In the Midwest, we know the names of the farmers we turn to for our honey, bratwursts and maple syrup—and we harvest most of our fresh produce 100 feet from our back door. But it took a recent journey to the Florida Keys to understand what sustainable fishing is all about. Under the expert guidance of Captain Kevin Johnsen, owner of Florida Keys Reel Adventures, a fishing charter operator out of Hook’s Marina & Dive Center in Marathon, Fla., we learned to hook and cook our own fish. One thing is for sure: What we ate was going to be what we caught.
Our Florida fishing adventure took place just as a study was released by the nonprofit Oceana, one of the world’s largest ocean conservation groups, which found that nearly one-third of all the fish bought at supermarkets, restaurants and sushi restaurants in 21 states were mislabeled. For example, nearly 87-percent of the snapper samples failed to be snapper, the study found. To complicate matters, more than 80-percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, according to the National Fisheries Institute trade group. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report on seafood species substitution or fraud found that only 2 percent of seafood is actually inspected.
One way to avoid eating mislabeled fish, of course, is to catch and cook your fish (or seafood) yourself, whether it comes from the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Michigan. That’s what we did. Our photo essay below documents our 4-hour fishing trip—our first in the saltwater of the Atlantic.
The largest living coral reef in the world— and the only one in North America—rests about 5 miles off the shore of the Florida Keys, which stretch from Key Largo down to Key West. The patch and bank reefs, along with the numerous wrecks that have happened there, provide abundant habitat for more than 500 species of fish—many of them the best tasting in the world.
Our trip departed at 9 a.m. with Captain Kevin providing everything we’d need including bait; ice for the “kill box,” where our catch were to be kept; fishing licenses; and as it turned out, a Bonine pill for Lisa, who started to get a bit queasy as soon as we hit some modest waves. (After about an hour, she joined the fun in earnest.)
Upon arrival to our first spot about a mile out in 15-foot-deep waters, Kevin ran through the basics of deep-sea fishing because we had never fished in the Atlantic.
“Once you feel a bite on the line, quickly close the bail, then reel in the loose slack on the line and set the rod with a rapid jerk upward that allows your hook to be caught in the fish’s mouth. While keeping the line taught, reel the fish in.”
Captain Kevin made fishing seem almost too easy, but our son, Liam, picked it up in less than a couple of minutes. (We adults had to work a bit more at it, trying to feel the bite on the line.) Captain Kevin identified the fish as quickly as we pulled them out of the water. By the end, we could identify them, too.
The middle Keys offer world-class fishing and Captain Kevin found plenty of fish less than a mile or so off shore using a sophisticated Fish Finder and harnessing his years of experience in commercial fishing, a licensed USGC Master Captain, diver and as a nearly lifelong Keys resident.
“Over a time, you develop an eye for spotting great fishing. It’s all about the wind, current, water temperature and weather, and knowing where to find the best places where schools of fish gather.” he says.
We hired Captain Kevin to take us “mixed bag fishing” on his 24-foot SeaCat catamaran, one of the most stable boats on the open waters. Between the three of us, we managed to catch more than 50 fish of numerous species, tossing back any that were not large enough or that were out of season. Liam managed to hook a Mahogany Snapper, a fish more commonly found in the Bahamas.
A cold front passed over the area during our excursion. For the first hour or so, before the cold front, we couldn’t reel in the fish fast enough. To speed things up, Captain Kevin baited our hooks with live shrimp and helped us cast out into the waters about 50 feet from the back of the boat.
“Feed the line and let the bait float naturally with the current,” Kevin advised us. “The fish are incredibly smart and you don’t want to do anything that might look out of the ordinary.” The “ordinary” referred to tugging at the line or reeling in the shrimp against the current.
To improve our chances of hooking dinner, Kevin placed a mesh bag over the side of the boat with a block of frozen chum, ground up North Atlantic Menhaden fish with fish oil added in. It’s called “chumming.” This fish-food smorgasbord is dumped over the side of the boat to attract fish looking for an easy supper. Then we wait for our “target species,” such as a mature Yellowtail snapper, to move in and mistake our baited hook for chum. Pretty soon our dinner was on the line.
“We’re creating a fishery by the way we’re fishing,” says Kevin, referring to how fishing has actually helped the fishing stocks for many species in the Keys. “For every fish kept or killed, we’re feeding about thirty others.”
“Because every fish is caught on your line, there’s no waste, no by-catch,” he adds. “If the fish is out of season or too young, they’re just returned to the ocean. That’s a sustainable fishery to me.”
Just as the cold front passed over with clouds, wind, a misty rain and stirring of the water, our luck started to run out. We cast a few more lines as the sun popped back out with little success, and then pulled the anchor.
“There’s a lot of structure here,” says Kevin, as he sets up our little fishing operation about 2 miles away, where there’s more coral and rocky formations underwater than the flat sea grass meadows of our first stop. This translated to new species of fish. Instead of adding to our kill box, we snagged a toxic and inedible, but cool-looking, Scorpionfish, plus lots of juvenile snappers.
“I call it an ocean lottery,” laughs Kevin, when we asked at our third and final fishing spot about going out into the deeper waters for the much larger migrating fish like mahi-mahi (dolphinfish) or Yellowfin tuna. “You can spend a lot more time and expense but come back empty handed.”
“My goal is to break the charter fishing mold,” explains Kevin, as we head back to shore. “Lots of people seek a fishing trip. I sell a trip designed especially for you. I want Florida Keys Reel Adventures to be the vessel for my customers’ adventures, not some preconceived packaged excursion on a so-called party boat (group boat) or six-pack charter. My customers dictate the experience they want, the fish we catch and the places we go. We can go fishing, play around on a secluded sand bar off a private island, go sea kayaking into a mangrove, or snorkel over a patch reef.”
“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of fish, especially when I worked in commercial fishing,” says Kevin as he starts to clean our pile of fish on ice. Brown Pelicans have already gathered just off the dock where all the scraps—everything but our filets—end up going. In a matter of minutes, he fills our plastic bag full of fresh fish filets, about 15 pounds or about a week’s worth of baked fish filets, fish sandwiches and fish tacos.
The experience wouldn’t have been complete without a lesson on fish cleaning, so Kevin gave Lisa some pointers. In total, our 14 keepers translated to about 7 pounds of fish filets worth $140 at retail.
That evening, we savored the first of many delicious fish sandwiches we prepared at our rental house in Marathon’s “Little Venice,” just down the road from the marina. Overlooking the Atlantic and the canal, we savored the flaky, mild snapper in the same way we might enjoy our eggplant parmesan: one bite at a time.
We’ll be sharing one of Captain Kevin’s recipes in an upcoming post, so come back for more.