Local chefs catch an awesome day of offshore fishing

Hauling in a big amberjack makes Mike Lata a very happy man, while Jerry Mixson rebaits a hook.

The sun appears over the horizon like a red laser pointer, making the darkness blush. The day's first light reveals the overnight stubble of beards on several men gathered at a Shem Creek dock, serving as their forecast for a good day ahead. No shaving necessary.

Not everyone is feeling energized at this hour, 6:45 a.m., on the last day of August. Mike Lata didn't get to bed until 1:30 a.m. Still, he shrugs off the sleep deprivation. It comes with the territory of being a chef. And the prospect of fishing offshore all day with buddies is a trip worth rallying for.

On deck
Lata and eight other chefs, mostly local but a couple from out of state, have come together at the invitation of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival.

The trip is the brainchild of festival Director Angel Postell. The plan is for the chefs to catch fish to serve at a “Local Catch Cookout” the next night. The cookout is a first-time event and part of the festival's 2013 Launch Weekend that marks the start of ticket sales for the eighth edition, Feb. 28-March 3 next year.

So it is work, in the sense of a task at hand. But chasing fish all day? That is the ultimate living in the moment.

The local chefs on board are Lata of FIG restaurant, Jeremiah Bacon of Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse, Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk, Drew Hedlund of Fleet Landing, Frank Lee of SNOB and Maverick Southern Kitchens, Frank McMahon of Hank's Seafood and Josh Woodruff of Charleston Harbor Resort. Visiting are chefs George Mendes of Aldea in New York City and Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala. A few members of the media are along, as is Postell, her guest, Carlye Jane Dougherty of Heirloom Books, and commercial fisherman Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood, a supplier to several local restaurants.

Heading out
In short order, the bow of the 45-foot Teaser2 is splitting the water at a fast clip. Hurricane Isaac is stirring up trouble 650 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Atlantic is in rare form this day, as calm as a gently rocking cradle. Everyone is grateful.

But just in case, Capt. Mark Brown talks about seasickness, specifically what to do and what not to do if it comes on. Go to the back of the boat. Off the sides, whatever comes up is likely to be wind-whipped back onto your face. Ugh.

There's a couple of hours' ride ahead, so the group breaks off into twos and threes for conversation and taking in the incredible view. A towering containership passes by within a couple of hundred yards.

As the shore slips from view, so does the sense of time. McMahon already is sipping a cold one, and it's not even 7:30 a.m.

Nearly everyone else also is hitting the cooler, which is packed with a candy-store assortment of beverages: Pabst, Miller High Life, Amstel Light, Stella Artois, Mama's Little Yella Pils, Charleston's own Westbrook White Thai, among other beers. There are premixed bottles of margaritas and minis of Firefly and Maker's Mark bourbon. And water for proper hydration.

Lee takes the cruising time to talk about the restaurant business. The veteran chef is at a sweet spot in his career. SNOB is ever busy, and the new Maverick chefs at High Cotton and the Old Village Post House are being well-received. Lee's only complaint is administrative duties, like schedules. He always would rather be in the kitchen.

In the end, the job is always about the people, Lee says. He makes a point of checking in on the dishwasher regularly — one of a restaurant's most important stations, Lee says. When the dishwashing system goes down, it causes a major disruption. Lee wants the dishwasher to feel as valuable as any of the cooks putting out the food.

First catch
Meanwhile, Marhefka is leaning against a rail, looking out. “It's a gorgeous day, could not ask for better.” Marhefka is betting that the first fish caught will be a black sea bass. “They're like the stupidest fish out there.”

The Teaser2's first mate, Jerry Mixson, puts it a little more diplomatically as he starts the baiting of hooks from boxes of squid, frozen Spanish sardines and live pinfish. Black sea bass are plentiful and aggressive feeders, he explains. “They swarm just as soon as the bait hits bottom.”

But there are rules: Each bass must be at least 13 inches long, and the catch is limited to five per person.

Before too long, the boat stops and lines are dropped. But the fish are too small here, so everyone reels in, and the Teaser2 moves to another spot.

Here, the action is fast and furious. Someone — who is debatable — hooks the first keeper of the day, a 15-inch black sea bass. The bass are striking all the lines, and most are good sized. Spirits are soaring along with the midmorning sun.

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” boasts Woodruff of his catch.

Someone snags a pretty red snapper, but it's protected and must be returned to the sea.

Veteran fishermen
Most of these guys have some fishing experience, but a couple have more than others. Bacon, for one, has had his sea legs for a long time. He worked on a three-tiered, 42-foot charter boat as a teenager. “I love getting rocked back and forth,” he says, smiling, his face looking sort of ghoulish underneath a white paste of sunscreen.

The chef has a johnboat that he tries to put in the water every Sunday possible for some inshore fishing. “I really enjoy catching red drum. They get big. It's a nice challenge. Bringing in a big fish is fun.”

But, “Sometimes you go out and don't catch anything. Just have a beer and life is good.”

Hedlund grew up in Naples, Fla., and has been fishing all his life. “The bug didn't really bite me until I moved up here. Now I fish every chance I get.”

Hedlund's vessel is a 17-foot flat boat that can take him up into what he calls “skinny waters” — creeks where he also might find red drum.

But his favorite one for eating may be the offshore outlaw, lionfish. The spiny, venomous Asian native is believed to be a Florida aquarium escapee that was able to establish itself from the Caribbean to Cape Hatteras, N.C. The problem is, as sweet as the meat is, lionfish have a mean appetite that may be putting Atlantic fish populations at risk.

“Jerry,” Hedlund calls to the first mate, “When was the last time you caught a lionfish?”

“About a week ago,” Mixson answers. “It was delicious. I know because I kept it.”

The charter boat won't let its customers keep lionfish because they can be dangerous to the touch, with fin spines that are poisonous.

Bring on the big fish
Suddenly, there is commotion aboard. One of the three women aboard has just pulled in a gorgeous gag grouper. The fish, at 28 inches long. is the largest catch of the day so far. “Jesus, Carlye,” someone says to the beaming Dougherty.

And she's only been fishing one time before. “This past Mother's Day, my boyfriend took me,” she says. “We caught mahi-mahi and something that starts with a 'T.' ”

“Wahoo?” Hedlund asks. “Wahoo!” she answers. So much for the “T.”

The boat moves again. Unbeknownst to the chefs, a grand finale is about to begin.

This time, when fish hit the bait, rods bend like crescent moons. There is something big and heavy below, and it's not black sea bass. Brock is the first one tested. The fish walks him around the boat, seemingly having its way. Brock hunches over, straining mightily for every inch of line he reels in.

“It's like Moby Dick down there,” he croaks. A large circle of sweat spreads across the back of his T-shirt.

Finally, the greater amberjack breaks the surface and is brought onto the boat. It's a 28-pounder at least 30 inches long. “That was intense,” Brock says. “Whew!” That calls for swigging a mini of Maker's Mark and chasing it with Coke.

“Now we're talking,” says Postell. “The big boys are coming.”

And they do. One after another, each of the chefs gets his turn at hauling in an amberjack.

“Beat me up!” cries Mendes. “Whoa, that's a workout. It's one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. I'm still shaking. It's so awesome.”

Each new amberjack brings another photo op. Some members of the fishing party cradle the fish, some give it a lick-kiss. Marhefka offers this advice: “Hold it further away from you, it will look bigger.” But the catch looks plenty large without any optical illusions.

Back to shore
The hold is filling with fish and a count reveals 11 of the beefy greater amberjack. Mixson is asked if it is unusual. “Nope, we do this every day.”

But for these guys, this has been one unforgettable experience. In the middle of the action, Mendes wonders, “Are we dreaming, or is this real?”

Back at the dock, McMahon and Lee get to work on filleting the big boys. They work their knives deep into the bodies along the backbone. Now and then they cut off and taste raw morsels of the fish and offer it to those watching.

Says Lee to his fish, and in a fitting summary of the trip: “Bad mama jama.”

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