A Cooler Full of Shame

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20140226-131454.jpg So I cleaned some hard-heads. Judge me if you wish. I’m not ashamed, but I will admit I did wait until any passing 4 wheel drive vehicles were out of sight before I put one of my son’s fish into the cooler. For the uninformed, hard-head catfish are a despised animal in the manner of the mosquito, and have no similar counterpart in the freshwater. They look like a catfish–true; but no North American fresh water fish draws the ire of fishermen quite like this little sea catfish who doesn’t get more than 3 pounds.

Grown men with a Dexter-like gleam in their eyes find ways to make the little fish pay, and often get finned in the process. Me? I don’t have a personal hatred toward the hard-head, he’s just doing his thing. Yea, they get in the way at times when fishing with bait, but I rarely pass up a shrimp meal either. I have been finned by one of the little spinning devils and it was not a fun experience. Their slime is a bit toxic and the dorsal fin has a barb which makes detaching the fish painful. They are found all over the gulf and up the eastern seaboard. Right or wrong, there is a perception only vacationers and the foreign eat the “tourist trout.” Despite these risks and shame, I filleted a few. But lets back up, and start at the beginning… 20140223-204250.jpg My 19 year old nephew has been itching to do some fishing. It doesn’t take much for me to hit the water, and though just off a fun, albeit unproductive fishing trip with my cousin Quentin, I was raring to go again. So after church Sunday, we picked up Anthony and hit the gulf. For reasons only known to him, my oldest son opted to forego the trip and so with my little 4 year old man-cub and nephew in tow, we ventured to the beach. 20140223-205026.jpg In the first five minutes, we landed 8 hard-heads, each about 2 pounds each. Keegan, my little guy, desperately wanted to keep them, but we threw them back (un-Dextered). I decided we needed some different water to get away from these voracious slime goblins, and so moved down the beach a few miles. During the drive my son asked why we throw back the hard-heads, though they clearly looked like freshwater catfish and were plenty big enough to fillet.

“Ever eaten one?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then how do you know they are no good?”

“I guess I don’t.” 20140223-205305.jpgPulling over about a mile down the beach, we cast the rods back out . In no time, we were in the hard-heads pulling them in left and right. This time, Keegan insisted we keep a few. I told him I’d clean one, and soon we started catching whiting as a thick fog rolled in. So with a cooler full of whiting and hard-heads we loaded up and headed home.

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Hard-head fillet on the left. A wee bit bloody.

At the fillet station with my stainless steel glove on, I immediately noticed the incredible amount of slime these suckers produce. Fortunately, it rinsed off easily. Second, where a normal fish fillet begins just behind the gills, a hard plate covers their back almost to the dorsal fin. This cuts the fillet size in half. Third, they were a bit bloody when compared to the whiting; blood oozed from the meat. They have a red bloody area, like whats found on a white bass or striper, but not quite as big. I liked that their white fillets were firm, and not mushy like you see with some fish (sand trout). I used a basic brown ale beer batter and did the frying in bacon fat.

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I took the bloody fillets as an ill omen, but I was wrong. The firmness was pleasant and I think would lend itself well to ceviche. I expected a strong oily flavor like a Spanish mackerel or bluefish, but found it mellow in the order of sea bass and redfish. My wife who knew nothing of the ill repute of the hard-head said they tasted fine and my boys munched them down quickly.20140224-195601.jpg

Will I be keeping hard-heads from now on? The answer is probably not. They tasted fine, but the fillet size disappointed even though they were the largest one’s I’ve caught. More concerning is the risk involved in cleaning them. Getting finned hurts like hell, but I did manage to clean the seven we brought home without issue.

All that said, they tasted fine. Common knowledge says they are bottom feeders and live in the mud, and so they aren’t fit to eat. Heck, Texas Parks and Wildlife says they taste bad. But just as it’s not true for crabs or oysters, it’s not true for these little saltwater denizens.

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Waiting on some fish as the tide and fog roll in…

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Tide rolled in and brought more fish

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Another fat one

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Managing 8 rods while the fish are biting is crazy!

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A few texted pictures of bent rods brought eldest boy to the beach quickly.

 

Tremendous Top Ten: 10 Things to Surf Fish Like a Boss

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I love the beach.  The smell of salt, lazy criss crossing shrimp boats on the horizon, and a drink in hand makes the stresses of life drift away like a coconut in the current.  Marry the relaxing toes in the sand aspect of the playa with the chance to tie into a variety of hard fighting and yummy fish–or better–watch your munchkin crank furiously with sweat and elation mixing on his face and you have the makings of a tremendous experience.  The variety and size of the fish you can catch is unlimited and here’s what you need to harvest the surf’s bounty:

1.   Rods and Reels.  Check your local fish and game handbook, but I like to bring multiple setups with me.  I use a couple big spinning reels, with 30-50 pound test braid for targeting sharks, bull reds, and black drum.  I then have several smaller reels to catch fish in the 1-10 pound range  like whiting, sheepshead, puppy drum, slot reds, pompano, etc. Whatever you bass or bay fish with will work well for these fish.   But fair warning, eventually you will hook into a shark or bull red on a small set up. Fun times!

2.  Five feet of 1.5 inch PVC Pipe.   These cheap rod holders will stick in the sand deep enough to keep from falling over, about 12 to 18 inches.  How do you get them into the sand?  Well, this part isn’t so manly, but it’s quick and it works.  Put your mouth inside the top of the pipe and suck as hard as you can.  Magically, the pipe will sink into the sand.  Or you can just bring  a pair of post-hole diggers. I think you should just suck it up.

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3.  Ice Cooler and Ice.  I think this is best anytime you are going to keep fish, but it’s mandatory for the beach.  Stringers are no use in the surf unless you are wading while you fish.  And then there’s sharks.

4.  4 wheel Drive.  Unless you want to battle crowds, you need to get down the beach where others cannot.  This isn’t absolutely necessary, but its really nice and partly makes up for your rod holder planting technique.

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Drive down the beach and get away from the crowds.

5.  Leaders.  Basically, a leader is a section of line stronger than your main line.   If toothy fish are around, I’ll go with a steel leader. Others like to roll with a fancy one that has beads and multiple swivels.  I find the best ones are simple and have had good luck with making my own.  I do use store bought ones on occasion and haven’t lost many fish using them.

6.  Weights.  Sometimes, I think this is the most important item.  If the waves are higher than your knees, I prefer 2-3 ounce spider weights.  Otherwise, I use 1 and 2 ounce pyramids.  If you are going to fish multiple rods, the weights need to stay put.

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7.  Hooks and Shrimp. I like to chill at the beach, so I use circle hooks that don’t require a hook set.  This way, I can set my coffee down, make my way to the rod, and slowly start reeling it in.  Once I feel the fish is well hooked it’s party time.  Sometimes, though, I’ll have one rod I keep in my hand while watching the others and on it, I don’t mind sporting a J hook.  On the gulf, nothing beats fresh dead shrimp.

8.  Sun/Wind Protection.  I’m basically pink.  So to avoid advancing to a painfully burnt red, I usually go with a hat, pants, long sleeves, and a buff to protect my face. Plus, I look like a train robber.

9.  A Wave Chart.  Swell info rocks and can tell you prior to beach arrival what the conditions are.  It’s a surfer’s website so I look for the bad days of surfing when there are no waves and the surface is clean.

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This is my favorite kind of surf to fish.

10.  Kids.   Fishing from a pier, dock or boat is nice, but I think this is the best form of fishing for a young or new angler.   There’s a good chance to stay busy getting bites, there are a variety of fish to catch, and if all else fails, you are still at the beach with all the fun that entails.  Be sure to have some snacks, drinks and sand castle equipment and all should be fine.

Grab your gear and head to the beach. The fish are running!

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A common afternoon’s catch in late winter/early spring

Photo Essay: Surf Fishing with my boys

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We hit the beach Tuesday to get some fresh fish.  Once again, the gulf produced.

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Getting Rigged

The set up is simple.  PVC pipes hold the rods, pyramid weights keep the bait down, and a circle hook with fresh dead shrimp as bait.

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The fish were really biting.   I was going to have four rods out, but it became apparent I could only work two at a time. I gave Keegan his rod and he was soon shouting “Fish On!”

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You can see the simple rig.

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As I was getting Keegan rebaited and casted out, Oliver gets hooked up.

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I repeated the process ad nausea and we had a couple doubles.  DSC_0200

The little guy just played in the sand and collected a pile of shells.  Oh, and a ball.

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Bringing the dog is always fun, but you better have a plan for the sand she’s going to bring home with you.

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Do not rinse in the tub, sand in the drain is a bad thing.

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We came home with some nice eating size whiting and so the cleaning lessons began.

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Of course, you have to know how to pose with a fish to make it look huge.

We eat these guys grilled whole so all that is needed is a good scaling and gutting.  Oliver is plenty old enough to scale a fish and can gut with supervision.  Keegan’s a champion caliber scaler as well.

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Who took you fishing first and what did you catch?  Do you have any tips for getting kids into fishing?