Fish on, fish on!” Jack the first mate cried over the rumble of the powerful engine. Dumbstruck, I watched as my line began to run. “Reel in, reel in!” he shouted at me as if I were a child. I looked down at the spinning reel. I began winding the handle.
“No, no, let it run now.” Ben the engineer chastised as he reached in front of me to adjust the drag on the rod.
“I got it,” I seethed through clenched teeth. The crew had taken the sport-fish vessel out for the day. I was the least experienced and therefore the most excited. Jack and Ben had the most experience and therefore the biggest egos.
Jack had a keen sense of the water and shortly picked up a group of birds ahead.
“Birds starboard,” he yelled as he swung the boat to the right. Ben let the lines out, and we watched the lures dance in the foamy wake. Jack shouted down to us from the tower. “They’re diving the surface of the water.”
“That means there are larger fish below driving smaller fish to the surface,” Ben explained to me.
I was enjoying the whole scene when Jack started calling “fish on” and barking orders at me. “It’s your rod,” he scoffed as he shifted the boat into neutral.
With a violent twitch, the tip of the rod in the holder in front of me bent like a bow. The reel whirled, letting out the spool with an alarming buzz saw sound. It hissed like a hose that had snapped and was spewing steam. I grabbed the rod from the holster and placed it on my thigh to anchor it. I held tight and adjusted my stance as tension increased on the line.
“Let it run,” Ben said.
“Reel in, reel in,” Jack yelled. They were both chomping at the bit to take the rod away from me. But, there is a code of respect on the water and this was my rod, my fish and my fight.
I knew I had to tire the fish out before he exhausted me. I shifted the rod and bent my knees, flexing to absorb the pounding of the waves. I pulled the rod tip up toward the sky, bringing the fish in closer. I dropped the rod parallel to the deck and reeled in the slack. I repeated this procedure three or four times. The muscles in my arms shook. The Rolling Stones belted out “Start Me Up.” I could barely hear Mick’s voice. “Ride like the wind at double speed. I’ll take you places that you’ve never, never seen.”
“There it is, reel it in now,” Jack shouted from above. As the fish swam closer to the boat I could see flashes of color and the blunt nose of a mahi-mahi. A blur of silver and blue lit up the water as the fish saw our boat and panicked. He leaped effortlessly, flashing iridescent green stripes. I hesitated, watching the show. Adrenaline surged through my veins. I felt like Hemingway. The fish gathered a reserve of strength and ran with the line. I leaned back and reeled once more. The fish finally appeared behind the boat. Ben leaned over and gaffed the beast. It bucked and flopped wildly as Ben hurled it onto the deck at my feet.
I looked down at my conquest. He was beautiful. He was mine. “Not bad,” Jack mumbled from above. “Beginner’s luck,” Ben added. I beamed. Back in the galley, I butchered my fish. I picked up my filleting knife, testing its sharpness against my thumb. I looked into the fish’s eyes. “Thank you,” I said in homage. I ran the knife down its pectoral fin, separating the bones from the flesh.
My mind raced through recipe options. Mexican? Asian? Caribbean? I didn’t want to insult my fish with just any old preparation. This meal was going to be a memorial to its life. To the fight he gave.
I cut thick meaty fillets for the crew. I puréed cilantro and cashew nuts to crust the top. The scent of cilantro filled the air. I danced around the galley. I belted out the words in my head, “You make a grown man cry.” I steamed coconut rice and diced mangoes for a salsa. The work flew by.
This was no ordinary crew dinner. This was not food I picked up at the market. This was MY dinner. MY fish. The delicious smell of the sea emanated from the oven. The guys may not have been forthcoming with praise for my fishing skills, but they would love the dinner I had just brought home. After all, in my mind that’s what fishing is all about. The meal it provides. “She’s a mean, mean machine.”
HERB AND CASHEW PASTE
6 mahi-mahi fillets, 6 oz each (or other white flaky fish)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Sprinkle salt and pepper over all sides of mahi-mahi and place on a cookie sheet.
¼ cup cashews, lightly toasted 1/3 cup cilantro, stems removed 4 cloves garlic
2 green onions, cut in quarters ½ teaspoon ground white pepper 1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Place all the ingredients in a food processor and puree for 2 minutes until a rough paste is produced. Spoon the herb paste on top of the fish, creating a half-inch thick topping.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the fish for 15 minutes, depending on the type of fish used, until the flesh is firm. Serve with mango salsa.
1 ripe mango
½ red onion
¼-½ habanero pepper, depending on heat tolerance
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves 2 limes, juiced
1 teaspoon sea salt
Dice the mango and red onion to uniform quarter-inch size. Cut the inner seeds and pulp out of the tomato leaving a flat fillet of tomato to work with. Dice the fillet to a quarter-inch size. Chop the habanero as small as possible to evenly distribute heat. Mix all ingredients together; taste for seasoning and serve with fish. Serves 6.