The Jig Is Up

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becky and squid

secrets of successful squidding

BY BECKY SELENGUT
PHOTOS BY LARA MUFFLEY

 

Overlooking the Seattle skyline on a cool, but not yet bitterly cold, October evening, just after sunset, a short woman stands at the pier, her hood pulled over her head. She leans back, lifts her fishing pole with confidence and pulls up her third squid in five minutes. She pinches the squid off of her baitless jig and deposits it in her tiny blue cooler.

We set down our gear next to her, because we’re no dummies.

My two buddies and I, the lone white women on the pier, are newbies, for all intents and purposes. Melissa’s lifetime catch: one squid. I was 0 for 0, the only time I went. Lara is our adventure photographer. We put our trout poles in the Sound with our store-bought colorful jigs and try to act cool, flicking our wrists, like we do this all the time. We’re attempting to copy the techniques of those around us, mostly Asian immigrants or first generation Asian-Americans and two tipsy white guys, jigging and swigging on their beers.

 

45 minutes pass and bubkus.

“I think I felt something,” I say to Melissa, but it’s more wishful thinking than truth. “Yeah, I think I felt something too,” she says, as the spray from squid being plucked out of the water by our neighbors mists our cheeks.

When the guy two spots down from us pulls up a squid while he’s on his cell phone, chattering away in Vietnamese, we look at each other and crack up. “We really suck,” I say, “that guy is closing a freaking business deal while he’s got squid on his line.”

I look back over at the woman next to me and try to count the squid in her bucket without being obvious. I sidle up a little closer to her, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Close enough to her squid-attracting halogen light and mad skills but not so close as to be creepy.

“Do you eat the squid or is this just for fun?” I ask her, trying not to hook her jacket with my inappropriately swinging glow-in-the-dark jig.

“I make squid adobo,” she says “you know adobo?” I nod my head, remembering the Filipino dishes I’ve had of stewed chicken or pork or well, anything really, in vinegar and soy, perhaps with peppercorns and bay. But squid adobo? I file it away for a future recipe test.

She’s both my new best friend and my esteemed teacher. She can’t help but notice my horrid technique. This is part ploy and part complete honesty; I have no earthly idea what I am doing, and it shows, and she takes pity.

“Cast out. Drop the jig, pull up once. Twice,” she kindly instructs, “and now do this,” she continues, flicking her wrist with a motion so subtle and refined that I lean close to her arm to observe the micro-technique.

 

I’m expecting territorial behavior from the fishermen and I’m a bit nervous, not knowing the rules of engagement here. That concern is erased when my esteemed teacher turns to me and says, “C’mon, we’re moving.” And we pack up our stuff and follow her and her light, moving along with the rest of the folks on that end of the pier to join the crowd at the other end, where they are reeling them in, one after another, splashes of water and technicolor streaks of jig and squid. In late fall and winter, fishermen who show up at the right time are privy to large schools of squid feeding near the shore, attracted to the bright halogen lights. The fishermen shuttle back and forth in smaller schools, following the action as it heats up along different parts of the pier. There is no territorial behavior, just quiet conversation, focused harvesting and occasional laughter and cell phone ringtones.

Suddenly I feel the tug on the end of my line. A dull weight bends the tip of the pole down slightly. I pull my rod up in the air, reeling furiously, and go mad with joy, screaming out “I GOT ONE! I GOT ONE! SQUID ON THE LINE! HAHAHAHAHAHA” My neighbors are both slightly disturbed by my intensity and proud of me for my first ever squid.

 

The squid count thus far for the evening: Esteemed teacher: 26. Me: 1.
I’m insanely self-satisfied.

My buddy Melissa reels one up soon after and matches her previous lifetime catch. “This is worth celebrating!” I say, and we take swigs from our flask as I wander over to the bench for part two of our adventure. I set up a portable stove and adjust my headlamp, so I can see what I’m doing. Then I unpack a cutting board and various ingredients: roasted red chile paste, fish sauce, chopped lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, oyster mushrooms, Chinese greens. I lay them out on a paper bag.

Minutes later, folks start wandering over, asking what I’m making. I tell them I’m going to cook up my one squid, which is why I brought the greens and mushrooms. “I was optimistic, but also realistic,” I offer and several of them nod their heads. They were beginners once, and last week everyone got skunked. Having them gather around the stove gives me a chance to ask questions.

Hung Nguyen and his friend are paying particularly close attention to what I’m up to, as the smell of lemongrass, lime and chiles hits the air and reels them in. Hung slides a bucket of squid over to me. And then, just like Stone Soup, I’m soon in business, overwhelmed with the generosity of all the fishermen who step up to offer us more squid to cook. I’ve brought many bowls and spoons. Soon, we’re giving the fishermen back their harvest in the form of a spicy stir-fry and sharing the food with anyone who wants some, up and down the pier. Everyone is talking to everyone else. The drunk white guys are yipping it up and chatting with Hung and his friend, and we’re all discussing food, foraging and fishing. The conversation turns to squid jigs and Hung hands me his business card and tells me he’s happy to give me more information.

Later, by email, he writes, “successful squidding starts with the jig. Good jigs are not found in any stores. Outdoor Emporium and some local e-tailers carry decent jigs, but the good ones are handmade by people who spend time on the docks.” I get the sense that the jig is the most contested and personal aspect of squidding and I remember back to when I was in a tackle shop and watched this guy spend no less than 20 minutes picking out his jig. To me, they looked exactly the same. To him, the decision seemed to carry the weight of the world.

 

And the rod?

 

Hung writes, “Trout, salmon, and any other rod will do. However, the best for ergonomics and sensitivity for squidding is a 5/6 weight, 9 to10 foot fly fishing rod. Mate the rod with a small spinning reel spooled with 4-10 lb test line.”

Armed with that information, I’m ready to take it back to the piers next week. I’ll bring my stove again and look for my new friends: esteemed teacher, cell phone dude, Hung, Hung’s friend and the drunk white guys.
“This is community,” Hung’s friend had said that night, scraping his bowl clean, “it’s why I come here squidding.

 

Sidebar: The Details
Sidebar: Stone Soup Squid
Becky Selengut is a private chef, cooking teacher and the author of Good Fish. Her current stretch goal is to close a business deal with a squid on the line.

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