It didn’t take long for me to figure out that cod fishing with Newfoundland’s Quidi Vidi Charters was not your typical fishing trip.
Someone asked Captain Kevin Battock if we would catch fish.
“I guarantee you will catch fish and I will feed you the best fish and chips you ever had,” he answered. ”This isn’t a fishing charter, it’s a catching charter.”
I had never had a guarantee of catching fish on a charter before, although it usually occurred. And I certainly never had the culinary guarantee that I would be fed the best fish and chips ever. Then, to make matters even more interesting, Battock said we would have a fish on board within 10 minutes.
Situated on the northern outskirts of St. John’s, Quidi Vidi is a world onto itself. The picturesque village is a natural harbor in the rocky shoreline, with the entrance narrowing to 33 feet, forming a natural, protected area.
As we headed out, leaving behind what the locals call “the gut”, we were into the Atlantic Ocean, and greeted by Newfoundland’s famous fog.
The cold Labrador current sweeping down from the Artic Ocean into the Atlantic meets the warmer Gulf Stream off the coast of Newfoundland, resulting in dense fog that can sometimes last for days. During our charter, an offshore wind made for calm waters. Battock said it isn’t always this way, and an easterly wind can build waves all the way from Europe.
The fishery we were taking part in is more than 500 years old, and was the mainstay of the Newfoundland economy until the 1990s. When the first settlers discovered cod were so numerous they could catch baskets of the fish, it was part of the reason Newfoundland was settled. With a lean flesh, cod is ideal for drying and salting. Racks to air dry cod lined the rocky shoreline of fishing villages for centuries, and still do in some places today. Salted cod at one time was a staple of not just early settlers, but was a major export used to feed large portions of the world. It was so important, it was called Newfoundland currency.
When Newfoundland was settled, communities were set up close to the cod grounds to capitalize on the fish. a hand line, where fishermen pulled the line in by hand, drove the economy for centuries. In the 1800s, an offshore fishery was developed on the Ground Banks using schooners. With the advent of modern boats and equipment, the fishery was decimated and shut down in 1992. It gradually recovered, and jigging for personal use is allowed.
Battock’s charters combine new technology with the old techniques. He relies on his sonar, and GPS points where the fish were last found, to find the cod. He is also set up with radar to penetrate the fog. We stopped a short distance from shore only a few miles from the harbor. There were no fish at the first mark, but plenty at the second one. Cod are a bottom-feeding fish.
“I look at my sonar and it’ll light up like a Christmas tree when they are there,” he said.
Traditionally, Newfoundlanders used hand lines, not the reels we were given on Quidi Vidi Charters. Battock explained with several people on the boat, handlining doesn’t work with the line on the boat floor. Instead, he uses antique west coast reels and short rods.
We were fishing in about 140 feet of water and the weight took the bait to the bottom quickly. Below the weight were three hooks, each with a little piece of red tubing on the shank. Battock explained the cod believe these are shrimp.
It didn’t take 10 minutes for the first fish – it was more like one minute before one of the others on the charter pulled one up. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but saw that cod are an olive-colored fish, with darker spots on the sides and back, and a white belly.
Then, it was my daughter’s Abigail turn. She jigged for about 30 seconds and then realizing she had a fish reeled in. The look of determination quickly turned to a smile.
She was given careful instructions not to try to lift the fish in the boat as it could break the rod, or get off, but to wait for assistance from Ted Hardy, who was assisting Battock on the charter. He lifted her fish over the side, it was added to the cooler and the line was back in the water.
The cod we were catching averaged about three to five pounds. Hardy generally grabbed the line as the fish came in or, with a larger fish, used a gaff to get it over the side.
Before the fish went in the cooler though, there was the symbolic kissing of the cod ceremony. This is one part of the ceremony taking place in downtown St. John’s bars where visitors are “screeched in” by having a shot of Newfoundland screech (rum) and kissing a cod to become honorary Newfoundlanders.
Younger daughter Aliyah was up next. Again, it took just a few quick up and down motions of the rod and there was a fish there.
“I think I have one,” she cried out. After instructions to lift the rod tip slightly and seeing there was weight there, Battock told her to reel it up. Another was added to the cooler.
Watching birds fly by that came close to the boat, Battock pointed to one saying it was a puffin. These black and white birds with colorful beaks are one of the big three Newfoundland icons, along with whales and icebergs.
Then it was my turn up. I didn’t even get through one complete jigging cycle before there was a fish on. There was no pronounced bite like most fish, but just a weight on the end of the line. The cod didn’t fight at first but did more as it approached the surface.
As my wife Karen reeled in a fish, Battock was explaining how the limit worked. He has a special charter license with a limit of two fish per person. However, he can only keep fish from Saturday to Monday and must release all fish from Tuesday to Friday. We were fishing on Sunday. The season opens July 1 and runs until Labor Day. His charter license covers all on the boat.
Cod, whales and seabirds all feed on the capelin. This year the capelin arrived just before the season opened.
“There was nothing before the capelin arrived. Then, all of a sudden, there were birds, whales and cod overnight,” Battock said, adding at one point he was surrounded by a pod of 80 whales.
Abigail was up again, and became more excited as Hardy made the call that she may have a larger cod on the end of the line.
“That’s a nice one,” he said after catching the first glimpse of it.
The estimate was the cod weighed about 15 pounds and it was the largest fish of the day at that point, which made Abigail happy. The largest Battock has seen brought in was 35 pounds.
The cry of “Whale, whale” from Battock interputted the fishing. We all turned to see a whale blowing water about a quarter-mile away. The whale rolled and the last we saw of it was the classic image of the tail out of the water as it dove.
Then things slowed down. Battock told Hardy to bring the lines in and, eye on the depth finder, he repositioned on top of the fish.
I was up next and jigged for about a minute and then had resisitance on the other end of the line.
“That’s a big one too, or several fish,” Battock said as I started to reel up with more bend in the rod and weight felt on my end.
As I reeled the fish in, I could feel substantially more weight than the first time. Hardy was ready and confirmed it was multiple fish – it was actually a triple header. Both Aliyah and Karen added to the catch when their turns were up.
Our limit was rounded out by some of the other people on the charter and we headed back. It took just over an hour to get our limit. One of the fish just edged Abigail’s as largest of the day. We headed back in with a limit of cod, on top of seeing a whale and puffin.
I asked Battock if he is usually done that quick. “No, we never get done that fast,” he said. “It because there was no wind. We got on top of them and kept catching. Usually, we get two or three, then drift off and have to get back on top of them.”
While Battock and Hardy filleted the fish, he told me their operation was the first to offer cod fishing to tourists. Battock’s friend, Dr. Noel Browne, approached him about starting the business six years ago. He owned the property in Quidi Vidi, was an avid outdoorsman and saw an opportunity.
“The concept to catch codfish for fun is something Newfoundlanders don’t understand,” Battock said. “They questioned why people would want to do that and told us ‘You’re crazy’.
Those critical of the concept for Quidi Vidi Charters were wrong and tourists love the experience. The customers are almost exclusively not Newfoundlanders.
Quidi Vidi Charters blends in well with the tourist atmosphere in the town that was once a fishing village.
“Every inch of this place was fish,” Battock said. “This was a slaughterhouse, nobody from St. John’s came here. It smelled like fish. It was blood, guts.”
Today, Quidi Vidi is a different place. It’s still a quaint neighbourhood with Quidi Vidi Brewery being a big draw.
We finished our outing with the fish we caught being cooked. Battock explained it tasted better because it was fresh and had been processed properly and quickly.
“Didn’t I tell you there were only two guarantees – that you will catch fish and you would eat the best fish and chips you ever had,” Battock asked.
Both of those guarantees were fulfilled.