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Gifts From the Gulf

When Europeans first began settling the northern Gulf of Mexico, they encountered vast wetlands, bays and rivers teeming with fish of all kinds. More than three centuries later, these same wetlands still feed many people.

From the Sabine River on the Louisiana-Texas line to the Florida Panhandle, sportsmen find an abundance of tasty redfish, speckled trout, flounder, black drum, sheepshead and many other inshore species. Combining an abundance of fish with a world-renowned reputation for creating delicious culinary concoctions and people can understand why Gulf Coast residents love to catch and eat so much seafood.

“I grew up hunting and fishing in Louisiana and learned to cook from my mom, my dad and my grandmother,” recalls Chef David Cunningham, executive chef at V Seagrove Restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. “My dad’s philosophy was that the hunt or fishing trip wasn’t over until the meat was in the pot or freezer.”
People can prepare most fish in almost as many ways as anglers can catch them. Many people prefer to scale or skin fish, filet off boneless slabs and fry, grill, broil or bake them. People can also put fish in a soup, gumbo or courtbouillon, a thick, rich stew among other ways to cook them. About three decades ago, people sometimes waited for hours outside New Orleans restaurants to sample pungent pieces of blackened redfish, a species many sportsmen considered “trash fish” not worthy of human consumption before the craze swept the nation.

Many people also enjoy redfish “on the half shell.” To prepare this dish, filet off the sides of a sizeable redfish, but leave the large scales intact. Marinate the meat in Italian salad dressing and add lemon, pepper and spices to taste. Plop the slab on a hot grill, scale side down. The scales coagulate from the heat into sort of a plate. When ready, flake the succulent meat off the scales.

Cunningham likes to prepare what he calls “salt dome redfish.” He covers a whole side of a redfish in salt and bakes it. The baked salt creates something like a crusty shell. When ready to serve, remove the salt shell, letting out the incredibly tempting aroma.

“The salt seals in the juice, and it comes out super moist,” Cunningham explains. “The salt doesn’t permeate into the meat. When baking, the salt gets really hard and makes a crust. When we take it out, the salt comes off like a big shell in the shape of the fish. When we lift that off and peel the skin back, the aroma hits and everyone is pleasantly surprised. The dish doesn’t really have any salt on it except what was in the natural salt water because of the freshness of the fish. Some people even put a little of that salt crust back onto the fish when they eat it.”

Flat with both eyes on one side, flounder don’t look like other fish, so anglers need to prepare them differently. Many people “butterfly” flounder. Make a cut down the center of the fish and form two pockets on either side of the cut between the meat and backbone. Then, fill those pockets with stuffing made from shrimp or crabmeat and bake it.

Many Gulf fish also make excellent dishes. Pompano frequently commands a higher price in restaurants than beef. Some other delicious offshore fish include amberjack, cobia, dolphin (not to be confused with the marine mammal), grouper, red snapper and wahoo.

People who grill tuna may never open a can of fish again. Place tuna steaks about an inch thick on the grill and watch the coloring. The side closest to the fire will turn a different color as it cooks. As the color change hits the center of the steak, flip the meat over until the colors merge.

Across Louisiana, anglers can usually catch all the fish they want, but nowhere does the cornucopia of life manifest itself more abundantly than at Venice (Louisiana), last outpost in the Mississippi River delta. From Venice, anglers can catch everything from bluegill to blue marlin. After fishing, many people can’t wait to eat their catch.

“There’s nothing better than eating a fish caught a few hours earlier,” says Dan Skermetta, who runs Venice Sportsman’s Lodge ((504) 248-8092, www.venicesportsmanslodge.net). “We get people from all over. Some guys say they can catch more fish here in three or four days than they can catch all year at home.”
On the Mississippi Coast, the waters near Biloxi produce many great catches. Biloxi sits astride a peninsula with Biloxi Bay, also known as Back Bay, on the northern side and Mississippi Sound to the south. Several rivers and bayous feed into the bay, creating abundant and diverse fishing opportunities. Several islands separate Mississippi Sound from the Gulf.

“We have Gulf fishing, river fishing, island fishing, surf fishing and bay fishing all combined in one general area,” says Robert Brodie of Team Brodie Charters in Biloxi. ((228)392-7660, teambrodiecharters.com). “We have a lot of artificial reefs in this area that hold good fish.”
Mobile Bay in southern Alabama measures 31 miles long by 24 miles wide. Several rivers flow into the bay, creating the fourth-largest estuary in the United States. The Fort Morgan Peninsula and Dauphin Island separate Mobile Bay from the Gulf.

Historic Pensacola Bay near the Florida town of the same name stretches about 13 miles long by 2.5 miles wide in two parts. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs through the bay, connecting Escambia Bay to East Bay. Although Destin, Florida, hosts one of the largest offshore charter boat fleets in the United States, sportsmen can also find great inshore action in Choctawhatchee Bay. Near Panama City, Florida, St. Andrews Bay covers about 25,000 acres.
Any of these honey holes and thousands of other Gulf Coast hot spots can provide exceptional fishing for a variety of species all year long. On hot summer evenings, follow the aromatic allure of savory fish dishes to see who found the best action that day.

Do some homework before booking a charter
Many people prefer to catch the fish they eat, but anglers who may only fish a few times a year actually save money by hiring a captain instead of buying a boat. Boat owners must make payments, buy insurance and perform maintenance even if the boat sits idle for months. To fish, owners must buy fuel, oil, bait and ice and pay launch fees. After the trip, someone must clean and store everything, then replace broken items. For all those expenses, occasional anglers can buy several charter adventures each year.

Charter captains carry the right equipment plus know how and where to catch fish. However, before booking a charter, do some research. If possible, talk to people who previously fished with that captain. Find out how the captain fishes and for what species. Before hiring the service, communicate specific desires to the captain and together plan an enjoyable day.

Also, find out exactly what the captain charges and what those charges cover. Discuss appropriate tips. Arrive at the designated place on time prepared to fish. Contact the captain as early as possible if anything changes. Most captains provide all the rods, reels, bait and tackle, but bring a camera, suntan lotion, sunglasses, refreshments, snacks, and clothes appropriate to the season or weather conditions. Also bring an ice chest to take fish home.

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