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Saturday, February 20, 2010

FISHING - Baja Saltwater Scorpion

Baja's Saltwater Scorpion: Saga of the Sculpin
by Tom Gatch

 
The sharp, poisonous dorsal fin of Baja's notorious scorpion fish can inflict a painful wound to the unwary, yet its delicate white fillets offer a gourmet delicacy.

Photo by Tom Gatch

"What the heck kind of fish is this ugly sucker?" chirped the 16-year-old angler from Arizona. He then turned from the rail of the Ensenada sportfisher holding the blotchy, spike-finned toad by the lip, as if it were some type of freshwater bass.
 
"Watch out, amigo!" shouted out a nearby deckhand who immediately realized what was going on. "Just drop the fish on the deck, my friend, I'll take it . . ." But it was already too late.
 
"YEOWWWW!" shrieked the unfortunate young man. "He STUCK me! Oh, man . . . this really hurts!" he screamed as his fellow passengers looked on, stunned and frozen by the unexpected turn of events. Within five minutes he was lying on a bench inside the galley writhing in indescribable agony, his hand swollen to nearly twice its normal size. Our trip was ultimately cut short; as the boat quickly headed back to port so that the passenger could receive much needed medical attention.
 
Even though this event took place in the summer of 1965, almost 40 years ago, I still recall it just as clearly as if it happened last weekend. While growing up, I had always heard the horrible stories about what happened when unlucky anglers found themselves on the wrong end of a sculpin's dorsal fin, but this was the first time that I had seen it in living color and it was not a pretty sight.
 
Anyone who has ever spent much time around tide pools in northern Baja and southern California has probably noticed smaller members of the sculpin family. They dart quickly between limpets, barnacles and sea anemones, and nearly disappear when they sit motionless; their natural camouflage blending with the mottled rocks around them.
 
The most common of these, the wooly sculpin is generally only two to five inches in length. It is known for its tendency to lie motionless in one place to blend in with the terrain until it can quickly lunge at unsuspecting prey, such as small worms, crabs and snails that come within its range.  
 
The sculpin's body of is stocky and slightly compressed, with a relatively large head and poisonous dorsal and pectoral fins, which can be painfully sharp. These fish range in color from a dark orange/brown to bright red, and rarely exceed four pounds. Most sculpin found in Baja California live in Pacific Ocean waters, but there are also isolated populations that occur in the central and upper portions of the Sea of Cortez
 
Sculpin are generally caught over hard, rocky bottoms from just below the water's surface, to depths of over 600 feet and occasionally over mud or sand. Their diet includes mussels, small crabs, squid, octopus and a variety of the small fish that share their territory. They will readily take a piece of squid, mussel or anchovy that has been lowered to the bottom in one of the rocky areas that they are known to inhabit. A lot of time can be saved by using bait such as squid strips, which are harder for the fish to steal from the hook. At times, chumming with small pieces of squid, mussel or sea urchin will help attract them to the area. 
 
As previously mentioned: after a sculpin has been landed, it must be handled very carefully! The sculpin is the most venomous member of the Scorpion fish family on the Pacific Coast of North America. All who come in contact with it should be forewarned that its dorsal, pelvic and anal fin spines are connected to poison producing glands that are capable of causing an extremely painful wound. Penetration of the skin by any of these spines is followed almost immediately by intense and excruciating pain in the area of the wound. Many treatments have been used for sculpin stings, but immersion of the affected part in very hot water seems to be one of the most effective.
 
Having said that, sculpin can be safely handled by using a sharp pair of clippers to carefully snip off all of their dorsal and pectoral fins prior to placing them into a live well or onto a stringer. They can then be filleted in the usual manner. It is also a good idea to place a rag over the its head while pressing down on the cutting board, so that your hand can be shielded from a few additional prongs and spikes.
 
Once landed, sculpin are highly prized as table fare. My favorite way of preparing them is to lightly dust the small fillets in flour, dip them quickly in beaten egg and then roll them in panko-style, Japanese breadcrumbs. Let them set up in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, then fry until golden brown in an equal mixture of olive oil and garlic butter. Serve with fresh lemon wedges, rice pilaf, steamed vegetables and, if you like, a cold glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc. 
 
Good luck and Bon Appétit!