The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Sometimes it seems like we missed the good fishing in our region. From the native people to generations of settlers, salmon was plentiful and remains a big part of PNW culture. Unfortunately, the salmon runs are not as prolific as they once were and the seasons are highly regulated. Recreational fishers may only get 1-2 king salmon per year.
Despite being called an Orcas Island Fisherman, I had never done any real fishing since moving to the island. As much as I wanted to fish for salmon, it never happened, in part because the best salmon fishing is done from a boat with a contraption called a downrigger, which we don’t have. For us, fishing would begin with lake fishing rods on Short Story.
The prized species, like salmon, halibut, and lingcod, were all out of season, so we focused on what was legal to catch this fall. As it turns out, bottom fish season is always open and each person can take home 15 fish per day. We watched YouTube videos, visited a local outdoor sports store, and set our sights on flatfish, like flounder, sole, and sand dabs.
Last year we caught a Pacific sand dab in our shrimp trap (below) and didn’t know what it was. I took the little guy home, fried it in a pan, and found the meat to be delicious. These fish all have flaky white meat like a flounder. Since then, we’ve learned that sand dabs are considered a west coast delicacy.
We talked to a couple of friends who told us where to go and what to do. We needed a “high low rig” which has two hooks and a weight. You drop the line to the bottom and then use the current to drift the bait across the bottom. We were hopeful but skeptical. Everyone said it can be easy, fun, and very productive. They were not wrong.
From the moment my line hit the bottom, a fish hit the bait. It was a smallish sand dab. The next time, I pulled up two fish at a time. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was like a carpet of flatfish were just waiting for something to float by them.
In a couple of hours, we hauled in about twenty fish, mostly Pacific sole and Pacific sand dabs. You can tell the difference because flat fish are either “right-eyed” or “left-eyed”. This relates to which side of the fish faces the bottom. A pacific sole is right-eyed because it lies on its left side on the bottom. As flatfish mature, the downward-facing eye migrates to the upward-facing side of the fish. How weird.
Once we got home the cleaning process began. I watched more videos and we formed a production line. Sachi scraped scales; I gutted and cleaned. It was messy and awkward in the beginning, but soon I got the hang of it. In fact, I filleted a few of the bigger fish for the first time. It was not pretty, but I didn’t need stitches, so that’s a win.
With all the fish cleaned and refrigerated, we could plan a few experimental meals. We started with the classic pan-fried fish. We coated them with egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in cast iron. These were whole fish, with bones. It reminded me of the fish called “spot” my parents and I used to catch on the coast of North Carolina.
Once on the plate, you can remove the meat from one side with a fork and easily lift out all the bones.
We also deep-fried fillets, which were my favorites in fish tacos.
Lastly, we coated the fish with a thin mayonnaise garlic sauce and baked them in the oven. Delicious!
We ended up eating every fish we caught in one form or another. Like all fishing, it was messy to process. Cleaning and filleting the fish can be tedious and time-consuming. But that’s just fine. We fed ourselves with fish and caught a short ride from home. Unlike salmon, flatfish are plentiful, always in season, and easy to catch. I’m surprised we hadn’t done it sooner.
I don’t know that we’ll fish for flatfish all the time, or that they will compete with the protein and enjoyment we get from crab and spot prawns. But this kind of fishing helps us learn, promotes self-sufficiency, and keeps us on the water. Maybe next year we’ll give salmon a try.