It seems I’m constantly writing about things I screw up, so I figured it’s only fair that I should tell you about something I didn’t.
It started with yesterday morning’s fishing trip. We went out at about 7:00 AM, in search of scup, bluefish, or both.
Scup fishing and bluefish fishing are very different. Scup feed on the bottom, and eat crustaceans and miscellaneous invertebrates. Bluefish feed on the top or in the middle, and eat pretty much anything that swims, including other bluefish. For scup, we use squid for bait, weight the line, and jig it off the bottom. For bluefish, we use popper lures that float on the surface and jump when you give the line a tug.
Kevin rigged up both kinds of rods, and we set out.
Our scup fishing grounds are in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Mashpee, which is the town just to the west of us. To get there, where have to go through our bluefish fishing grounds, which are just outside Cotuit Bay. Our plan was to head out for scup, stopping for bluefish if we saw any.
We did see bluefish, and we managed to get eight small ones before the school disappeared. Mixed in with the bluefish were a few schoolie stripers, and Kevin caught one that was about eighteen inches, ten inches short of legal.
Fishing Trip Lesson #1: One advantage of top fishing is that, when a fish bites through your line, you can retrieve your lure because it floats.
When we lost sight of the bluefish, we headed out for scup.
The bluefish were in a relatively sheltered area, but the scup were in open water. The difference between a relatively sheltered area and open water became immediately apparent as the boat started rocking and plunging in three-foot seas.
We reached our spot, baited our hooks, and let the boat drift.
Fishing Trip Lesson #2: To minimize seasickness when drifting on a significant swell, face into the wind so you can see the waves coming at you. Keep your eyes on the horizon.
Fishing Trip Lesson #3: Keeping your eyes on the horizon while baiting a hook is an enterprise fraught with peril.
We started landing scup and small sea bass almost immediately, but none were big enough to keep. Then I felt something weird on my line. It was definitely a fish, but it didn’t pull like a scup. It also felt bigger than anything I’d pulled in so far. I kept reeling, and as soon as Kevin caught a glimpse of it in the water, he said, “That’s a fluke!”
The fish flashed its underbelly. “That’s a keeper fluke!” he said, and went for the net.
We’d heard that the fluke were biting all over the Cape, but that most of them were under the 18.5-inch minimum size for taking. A keeper fluke is a prize fish.
I reeled, Kevin netted, and we landed a beautiful 20-inch fluke.
By now, you’ve probably forgotten that this is a story of something I didn’t screw up. In case you haven’t, let me assure you that landing the fluke was not it. That was an accident – maybe that’s why they call them ‘flukes.’ The part I didn’t screw up comes later.
We managed one keeper scup to add to our stash, and I also got my first look at a sea robin, a weird fish with legs that walks on the seabed. Then we headed back, into the wind and the chop.
Our boat is a fairly dry ride, but nothing stays dry when you’re riding plunging into three-foot troughs while the next wave comes over the bow. Somehow, though, it’s easier to brave the sea when you’re headed in with a cooler full of fish.
Fishing Trip Lesson #4: Tan nylon shorts become perfectly transparent when wet. Wear underpants.
We made it home just fine, and unloaded our cooler. Most of the bluefish were small, and destined to be lobster bait, but I fileted the biggest two for us.
Then I tackled the fluke.
I’d never fileted a fluke. In fact, the only fish I have fileted are bluefish and striped bass. The principle’s the same, though, so I laid out the fish and started cutting.
There’s a certain amount of pressure in fileting a prize fish. While I know a fluke isn’t so special, it was the only one we caught, and possibly the only one we’ll catch all season. Kevin is very fond of fluke, and was looking forward to eating it. I didn’t want to botch it.
I went slowly and carefully. I felt for the bones and the body cavity. I took shallow passes with the knife, and peeled up the filet as I released it from the body. I did the thick side first, and then the more difficult thinner side (flat fish being comically asymmetrical).
I didn’t screw it up. My filets were beautiful. Not perfect, but definitely better than good. And I took an absurd, unwarranted, disproportional amount of pride in them. I mean, really, for chrissake, it’s not such a big hairy deal to filet a fish.
So why did those filets matter so much to me? Dinner would have been just as tasty and nutritious if I had butchered them, and nothing would change the fact that I’d caught this fish myself and was feeding my family with it. I think, though, that being able to process a fish with some modicum of skill made me feel competent, and competence is something slow in coming in most of what we’re doing out here.
For the meta-skills involved – gardening, fishing, hunting, animal husbandry – the acquisition of competence is a long process of education, trial, and error, and I am unlikely to master any of them in what’s left of my lifetime. But if I break those skills down, and try to master discrete sub-skills, one at a time, small triumphs are within my reach.
I’m not much of a gardener, but I know how to fight late blight on my tomatoes. I’m not too good with chickens, but I know how to break a broody hen. I’m nobody’s mycologist, but I know a bolete when I see one. I’m a novice fisherman, but if anybody asks, the answer is yes – I can filet a fish.
I can filet a fish.