Old Dan and the Sea

One day, a long, long time ago three friends visited the coast to catch some fish. They carried with them many cooler boxes with marrowbones, fat sheep’s rib, and a not insubstantial number of bottles of burned wine (brandy) and sugarless cola.

All three – Old Dan, Kakko and Crispy – were rather tall and hefty, with great appetites for food, fun, laughter, fishing and, … well, telling tall tales about fish.

It was around the cooking fire that the three men came into their own. With long, tall glasses darkened by burned wine  and sugarless cola, they mocked each other deep into the fresh coastal night. And they ate freshly made toast heaped with small mountains of golden, dripping bone marrow. Sucked the sweet, fatty flesh from thin, sharp rib bones. Pausing only to accommodate a fit of laughter or re-fill an empty glass.

Crispy

Then, just after the hour of mid-night the three rather tall and hefty men retired to their comfortable beds for the night, well conscious that the next day was going to be a tough, demanding day. Because all three had paid a large sum of money to an unknown skipper to take them out to the open sea to fish for snoek (Thyrsites atun also known as the Barracouta; not to be confused with the Barracuda).

The next morning arrived like the one before it. Our three friends set out on their journey to the open seas slightly less buoyant and boastful than the night before.

The sea-bound journey was long and bumpy. Waters got darker and the spray colder. No one spoke over the hypnotic, high-pitched droning of two two-stoke engines. Each man’s face contained at least one issue of concern.

The process for catching snoek starts with a long journey to the deep, deep waters. The fact that these fish congregate in large shoals means that once found, the boat can be “parked” over the fish, allowing the fisherman an opportunity to catch quite a few fish before the shoal moves on.

The fish is caught by dropping a shiny metal lure or spoon into the shoal and then retrieving it rather rapidly inviting the fish to pursue and grab the lure. Using an electronic fish-finder, the skipper would advise the fisherman on how deep to drop their lures and working on the assumption that the lure would sink one meter per second, a shoal of snoek detected at 60 meters could be reached by letting the line and lure drop for the amount of time it takes to count to 60.

The ‘take’ is an aggressive thump followed by a fierce fight as the fish rapidly dives to the bottom to where it perceives freedom to be. It’ll shake its head ferociously from side to side all the while diving deeper and away from the boat and angler.

The angler, on the other hand, has to stop the fish from diving – contain and ‘pump’ it all the time until the fish tires and comes to the surface. Once in the boat, the angler or skipper has to kill it swiftly by avoiding it’s super sharp teeth and breaking its neck.

Or that’s the theory at least.

Old Dan

After what had seemed to be an unduly long time, our friends stumbled upon our first shoal of snoek.

The skipper stopped the boat. Engaged the reverse gear and moved slowly backward to park right over them. The engines made a deep roaring sound. The deckhand started passing fishing rods around. The moment of reckoning had arrived.

“Fish at 40 meters!”, came the call from the skipper. The boat was swaying ever so gently in the slight swell.

Only two lures hit the water and only two anglers started counting to 40. Old Dan’s creaky knees (he was a sportsman if international repute in his younger years) took him only as far as the nearest side of the boat before they turned to jelly. He had to sit. And lean over the side of the boat. This had to happen rather quickly.

Old Dan was not counting. Rather, he sounded like a congested ventriloquist making his way through the Mongolian alphabet. Convulsions shook his tall and hefty frame much the same way a pit bull terrier would shake a garden pillow. As recognizable pieces of last night dinner started making their way on an oil slick to the back of the boat, everyone realized there was trouble. Big trouble.

“Lines out” came the call.

Old Dan lifted his still convulsing body back onto the seat. His eyes were blood-shot and his face showed a colour not dissimilar to that of the surrounding sea.

“Here is no fish. Is true, I looked just now. Can we go home now?” Old Dan had enough and was unashamedly trying to convince the rest that they had enough too.

But he had no such luck. They came to fish, and fish they were going to do.

The clanking sound of the skipper engaging reverse gear and the subsequent growl of the engines of the boat being parked became Old Dan’s allusion to assume his position at the side of the boat.

As lures hit the water and counting commenced, he could only convulse. His body was drawn deeper into its already confused state. His eyes saw the stillness whilst the equilibrium receptors in his ears sensed only motion. His confused brain screamed at the rest of his body to shut down and it was his digestive system that responded most efficiently.

He became aggressive in his complaints. Banned all smoking from the boat. Threatened to throw all beer over-board.

Nothing did or could give him joy. Not even the rare sight of a truly gigantic sunfish (mola-mola). Or the shiny snoek that came on-board at regular intervals.

Kakko and Crispy laughed. Long and hard and very frequently. Until nobody could convulse or laugh no more.

Back on land Old Dan’s body restored equilibrium almost immediately. “I am hungry. Let’s go and eat”.

It was Mark Twain who said: “Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish”.

So if you know the fish in this story, be respectful. Do not tell others who may know the people.

This week’s recipe might seem unusual to some. To cover fish with loads of salt and then bake it might seem a sure way to destroy is taste. But rest assured, the salt crust acts only as a little oven within which the fish is steamed. Give it a try. It easy to make and hard to mess up.

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