That’s a Magnificent Frigate Bird, commonly seen soaring effortlessly over the seas and reefs surrounding St. Croix, and it’s magnificent for more than one reason. Its enormous, tilted wingspan (over 6 feet in most instances) allows it to soar for hours, even days, without touching land. (The only other bird known to do this is the Common Swift). Frigate birds snatch flying fish as they jump — a stunt I’d pay good cash to see, considering how wicked fast those slippery little freaks zip inches over the waves — and pick off smaller fish that come close to the surface without even wetting their feathers. They’re also thugs to other birds, harassing them until the victim drops their dinner. Yes, even birds push each other around for their lunch money.
But aside from their superb aerialism and obvious antisocial personality disorder, frigate birds are also incredibly useful. I’ve learned that when an offshore fisherman sees one or two of these guys circling an area, that means that there’s almost certainly some serious sportfishing action going on right there, right now.
Unbelievably Useful Husband (hereafter, “UUH”) and I found this out when we booked a fishing charter for our next-to-last day in the little house on the island. We’ve gone sportfishing before in Hawaii, where UUH solidified his reputation as “Tailfisher.” For some unknown reason, every time he actually caught a fish, it wasn’t in the standard operational mode. You know, fish bites hook, hook gets stuck in fish’s mouth, guy reels fish in face-first. Nope, not nearly interesting enough for UUH.
For him the fish would evade the hook, but somehow would get the line wrapped around its tail, so UUH would drag it in backwards in a comic reversal of the usual process. How he managed this multiple times was one of those mysteries that deserved further investigation, and we were eager to see if he could replicate it in the Caribbean. So friends of ours found the Island Girl II of St. Croix Deep Blue Charters, a superb custom 45-foot Hatteras that works off the Christiansted area of St. Croix, and we began the experiment.
The Island Girl II is run by a husband and wife team — Ben, the Captain, and Megan, the First Mate. (Island Girl I, we discovered, was crushed and sunk by a yacht during Hurricane Hugo.) After the usual confused period where the charterees load on about six times more beer and food than they need, which turns out to be exactly the right amount, we were off into the Caribbean Sea.
The Island Girl II in full display is an impressive sight. The multiple rods and lines are spread out in perfect geometries, interconnected in complex but aesthetically beautiful ways with connectors and hooks and even rubber bands. The reels are polished, golden, wickedly functional works of art in themselves. As the boat moves farther out, the baited lines take flight, extending and then disappearing into the vanishing point as the wake surges behind. We had a pretty calm sea that day, with a warm sun and few clouds, so it was tough not to doze off.
One thing I did notice in my sun-induced stupor, though, was the constant communication between the captain and first mate. They were constantly scanning the skies — looking for frigate birds like our lead player. Frigate birds are great bellwethers; they’re the pathfinders to what you want. Fishermen know that they tend to circle over groups of small fish hovering near the surface, hoping to evade larger fish hunting them. When you see a few frigate birds in one place, you know that the party’s on down there. First Mate Megan carefully tracked and circled the boat right at the birds that were spotted, as Captain Ben ensured that the bait was correct for what we were after.
It didn’t take long after that before there was a loud BZING!, one of the reels began buzzing frantically, suddenly there was great deal of frenzied activity, and apparently the fight was on. UUH was in the chair. There appears to be a great deal of physical work involved, and as I try to avoid that as much as possible, I was quite happy to simply observe the process. There’s a constant chatter of “ease up,” “let him out a bit,” “pull him in,” “he’s running, he’s running,” and the whole event has the adrenaline of a Top Gun dogfight. This fish didn’t breach the water much, but as the churning water kept coming closer and closer to the boat the tension became so excruciating everybody watching had to have another beer.
One brief but brutal side-of-the-boat struggle later (a word of advice — don’t get into a fight with Captain Ben, especially if he has a big stick) the fish was eventually brought aboard. It was a mahi-mahi, which folks also call a dolphin. They’d been hunting the little fish that the frigate birds had spotted. In the water, they are even more gloriously incandescent than they are on land, though considerably less delicious.
It was a victory for us, but sadly, UUH’s unbroken record as “Tailfisher” has now been broken. It cannot be disputed that the hook is actually in the fish’s mouth.
It didn’t take long before there was another BZING, another challenge accepted, and our friend Denise was fighting a fish to the boat. These guys are no slouches and it takes a while, but eventually we had another dolphin on board. Two big, beautiful mahis later, we returned to dock. If you’ve caught fish, tradition demands that you put a flag up indicating what you’re bringing home.
Captain Ben was kind enough to fillet them for us so we’d have dinner that night. The scraps he produced during the precise, exacting filleting process (this guy could teach knife technique to surgeons) he threw to a group of tarpon fish loitering near the boat. They obviously knew the routine: fishing boat coming in = dinnertime. Tarpons are pretty much useless except for entertainment; they’re big but bony and unpleasant-tasting, so no one eats them, but my God can they put on a floor show. Several bars on the Christiansted harbor boardwalk have tarpon gangs in the water that hang out waiting for scraps, and it’s nearly irresistible not to feed them something simply for the amusement value. Kids are transfixed. Hell, I was transfixed. We took about fifty pictures of the tarpons just fighting over mahi scraps because . . . because . . . well, because. It was the sun, or the beer, or something. Anyhow, look at these fish! The expedition was fantastic, and the dinner was even better. The expertly filleted steaks were probably the best meal we had on the island. A few days before while grocery shopping, I’d found irresistible a bottle of Tamarindo Bay Caribbean steak sauce and bought it on the spot without knowing exactly what I’d do with it. The answer was obvious the minute we got home with two chunky, perfect mahi steaks. A few minutes marinading in the sweet but tangy, unmistakeably Caribbean sauce — this stuff would be great on anything up to and including truck tires — and they were ready for the grill.
On the advice of a brief website search (how on earth did I ever do anything before the Interwebs?), I put the steaks on a piece of foil and then directly on the little house’s big Weber grill on the porch. The foil makes it easier to flip the steaks without sticking and breaking. About three minutes a side and they were ready. A simple side salad was all that was needed.
It was the perfect farewell meal to St. Croix. Our thanks to Captain Ben and First Mate Megan of the Island Girl II, our friends Keith and Denise Murphy, the mahis that graciously provided our dinner, and especially to our bellwethers, the Magnificent Frigate Birds that helped it all happen.