Sunday, February 8, 2015

The State of the Fishery

From the perspective of someone who has been obsessed with fish-catching since childhood, the week’s news was mixed. There were stories about efforts to reduce dynamite fishing, on the unintended consequences to fish populations of attempts to combat malaria, and on the use of satellites to identify seafood pirates.

The view from the kayak, however, was truly amazing. On Saturday morning, it looked like this (for comparison’s sake, that’s a size-12 Simms sandal on the right):

In Florida, these fish are called dolphin; on our home island of Aruba, dorado; but they are better known on menus by their Hawaiian name: mahi-mahi. 

Back in the mid-1980s—when I worked as the mate on a charter boat and moonlighted as a tropical-fish collector and commercial fisherman—we often caught dozens of dolphinfish a day, sometimes hundreds. I was certainly grateful for them at the time, with the precise level of that gratitude varying by the rate we received at the local fish house: usually between $0.79 and $1.39 per pound.

Even considering the greater worth of those Reagan-era dollars, such prices seem criminally low for a commodity as valuable as fresh fish. Which is why the good fortune I experienced Saturday occupies an entirely different range of the spectrum.

Though I release most of what I catch here on Aruba, I resolved to kill this dorado and honor its death. With wasabi and soy sauce, lime juice and cilantro, panko crumbs and curry paste.

When you only have one fish to clean, you have the luxury of using it all—much like dressing your own ducks or butchering your own deer. After skinning and fileting this fish, I saved the roe, the collar, and the head.

I enjoyed the roe pan-fried for breakfast, with stewed tomatoes from Sarah’s container garden, avocado, and toast. The collar was cooked in the Japanese izakaya style, with grated ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, and mirin. And the head, of course, became Singapore fish-head curry.

Most North Americans will never get to savor these dishes because they won’t be able to find the appropriate parts of the fish in the market. But what if the trend toward artisanal food spread to seafood providers, in the same way that craft beer and real bread can now be found from Vermont to Montana?

Even if the movement never makes it out of Brooklyn or Palo Alto, a few more fish-obsessed types might find it easier to both make a living and show respect for the creatures they pursue. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing . . .

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Is the Man

For some odd reason, it’s often easier to be grateful in the first week of January than in the third week. Today I’m grateful that the Web is like the Yellowstone in summer flood, roiling with debris, reaching high into the willows to reclaim the previous year’s (or decade’s) parched husks.

I wrote “Happy Is the Man” in 2004, while we were living in the Paradise Valley, and modeled the title character after an angler I met on Western New York’s Oak Orchard Creek. You can read the story on Big Sky Journal’s site, with photos by Ken Takata and Barry and Cathy Beck.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cheers from the past: A visit to Qingdao

In “The End of History Illusion,” Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson measured the “personalities, values, and preferences” of nearly 20,000 people from the ages of 18 to 68. All “believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Try as I might, I suspect that I likewise would’ve fallen neatly into this sample.

Ten years ago, I had never been to Mongolia or Aruba and couldn’t have imagined my current relationship to these two places. In fact, I spent most of my time editing math books and pitching travel articles! This post was originally sold to Rezoom, a relatively short-lived site designed for aging baby boomers . . . 

Cheers from Qingdao

Because we were never properly introduced, I called him “The Screamer.” Nobody else paid any attention to the guy, who stood facing the Yellow Sea, bellowing a full-throated challenge to the dawn. With his mouth closed, he would have been just another member of the early-morning crowd—the women in one-piece tank suits and bathing caps, the men in nylon briefs—most of them over 50 years old and exhibiting no concern with either the chilly October temperatures or the American obsession with body image. They fished, swam, jogged, played volleyball, practiced gymnastic routines. While he screamed. I’m sure there was a reason for all the shouting, but I couldn’t muster enough Mandarin to ask.

I hadn’t learned much beyond the basics before this trip, just the traveler’s bare minimum of nihao (hello), xiexie (thank you), and yingwen maidan (English menu). That’s probably insufficient for a visit to some of China’s so-called “second-tier” cities, but it seemed to work in Qingdao, the cheerful home of what might be China’s most widely recognized foreign export: Tsingtao Beer. Despite the current difference in spelling, the name of the city and the brand are the same. Literally translated, Qingdao signifies “green island,” although it also sounds suspiciously like a word meaning “to pour.” Fortunately for vacationers, both definitions apply.

Although Shanghai and Beijing capture most of China’s first-time visitors, a smaller city like Qingdao can provide a less overwhelming introduction to the mainland. Its history mirrors that of the other former concessions in China: colonized by Europeans (in this case, Germans), invaded by Japanese (twice), liberated first by Nationalists, then by Communists, and most recently, by Capitalists. There are no tourist destinations on the order of Tiananmen Square or the Bund, but the city does have a lively pedestrian market, a regional cuisine based on fresh seafood, a fine old temple that’s been converted into a museum of folk customs—and much better air. Our well-traveled, sometimes finicky family of four, including a 9-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, was never bored.

The most-quoted description of Qingdao goes something like this: “red roofs, green trees, blue sea, azure sky.” Not your typical jingle for an industrial city of 7 million, but stroll along Lu Xun Park’s seaside paths or hike to the top of Signal Hill and you will immediately recognize the aptness of this expression. 

There are still crowds, of course, but the density during our visit rarely surged past an entertaining level. I like watching people enjoy themselves—especially in China, where the faces are astonishingly varied and various: newlyweds posing for a photographer, formally attired in flawless white (except for the tennis shoes); grandmothers and grandsons, trousers rolled to the knee, netting crabs in tidepools; decorous old men airing their caged birds in a neighborhood square. As for the Screamer, who knows? Maybe he was really a cheerleader, practicing for 2008, when Qingdao hosted the sailing events for China’s first Olympic Games.

We stayed at the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel, for its strategic location—across the street from the No. 1 Beach. (From west to east, the city’s beaches are designated 6, 1, 2, and 3, in that order. The relatively quiet No. 2 became our family favorite.) We started each day with breakfast in the revolving restaurant on the 25th floor, then returned in the evening for foot massages, a few games of shuffleboard, or a bucket of balls at the indoor driving range.

Hotel restaurants in China can occasionally surprise you with good value and high quality. The Japanese restaurant at the Huiquan Dynasty served reasonably tasty sashimi, udon, and yakitori. Its Chinese counterpart, however, provided the sort of memories that will be forever accompanied by a rueful chuckle. The waitstaff alternated between staring and inattention. The dish we can’t forget was called “Laoshan vegetable,” after the famous nearby mountain. Intrigued by its spongy, almost fungal, texture, I made several inquiries regarding its source and preparation. All were in vain.

We enjoyed a much more satisfying feed at Chun He Lou (Spring Peace House), 146 Zhongshan Road. Although a plaque declared this “A Designated Unit for Foreign Tourists,” we noticed only one other obvious foreigner in the crowded, second-floor dining rooms. The house specialties included crispy chicken, crab with ginger and scallions, three-flavored dumplings, and chrysanthemum leaves with garlic.

West of Lu Xun Park, open-air seafood restaurants lined the road to the Navy Museum and Xiaoqingdao (Little Green Island). The day’s offerings were displayed curbside in rows of aerated tubs. You made your selections from this living, splashing menu, then chose the style of cooking. The best meal of the trip featured tender clams seasoned with small red chilies, scallops steamed in the shell, hairy crabs trussed with palm fibers, and several tall bottles of cold Tsingtao beer. All of that, plus a fine view of Huiquan Bay.

The Tsingtao Beer Museum traces the history of malt beverages from the ancient Sumerians forward to the contemporary Clydesdales. Between encounters with traditional fermentation vats and the “mystic yeast,” you could also pick up a few tips on beer appreciation, such as “serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious.” The 50 yuan admission fee included a souvenir glass, a taste of unfiltered brew, and a pitcher of draft. As the saying goes, “History is centuries old, but Tsingtao Beer will be fresh forever.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What We Don't Know About Bonefish

After five years on Aruba, I sometimes feel like I know each bonefish by name. This is not true, of course, as I only name the ones that follow the fly head down, for several seconds, before unkindly refusing it. Nevertheless, I feel like I know a significant proportion of our resident fish, and am rather fond of one or two.

But yesterday something happened that made me realize that I don't know them at all.

Based on past experience, I would've said that conditions were not good for bonefishing. A northeast swell had churned up the water near shore. Standing at the edge of a sea-grass flat in thigh-deep water, the occasional wave would smack me in the chest. And there was so much sand and loose seaweed suspended in the water column that I couldn't see my feet.

I hooked a couple of houndfish by stripping a deep-eyed anchovy imitation quickly through the shallows, then paused for a moment to scan the surface, the line dangling from the rod tip.

That's when the bonefish struck, angling up through the murk to take the fly. It quickly made off with all the line in the stripping basket, then pulled off a few yards of backing for good measure.

I don't know how it could see the fly in all that mess, or how—if it could make out its target—it didn't also see me. Nevertheless, it happened: bonefish on the fly, taken with the same sort of inattention that has yielded only a precious few individuals of other, less-discerning species. (Think farm-pond bluegill or hatchery rainbow.)


Later in the fight, a pelican (you can see it in the upper left-hand corner of the frame) dove on the bonefish with the intention of swallowing it. We had a rather intimate conversation, that pelican and I, about appropriately sized prey, and then I bade farewell to both bird and bone . . .

Monday, November 3, 2014

Duet for Cornet and Kayaker

One of my favorite things about the tropical ocean is its capacity to surprise. On Sunday afternoon, with the island's tourist engines in full roar, I joined the kiteboarders north of the Ritz-Carlton for an hour on the kayak.

Because of the twenty-knot breeze, I stuck relatively close to shore, chasing the roving schools of jacks with a small anchovy imitation. I was watching a far-off pelican dive on a school of bait when a blue-spotted cornetfish took the fly.

Cornetfish are a miracle of nature, closely related to seahorses and sea dragons. We often see them while snorkeling, as they sometimes hunt along the same flats and reefs where I watch for bones. (In the Red Sea, cornetfish have been known to devour the invasive lionfish. It's unknown whether our local species does the same, but we can hope.)

Calling this fish "blue-spotted" is a serious understatement, as their vivid hues are unlike anything in humanity's own drab palette. This individual came to hand without too much fuss, though it remained shy of the camera, like a wary backyard cat.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When Your Time Comes

While dragging the kayak up the sand on Sunday, I met a man who has been coming to Aruba since the mid-1970s. In those days, he used to fish in the October tournaments sponsored by the local yacht clubs. He participated every year until 1995, when one of his best friends had a heart attack on the boat and died. We agreed that there are worse ways to go; even so, he didn't have to explain why he now fishes from the beach.

 In the twenty years since then, the man has caught only two fish. He sees them swim by—jacks, bonefish, snook—and he casts for them, but whether he catches them or not is unimportant to the experience.

As it turns out, he landed the second fish just last week: a snook that topped thirty pounds on the scale his wife uses to weigh their luggage. A young couple pointed the fish out to him as it cruised along the beach. "Is that the kind you're trying to catch?" they asked.

The fight took him a few hundred yards north, then south again, scattering bathers and drawing a small crowd. (Aruba being a friendly place, I actually heard about the fish on the day it was landed.) Somehow, he and the snook managed to avoid all the arms, legs, buoys, and other obstacles that might have intervened. When the leader finally snapped, the fish was too tired to swim away. "It was my time," the man said, gratefully.

Which reminds me that my own time is coming. Soon I'll be back in Mongolia for a tenth season on the river. You can spot me at the oars in this short video by filmmaker Juliaan Braatvedt, who visited us in Mongolia last season, or read about our work in this article by writer and photographer Rasmus Ovesen. (In that story, I am "the guide.")

And though it's hard for me to say if this is a sign of success or a signal of depravity, Mongolia River Outfitters was recently mentioned on (number 4 on their list of "can't miss" flyfishing destinations).

While I'm gone, look for "Why I'll Hunt, Again" in the November issue of Gray's Sporting Journal, or visit Total Carp's website for the story of an unusual hatch in Tokyo.

On Flydreamers, you'll find an homage to the underappreciated lenok, and on Wattpad, a short story set in the Florida Keys that originally appeared in the fall 1994 issue of Onion River Review.

Here's to autumn . . .

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Good Company: 2014 New Rivers Press Books

Am very proud (and not a little relieved) to report that the New Rivers Press Electronic Book Series did not perish under my influence. In fact, the number of titles has now tripled.

This year’s winners include Click, a novel by Rebecca Cook, and Up the Hill, a collection of stories by James Calvin Schaap. The opening of Click propels you into the story at astonishingly lyrical speed, with great lines like “a face just to the left of lovely.” Schaap’s stories, by contrast, proceed with the measured grace of a voice from beyond the veil. As one narrator notes, “we're fluid up here.”