A stream of consciousness essay on how, and perhaps more importantly why, I chose to go pier fishing for dinner.
Photography & Story by Capt. Ken Kreisler
Ahoy there shipmates! Welcome to Uncharted Courses; part travelogue and part my attempt at sharing with you my experiences in what I call marine cuisine, or as it’s sometimes known around the boatyard—and setting my gourmand ways aside—as your basic manifold cooking. The format is fairly straightforward as well as I’ll often be angling for various edible species in a wide variety of locales. Translation: Recipes that are simple to prepare and good to eat.
I intend to be wined and dined aboard some really terrific charter yachts as well, enjoying the good life and participating in a bit of joie de vive. But do not despair my fellow traveler, for even in the rarified air of opulent surroundings I will also be discovering a hidden gem or two along the path less traveled to share with you.
You see, my affection for food as well as my terminal wanderlust began years ago, and way too many for me to be comfortable with admitting now. When I first started out on my watery career, I began as a yard snipe at the Schatz Brothers Marina in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York, eventually learning, along with many other hands-on expertise’s, how to sand and paint, caulk seams—yes, we worked on wood boats back then—pull props, and that most mysterious of nautical arts, the laying on of varnish. How I got the job is another story, and one that I’ll weave to you at another time.
Suffice it to say that, after spending most of my teen years proving myself to be quite adept at cleaning up the yard, I often got asked to go a’money fishing on several real old commercial tubs with some genuine old salts who, for lack of a proper galley aboard, or for that matter, not having any real need for one—instead using the space for storing as much gear and equipment that most likely would have made the Collyer Brothers cringe—relied upon the heat of a diesel engine to cook their fare for the day. I distinctly remember everything from canned sardines to really big Quahog clams, warmed and served on the half shell, to some fairly tasty meatball subs being heated up on an engine’s manifold and washed down with a balmy Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink served at engine room temperature.
There were a myriad number of on-the-go, indigenous ‘recipes’ back then that I was part and parcel to throughout the years, which I readily admit, were responsible for me getting my daily sustenance. Shiver me timbers friends, but Nathaniel Philbrick’s Heart of the Sea comes to mind.
I jest, to be sure. But dining that way, under those conditions and in that environment, keeping in mind that the catch was what was putting money in my pocket so I could pay my college tuition, buy books, and retire to the campus pub now and then, I quickly developed a taste for, well let’s just say the esoteric end of dining aboard boats whose only mission was to fill their holds with as many fish as possible. As Lucretius mused, “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others. “
Most of our victuals involved some sort of canned mystery meat—Dinty Moore and the legendary Spam comes to mind as do some Goya products as well whenever one of the deckhands were of Latino descent—a couple of holes punched in the top for venting purposes so as to prevent any explosion of said and very questionable animal protein from being splashed all over the engine room. Not that it would have mattered down there anyway. Once, when I was asked to do an oil change on a pair of naturally aspirated 671 Detroits, the result was not being able to get the taste, smell, or film of grease off me for a good two weeks. But I digress.
The can, or whatever vessel, pot, pan, or jerry-rigged appliance being used, was strategically placed and wedged on the valve covers so as to optimize it being cooked up at just the right temperature. When some member of the crew happened to remember—time is very important in this type of preparation and the longer the better—it then served as the base for a veritable cornucopia of added edible ingredients being devoured en masse and as quickly as possible on a pitching deck while the fish were flying in over the gunwales. As preventive maintenance, and having the upper hand on a first strike capability, I quickly discovered that a couple of Tums before and after the meal was a de rigeuer survival technique to be sure. But for now, let’s get back to a more civilized form of gastronomy.
Cooking fish has always given me the willies. For those of you who didn’t grow up on the streets of New York, the willies are the same as the heebie jeebies. You know, the term coined from that 1956 Little Richard song, or for you really crusty old pirates, the 1926 Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five version. Anyway, you catch my drift here. Either way, having the hb’s are at best, a bit of the jitters by way of some angst. But before you cook ‘em, you gotta hook ‘em. So, think like a fish and let’s go fishing.
Now, for those of you who haven’t been reading my offerings in the pages of Power & Motoryacht or Yachting Magazine for the past 15 or so years, I live on the island of Manhattan in New York City. Trust me, Gotham is an island. [As winter is getting ready to leave parts, I’ll be posting my Adventures of an Urban Fisherman piece for your reading pleasure: An off-the-cuff, tongue-in-cheek remembrance of the passing season. And good riddance!] I know. I’ve been around it by boat. However, I’d be quite reluctant to partake of any of our finny brethren who inhabit its waters even though there is a vital and active striped bass population in the East and Hudson Rivers as well as in the lower bay area during the summer months and continuing into early fall.
Instead, I choose to do my piscatorial tussling from the beaches of New Jersey. The Shore, to be precise. Long Branch, to be specific, where the family and I spend our summers and where my good buddies refer to the beach across from my home there as, ‘the Cap’n’s office’.
I’ll be covering the New York striper action scene with some local legends that regularly fish the area as well as sharing my Jersey surfcasting adventures with you in a future installment.
When the halcyon days of summer finally come to an end and the autumnal equinox has past, and I find myself sitting alone at the top of the lifeguard chair, wrapped in a warm parka, hood up, a pair of sweat pants on and finally wearing socks and sneakers, staring forlornly at the tawny sand, a white-tipped ocean and a slate gray sky, I content myself with hopping a plane south, to Palm Beach, Florida, to visit with family, friends, play some golf, and take in a bit of fishing. My quarry during my last outing was Pompano. Hands down, one of the best eating fish there is.
Because it’s best to know the species before you set out to try and catch it, let’s get a few basics down first. Florida Pompano, with its short, blunt mouth, is a mostly silver colored fish with a bit of gold color on the ‘throat’ area as well as the pelvic and anal fins, belongs to the family Carangidae, and is the same that includes Jacks. Its Latin name is Trachinotus Corolinus.
CAP’N KEN SEZ: If anybody out there can help me out with the translation of the Latin Trachinotus Corolinus and how it relates to this fish, I’ll send you two-dozen of my famous, hand-made chocolate chip cookies. Just let me know if you have nut allergies and I won’t put any walnuts, pecans, or macadamias in the mix. Trust me, you’re gonna love ‘em. Promise.
The heaviest Pompano caught in Florida waters is said to have weighed in at just over eight pounds and I have neither delusions of grandeur nor any desire of breaking the record. No my friends, a little fishing fun is all I am after and hopefully, something for the table.
Pompano range in warm waters and have been seen from Massachusetts down to Brazil but are most common in the coastal waters south of Virginia and into the Gulf of Mexico. They run in schools and most are in the one to just under three pound category and are fairly fierce fighters for their size and weight.
Their favorite food is crustaceans such as fiddler crabs and in particular, mole crabs of the genus Emerita, popularly known as sand fleas, sand crabs, sea pigs, or beach hoppers, which they expertly ferret out of the sand.
Since I’ve long given up fishing for any genus with equipment as thick as the business end of a baseball bat, I’ve decided to leave the Louisville Slugger along with the multi-geared, big winching, hawse-thick lined reel at home. Light tackle is best, and in my opinion, the lighter the better. While I have a garage full of excellent paraphernalia at the Long Branch digs for the wide variety of species that inhabits my local waters during the early spring, summer, and late fall seasons, for this scrappy little battler I prefer my Wal-Mart special: a six-foot, fast taper, graphite spinning rod on which is seated a Penn Silverado reel loaded with eight pound test that I keep in Florida for when I visit.
The family lives in a superb golf community and there are a slew of ponds, stocked full of freshwater large mouth bass galore, spread out over the three, 18-hole courses. Late in the afternoon, when all the members are done, and I’m out walking a few holes, it’s no problem whatsoever, once the coast is clear, to pull out my handy Popiel Pocket Fisherman, hidden deep within my golf bag and get a couple of casts in as well. And just to show you where in the hierarchy of importance this fishing thing occupies for me, I keep a plastic bag full of pre-rigged artificial worms in the same compartment reserved for my Titleist golf balls.
Since this wily predator is a sandy bottom feeder, before setting out on the quest, I get down to the beach and dig up some sand fleas, the aforementioned favorite Pompano food. A little plastic hand rake and pail will do. While digging in the sand, usually on the outgoing tide, look for the little v-shape ripples as the water ebbs or if you happen to catch site of the little buggers as they scamper away, trying to make their way back down into the soft sand.
And oh yes, I always carry a bunch of Doc’s Goofy Jigs with me as well. Now legend has it that Doc, a transplanted Brooklynite—you see, there is someone else besides me and Walt Whitman [editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, 1846-1848, among other notable achievements] who were able to achieve some level or prominence given our ties to that most sublime of New York boroughs—and retired Pinellas County Water and Sewer worker, was not only a rabid Tampa Bay fisherman who achieved celebrity status, but was also somewhat scaly in his DNA makeup.
Anyway, his wobbling-action design seems to do the trick by moving a bit funny as it heads for the bottom, there to hit the sand with a puff so as to simulate the activity of sand fleas. Two turns in, making sure to work the tip of your rod a bit, and there you have it. If there’s a ‘golden nugget’ around, you had better have your drag set right. Doc’s original yellow jig seems to be a favorite with the regulars and I’ve heard tell the new kid on the block, the Silly Willy, is also a winner. You can check all this out with your own expert at your local tackle shop the next time you go Pompano angling.
What makes fishing for Pompano great family fun is that you can do it from the beach, a bridge, or from a pier. This way there’s no chance of anyone getting seasick. And, as often happens, if the fishing winds up not being catching, and the troops are grumbling and getting bored, you can always just pack things up and go to the beach, or if the weather goes south, stroll the aisles of your local Home Depot; a great family bonding experience. When it comes to fishing, my philosophy is that there’s always another day. And for you Hemingway-like diehards who just have to, hire yourself a local with a boat and get out there, strut your stuff, and make us all proud.
I’ve had good results just before the last of the ebb and about and hour after the flood starts. On this particular foray, I’ll be angling from the Lake Worth Pier. If I have the time over the next few days, I’ll try and get my lines tight from the surf at the Lantana Public Beach and perhaps, the north side of the Boynton Beach Inlet.
The 960-foot long William O. Lockhart Municipal Pier was so severely damaged during Frances and Jeanne in 2004—most Floridians I’ve spoken to do not refer to their named storms by hanging the word ‘Hurricane’ to the moniker and its best not to go there and ask why—that it had to be rebuilt. On May 9th, 2009 it was reopened, much improved and greatly appreciated by the locals and visitors alike.
There are bathrooms, loads of benches, and shaded areas for those who have forgotten—perish the thought—a hat, sunglasses, and the absolutely requisite 30+ sun block.
Other amenities include a bait shop and bait-cutting stations, and of course, famed Benny’s On The Beach restaurant. No sense in fishing during off tides when, among other fare, a good burger and fries is available if one hasn’t packed one’s own lunch.
So far my luck has held out. It’s early enough on this bright and warm sunny day that the parking lot has plenty of spaces—so worth the three bucks—and I pull my car next to a group of fellow anglers engaged in a bit of tailgating festivities. Obviously, from their camaraderie and banter, they are regulars. We talk a little bit and then, as if following some natural calling reminiscent of the migration of the caribou or the majestic journey of the gnu, a.k.a. wildebeest, across the vast African savannah, they begin to peel off, one by one, getting their gear together, gathering buckets and hand nets, slapping high spf factor sun block on necks and ears and noses, and checking to make sure there are fresh batteries in portable radios and affixing the ear buds of the ubiquitous iPod.
One rather robust fellow dons a Foreign Legion-looking hat with a long bill and neck flap. “There’s rednecks and then there’s rednecks,” he smiles, chuckles, and, with gear in tow, heads off to his spot on the pier. “See ya out there. Good luck to ya,” he says as he walks away and, not turning around, lifts the two rods he carries in one hand up in the air in a momentary salute. It’s time.
I get a spot on the south side of the pier about three quarters of the way out. Good thing I have on a pair of quality sunglasses, a long sleeve T, and one of my favorite hats. With the cloudless sky, and as the day progresses, the glare off the water is going to be something to contend with.
CAP’N KEN SEZ: Hats are a big thing for those with piscatorial aspirations, and if you have a favorite story about a favorite fishing hat, send your narrative on in, with pictures, of course. If it’s a good story, I’ll post it and you will also get a couple dozen of my aforementioned excellent chocolate chip cookies. Trust me, you’re gonna love ‘em. Promise.
The tide is right, the bait is fresh, and I work my Wal-Mart rig with finesse. It pays off as I ‘get jacked’ pretty soon and, as do my cohorts to the right and left of me, quite often. Jacks proliferate the area and take the bait more than not. Even with the small ones, it’s lots of fun what with my extra light tackle, and I am careful to take the fish off the hook and return it to the water as quickly as possible.
Nobody near me has brought up a Pomp as yet and with about an hour left to the ebb, if nothing happens by then, it’ll be a wait-and-see when the tide turns. As it’s going to take a good hour or so for that to happen, I take the time to enjoy the bit of a breeze coming in off the water and the really hunky tuna wrap I made myself before setting out on this adventure.
It’s a wondrous late morning meal; the well-mashed tuna is prepared with an equally well-mashed avocado—I try to avoid the cholesterol-friendly mayo—then in go the walnuts, finely diced celery, and a small handful of delicious Crazins to make things happy—if you can, get the loose ones at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or some similar, top quality market; if not, the Ocean Spray package will do just fine—all of it wrapped up in a snappy leaf of romaine lettuce before being snuggled tightly together in the soft, whole wheat wrap.
For liquid refreshment, I’ve brought along, and filled to the brim in one of those sharp looking, insulated stainless steel containers, a fruit smoothie that I blended up at home before I left for the pier. The preparation is simple and there is plenty of room for theme variation and experimentation to accommodate individual tastes: In a blender I place eight ice cubes—more for a thicker outcome—and one inch of fresh mango juice and two inches of fresh squeezed orange juice. In go a handful of berries; blues, rasps, straws, and blacks, all washed well, and finally a large banana, sans peel. I’ve also tried some pear slices—Bosch, please, and a bit on the soft side—as well as quartering an apple—Macintosh, and leave the skin on both fruits—as these seem to add quite a nice bouquet to the rest of the mix. Go through the blending speeds one by one until you reach liquefy and keep it there for a few moments. Pour the mix into your own sharp looking, insulated stainless steel container and put it in the refrigerator until you are ready to head out. And as there will be some overflow, have yourself a glass in the house as you go about your business until its time to leave.
With the slack tide, and my early lunch, now over, I note how the incoming has started in earnest. There are a couple of novices down pier of me who have gotten their lines tangled with some of the regulars and while there doesn’t seem to be any resentment or harsh words, a short primer ensues on why not to unspool your entire line into the water once you hit bottom. You see the best place to fish for Pompano is where there is a strong current, and that is most apparent next to and around the pilings below. But you have to know what you are doing and how to work your rig in order to hook your own fish and not everyone else’s line.
The fishing scholar speaks little or no Spanish while his student, little or no English. But in the international language of angling, things seem to be working out just fine. Maybe we should invite our dysfunctional world leaders out to the pier for a bit of Pompano fishing. Perhaps they can work things out that way, as obviously, it doesn’t seem to happening under present conditions. But then again, they’d most likely find some way to screw that up as well. And then, as I work my rod while enjoying the tete-a-tete still going on as the jumble of lines are being untangled, I get a quick tickle, a hit, and up comes my first Pompano; a definite keeper at just under what I judge to be two pounds. I get it off the hook and slip it into my pail of ice, which I cover with a small white towel. And while there were other Trachinotus Corolinus caught at various locations on the pier during that tide, I would only see one more that would wind up in my ice pail. Oh well, fish have tails and besides, I would be going home with dinner.
There are two ways to enjoy your Pompano catch: Cook it whole or prepare fillets. Hopefully, you all know the proper way keep an edge to your fillet knife and how to fillet the fish. If not, I’ll cover both of those in an upcoming segment. For this outing, I’m going to prepare and cook the fillets.
I’ve already cleaned out all the entrails, cut off the fins and tail, scraped the skin—I’m leaving it on for this particular recipe but if you want, you can strip it off—washed the four fillets with cold water, blotted them dry with some paper towels and, placing them skin down on a plate, put them in the refrigerator while I get everything else together.
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees and make sure you don’t put your fish in before it gets to the right temperature. If you have an oven thermometer, use it. If not, give it a good 15 minutes. You should know your own oven and how quickly it heats. Get some unsalted butter and leave it out on the counter while the oven is heating so it can soften. You should also have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, fresh Hungarian paprika, a few peeled cloves of garlic, a handful of almond slivers, and a half dozen chunked pieces of fresh pineapple.
When your oven is ready, take the fillets out of the refrigerator, place them on your counter and carefully rub some of the softened butter all over them. The secret here is not to overwhelm the natural flavor of the fish but merely to enhance it. Therefore, when cooking Pompano, less is better.
Once you’ve got a nice coating of butter on, take a few drops of olive oil and spread that over the fillets as well. The garlic comes next. I prefer to slice the cloves as thinly as possible, quick-sauté them in just a bit of olive oil along with the almond slivers—don’t burn ‘em; just get ‘em a bit on the brown side—and then place them on top of the fillets after which you sprinkle on a dash of paprika. Spray a bit of Pam cooking spray on your broiling pan, and, using a wide spatula, you’re ready to carefully place the fish in the pan. Surround each fillet with three pineapple pieces and pop the whole kit and caboodle in the oven for about four or five minutes.
Since a colorful plate is a healthy plate, try some greens—string beans, peas, snap peas, or baby bok choy—thinly sliced yellow and red peppers, and either garlic roasted potatoes or a well-cooked yam. A side dish of endive with crumbled bleu cheese sprinkled inside the leaves and just the slightest drizzle of balsamic vinegar atop is a nice addition. I like a nice flavorful beer with my Pompano; Anchor Steam, Bass, or a Sam Adams is on my short list. However, if wine if on your palate, try a Sancerre or a PouillyFumee as an excellent pairing for your freshly caught and prepared Pompano.
Enjoy the meal, shipmates!
CAPT KEN SEZ: Have a favorite Pompano story and preparation? Send it on in. If it’s a good one, I’ll post it and send you two-dozen of my famous chocolate chip cookies. Trust me, you’re gonna love ‘em. Promise.
See you next time with a tasty and easy-to-prepare fresh pasta primavera!