Gulf to Plate: The Deadliest Catch in Cortez
On a pelican-filled inlet in Cortez in late November, Travis Lofland is contemplating his next crab season hunt.
A fisherman, chef, TV personality and star of the Discovery Channel’s Emmy Award–winning “Deadliest Catch” reality show, Lofland has spent more than a decade working the world’s most dangerous waters. He is also the co-author of the cookbook Catch! Dangerous Tales and Manly Recipes from the Bering Sea (HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2012), which he co-wrote with his chef brother, Jason.
But today, Lofland is not in front of a film crew or on a book tour. He is simply in his home city, planning a quest for the area’s freshest crustaceans—the kind with the meatiest claws that he can serve up to his friends.
“For me, it’s all about the adventure,” Lofland says. “I love crab fishing. At the end of the day, it’s a good day to be out there, pull in the crabs, face the adversities and go on to the next.”
Originally from the Bellingham, Wash., area, Lofland attended college in Austin, Texas, hoping to become a pilot. While bartending and looking for ways to earn more money, he stumbled on commercial fishing at a friend’s suggestion. He worked on salmon and squid boats, and then joined the crew of The Wizard in 2002. That ship later appeared in the third-season lineup of “Deadliest Catch.”
For those unfamiliar with the show, which is now filming its 11th season, it documents a fleet of ships and crewmembers who brave the backbreaking work and bone-chilling waters of the Bering Sea. The ships depart Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in October, to pull in 1,000-pound steel crates with hundreds of pounds of king crab. They sail again in January for snow crab season. Episodes air in April and June.
Life, for “Deadliest Catch” fishermen like Lofland, is usually tinged with adrenaline. On this particular “hunting” day, though, it’s a bit more laid back. Lofland’s friend, John Banyas, a Cortez captain and the owner of Cortez Bait & Seafood as well as Swordfish Grill, welcomes him aboard his boat, The Boss Lady. This ship is responsible for hauling seafood from area waters to Banyas’ market and restaurant. Banyas and Lofland set out together, navigating the changing tides to find the perfect place to crab.
“It’s going to be a ‘Deadliest Catch’ kind of day,” Banyas says.
Lofland and The Boss Lady’s first mate, 21-year-old Chris Mattes, begin their pursuit of dinner with “Deadliest Catch” intensity, not missing a pot or a pull in Tampa Bay near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Lofland separates out crabs with claws of legal size (at least 2¾ inches in length). He then refills the pots with a cut mullet and a pig’s foot as bait. From the separated crabs, Lofland breaks off the legal-sized claws and returns the crabs where they were caught, to regenerate their claws (a sustainable practice).
“That is the most pissed off crab I’ve ever met in my life,” says Lofland, pointing at one not-so-friendly crustacean in the catch.
Asked to compare his first stone-crabbing experience to crabbing on the high seas, he says, “Everything’s pretty much the same. It’s just on a smaller scale. They’ve got the same pinch.”
After two hours in the bay, The Boss Lady turns back with 20 pounds of crab claws from 200 pots. Back at the dock, the catch is poured into a crab cooker behind the fish house, where it steams for 15 minutes, is removed and immediately iced.
The Swordfish Grill staff readies the other ingredients, most of which come from Sunfresh Produce of Englewood, for Lofland’s recipes. Manager Tara Meyer sets the patio tables with wildflowers. At sunset, an unusual fog rolls in and Lofland stations himself at the grill. The menu is a feast from his cookbook.
To start, Lofland loads the grill with crab poppers. Guests marvel at the first sweet taste of the crab, the cheeses that melt evenly around it and the surprisingly mild jalapeños. Lofland then prepares a chilled crab club with vanilla aioli. Next off the grill are colorful veggie kabobs and shimmering asparagus stalks with lime vinaigrette.
Lofland’s last dish is fresh, local grouper, which substitutes seamlessly into Catch!’s reckless red salmon recipe. A coconut and lime slaw offers a slightly sweet tang with a grilled-to-perfection fillet. For dessert, Lofland serves strawberries and balsamic tar—perfectly bold, with fresh Florida strawberries.
In Catch!, Lofland describes the pairing of the strawberries and salmon, when first serving it to his Tampa friends, as “unbelievable.” Much like Lofland’s adventurous Cortez life, it is.
► Catch! Dangerous Tales and Manly Recipes from the Bering Sea is available at Island Fresh Market: 5604 Marina Dr, Holmes Beach; 941-567-6130. Anna Maria Accommodations: 315 Pine Ave, Anna Maria; 941-779-0733; and online at Amazon.com.