Over the past couple of years, weve found that theres plenty of seafood thats easily gathered from our sailboat or dinghy. There are crabs, shrimp, mussels and, of course, fish of all kinds. With a few basic tools and the predisposition to use them, you can easily enjoy what the sea has to offer the cruising sailor.
We usually trail a fishing lure whenever we're sailing. So far the fish gods have been generous, as we catch something usually each time we try. When a fish takes the lure, Sue heads the boat into the wind to stop us while I grab the rod and begin reeling in the bounty. If the fish is large, Sue furls the sails then helps with the netting or gaffing of what will become our dinner. Getting the caught fish on board and into the cooler can be a hectic transition. It's a lot easier by using this trick we learned from fellow sailors: Spray or pour a capful of liquor into the gills of the flopping, thrashing-about fish. This "gill toddy" will immediately incapacitate the fish and allow you to safely plop it into the cooler without a hassle. At first I was skeptical. I have fished all of my life and had never heard of this trick. But, believe me, it really works.
We bought a crab trap six months ago and I can now say that it has been a truly delicious addition. Ours is a shortened version of a commercial trap, called a "tourist trap." For boats with limited storage space, there are smaller folding traps available. For boats with very little storage space, theres always the hand-line technique, which many report can be very successful.
To set up our trap and the folding kind, stuff the bait, which can be a fish head, fish guts, chicken neck, etc., into the middle of the trap. Then lower it over the side into the water until it rests on the bottom, where the crabs hang out. Remember, results will vary greatly with your location, but I can tell you that on our very first day with the trap, in just three hours we caught 15 blue crabs. We figure the trap paid for itself that day alone. (See sidebar on traps and other gear needed for fishing under sail.)
If you're using the hand-line method, simply tie the bait to a piece of string and lower it down. To keep the bait on the bottom where it needs to be, you may want to add a weight on the string. I predict that soon a crab will start eating your bait. As you lift the line, the greedy crab will hang on tight, allowing you to scoop him up in a crab net.
If youre going to do any crabbing, I highly recommend having a pair of long-handled tongs. Not only are they indispensable to extricate the iron-gripping crab from the trap, but they are also essential for safe cooking. I found this out the hard way. In our first experience steaming crabs, one jumped out of the pot before I had a chance to get the lid on. It clambered down the galley sole (not where crabs are supposed to hang out). For the next five minutes, it was man against crab. It was then that I realized that the tongs need to be longer than the crabs pinchers. At last count, I still have all 10 fingers.
On our recent cruise in Maine, we were disappointed to learn that private lobster catching is not permitted. But this was quickly offset when we found out that the mussels were plentiful, delicious, and free for the taking. They come with a big bonus too: Mussels are very easy to collect from these cold clear waters and they dont snap back at you. When mussels are very small, they attach themselves to rocks or clump together in intertidal zones. To harvest them, simply wait for low tide, cruise around till you find a clump, and pry off the ones you want. They usually come off very easily. Cooking preparations for mussels are a breeze. Wash the mussels in cool water and remove the byssus threads (beard) with a knife or scissors. (For simple, tasty recipes, see our Safari recipe sidebar above.)
Another easy way to harvest fresh seafood is with a cast net. When anchored near marshes and rivers that are close to an inlet, we sometimes cast for shrimp from our dinghy at night. We dinghy over into the shallow water and cast near the marsh. Within an hour, we could well have caught enough shrimp for dinner. Then there are other times when we catch nothinght, but thats the way it goes.
Cast nets come in sizes from three to eight feet. When purchasing a cast net, bigger is not necessarily better. I like the five-foot size. Any larger, and my casts never open all the way. Throwing a cast net takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it's kind of fun and a pretty good work out.
Sue and I are not the only ones on board enjoying the wonderful bounty the sea has to offer. Our cats, Endicott and Hinckley, must think theyve died and gone to kitty heaven, with the endless treats they receive. But they deserve it. They are two of the best little fishing buddies I have ever had, and they dont drink all of my beer.
As soon as I touch any of the fishing gear, Endicott wakes up from the soundest sleep to await eagerly his reward. We often find him sitting next to the rod, gazing longingly at the line trailing in the water. When a fish is hooked, the sound of the clicking of the drag sends him into a frenzy of anticipation. By the time the fish has been reeled up to the boat, both cats are on the rail, paws clawing the air, offering their assistance.
So, as you can see, with a minimal of investment in gear, there are plenty of edible treasures to be had from the sea. Each new cruising ground offers its own specialty, and theres often the excitement of catching something new that requires you to pull out the reference book to figure out what it is. But most of all, its enjoyable to savor the delicious fresh flavors that night at the dinner table. Plus, you cant beat the price.
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