The fearsome fish slayer


To the editor: Sandy is the fisherman on our boat. She’s always loved fishing, and the pile of fishing gear that was on board our CT 54 Wind Wanderer when we bought it is probably her secret reason for wanting this particular vessel. Our steady donations in lures, hooks and swivels to the fish community since then could have kept us in fish n’ chips three times a week for the rest of our lives, and we intend living a long time.

But to be fair, her strike rate has gone up a lot since starting a passage across the Pacific. We can be rocking and rolling with an awful following sea and she’ll be sitting there, grumpy as hell, exhausted from the strain of hanging on all the time and too little sleep, and suddenly the rod will sing as the line runs out.

The transformation has to be seen to be believed. It’s nothing short of miraculous. It’s as though Harry Potter has just whacked her with his wand and Sandy the Fearsome Fish Slayer leaps into action. Her face lights up with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and she jumps up, scrambles to the stern and starts reeling in.

She’ll let that line run and wind back in for half an hour, arms aching, like someone possessed until the fish is skipping along just behind the boat.

My job is to get it on board. Between the two of us we lose more than we land, and part of the reason is our net is too short and our transom is high.

One Dorado was so big I took over the rod while she went on net duty. When she saw the size of it, she got so excited she dropped the net overboard! Fortunately my gaff skills have improved and we still landed all 4 feet and 7 inches of it.

But we are enjoying a lot of fresh fish now. Occasionally we reel in a shark but cut them loose rather than risk fingers. A few monsters have made the reel sing but snapped the line like cotton as soon as any attempt to play them was made. At anchor we get a few reef fish but also remoras. They have a sucker plate on the top of their heads and attach themselves to bigger fish or boat hulls. Once Sandy had one attach as she reeled it in. The tug of war was unbelievable, and when it finally let go we could see our precious antifoul paint on his sucker.

Usually we catch mahi-mahi (dorado), but one night we lost a huge skipjack tuna. In fact, he was so heavy he left his gills on the hook as we were wrestling him up the side of the boat! Other fish will have dined well on our dinner that night.

Once on board, they are quickly dispatched with a dash of alcohol in the gills. The mahi-mahi is unique in that their bright green and yellow color drains away completely to silver with blue fins as they die — or it could be the alcohol! Sandy fillets them right away and the rocking and rolling of Wind Wanderer is forgiven for a while. The first night is always fish and chips. The next it’s a fish bake, then fish pie and any balance goes into the freezer.

She has two lines going most of the time, one on a rod in a rod holder, and the other is a rig she learned about from Leo and Ben, our Panama Canal gurus who swore by it. From memory, “Do you want to play fishing, or do you want to eat fish?” was their pitch.

Their system was so simple and foolproof, you could just pull the line in and remove the fish, already devoid of fight, any time you felt like fresh fish for dinner. Just like plucking it from a supermarket shelf.

The rig is a few meters of shock cord in a loop and firmly attached to the boat, then 50 yards of strong nylon — at least 150-pound breaking strain — a swivel, some trace wire and a cedar plug. We’d never heard of cedar plugs but were assured the fish will be queuing up, cash in their fins, to have a go at a cedar plug.

The Hankins boat, Wind Wanderer, at anchor in the Pacific.

Vic Hankins

So we bought a couple of cedar plugs in Panama, good ones with smooth lead “heads,” fine-tapered cedar bodies and a vicious hook sticking out of the end where the fins would be if it was a torpedo.

I think they were both gone before we made it out of Las Perlas Islands. Looking at the remaining bits of trace wire, we probably didn’t want those monsters on board anyway! I suspect one of them was probably one of the many logs that were floating by.
But the simplicity of the rig struck a chord, so lures were added.

Then the bounty of the sea started providing. Every morning Sandy did a round of the deck to collect any squid on board, and there often are a few. At the same time, she tosses the flying fish overboard. They’re smelly things with poor navigation. I have no idea how the squid get on board. They must be good jumpers.

The squid made good bait and she immediately started catching fish. The trouble is we ran out of squid very quickly. I made the remark that it might be worth trying a flying fish and she had been wondering the same thing.

Well, as it turns out, mahi-mahi like flying fish!
Who needs a $15 cedar plug when you have flying fish delivered airmail overnight?

The other night I was on the verge of sleep when I heard Sandy shriek and a scuffling noise on the floor of the cockpit. One had flown straight in through the gap of an unzipped cockpit cover. “Not my watch” doesn’t cover flying fish invasion, apparently, so I ended up wrapping tomorrow’s bait in a paper towel and putting it out on the side deck.

The next night it was my watch and I was leaning up against the doghouse window, feeling drowsy and lost in Mark Twain’s meanderings down the Mississippi, when there was a loud BANG right next to my head.

Once I’d climbed back down from the roof, I grabbed a torch to see what had broken this time. You guessed it. There flapping on the side deck was the biggest stupid flying fish we’ve ever seen.

I turned to Sandy. “Madam, your bait has arrived…” 

—Vic and Sandy Hankins live aboard their CT 54 ketch, Wind Wanderer and are currently in South Africa. They expect to return to the Caribbean by the end of the year. 

By Ocean Navigator