Catching sharks, burping fish all in a day’s work on charter boat
The sky is a clear blue typical for South Texas winter mornings. I’m on the Britani II, a boat belonging to Jeff Nielsen’s Galveston Fishing Charter Co. As the East Beach Jetty zooms past us, and we head for the open Gulf, content and peaceful smiles settle on the crew of three.
“Fishing is like Christmas every day,” Capt. Jonathan Jenkins said. “You never know what surprises the ocean holds for you under that surface.”
Recreational fishing is a big part of the coastal tourism industry, but competition is fierce. The crew has to make a year’s rent in the three busy months of summer, when they spend up to 12 hours on the water. They often take on extra jobs in the winter.
Has he ever thought about changing careers?
“Absolutely not,” Jenkins said.
Catch limits, by which governments regulate fishing, are strict in Texas. But they’re even tougher abroad. He has guests that come from Europe just to fish here.
“Mostly, our guests want sharks,” he said. “They’re no good to eat, but it’s the thrill of the chase.”
Jenkins prefers a good fight with a black drum and to eventually eat it. Black drum season is in full swing in January.
When it comes to changes in fish populations in the past decade, Jenkins has seen an increased amount of red snapper nearer to shore, he said. And last year’s unusually high amounts of sargassum brought along different species. He hooked a Galapagos shark, and not being certain of the species, decided to release it right away, he said. Catching a threatened or endangered species would land him a hefty bill.
“And that’s great, because this ocean is our livelihood and it depends on every single species,” he said.
Some anglers catch and release fish. But what’s the true likelihood of a fish surviving an exhausting fight on the hook?
“They are tired, still, gray, they look like they’re dead,” he said. “You have to burp them and stimulate them back to health.”
Burping entails releasing excess air in the fish’s swim bladder, the organ responsible for a fish to stay buoyant at a certain depth.
If hauled to the surface too quickly, the air in the bladder has no time to regulate itself, resulting in a bloated fish that would stay floating on the water’s surface after release.
“After burping, I massage their bodies,” Jenkins said. “Within seconds, the color returns to their skin, they start jerking wildly, and only then you put them back.”
He also marks his fish by taking out a single scale. This allows him to recognize a fish at a later date. He’s hooked the same fish multiple times in a season, which is proof to him that they do well after being caught.
At that moment, a fish bites and is brought in under tense excitement. It’s a redfish. None of us has a license. It doesn’t matter. It was the thought of having caught one. The fish is carefully unhooked, a knife is applied on the swim bladder, the air deflates, the fish jerks back to life, slips out of the captain’s hand and dives back into the sea, splashing, splashing and gone.