Just a fluke?

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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!”

My trophy 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).

OK, so it's not a Pulitzer

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.

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Comments

  1. Congratulations! I’m guessing that 87% of women and 76% of men in America cannot, have not, nor will ever do this in their lifetime. It is truly an accomplishment worthy of respect. –Les, a fisherman (woman), not a fillet-er.

  2. Yay for Tamar! She can filet a fish! And by the way, those other sub-skills you mentioned are worth knowing. You don’t give yourself enough credit.

    You don’t give yourself enough credit generally. First you had the chutzpah to leave Manhattan (of all places!) to go live where you do- to move to a better way of life. Good for you!

    Then you’re trying to pick up all these skills. I WISH I could learn how to fish- you’re doing it! You make your own salt! You render your own lard! You keep your own bees and chickens! You cut your own hair!

    And by the way, you still look fabulous.

  3. Christ, an 18.5 inch size limit?! When I was a boy the limit was 12 inches, and even in college it was 14. Guess they fished ’em out back then. The Cape is pretty far north for summer flounder, too, so nice job!

    Good work on filleting, too. Next time make 4 fillets, using the backbone as the marker. Flatfish backbones are high, and you lose a lot of meat by filleting them like a bluefish. Run you knife along the backbone first, then gently free the meat from the bones that way. You can save several ounces of meat from a 20-inch fish.

    I miss scup, which we call porgies. My favorite fish to catch. Sigh.

    • Awesome filet! I sure can’t filet a fish. Slowly but surely, living with Hank has caused me to develop learned helplessness in most aspects of food preparation. I can kill it, I can dress it, but butcher or cook it? Nah, that’s his job. I’m quite sure I’d starve to death without him.

  4. Les — Thanks for the vote of confidence. I think most people go through their entire lives without having to filet a fish, so not being able to isn’t an issue. But if I’m going to need a fish fileted, I think I ought to be able to do it myself.

    Paula — You give me WAY too much credit! Most of the things we do are pretty easy — as you’ll find out when you get bees and chickens, which is going to be next year, isn’t it?

    Hank — Your backbone tip makes perfect sense. It’s much easier to get the flesh off the bones when you work from the backbone out, so if you can manage to do that on both the dorsal and ventral sides, it’s a clear win. I’ll try that next time. I also think I need a thinner, better filet knife.

    As for fluke size, it definitely makes for very few keepers. My husband grew up on Long Island, and there was no such thing as a size limit on fluke — they’d have doormat contests to see who could bring in the biggest one. I think my fluke made him happy for its nostalgia value.

    If you’re ever in shouting distance of Cape Cod, stop by and we’ll take you out for porgies.

    NorCal Cazadora — Here’s my bet on what would happen if you suddenly found yourself alone: you’d learn. You’d learn, and you’d thrive. Meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with letting Hank do the jobs he’s so very good at.

  5. Nice fluke! I know them as flounder, and they are delicious when the fillets are broiled over a pile of deviled crab with the whole pile topped in Mornay sauce. Thankfully, the fiswh are rare enough as keepers that I don’t get to do that very often. I would hate to meet a cardiologist and a chest cutter because I needed the services they provide. (Fish should be filleted, not people!) I fufpect Kevin did enjoy the nostalgia of catching a keeper, but he probably enjoyed the eating more.

  6. Greg — My understanding is that a fluke is a summer flounder, and what’s commonly called a flounder is a winter flounder, and they’re distinct species. Taste-wise, though, they’d be tough to differentiate. Either would be delightful with deviled crab and Mornay sauce.

  7. Nice fillet, Tamar!

    And nice fluke! The increase in size limits over the past few years have made keepers hard to come by on the Cape, especially in the shallower waters my uncle and I fish. It’s been a few years since we got one during my annual weekend down there with him.

    By the way, he’s in Mashpee, so perhaps we can connect in person the next time I make it down there.

  8. Tovar — Absolutely let me know when you’re here. We’ll fish!

  9. So fluke summer at Cape Cod? They’re the piscine equivalent of tourists.

    I like your idea of breaking down meta-skills into manageable subsets. I don’t know I’ll live long enough to master anything in life, but I can take pride in being accomplished in aspects of my work, no matter how small.

    However, I have a long way to go before I can fillet a flat fish as well as you do. Another tick in your accomplishment box!