Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bay foraging

Gulf Coast residents are no strangers to the great bay systems. We go and we know what to look for in order to catch a fish- the right tides, birds feeding, slicks, frantic bait fish on the surface, and a hundred other small signs. But we usually only target a few species of fish (redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sometimes drum), while remaining totally unaware of the food that is all around us. A fishing trip without catching one of the above mentioned species is considered a bust.

In my family, as long as something is brought home to eat, the trip was a success. This has much to do with my wife, who continually opens my eyes to the bounty around us. When I make an all too rare trip to the bays, my wife’s last words are always “don’t forget to catch some small fish”. So I always bring out a little pole armed with a sabiki rig, much to the amusement of others nearby, who assume I am just spending way too long trying to catch some bait
to get some ‘real’ fish. When I explain my purpose, the reaction is standard- either pity, disgust, or disbelief, followed invariably with questions as to which specific little fish taste good and how to cook them. I always suspect that the next time those folks get ahold of a little fish, they quietly put it aside so they can test what I said…of course they probably wouldn’t admit it to anyone they were with, but at least I got them thinking. When I say ‘small fish’, I am not speaking of undersized specimens of game fish, but fish like pigfish, pinfish, whiting, spots, oysterfish, ribbonfish, eels, grass breams, sea robins, bumpers, and the occasional mullet. These are the best eating fish in the bays, and I certainly would choose them over any redfish or trout.

But even a fishing pole isn’t necessary, if you’re willing to get wet and keep your eyes open. Go the shore of the bay, where all the sea grasses grow, and start looking. You will more than likely see snails at the top of the grasses (during high tide), or down in the mud (during low tides). These are, of course, marsh periwinkles, and all you need to find them is eyes and hands. Near the grasses, you’ll also find hermit crabs, which, bizarre appearance aside, are great to eat. Wade out a bit, and you’re sure to see nice fat oysters in clusters of half a dozen or more, which can be harvested easily by hand. Be careful when pulling the clusters apart, because you don’t want to miss the hooked mussels that seem to always be attached to oyster clusters. These mussels are quite small, and the beards are large in proportion to the meat. However, if they are allowed to purge, and are then de-bearded, they make a fine addition to the table. Notice also that large oysters are usually covered with barnacles, both the common and titan varieties. If the oysters are cooked in the shell (and no better way exists to cook oysters than by grilling them whole), don’t forget to pick out the barnacles. The ‘beak’ of the barnacle will poke out of the shell when cooked, and all you need to do is grab the beak and pull.
The edible portion is a small sliver of meat attached to the underside of the beak. When foraging, also keep your eyes open for oyster drills, the most rapacious invertebrate predator of the oyster. Where you find oysters, drills can’t be far away. Drills are snails, and correspond closely to the creature called ‘bulot’ in France (oddly, the Louisiana French name is ‘bigorneau’, which is the French term for periwinkle).

If you find a spot on the shore with a very gentle incline and a sandy bottom, look for vent holes. When you see them, take your shoes off and shuffle through the sand near the holes. If the holes are being made by clams
(either the true quahog or the much larger Southern Quahog), then you will find them with your toes, for clams in our parts generally burrow just a couple of centimeters below the surface.
Large whelks are pretty ubiquitous as well, though take care to only harvest the ‘right-handed’ whelks, as the ‘left-handed’ specimens are lightning whelks, and, as the state shell of Texas, are protected from any harvest. And if you are very persistent, you might just find a clutch of other shellfish in the bays, from calico clams to rangia to scallops to pen shells and beyond. And then there are the edible plants- saltwort, glasswort, purslane, cattails, to name a few. All are highly nutritious, very tasty, and incredibly easy to harvest.

If you happen to be on the beach, poke around the tide line and you might find several different clams, among them the cutest little clam there is, the coquina. It would take well over a hundred coquina to satisfy a normal appetite, but what they lack in size, they make up for in taste.
A bounty surrounds us all on the Gulf Coast, and all it takes is a bit of knowledge and practice in order to feast happily. The few species mentioned here barely scratch the surface.

1 comment:

  1. Professor, this is very interesting! Keep it up.