7 lessons learned catching our first fish

7 lessons learned caching our first fish thumbnail

“Fish on!” I hear John scream, slowly nudging me out of a deep sleep below deck.

I pull on some clothes and rush up on deck to find Ryan running around the cockpit, desperately searching for something. “We don’t have a gaff! Wait, I have a trident!” He pulls a long-handled deck brush out of the lazarette. “No, that’s not it!”

The look on Ryan’s face is that of pure delight — it’s our first fish while trolling and he’s determined not to let this one go. Meanwhile John is standing at the stern, pulling in the line on the hand reel while Ryan flits anxiously around the cockpit, finally locating a net to scoop up the fish with. With a couple of swift tries, Ryan and John pull the flopping tuna into the cockpit and start jumping up and down, whooping with disbelief and excitement.

“Who’s going to kill it?” asks John.

john harrop fishing cheeky monkey 7 lessons learned turf to surf

Our friend John, clearly dressed for a fishing adventure.

When our friends John and Chris turned up in Palma de Mallorca to go sailing with us to Gibraltar, they couldn’t believe that in the 15,000 miles we’d sailed that we’d never caught a fish on our boat before. I wouldn’t have believed it either, but I knew what terrible fishermen we were and, truth be told, we hadn’t really tried much. And the few efforts we made only resulted in a tangled ball of seaweed at the end of our line.

For some reason, killing and filleting fish is my job, so once the tuna lands in the cockpit, I get down to the business of putting this fish out of its misery and preparing the kitchen for a sushi dinner.

What I don’t know, however, as we’re fumbling around trying to kill and fillet our first tuna (and a second, even larger tuna a few hours later), are all the mistakes we’re making as we try to land and kill a fish while under sail.

So thanks to all the advice from the expert fishermen commenting on our YouTube Channel, Chase the Story (see the video of our fishing exploits here: https://youtu.be/RyqiL755L-A), these are all the things we did wrong. We’re always learning something new from the sailing community, so if you have anything to add to this, feel free to comment. We might even share some of our sushi with you if your tips turn out to be helpful.

In the meantime, here are 7 rudimentary lessons we learned while catching our first fish on board Cheeky Monkey:

1. Slow the boat down

As newbies to fishing, we got so excited about landing our fish that it never occurred to us we were going too fast to make that happen. I mean, who has time to drop the sails when…FISH!

Also, I didn’t realize how big the fish would be in the Mediterranean and a number of the big ones we snagged got away because there was too much drag on the line, pulling the fish clean off the hook.

What we’ve learned we should do when we hear someone scream “Fish on!” is down the revs if we’re motoring, or luff up, if we’re sailing. That will lessen the drag on the fishing line and make it easier to reel in and land the fish.

2. The net goes in front of the fish, not behind

It seemed like an intuitive action to scoop the fish up from behind, but we had a few comments that advised us to put the net in front of the fish, as the fish will always swim forward and away from the net if you put it behind the fish. Plus, you’re not fighting the drag through the water if the net goes in front.

It makes sense now, but that never occurred to us. And with the second tuna we caught, we found it impossible to net the fish, it was so fighting so hard. Which leads to our next mistake…

tunafish 7 lessons learning catching our first fish

Our first little guy was easy enough to net. But the big guy after him? Not so much.
3. Have a proper gaff on board

We didn’t have a gaff on board at the time we caught our first fish (we do now). What we had was a trident, or as Ryan calls it, “the Neptune thingy.”

The trident kind of worked on our big tuna (estimated 16 kilos) when it was alongside the boat and we were struggling to land it. I managed to get close enough to stab it with the trident, which caused the fish to bleed out a little and took the fight out of him long enough for us to drag him on board by hand.

4. Alcohol is for drinking, not for killing fish

I’m sure I read somewhere that you should always have a cheap bottle of vodka handy for killing fish, so that was the first thing I thought of when our fresh catch was flopping around the cockpit, trying to work its way back to freedom.

I poured some vodka in its gills, but it didn’t seem to do much. Some commenters have pointed out that this is a cruel way to kill a fish, and we should just cut its head off quickly and put it out of his misery. That’s what we did in the end, but there was a torturous period when we were trying to inebriate the poor fish to death. Rather than kill the tuna, the vodka seemed to turn him into an angry drunk.

5. Tuna bleeds like a stuck pig

Our cockpit looked like a CSI crime scene by the time I was done with our tuna. Some people have suggested that we cut off the head and then drag the tuna behind the boat until it bleeds out. It’s less messy and apparently it makes the fish taste better?

I have no idea, but I’ll try that next time. I’m hoping, at the very least, it will save me a few hours of deck scrubbing.

tuna catch 7 lessons learned catching our first fish

This is by far the biggest fish we’ve ever seen. Now, what to do with it?!
6. The best way to fillet a fish varies widely by type of fish

So far, we’ve only ever caught tuna and Mahi Mahi on our boat and the cleaning process is quite different for each, as I’m sure it is for every fish.

Tuna has an interesting bone structure, so I discovered the best way to fillet a tuna, once you’ve sliced its belly and pulled out all the guts, is to run the knife along the bone, which is an L-shape kind of structure. You get the most meat out of the fish that way, and it comes out in nice, fresh substantial steaks.

With Mahi Mahi, the skin is really tough and I’ve found it doesn’t cook as nicely with the tough skin left on it. But skinning a Mahi Mahi is a time-consuming process that requires a few tools that I wouldn’t normally keep in my fishing box.

I have no idea if this is the best way to skin a Mahi Mahi, but what I found easiest was to start the skinning process by running my filleting knife under the skin about an inch from where we cut off the head. Then once there is a lip of skin lifted, I use a pair of long-nosed pliers to cinch the edge of the skin. I then roll the pliers towards the tail, twisting the skin around the pliers kind of like I’m opening an old-fashioned tin of sardines. This allows me to roll most of the skin straight off the surface of the Mahi Mahi. I use my filleting knife, as well, to help slice the skin away from the meat as I roll the pliers.

fillet tuna 7 lesson learned catching our first fish

I may look like I know what I’m doing, but really I don’t.
7. The disco squid lure is a winner every time

We’ve tried dozens of different trolling lures to catch fish over the years without much success. But then someone advised we get a “disco squid.” Every single fish we’ve caught on board Cheeky Monkey has been with one of these guys. Maybe there are other lures out there that work, but I have no idea what they are. Day-glo Dave, as Ryan calls this guy, is our lucky lure from here on forth.

7 lessons learned catching our first fish turf to surf

We affectionately call this little guy “Day-glo Dave.”

We are painfully aware what novice fishermen we are, but we are fish lovers and sushi connoisseurs. And being half-Korean, I feel a responsibility towards my heritage to perfect my sushi techniques from the sea to the dinner table.

Which brings me to my recommendation of this incredibly efficient and easy-to-use sushi-rolling device. I found this in a fancy home store in France, after multiple failed attempts trying to roll sushi using a bamboo mat. This thing is amazing and has changed my sushi-making life for the better. It means I don’t spend hours in the kitchen swearing and throwing rice at the walls. Seriously, everyone needs one of these (Amazon.com link below):

sushi 7 lessons learned catching our first fish

It took the crew less than an hour to throw together this incredible meal.

We still have a lot to learn about catching, preparing and cooking fish on board Cheeky Monkey, but I think we’re off to a good start.

Let us know how we’re doing and if you have any helpful suggestions. That is, unless you’re this guy:

fishing youtube comment

In which case, go home, Almon Gulley Stomppers Roberts, you’re drunk, YALL is not a word and your keyboard is stuck on all caps.