Fishing in Gwaii Haanas

What a thrill to catch this huge lingcod!
What a thrill to catch this huge lingcod!

“When is fishing?”

“Is fishing today?”

“I go fishing now?”

A UNESCO World Heritage site of 138 islands, centuries’-old totems, abandoned Haida villages, pristine waters, whales and bears in their wilderness habitat, seclusion—the only access is by chartered aircraft or boat—for these reasons, people book a week in Gwaii Haanas National Park on a small ship.

Not Jean-Paul.

He came to fish.

(We posted a superb blog, if we do say so ourselves, because it’s like Magellan worked with George on the “faux” diary of Jean-Paul, which he didn’t—we called it Fish Tales.)

It was a bonus for us that Jean-Paul, in his polite French manner, kept asking, and Captain Tom, in his willingness to comply, found a few spots for Jean-Paul’s “Reel Obsession.”

Most people book an eco-adventure in Gwaii Haanas to see ancient totems in the only place where they’re still standing, at SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay—commonly known by its English name Ninstints. There are no guarantees, as friends know from their trip this summer. Storms brewing across the open Pacific between here and Japan hit and made it impossible for them to get to Ninstints, one of the windiest and wettest areas in Canada. Captain Tom of Ocean Light II had his eye on the weather, knowing that finding a window to get to Ninstints was the goal, fishing a distant second.

Haida Gwaii is renowned for its exceptional fishing. Although it wasn’t salmon season when we were there,  millions of them migrate through each year, attracting anglers from all over the world, including Magellan and his dad back in the 90s. Fishing for just about everything else, like halibut, lingcod and red snapper, is a year-round sport.

Magellan and I had never jigged for fish, but like the six other guests, we’d taken the pre-trip advice of Ocean Light operators and bought fishing licenses. (The penalties for fishing without a license are serious. In 2021 a guy was fined $20,000 for fishing violations and slapped with an additional $25,000 to go toward fish conservation around Haida Gwaii.)

Captain Tom taught us how to jig. Tie a snazzy lure, drop your line and when it reaches bottom, give it three quick pulls. Keep jigging with quick pulls. Haul it up and start again. Watch your line as the lure drops back down. If there’s anything different, like it’s not sinking at the rate it did before or there’s the tiniest tug, click the reel over and pull hard. At first, you have no idea if it’s a fish or a piece of seaweed. But soon you recognize the difference and once you set the hook, it’s game on!

On our second day, Jean-Paul got his wish.

Tom told us we’d likely catch red snapper, yellow eye rockfish and the jigger’s prize—lingcod—which are really greenlings, not cod. They won’t win any beauty prize. Rather ugly, lingcod have large heads and disproportionately big mouths, each with eighteen razor-sharp teeth. They’re aggressive ambushers that attack fish whose length is equivalent to my height. (No jokes please.)

Jean-Paul is a natural at fishing, pulling in a couple snapper and lingcod in less than fifteen minutes. His success and enthusiasm had us threading, untangling and jigging—literally, as we happy-danced on deck with each fish we brought up before netting them over to Tom in the zodiac to give them the “Good-Night Irene” treatment. When Tom finally got a chance to fish, he lost his hook and was so blue about it that we women offered to do a fish dance to cheer him up. Judy, Jean-Paul’s wife (and a linguist) dubbed us the Mer-Crones. The threat of that spectacle kept Tom laughing as he gutted and filleted our catch, mostly from the jigging of Jean-Paul and Luise, the ship’s (excellent) cook. She fried snapper for dinner and baked lingcod the next day, explaining that lingcod needs a day to firm up before being cooked.

In the Pacific Northwest, lingcod is sometimes the ‘cod’ in restaurant fish and chips, although getting it fresh year-round can be a challenge. I had knowingly eaten lingcod only once before, cooked by Frank Pabst at Barbara-Jo’s Cooks to Books (now, sadly no more) when he launched Blue Water Café Seafood.

Lingcod have a white, flaky flesh, sometimes with a bluish-green tinge, a colour I found oddly appealing. (When cooked, the sea-coloured flesh turns white). All three of Frank Pabst’s lingcod recipes in his cookbook rate a 9/10 but eating fresh lingcod in a ship’s galley was pretty fine. We raised a toast to Jean Paul for being so persistent.

Wednesday, I hugged him when off Scutter Point, I caught a six-pound red snapper and an 18.4-pound lingcod!

But the biggest thrill was yet to come.

Tug! I felt an enormous pull. My line flatten against the ship’s rail so tightly I couldn’t pull on it—I could barely hang on and hardly stand up. It felt like I had a heavy sheet of plywood on the line pulling me overboard and out to sea. I yelled for help. But too late. “From the sounds of it, you had a halibut on the line,” Tom said. “Now I need counselling for losing it,” I laughed.

Jigging ended that day. The window opened for Ninstints and the ship’s freezer was full.

“We go crab fishing?” Jean-Paul asked co-captain Jen.

Near Hutton Inlet, he and  Jen brought in a few dozen sweet-fleshed Dungeness crabs, which Luise served with hot biscuits and not just butter but her special sauces.

But it’s lingcod that brings back memories of Gwaii Haanas and since tomatoes are ripe and eggplants are plump, I’m making Frank’s Baked Ling Cod with Tomato-Caper Fondue and Smoked Eggplant Purée. Which I’ve renamed and simplified for we homecooks. The question is will I be able to find lingcod?

Baked Lingcod with Tomato Panko Crust and Smoked Eggplant Puree

Adapted and simplified for the home cook (but do blanch, peel and seed the tomatoes if you feel the urge), this delicious recipe for lingcod comes from Frank Pabst’s cookbook Blue Water Cafe Seafood. It’s especially tasty in august when tomatoes, eggplants (my preference is Italian globe eggplants) and basil are at their peak. If you can’t find lingcod, substitute cod. And if panko (Japanese bread crumbs) isn’t available in your locale, use coarsely ground white breadcrumbs. Magellan barbecues the eggplants for me, but you could roast them at high heat in your oven, although you likely won’t get the smoky flavour that sets this dish apart.
Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Total Time1 hour 5 minutes
Servings: 6
Author: Spice

Ingredients

  • 12 medium tomatoes diced
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic minced
  • 3 shallots finely diced
  • zest from 2 lemons and some juice
  • 7 leaves of basil 4 of them chiffonaded
  • 2 Tbsp parley finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp capers rinsed and chopped
  • 2 large or 3 medium Italian globe eggplants
  • 1/2 onion chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeño pepper seeded and chopped
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 6 Tbsp panko Japanese bread crumbs or breadcrumbs
  • 6 lingcod fillets skin and pin bones removed
  • 1/2 tsp fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds

Instructions

  • Heat 6 Tbsp of olive oil in a frypan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves of garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the shallots for cook for another 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, lemon zest and 3 whole basil leaves. Cook on low heat until the tomato liquid evaporates and everything softens, about 30 minutes. Add the capers and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  • Grill the eggplants whole on your barbecue until they are charred all over and soft to the touch. Let them cool.
  • While the eggplant is cooling, in a medium saucepan heat 3 Tbsp of olive oil on medium heat and add the onion, jalapeño, thyme and remaining garlic. Cook for about 7 minutes until fragrant and lightly browned.
  • Cut the eggplant in half, scoop out the flesh and add to the onion mixture. Cook for about 10 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Remove the thyme. Add the vinegar, 5 Tbsp of olive oil, the chiffonaded basil, salt and pepper and a bit of lemon juice.
  • Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  • Toss the panko crumbs with 2 Tbsp of olive oil. Season the lingcod with salt, pepper and fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds and place on a baking sheet. Cover each fillet with a layer of the tomato fondue, top with a thin layer of the panko crumb mix and bake for 12-15 minutes until the fish is done, the crust is golden or the internal temperature is 135°F.
  • To serve, warm the eggplant puree and spread onto the centre of each of six plates. Set the lingcod on top and drizzle a little more olive oil on top of the lingcod.

Navigation

Ocean Light Adventures was created by Tom Ellison and began offering trips in 1979 to the islands of Haida Gwaii.  It’s now owned by Jenn Broom and operated “by a dedicated core group of like-minded family and friends” who conduct tours on the wilds of BC’s coast. “We aim to provide experiences that are new and unique and in doing so we help our guests fulfill their own dreams,” says Ocean Lght’s website. Indeed.

Pabst, Frank. Blue Water Cafe Seafood. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008. An excellent cookbook by one of Canada’s best chefs.

6 Responses

  1. Nothing like fresh fish. We are so lucky, living on the west coast for fresh fish…yesterday we had fresh lake fish, and sockeye salmon. Life is grand❤️🎶🍷

  2. Oh Yum! I agree with Barry – nothing beats fresh caught fish! A friend brought us some fresh pickerel today. It’s delicious but it’s certainly not like having it cooked minutes out of the boat. Remember our fishing trips to Dechambault?

  3. Fly-fishing, which friends like Don, Greg and Gale enjoy(ed), is an intriguing sport, too, as I find it a bit gruesome to watch/enact the final blow when jigging.

  4. Great story, I concur nothing can beat freshly caught fish, from water to pan immediately is fare fit for a king. Helps the taste and flavour when you hauled in the fish yourself, probably just positive thinking but it does work.
    Cheers

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