May 2019

Sandwiches, Omens and Fish: A writer, a publisher and two culinary men of the sea hit the briny blue like wolves among the sheepshead.

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

The day began, as all great days do, with sandwiches, omens and the promise of catching fish. The sandwiches came courtesy of this magazine’s publisher, Maggie Washo, who not only invited me along on this fishing trip but plied me, Linh Craig and Broderick “Brodie” Weaver with tasty Publix goodness. Craig and Weaver are the general manager and executive chef, respectively, at CQ’s and Old Fort Pub, and this fishing trip is just one of many the pair embark on as they hunt down the ocean’s tastiest entrées to serve at their restaurants.

On the menu today were sheepshead—not quite the massive game fish that fill the sportsman’s fantasies, but certainly big enough to feed hungry restaurant patrons until the next trip out in a few days. Silvery in color and slashed in an array of black stripes, they would be beautiful were it not for their permanent toothy grins, like a Raiders fan wearing a set of Billy Bob novelty teeth.

Catching the sheepshead meant traveling out to a sunken barge in an undisclosed location just off the coast of Tybee Island, a long-lost wreck where the fish prefer to school, safe from every predator save man. Getting there meant leaving Alljoy Landing at 6:30 a.m., when the rising sun was just painting the skies over the May River with its blessed palate of orange, pink, blue and colors no one has named yet.

It was this early hour that allowed us to spy an omen, a dazzling rocket of green fire that lazily traversed the sky above the bridge connecting Pinckney Island with the mainland. Spitting off tendrils of emerald flame, it seemed like it should have pierced the heavens in the blink of an eye. Instead, it moved at the same Lowcountry pace as the early morning traffic on the bridge below it.

Despite feverishly documenting every moment for our respective Instagram feeds, neither Maggie nor I captured this heavenly sign, transfixed as we were by this slow-moving wonder. It would turn out later that this phenomenon had been seen as far away as Tennessee and Florida as it split the sky, but in that moment, it felt like the heavens firing off one good luck charm in four-leaf-clover green for the four of us in that boat.
But the sandwiches and omens were just the preamble. The day was really about catching fish. Or, more accurately in my case, attempting to catch fish.

%*$&#ing bluefish
“We have to get out here before the charter captains do,” said Craig as his boat, the Reel Knotty, ramped off the waves while we sped toward the undisclosed location. Revealed only as a pattern of dotted lines on the GPS marking where the Reel Knotty had been before, this prized fishing spot seems to be an open secret among fishermen. My angling-addicted father-in-law would later grill me on its location, but even having seen the GPS, I could only describe it in the vaguest terms.

Eventually, the GPS would see us in the middle of that knot, meaning it was time to put down the buoy. Or rather, it was time to put down the buoy for the first time. A floating yellow bobber encircled by nylon rope; the
buoy had a tendency to get carried on underwater currents. That, coupled with the imprecise nature of the depth finder, required several tries before Craig and Weaver were satisfied they were in the right spot.

“Are you sure I’m on it?” Weaver called over the rumbling idle of the outboards.

You’re behind it, just off the back side on the right of it,” Craig called back. Then, seeing something in the electronic dots of the depth finder that the rest of us couldn’t see, he changed his mind. Weaver rolled the anchor in and, again, set it down. This exact exchange happened, by my reckoning, 12 times.

Eventually, however, we would find a comfortable spot for the buoy and commence with the fishing, tenderly pulling angry fiddler crabs from a bucket to use as bait. “Grab them from the back,” Craig explained to me, recognizing me for the complete novice I was. I will point out for the record that I was only seriously pinched once, and what’s more, I made the first catch of the day. He was a sickly looking little black sea bass who seemed to have only taken my bait in the hopes of being caught and put out of his misery, but he was mine. Joke’s on him—we threw him back.

He would represent a running theme of the day. While everyone else was pulling in sparkling-if-slightly-derpy-looking sheepshead, I managed to snag one suicidal black sea bass, a toadfish that looked like it had been stitched together out of Mickey Rourke’s cast-off facial bones, and one bluefish.

But if that meant one less bluefish underneath our boat, I was happy to contribute. “%*$&#ing bluefish,” all of us said at one point or another. One of the few animals in nature that could truly be categorized as a “jerk,” bluefish love nothing more than chasing after shiny underwater objects and chomping the space above or below them with their sharp teeth. Seeing the weights on our fishing lines as sufficiently shiny, they would routinely
bite through the monofilament just for what ichthyologists refer to as “the hell of it.” I failed to maintain a proper count, but I’m confident we lost at least three dozen lead weights to these teeming subaquatic jerkweeds. Eventually, and mostly due to Maggie hogging the lucky yellow fishing rod, we were able to pull in a respectable catch of sheepshead. But for Craig and Weaver, who knew that tonight’s special was riding on our haul, it wasn’t enough. They were going in.

Rice or risotto
I first met Linh Craig and Brodie Weaver several years ago, interviewing them for a piece I was writing on CQ’s. Standing among the oaken walls and floors of the iconic Sea Pines restaurant, they had talked about the fishing trips they embark on whenever possible, and, in hindsight I didn’t appreciate what they were saying as much as I should have. I was still flying high off of the delectable dinner-prep aromas I’d encountered in the kitchen, so I greeted the stories about their regular diving trips with enthusiasm, but perhaps not the right degree of awe.

Here they were, two guys in charge of two of the busiest restaurants on the island, and they were so devoted to their craft that they were willing to dive headlong into murky waters just to provide their patrons truly fresh seafood. They could cut corners. They could order from a wholesaler who had kept their wares on ice for God knows how long. But they didn’t. They would rather come face-to-face with a tiger shark 50 feet below than serve crappy seafood. That’s a dedication you don’t see often.

Sitting there at the conn of the Reel Knotty while these two suited up for their dive, I finally appreciated what they do for their customers.

“So, what are you going to do with these sheepshead?” I asked Brodie while he jammed his feet into a pair of flippers.

“It depends. We’ll do this as a special, but at CQ’s it might be with some rice. I think Kynif (Rogers, head chef at Old Fort Pub) was going to try this with some risotto,” he said. He rattled off a few other accompaniments, but I’m suddenly realizing I tend to go into a fugue state when people start talking about food.

The pair were underwater for nearly 45 minutes. They captured every moment on GoPro, which you can either watch on this magazine’s website or on a loop at CQ’s (they put the footage up on the TVs, which is pretty ingenious). During that time, Maggie and I gamely threw a few lines in but caught nothing. Weaver had warned us the change in tides would mean the sheepshead would stop feeding, and he was tragically correct. We followed the rings of bubbles from our captain and first mate as they traversed the wreck. We clucked our tongues at the three-story yacht that roared perilously close to our boat, ignoring the diver down flag. We ate our sandwiches

And eventually, Craigs and Weaver’s heads bobbed up from the waves. When they emerged back onto the deck, they carried on their backs a dozen sheepshead. With spearguns and fearlessness, they’d easily quadrupled the number of fish we’d be taking home. Linked together on a wide steel loop, these fish were today’s catch and tonight’s special.

With smiles beaming from ear to ear, our hosts had once again braved the depths in search of the kind of fresh-from-the-ocean seafood most places only pretend to offer. It’s a huge undertaking and one that most people, like myself, won’t fully appreciate just by being told about it. But hopefully next time you order the specials at CQs or Old Fort Pub, you’ll think for a moment about the distance this restaurant manager and chef travel, and the depths to which they go, to fulfill a promise to their guests.

The day began with sandwiches and omens. It ended with gourmet cuisine. You can’t ask for a better day than that. 

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