Island Fever

Wahoo-Cayman Style!

Babara Currie Dailey

Years ago in a thatched-roof bar, many will reverently remember as the Holey Hut, a very married Bracker fisherman I barely knew told the entire crowd he wanted to take me home for 'a little wahoo'. It was his speciality, he boasted.

Horrified, my eyes popped like an embolized grouper at this blatant indiscretion. But I quickly learned that here in Cayman, wahoo is a delicacy - not a dalliance. Once I tasted this sweet, succulent fish, fresh from the pan, seasoned simply with Cayman lime and pepper, I understood why it's a national passion.

And when the 'wahoo flu' strikes hard during February, peak season in Cayman, the only cure is catching one.

If Caymanians voted for a national fish, my bet would be on the wahoo. Scientists call it Acanthocybium solanderi. Here we call it queenfish - not to be confused with the divers favourite Queen Angelfish. Not even old wife (Queen triggerfish), deep-water silk (red snapper), or dolphin tops this fish on the table.

Traditionally, when Caymanians talked about goin' fishin'in, they really meant trolling for queenfish. And you might return with a cooler full of fish - but a disappointed shrug to those waiting onshore said, 'no luck-- queenfish not on board'.

In the sport-fishing world, wahoo is a legendary game fish. Pound for pound, its one of the fastest and most furious fighters in the sea This streamlined, cigar-shaped fish with dark tiger stripes has sharp-toothed, beak-like jaws. It hits bait hard, swims at speeds of up to 50 mph and can pass the boat, strip a reel and skunk even skilled anglers in the blink of an eye.

That's why wire line with a skirted ballyhoo is the tackle of choice - except during tournaments. Wahoo can reach six feet and weigh over 120 pounds. The IGFA World All Tackle Record is 155.5 lbs. Cayman's All-Tackle record is 105 lbs. 10 oz. set in February 1987 by Grand Cayman angler, Naul Bodden.

We catch wahoo year-round - especially in the Brac's legendary wahoo-infested waters. December through March is Cayman's peak wahoo season, when catches can run big as 50-90 pounds. Local fishermen claim February is the best month for this fish in our waters and that's when the Cayman Islands Angling Club (CIAC) hosts its annual Wahoo Classic tournament.

This year's takes place February 10 & 11, offering big cash prizes for the top wahoo, including US$10,000 for the first angler to break Naul Bodden's Cayman's All Tackle record.

The CIAC is a friendly mix of over 100 avid anglers and welcomes new members, both resident and visitor. Call (345) 949-7099 or E-mail for information.

Caymanians prize queenfish as food rather than sport - it's one of the finest eating fish in the sea. Yet, strangely enough, you won't find even a mention in 'The Joy of Cooking' or even most Caribbean cookbooks, or on many restaurant menus outside of Cayman.

Some mistakenly mistake it for mackerel and dismiss it as fishy and too dry - that's not true. Overcooking ruins too often wahoo. Its sweet, firm but tender white flesh can be filleted, cut into steaks or separated into boned, skinless medallions. Its texture and fine flavour lends itself to an endless variety of recipes, from simply grilled to sophisticated presentations like Veronique or Meuniere.

Wahoo is also superb with bold spices - try it with Cajun-style blackened or jerk seasonings. Properly prepared, it's one of the tastiest fish you can eat. Here are two recipes to prove it.

Lime Pepper Grilled Wahoo

This simple recipe is as good as it gets and a Cayman favourite---but the wahoo must be fresh. If you prefer, saute in hot peanut oil instead of grilling. The cooking time will be about the same.

4 8-ounce wahoo fillets or steaks
3 Cayman limes
2 teaspoons Lemon pepper blend (1/2 teaspoon per piece)
1 teaspoon garlic salt, divided (1/4 teaspoon per piece)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Place fish in a resealable bag and squeeze in the lime juice. Seal bag and turn several times gently to coat fish, then refrigerate and marinate 30 minutes. Remove the fish, drain and brush lightly with olive oil, then sprinkle with pepper and salt.

Place fish on a barbecue grate or fish rack and grill quickly over a medium fire until fish just begins to separate when prodded with a fork (only about 2-3 minutes per side, depending on thickness - the lime has already partially 'cooked' the fish).

Have Tortuga HellFire Hot Pepper Sauce, Pickapeppa Sauce or condiment of choice on the table if desired. It is delicious just like this. Don't worry about leftovers - there won't be any. Serves 4.

Barbecued Wahoo Cayman Style

My husband Jim's favourite 'old Caymanian' queenfish recipe dates back 30 years - to times of imaginative use of what was available in Cayman. Many claim the original recipe for Cayman-style fish used ketchup, not tomatoes.

4 generous (6-8 ounce) wahoo fillets, skin and bloodline removed
Juice of 3 fresh Cayman limes
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 ounces Tortuga Gold Rum

1-1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
? cup Pickapeppa Sauce
1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
1 large green pepper, seeded and cored, sliced thin
2 tablespoons margarine cut into four pieces

Combine the fish fillets, lime juice, orange juice and rum in a resealable plastic bag and marinate for 30 minutes, turning bag over several times, while preparing the barbecue. When fire is almost ready, spray a large piece of heavy aluminium foil with PAM or other vegetable oil spray.

Remove fish from marinade and discard all but 2 tablespoons marinade. Arrange filets on foil. Season with seasoned salt, garlic powder and pepper. Combine ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and Pickapeppa sauce and spread over fish. Top with sliced onions and peppers, then dot with margarine.

Pour the reserved marinade on top, then pull edges of foil together and seal tightly to make a packet. Place on grate over medium fire and cover. Cook 10- 15 minutes. Remove from heat, open packet carefully so juice doesn't spill.

Test fish - it is done when it just separates when prodded with a fork. Try not to overcook fish - should still be moist and opaque. Refrigerate any leftovers and reheat with grits for breakfast. Serves 4.