled up the trap and we had crawfish! We put them in a bucket and threw the trap back in. We repeated this several times over the course of an hour or two and went home with a decent amount of the critters ( I like to call them “mini lobsters”). We have now tried out several lakes and creeks in the area and we can report that every single one of them is populated with crawfish.

It is so much fun! We let the kids throw the traps out wherever they want and they are just beside themselves with excitement every time they pull them in to check on them. I’m pretty sure they would be happy doing it all day long. I like watching their decision making process when deciding on a location to set their traps and I love how proud they are of themselves when they dump their catch into the bucket to take home.  When we eat the crawfish we always thank the kids for catching dinner for us.

If you live near a lake or river, or even a small stream, there is a good chance that it is populated with these freshwater crustaceans.  Crawfish live in bodies of freshwater all over the world, from South America to Madagascar to Japan to Australia to Europe.  There are big annual crawfish festivals in Scandinavia and Tasmania has a species of crawfish that grows up to 11 pounds!

Our crawfish traps look like two wire mesh wastepaper baskets with their open ends clipped together, and with a funnel at either end for the crawfish to climb into.  Most sporting goods stores, like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse, will carry some type of crawfish trap, and they can be ordered online as well for as little as $10-$15.

Atticus last summer with a sample of his catch

There are quite a few different ways to prepare crawfish, with the simplest being just steaming them for a few minutes until they are bright red, and dipping the tail and claw meat in melted butter. We usually don’t catch enough crawfish in one day to feed a group of people, so our favorite way to prepare them is to do a Louisiana style crawfish boil, which is where you boil them in a big pot with potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage, and seasonings. This way the crawfish add flavor to the rest of the pot and there is plenty of food for everyone.

Crawfish live in the mud so they tend to be pretty dirty. Put them in a bucket or cooler and cover them with water. Swish the water around and dump it out. Repeat until the water looks clean.

Atticus removes a crawfish from his shirt

Larkyn is really excited about his full pot

Louisiana Style Crawfish Boil

Fill up a large pot a little more than halfway full with water and bring to a boil. Add seasonings. We like to use Zatarain’s Crawfish, Crab and Shrimp Boil, which comes in either a bag or a concentrated liquid (for a large pot Old Bay Seasoning works well too (add most of a tin).  Add a couple tablespoons, up to 1/4 cup of salt for a very large pot.  Toss in a quartered lemon and a quartered onion.  Some optional seasonings are 12 ounces of beer and/or a 1/4 of hot sauce and/or a handful of garlic cloves.  Add about a  pound or two of small potatoes, 4-6 ears of corn (halved), and a pound of sausage (preferably andouille).  Let this all boil for about 10 minutes, then add the crawfish and boil for an additional 3 minutes.  Turn the heat off, put the lid on the pot, and let it sit for about 10 more minutes.  Drain the water off and serve.  The traditional method of serving a crawfish boil is to dump everything onto a newspaper-covered table and let everyone gather around and dig in!

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The correct way to eat a crawfish is to rip off its head and suck out the juices, then pull the tail meat out of the shell and eat it.  The claw meat is delicious too!

This recipe is very flexible and forgiving, so feel free to add or subtract ingredients based on what you have at hand.  If you would like more detailed instruction than what my recipe provides, check out this video.  The technique and recipe are a little different from mine, but you get the idea…

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And here is a Crawfish boil recipe from Alton Brown of the Food Network.

If you have don’t have crawfish locally, or you aren’t interested in trapping them, you can order live crawfish from the Louisiana Crawfish Company or the Cajun Grocer.

But I highly recommend trying crawfish trapping, especially if you have kids.  It is a great way to spend a lazy afternoon on the water and you come home with free seafood!  Can I still call them seafood even though they don’t come from the sea?

15 Minutes of Fishing Fame

Last month a reporter from National Fisherman magazine contacted Zed and I because he wanted to write an article about the crazy experience we had buying and fixing up our fishing boat and driving it half-way around the world and through the Panama Canal. We thought, why not?! Even though our story so far contains more regrets than successes, we figured we could endure a little embarrassment if other potential boat-buyers out there could learn from our mistakes. (Lesson #1: Inspect boat THOROUGHLY before buying)

To make a long story short, the September issue of National Fisherman just came out with our boat, the Robin Blue, on the front cover!

The photo on the cover was taken after 4 months of shipyard work

The author of the piece, Michael Crowley, was very kind to tell our story in such a positive light. Thanks Michael!

If you want to read the full article, you will have to find yourself a copy, but Here is a link to National Fisherman if you would like to read an excerpt from the article.

A short side note… a reader of the magazine recognized the Robin Blue as his father’s first fishing boat from when his family lived in Louisiana. He searched online, found my blog and left me a nice note. His family fished for shrimp with the boat for years and then sold her in 1998. It was nice to hear that our first boat was once someone else’s first boat and that she has a long history of supporting fishing families!

Here is the Robin Blue in her previous life as the Buddy Boy (thanks for the photo Daniel)

This is what I love about blogging most of all – the connections I make with individuals from all over the world, with very different backgrounds and life stories, that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.

Here she is in Alabama after her transformation, awaiting departure

The Chance to Find Yourself

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Joseph Conrad in a photo taken in 1904

I was stumbling about the internet the other day when I came across a quote from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (published in 1902).  Conrad’s main character in his story, Charles Marlow, is a down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds himself working as a river boat captain in Africa.  Upon Marlow’s first arrival in Africa, he finds his steamboat broken down and spends the next three months repairing it before heading upriver on a treacherous journey.

It is believed that the story is based on Conrad’s real life experience, when he served as the captain of a dilapidated steamboat on the Congo River in 1889.

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The actual river boat that Conrad captained on the Congo, photo from 1889

Conrad writes about his steamboat,

“She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

 

I have to admit that I’ve never read Heart of Darkness in it’s entirety, only excerpts such as this one, but this quote struck me as holding quite a bit of truth.  In fact, it struck a chord that reverberated for a while as I thought about how the human condition has remained relatively unchanged, even after the more than one hundred years since Heart of Darkness was published.  I laughed at the similarities between Conrad’s story and my own story, and his affectionate and critical descriptions of the boat’s qualities.

In Conrad’s story, Marlow spent three months working on his ship before steaming up the Congo.  When we bought our fishing boat last year Zed spent four months repairing her before setting off through the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, and the Pacific Coast.

Our boat, the Robin Blue, under construction

I’m going to take a chance and make a claim here, that probably most boat owners (and quite a few deckhands as well) can relate to this quote.  The work itself is horrible, but it pushes a person to their limits, and then past those limits, to a point that the person didn’t previously realize they were capable of reaching.  This is what is so unique about commercial fishing – there is something about being on the water that challenges a person and strips them down to their human core.  The ocean is cruel, uncaring, and unsympathetic to your pains, and can kill you in an instant if given the chance.  Yet somehow the stress, and the long days of work with little sleep, and the closeness to death, manage to make a person feel more alive.

My husband Zed, cleaning out the boat’s fuel tank on a scorching hot day

Of course, none of this is coming from personal experience – I’m a landlubber- my opinion on the matter comes from the observation of my hard working husband and our community of commercial fishing friends.  Commercial fishermen are the hardest working bunch of people I know.

I would be interested to hear from some commercial fishermen and boat captains on this topic… does this quote strike a chord in other people as well?

Shrimp Dinner, Fresh off the Boat

One of the (many) benefits of living where I do, in the Pacific Northwest, is my proximity to water.  More specifically, my proximity to Bellingham Bay and all of the fresh seafood that flows in on local fishing boats every day.

Squalicum Harbor from the walking path that circles the park

Bellingham has a very active fishing community which means that I have access to all types of seafood all year-long.  There are fish markets in town, which are great, but even greater are the boats that sell their catch directly off the docks in the harbor.  It is a great feeling buying seafood directly from the fishermen that caught it – knowing you are supporting them and their families, supporting the local economy, and getting a quality fresh product at the same time.

A mix of fishing boats and pleasure boats in Bellingham’s Squalicum Harbor

The ability to buy seafood directly from fisherman is a luxury that I realize not everyone has access to, and sadly, a luxury that I don’t take advantage of nearly enough.  So, during a family kite flying outing at the harbor yesterday we spotted a sandwich board advertising fresh shrimp and decided to take a little detour.

My boy Larkyn, walking the docks

This couple had live coonstripe shrimp that they had just caught out in the Puget Sound and were selling right off their small fishing boat for a very reasonable price – we bought 5 pounds of shrimp for $20.

weighing the shrimp

boxing them up

The shrimp were live alright – they kept jumping and popping out as the guy was trying to get them in the box.  Doesn’t get much fresher than that!

2.5 pounds of coonstripe shrimp on ice

I did a mental inventory of my fridge and garden and brainstormed possible meals I could put together with what I had at hand.  I knew I had lemon in the fridge and parsley in the garden, which immediately seemed like a logical first step toward a classic shrimp preparation: lemon, garlic, white wine and parsley.  After a quick stop at the grocery store for some white wine and garlic, I was ready to cook dinner!  Before I started with the shrimp I set a large pot of water to boil, so that the pasta could cook at the same time as the shrimp. The shrimp cook so quickly that the pasta and shrimp should be done at about the same time.

In a large skillet I heated about 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat.  I minced quite a few cloves of garlic, probably 1/4 – 1/2 cup, and tossed them in the hot oil, along with a sprinkling of crushed red chili pepper (I like it a little spicy, but it’s not necessary).  When the garlic was starting to brown I dumped the box of shrimp in (about 2.5 pounds), then poured about a cup of white wine over the shrimp, and put the lid on the skillet.  Cooking the shrimp whole, heads and all, is the best way to do it because the heads and shells add quite a bit of flavor to the meat and sauce as they are cooking.  I let the shrimp steam in the pan for a few minutes, giving them a stir every minute or so to coat them in the sauce at the bottom of the pan.  After the shrimp looked about done, pink, opaque, and curled up, I turned the heat off and added 3-4 tablespoons of butter, squeezed a lemon over the top, and sprinkled it with salt.

a pan full of steaming garlicky shrimp

When I drained the pasta I saved about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the pasta water and added it to the shrimp to help thicken up the sauce.  After a quick stir I spooned out some shrimp (and the sauce at the bottom of the pan) and poured them over a plate of cooked pasta.  I topped the pasta with grated parmesan cheese and chopped parsley.  A little more salt and a grinding of pepper and voila!

the finished product!

This is a really simple dish to make – the most time-consuming part of the process is chopping all the garlic.  I fully intended to peel all my shrimp first, so I could just eat the peeled shrimp with the pasta, but every time I finished peeling one it ended up in my mouth instead of on my plate… oh well.  Peeling the shrimp as you eat slows everything down a little and makes everyone take their time and enjoy the meal.

Do you have a shrimp eating style?  Do you peel as you go, or peel all the shrimp first so you can eat them all at once?