Read the first part of our four-part series on Gulf sashimi-grade fish, and stay tuned tomorrow for part three.
"Lane snapper!" yells Captain Barry Irwin from the deck of the La Victoria. He's been rod-and-reel fishing near the starboard bow, the trawler bobbing gently in Bondi blue waters 20 miles offshore from the Aransas Pass. On the port stern, Jim Naismith is busy rigging one of the dual bandit reels that juts out from the end of the trawler.
Irwin reels in his catch, the first one of the day. It's the first fishing site he's taken the La Victoria to, the crumbling remains of a shipwreck 100 feet below our boat. The wreck has formed a natural reef for fish like snapper to call home.
"You can throw a penny in a tank," Naismith had elaborated earlier. "And the snapper will flock to it. To that single penny." The fish seem to find the stability of a firm, unmoving object in the vast ocean comforting in their way, and are quick to make homes of anything that stands still long enough. The shipwrecks and oil rigs that litter the Gulf of Mexico are thick with the fish as a result, as thick as mule deer are on land.
It's these wrecks that Irwin knows like the back of his hand. Within minutes of putting baited hooks in the water, snapper clump to them in swarms. The lane snapper that Irwin pulled out of the water is banded with bright, glistening gold, but he only stops to admire it for a split second before Naismith has cut open its main artery behind the gills and begun the ike jime process.
It's all business on this boat.
The men aren't out to catch lane snapper this Friday, as pretty as the fish might be. They're out for regular old red snapper today, so Irwin is back in the cabin within a few minutes, pointing the trawler toward its next site.
No one is allowed to look at his GPS unit while he plots the coordinates of his fishing sites; they're guarded so zealously that Naismith used to make every deckhand and every passenger sign a non-disclosure agreement. Even Naismith doesn't know where the boat is headed.
Within an hour, the trawler has reached the next site. The boat snorts and grunts loudly as it paces around the wreckage of a World War II-era German submarine underneath the water, like a dog circling its bed before it lays down. Finally, Irwin cuts the engine and puts down anchor. Naismith has readied the bandit reel on the port side; its line, weighted with five baited hooks, has been streaming behind in the water and is already heavy with fish.
As fast as the men can get new hooks and lines into the water, they're filled up with red snapper. And these aren't small snapper, either. Irwin battles 12- to 15-pound snapper on his assortment of rods; the fish are strong swimmers and don't give up easily.
"Let's see if I can get two!" he yells out merrily, before quickly catching two enormous snapper on his pole and hauling them onto the deck. They're too small -- about three pounds each -- and he throws them back, only to catch two more in quick succession.
When the fishing's this fast, it's easy to see why men like Irwin don't understand the point of restrictive IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quotas. "You couldn't fish all the snapper out of the Gulf if you tried," he says dismissively.
And as quickly as the fish are brought out of the water, they're put down at the makeshift table Naismith built on the stern. It's the same material as a cutting board, with a bolt at one end to hold the fish in place by their mouths as he and Irwin bleed them out. A notch in the cutting board holds their knives in place when they're not using them, which isn't often.
The fish are out of the water for less than 30 seconds -- usually less than 10 seconds -- before they're stunned by that artery-severing cut behind the gills. Naismith then makes a shallow cut in each snapper's tail, bending it to the side until it makes a satisfying crack, exposing the other end of the artery. The blood spurts out in long, thin trails.
"See him go white?" says Irwin. To his right, Naismith nods: "Did you see that color change?" The fish's coral-red flesh has turned a translucent white in a matter of seconds as the blood gushes out.
"When they're done right," continues Naismith, "you're left with a piece of steak." He hefts the fish, which has gone completely limp, as if lifting a beautiful piece of raw sirloin. "He's totally wiped out. And then you know you've done him right. Brain's gone. Spinal cord's gone."Irwin reels in a red snapper as he and Naismith ike jime their catch
The fish is then tossed into an Igloo cooler filled with an ice slush and left to exsanguinate completely. It's gutted an hour or so later, Naismith and Irwin working in tandem the entire time. They move swiftly, with an easy familiarity of each other's movements. Naismith reminisces about seeing the Bolshoi in Moscow years ago; he and Irwin conduct their own intricate ballet here on the back of the trawler.
Even though Naismith taught the ike jime process to Irwin, Irwin seems to be as skilled -- if not more -- than his boss. Naismith taught himself how to ike jime fish after returning from a trip to Japan, intent on finding sashimi-grade fish from the Gulf of Mexico and his hometown of Corpus Christi. When he couldn't find any, he learned how to catch and process sashimi-grade fish himself.
But there's something to the muscle memory of a lifelong fisherman like Irwin that makes him unbelievably skilled with a knife, plowing through each snapper in the effortless flick of a blade. He points to a fish that Naismith is struggling with; the thin length of wire that Naismith runs along the spinal cord of the fish to destroy its nervous system can't seem to find purchase.
"I've found that you need to have that wire ready as soon as you cut the tail," says Irwin, almost scholarly. "That meat gets bloody so fast, you can't see where the wire is supposed to go." It's difficult to disagree with Irwin that regulations and restrictions have made Gulf fishing a trial, but it's equally difficult to agree with him when he says that Gulf fisherman can't learn a new task like this. The swift, methodical way in which Irwin performs the ike jime process suggests otherwise.
What is difficult is ike jime'ing the fish quickly enough when the waters are so thick with fish.
"We could have up to 30 hooks on that bandit reel," says Naismith. "But we usually only work with five." It's simply too difficult for two men to process more than that amount at once. With more deckhands, it could be done -- and more than 200 pounds could be caught at a time. But it's difficult to find deckhands these days, and it's difficult to find any that want to learn a new way of fishing.
For now, though, it's for the best. Naismith and Irwin only want to catch as much fish as they can sell to their small market. And Naismith is learning more about the ike jime process every day, even after doing this for more than a year.
"There are different ways of ike jime'ing different fish," he says. Some fish need to be spiked through the brain prior to starting; in other fish, this destroys the flesh. It's an arduous process of trial and error.
Before long, the deck is slicked with dark red blood, seawater and opaque snapper scales. Irwin is eager to head to another fishing site, and the men begin hosing down the deck and their cutting board, washing the blood over the side. Finally, they stow their knives and set out once again.
Check back tomorrow for part three of our four-part series: fishing near active and abandoned oil rigs and why these vital Gulf ecosystems are at risk.
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