Fishing around column: No conching out

I was walking down Caroline Street in Key West, and there was a tout handing out coupons — sight fishing for tourists, as it were — trying to pull people in at that crucial moment that turns foot traffic into customers.

I had thought of conch as a Bahamian or Florida Keys kind of thing until Tuesday night, when I went to the latest Meet The Fleet event at the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham. They run these the last Tuesday of every month.

Each event is different, but follows a proven formula. A commercial fisherman or two come out and talk about the way they make their living, how they find what they catch and tell a few colorful stories. Then an area chef comes on and does a cooking demonstration with the catch du jour. That’s the catch of the day.

Past events have included steamers, bluefish and tuna, and this past Tuesday was conch (pronounced conk), or more specifically, channeled whelk, which are abundant in Nantucket Sound.

Unfortunately, chef Tony Pasquale from Terra Luna couldn’t make it, but there was a lively question-and-answer period after some fun stories from fishermen Jamie Eldredge, Ronnie Braun and Matt Herr. Each was one version or another of a familiar local story: displaced ground fisherman now scrambling to find work in another sector.

Herr fishes out of Nantucket and has been in the conch game for about 18 years. In that time, the conch prices have increased, driven mainly by the export market. The shellfish is popular in Asia and also Italy, where they call it scungilli.

It hasn’t caught on very much domestically. Eldredge joked that the best way to prepare it was to “cook it with a brick, then throw away the conch and eat the brick.” The texture has been compared to chewing a mouthful of rubber bands.

Without Pasquale, there weren’t the typical samples that highlight the Meet The Fleet events, so I can’t compare the taste with the version you get down the Keys, but if anyone can make it palatable, it’s Pasquale, a veritable food genius.

Conch is fished in traps, each custom made. Permitted commercial fishermen can fish up to 200 traps, and they work primarily in Nantucket Sound. The conch are aggressive; they rip open shellfish with their intrusive “snorkel” and cover them with digestive enzymes, then eat. Their favorite is to get hold of a horseshoe crab, which is the favored bait of fishermen and also their biggest expense.

On a good day, each trap will hold about five pounds of the shellfish, and it’s a dayboat fishery, so the guys are home with their families every night.

Whether you choose to eat them or not, right now conch fishing is a sector that helps keep locals out fishing in their own boats and not slinging lattes for minimum wage.

So, while spending more on tackle than food some days, it’s time to ask “

What’s going on?

1. Buzzards Bay/Cape Cod Canal: The Canal has schoolie bass and they look to be first run. No keepers reported to date, but at least you’re looking at schoolies, and after a long winter, that’s not bad. Tautog bite is moderate out in Buzzards.

2. Islands: The islands wake up more slowly, Nantucket especially, which can be weeks behind. Like the Cape, the Vineyard is blessed with many freshwater opportunities that exist under the radar compared to the more heralded saltwater action.

3. Cape southside beaches and estuaries: Bass River has given up a few school-sized bass. Mike at First Line Fishing took a couple on Tuesday. Just south of Follins Pond was one spot mentioned. I tried my hand south of the Route 28 bridge and then again at the mouth. They were dredging at the mouth, though, and the water was too muddy. Then I tried Swan River in Dennis. No dice, but it was so very nice to be out again and working a popping plug in the clear, fast-moving blue water. As Biz Markie once croaked, It’s Spring Again!

4. Nantucket Sound: The squid boats are out working this week off Hyannis and Osterville. With squid in and dandelions popping like pistons, this is the week the stripers will arrive. Ancient cycles and all that. The water temperature is creeping up, too. It was a long offseason, or what one jetty-walking wag called “a suck, cold winter.”

5. The Great Backside Beach: I cruised around Chatham on Tuesday, but didn’t see any fish. Didn’t see any seals, either, for that matter, but there were dozens of people scampering about on the muddy low tide flats, digging clams. One guy was just getting in his boat and pulling away from the fish pier and the last thing he said was “Gotta go find some fish. Checkbook’s empty.”

6. Cape Cod Bay: Some winter flounder were taken in the Bay this week. The target ship was one spot mentioned. Schoolies in Barnstable Harbor.

Freshwater: Trout are doing most of the damage this week. With the ponds twice and thrice stocked, they’re all over the place. So far fly guys have been getting more on midges and other small stuff, with the mayfly hatch still a few weeks out.

Catch em up!

Information for this column was assembled from a variety of liars, exaggerators, mis-informants, ne’er-do-wells and roustabouts. In other words, from fishermen.

Contributing writer Rob Conery can be contacted at robconery@yahoo.com.

 

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