Bringing Home the Bacon (Spear-Fishing)
One of my favorite things to do – and it’s great for my food supply as well – is to go out diving with the guys. (For the record, my use of “the guys” is not a gender-biased oversight! Here, it refers to a group of male buddies. Also, while there are notable exceptions, women aren’t typically the divers in this community.)
Around here, “diving” usually means free-diving and spear-fishing, rather than scuba-diving (although visitors do that, too). I am not a diver since I haven’t mastered actually staying submerged under the water, clearing my ears well or shooting a spear! Nonetheless, I love to go along for the ride. During the summer, I often swim along in the comfortable 79-82 degree water to watch the action through my snorkel mask. In the winter, however, when the water is a chilly 73 degrees (yes, chilly, it’s all relative!), I prefer to stay on the boat.
So, what’s a typical dive day like? We leave early in the morning and cruise along in a motorboat until we find a “good spot.” This is determined by decades of familiarity with the area and by peering over the bow of the boat, looking through the clear water to find a good “head” or other area where fish and lobster hang out.
The guys don masks, snorkels and flippers, grab their long spears and rubber slings and slide overboard. Two people usually stay back on the boat – one to drive the boat and one to “catch” the fish that the divers pass up to the boat, although some drivers will do both jobs. When I’m along, I help catch. I enjoy catching, plus my driver-in-training skills would hardly instill confidence in the divers swimming near the boat. I also help spot and watch the divers as they spread out in the water.
Free-diving and spear-fishing are arts unto themselves. The guys dive down 20-40 feet (although I’ve seen some go 50-80 feet at times) and swim along the bottom, tracking fish or tickling a lobster out of a hole. Pulling back the rubber sling, the diver launches the spear, usually for a clean head shot that quickly kills the prey. As the diver swims back up and breaks the surface of the water, the boat sees he has a fish or lobster on his spear, and the boat drives to him.
This is an important part because we do not like to let divers linger in the water with a bleeding fish – blood draws sharks. The best dive spots are on the edge of the deep, deep ocean, so everyone must remain alert for the big creatures of the sea. (More about that in a post next week.)
As the boat approaches, the diver passes his spear up, and the catcher slides the fish or lobster (or any conch the diver picked up while down there!) into the well of ice in the floor of the boat, or into a cooler, depending on the boat. Quickly passing the spear back to the diver, down he goes again.
Keep in mind, this is all done in the midst of strong currents and rolling swells many days. The experienced divers swim in these conditions for hours, but it is exhausting physical work. The divers climb in and out of the boat as we move around to different spots to check them out.
Once the wells are nearly overflowing with fish, the divers climb back in and we head home. Tired, but satisfied with the catch and the fun of the day, the group laughs and tells fish stories. Crossing back into turquoise waters near our island, we pull up to the marina’s dock.
Now the next phase ensues – cleaning all of the fish that was caught! First, we pile the lobster from the boat into a cart.
We roll the cart over to the fish bench area and dump it out.
We repeat the process with the fish and admire the big haul!
Tourists and locals congregate to admire the catch, ask questions about the day, and laugh while the guys trade stories with their friends and sharpen their knives.
Fish cleaning can be a dirty, blood-spattering, fish-smelling experience. One of the guys is renowned for his garbage-bag apron, others wear old shirts, and others just don’t worry about it.
They settle comfortably into a routine they’ve practiced for decades. A person or two separates the lobster tails from the body with a sharp knife. Then, poking a stick into the tail, they pull out the guts, toss the clean tail into a bucket of sea water and pitch the head into a separate pile.
At the end of the day, the tails are divided amongst the divers, to be devoured in the commonly-known form of lobster tails. They usually give away the lobster heads to friends and family. That meat is equally tasty, but more labor-intensive. Some people break off the legs and extract the meat. Others boil the whole head, which gives the broth flavor, and add other things to the soup.
Meanwhile, the rest of the guys work on the fish, slicing off the scales/skin with the sharp knives, cutting open the fish, removing the guts, then dropping the cleaned fish into a bucket of seawater.
When it’s all done, the divers divide the fish amongst themselves to take home to friends and family. Some fillet the pieces, others leave them whole. Regardless, every part of the fish is kept and used. Even if the fillets are removed, the heads and other meat is kept to boil, stew or otherwise cook up for a tasty meal.
By the time this is all completed, the guys have usually put in at least a ten-hour day. The sun has performed another beautiful sunset over the water, and it’s time to go home for a shower.
Leaving the dock, I take ziplocked bags of fish and lobster home to freeze, keeping some out for dinner that night. It doesn’t get any fresher or any tastier than that!