Cod heads and fond memories

Paul
Paul Smith
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A fine feed of pan-fried cod heads.

I’ve eaten in some very fine restaurants, both here in Newfoundland, and this place and that place around the world. Not that I’m wealthy or anything remotely of the sort. I just love food and make its enjoyment a priority in life.

My favourite culinary indulgence is seafood. I’ve eaten grouper, snapper, pickerel, sea bass, conch, shrimp — you name something that swims, I’ve eaten it. Or, if not, it’s on my bucket list.

But no matter where I dine, or how the best chefs prepare the tastiest fish, nothing beats a good feed of pan-fried cod heads. Sizzled golden brown in pork scrunchions, and served with homemade french fries, that is the best, absolutely mouth-watering.

Then again, I might have a bit of a biased opinion, a psychological association of sorts, memories from a wonderful time, adventurous youthful summers fishing in Spaniard’s Bay.

I think I mentioned last week how I had spent a few years in the commercial fishery. It’s true; I did a stint as an independent, self-employed commercial harvester of cod. It began oddly. Nobody in my immediate family fished for a living, at least not currently.

My father had spent quite a few years in the Labrador fishery as a young man, but his last trip to Indian Harbour had been in the 1940s. Now he was a construction superintendent and my boss. I was a common labourer.

Although, you’d think I should have been content with that, making 12 bucks an hour in the 1970s. It was a good job; I lived like a king at MUN and had money to spare.

But I’d heard too many tales of adventure on the water, and grew weary of swinging a pickaxe in a hot, dusty ditch. I had been at it for three summers, since the tender age of 16, a mere boy tossed unceremoniously into a man’s sweaty, hard-working world.

It was mid-July and scorching hot in St. John’s. I was 18, and lean and tanned from working long hours in the sun.

My muscles didn’t mind manual labour nearly as much as my brain did. God almighty, was I ever bored. I’d spent a full week operating a bloody jackhammer.

Riding in the company truck, on my way home Friday evening, my arms and hands were still vibrating from 40 endless hours of mindless concrete busting. I said to my father, “Dad, I’ve had enough of this.”

“What do ya wanna do, my son?”

“I’m going fishing next summer,” I said.

I expected Dad to tell me I was off my head or something. He told me that I’d better get busy and build a boat.

I quit labour work in early August of 1979 and got myself busy with boatbuilding. I’d been working since April and I had enough money to see my path well past another year studying physics and math.

I had to get ready for fishing and had only three weeks and a bit to get the better part of a boat built. The finishing odds and ends I could see to on weekends and holidays. I know this sounds a bit strange, but I was an odd kid. I wasn’t much for video games.

My father took some holidays and gave me a hand in my inaugural debut in the shipwright world. He had never built a boat, either, but between us we figured it out. We did some consultation with those more knowledgeable and made fantastic headway.

By the time Labour Day came, we had her planked and ready for caulking.

Actually, I finished her off ahead of schedule, painted over Christmas holidays, and launched in February for a turr hunt.

In April of 1980, I went to sea in my very own boat as an independent and self-employed commercial fisherman. I had spent just 19 years on the planet, and standing at the helm of my 20-foot, wooden, outboard-powered boat, salt spray in my face, I was very proud of myself. I was fishing for cod with hand line, trawl and gillnet.

That was one of the best summers of my entire life. I would rise every morning with the sun, actually before the sun, and steam out past Green Head and onto the Ledge. That’s the fishing grounds off Bay Roberts and Spaniard’s Bay that extends out to sea from Mad Rock.

I did quite well for a student, salting in a full 50 quintals of cod. That’s 5,000 pounds of dried codfish. I got a full dollar a pound for it. Although, by the time I factored in my expenses I might have been better off digging ditches and lugging drywall in St. John’s.

But I certainly had no regrets in September of 1980, and still don’t to this day. It was a fantastic experience and I managed to see my way through to graduation on fishing money. The financial part of my commercial fishing life is secondary now. What I remember most are the experiences; the icebergs, whales, foggy misty mornings, amazing sunrises and pan-fried cod heads.

I had to learn a lot to become a fisherman, a lot of stuff not taught in school. I had to split fish, splice rope and manage a business. And my father taught me how to cut out cod heads.

Nobody could ever fry cod heads better than my mother, Nellie Sheppard from Spaniard’s Bay. And at least three mornings out of the week, I’d prepare for the pan half a dozen heads when finished clearing away the day’s catch on Green Head Wharf. I’d bring them home to my mother and she’d sizzle them up for me and my dad, nearly always with a few homemade chips. It was a lunch certainly good enough for royalty, but more fitting for common folk who had toiled hard all morning on the sea.

To this day, I still love cod heads. I eat them only in season because I think they don’t freeze well. Or maybe I choose only to eat them on special occasions. I had a royal scoff just a while back during the three-week cod fishery. Goldie fried them out in the backyard on our camp stove. They were delicious and special. I remembered my mother and my first summer fishing. My, how time flies.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Indian Harbour, Green Head Bay Roberts

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