The ocean reminds us of the natural connections that bind us together. Beneath the waves of the Gulf of Mexicoâ€™s sugar-sanded beaches, the cycle of life begins anew each spring, as millions of organisms are spawned in the estuaries of the Mississippi River Delta before spreading into the sea. Once there, a bounty awaits fishermenâ€”both commercial and hobbyâ€”looking forward to a plentiful haul on summer days.
For those who do hook one of these magnificent fish, the reward is one of lifeâ€™s ready-made delicacies. To cook a hand-caught fish is more than a prize at the end of the day, itâ€™s a way of honoring nature and the ancient angling traditions passed down through generations. Whether it ends up on the grill or back in the sea, fishing instills respect for the cycle of life.
For sea-salted mariners and first-timers alike, cooking your own catch is an experience all should enjoy at least once. Fortunately, a connected ecosystem of experienced charter captains and innovative seafood chefs is ready to guide you to savory splendor. From Mississippi to Floridaâ€™s vast coast, the following pages offer a metaphorical toe-dip into that world. To experience it in full, youâ€™ll have to dive in yourself.
Fish Here: Biloxi, Mississippi
â€śI tell a lot of people when they come to the coast, we have kind of a brackish water on the beach itself. But when you get on a charter boat and head out to the islands, you can see 10 or 15 feet below the surface. Thatâ€™s what I like about it,â€ť says Greg Hebert, owner and captain of Amberjack Charters. Sitting at the convergence of the Mississippi River, Mobile Bay, and Biloxi River, as well as a constellation of chandelier, barrier, and chain islands, the water in Biloxi, Mississippi isnâ€™t much to look at, but it does have its benefits.
â€śWe have a lot of silt that stays in this area, so of course the oysters are phenomenal and the shrimping is good,â€ť Hebert says. â€śWe have a lot of good things that come along with brackish water.â€ť
A Biloxi native, Hebert started first-mating on charter trips in the â€™80s and has captained Amberjack Charters since 2001, contributing to the cityâ€™s 300-plus years of history in the seafood industry. Aided by enormous estuaries tucked above the â€śbootâ€ť of Louisiana that are filled with nourishing vegetation, the region is a fertile spawning ground for hundreds of species throughout the year.
Hebertâ€™s season begins in March, when you can catch sheepshead, black drum, and snapper around shipwrecks near the islands. When the spawning cycles ends around April, he takes clients trawling for redfish, Spanish mackerel, bonito, jackfish, and other species that like to swim in schools.
Bottom fishing starts in June with mangrove snapper, triggerfish, and the occasional grouper. At the end of the season, when the water is at its warmest, Hebert sight-casts at redfish as they come to the surface.
Offshore fishing is a little more complex. Since Louisiana is roughly a hundred miles south of Biloxi, Hebert leads overnight trips 80 miles east into the Gulf to catch tuna, wahoo, chicken dolphin, and other species of blue-water fish.
â€śNear-shore fishing is 12 to 20 miles off the beach, versus deep sea fishing 60 to 80 miles off the beach,â€ť Hebert says. â€śItâ€™s hard to go tuna fishing because our blue water is so far out, but I feel like we have a pretty damn good variety of stuff to catch.â€ť
Charter trips run $140 a person for a six-hour trip, or $340 a person to go further off-shore on a ten-hour trip. Overnight deep-sea trips run higher, but the majority of guests that Hebert takes on his 41-foot boat prefer the quick and casual trips as a way to get out and see the sights, as well as to reel in a meal for later.
In the area, The Ole Biloxi Fillinâ€™ Station and McElroyâ€™s Harbor House Seafood Restaurant both process and cook dinerâ€™s fresh-caught fish when they bring them in, as do a number of other places around town. Hebert says Biloxi is often known for its casinos, but the magic of its environment always brings â€śsmiles for miles.â€ť
â€śThey see the wildlife, theyâ€™re out on the water, and theyâ€™re really just getting away from work and having a good time. You go out and catch a bunch of fish, itâ€™s just icing on the cake.â€ť
What to Catch: Sheepshead, Redfish, Flounder, Black Drum, White Trout, Spotted Sea Trout, Florida Pompano, Jack Crevalle, Amberjack, Vermillion Snapper
Amberjack Charters | 679 Beach Blvd. Slip B28 | amberjackcharters.com
The Ole Biloxi Fillinâ€™ Station | 692 Howard Ave. | facebook.com/Olebiloxifillinstation
Mcelroyâ€™s Harbor House Seafood Restaurant | 695 Beach Blvd. | facebook.com/mcelroys.harborhouse
Fish Here: Destin, Florida
Sitting on the narrow strip of land separating Choctawhatchee Bay from the Gulf of Mexico,
Brotulaâ€™s Restaurant provides a front-row seat along the water to watch the fishing boats idle into the docks, or to catch a sunset over a steaming plate of natureâ€™s finest. For most, the stunning setting makes for a relaxing summer evening, but for Brotulaâ€™s corporate chef, Orion Cordoves, dusk represents the start of the mad rush to cook the sometimes hundreds of fish caught and brought in by customers.
â€śBrotulaâ€™s to me has a charmâ€”not only do people come to eat, but they come to enjoy the fish that they caught with their friends and family,â€ť Cordoves says. â€śIâ€™ve never seen anything like it; we get 90 to 100 people bringing fish in daily.â€ť
Born in Cuba and trained in restaurants in Miami and Las Vegas, including the MGM Grand, Cordoves recently completed a renovation of Brotulaâ€™s menu that refreshes house favorites while staying true to the style that brings customers back year after year. During the busiest parts of the summer season, hundreds of guests come through Brotulaâ€™s doors every day of the week with fish waiting to be cooked, Cordoves says.
â€śWhen they open the menu, they sometimes get the same thing they would make at home because itâ€™s more comfortable,â€ť Cordoves says. â€śYou have some other people that are more open to trying new things, and youâ€™ve got to find the balance between the two.â€ť
One of the things that make Cordovesâ€™ job fun is the unpredictability. He recently grilled a venomous (but edible) lionfish for a customer who brought in the invasive species, one of many unusual fish heâ€™s cooked in the past. No matter what comes in, he must find a way to help each guest find the perfect flavor for the specific type of fish.
â€śItâ€™s a challenge, and I like it,â€ť he says. â€śWeâ€™re trying to make sure itâ€™s right for the guests and whatever they bring in, from [fish that are] 1 to 2 ounces, to one that is like 10, 15, 20 pounds.â€ť
Customers can bring their fish to Brotulaâ€™s when the doors open at 11 a.m. and pay to leave it in the kitchenâ€™s cooler until dinnertime. Charter fishing operations like Fish Destin Charters and Gulf Angler Fishing Charters dock only a short distance from Brotulaâ€™s, making it easy to carry the dayâ€™s catch over to the restaurant. One of Cordovesâ€™ goals for the menu redesign was to make things easier for customers to choose how they want their fish cooked and what sauces and side options they want paired with it.
â€śGrilled, blackened, or fried are the basic ways to do it, but there are people who like to eat healthy, so we can steam it as well,â€ť
Cordoves says. â€śDepending on how much fish you have, some people do it all three ways. Itâ€™s just about the sauces, how you combine them, and what type of dish you want to have.â€ť
One of the new sauces on the menu is a grilled lobster cream comprised of tomato paste, vegetables, and hot sauce cooked in a lobster broth and served over white, flaky fish like grouper. Even though the sauce is designed for the chef-designed menu options, nothing is off limits for customers.
â€śI put a twist on things, mix it up, while still respecting what people are used to,â€ť Cordoves says. â€śBut itâ€™s a big deal when you bring a fish to a restaurant. It becomes an experience, and we want to help the guests enjoy their fish as much as possible.â€ť
What to Catch: Redfish, Tarpon, Cobia, Wahoo, Jack Crevalle, Spanish Mackerel, Bonito, Blue Fish, Pompano, Speckled Trout
Brotulaâ€™s Restaurant | 210 US-98 | brotulas.com
Fish Destin Charters | 538 Harbor Blvd. | fishdestin.com
Gulf Angler Fishing Charters | 316 Harbor Blvd. | destinfishingcharters.biz
Make This: Fish with Lemon Butter Sauce
Everyone should know at least one way to cook a fish, even if itâ€™s something quick and uncomplicated. A personal favorite of Chef Orion Cordoves takes only a few minutes to make and can be made with ingredients found in most kitchens. Ingredient amounts depend on the size of the fish youâ€™re working with. This light sauce pairs perfectly with white fish like grouper and snapper.
1. Mix all ingredients together except fish.
2. Pour sauce over fish fillets, then grill or bake with lemon wedges.
3. Serve with complementary sides, such as roasted tomatoes, potatoes, or a fresh salad.
Note: Another easy prep option is to sear the fish in a sautĂ© pan and add some wine, butter, herbs, and a bit of cream.
â€śEverybody has butter, salt and pepper, and some herbs, but you donâ€™t have to think about this recipe too much. Youâ€™ll still get the flavor you want to make. I love that type of stuffâ€”fresh and natural and not too complicated.â€ť
â€“Chef Orion Cordoves
Fish Here: Tampa Bay, Florida
Time has been called a flowing river, but for Captain Dave Zalewski, itâ€™s more of an ebbing sea. Guiding tours aboard his 37-foot Bertram yacht (called the Lucky Too) for nearly 40 years, Zalewski understands the mysteries of the Gulf of Mexico better than most.
â€śEvery day is like a kaleidoscope out there,â€ť Zalewski says. â€śEvery day is different; we see sea turtles, sharks, occasionally a whale shark, dolphins, sea birds. The fish are always there. Iâ€™m amazed at the color of saltwater fish.â€ť
In the summer months, when the nights are warm and the fish complete another cycle of what Zalewski calls â€śthe ballet of nature,â€ť thereâ€™s no better time to hit the open water and fish for one of Floridaâ€™s tastiest catches: the slender, blue-bodied king mackerel, also known as the kingfish. Kingfish only can be caught when deep-sea fishing. One tip to remember when on the open water is that the biggest difference between deep-sea fishing and near-shore fishing is where the fish are going to be.
â€śThe Gulf is like a big desert out thereâ€”thereâ€™s oases scattered all over the place and the oases will consist of either shipwrecks, artificial reefs, or by the chains where the buoys are,â€ť Zalewski says. â€śThatâ€™s a place where bait fish can seek refuge, and, in turn, the predators are seeking the bait fish.â€ť
The kingfish will be where the bait is, Zalewski says. Good starting points are the artificial reefs five miles offshore, or the shipping channel that exends 15 miles out. Spanish mackerel sometimes are just a hundred yards from shore. Guests choose what they want to fish for, and more often than not, Zalewski finds a way to deliver.
One thing Zalewski wonâ€™t compromise on are his views on over-harvesting fish. Like seawater on rock, time and experience have shaped Zalewskiâ€™s views on the industry, particularly in regards to conservation. His motto is not â€ścatch your limit,â€ť but â€ślimit your catch.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sort of a rebel in the industry, I donâ€™t have the ego where I have to put a large amount of fish up on the dock to show I had a successful trip,â€ť says Zalewski, who has taught classes at the Madeira Beach City Marina since the â€™90s that cover everything from cleaning a fish the right way to sustainable fishing practices. â€śIn fact, my most successful trips are a combination of keeping enough to eat and releasing a whole lot. Thatâ€™s the only way weâ€™re going to have a future.â€ť
With award-winning seafood restaurants scattered throughout the three cities that comprise Tampa Bayâ€”Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwaterâ€”there are plenty of options for places to cook your catch. The Wharf Restaurant on St. Petersburgâ€™s southwestern shore offers dockside views of the gulf, while Cooterâ€™s Restaurant & Bar on Clearwater Beach is in the heart of the cityâ€™s beachfront nightlife.
What to Catch: Tarpon, King Mackerel/Kingfish, Red Drum, Grouper, Tripletail, Redfish, Snook, Snapper, Sailfish, Mahi Mahi
Lucky Too Charters | 503 150th Ave. luckytoocharters.com
The Wharf Restaurant | 2001 Pass-A-Grille Way | wharfrestaurant.org
Cooterâ€™s Restaurant & Bar | 423 Poinsettia Ave. | cooters.com
This story appears in Birmingham magazineâ€™s May 2019 issue. Subscribe today!