Stuff you never need to know may make fine kettle of fish

If you live long enough, you learn stuff. If you live long enough and travel, you learn stuff you never even thought you needed to know.

For instance, you can only carry four pounds of dry ice onto an airplane, checked or carry-on, even if protecting three of the finest Mackinaw trout you ever saw.

How do I know this, one might ask. Experience, the benefit of which I pass along to my regular readers, both of you, so that next time you get caught far away from home with a mess of fish and no help from the guide service to whom you just shelled out half a paycheck for the privilege of reeling in your two-fish daily limit, you'll know what to do. It's the least I can do.

The fishing charter website distinctly said the guide would vacuum pack our catch, freeze it, and prepare it for shipping home or for carrying onto an airplane. Evidently, vacuum packed and prepared for shipping means something different to me than to the roguish guide who cleaned the fish (some of which weighed close to seven pounds but none of the ones I caught) then nonchalantly stuck them into Hefty trash bags, one inside the other to assure adequate protection, then added a handful of ice.

I may be a bit obtuse at times, but that doesn't fit my definition of vacuum packed and frozen. It seems closer to a definition for salmonella breeding ground. We reminded him that we had flights to Dallas the next day and needed something more dependable than garbage bags to tote fish, which, if rated by the pound and, considering fees, licenses, airfare, car rental, meals, etc., were worth roughly $1,000 apiece.

“We don't pack fish here,” he said, gruffly.

“Well, where can we get them frozen and packed,” I asked, petulantly.

“Don't know,” he said, dismissively as he locked the office and headed for wherever rude fishing guides go after fleecing their clients.

My fishing partner and I, who have been on more than one short end of a fishing guide fiasco, decided to find a meat packer or fish market to help get our catch back to Texas.

We ended up at a grocery store, bought a small plastic cooler and 20 pounds of dry ice, which burns if you touch it with bare skin. Trust me on that. The grocery store also sells ointment and Band-Aids. Total cost of our packaging: $35. The fish continue to increase in value the longer you keep them.

The cooler was small, so we cut the fish in half, in the trunk of the rental car. We had four fish, but took one to a nearby restaurant for lunch. The chef did creative things with a three-pound Mackinaw (one of the small ones I caught, naturally) and for about $30 we had a delightful lunch.

I bought a roll of duct tape from the hotel business center. (From now on, I'll remember to keep one in my shaving kit. You never know.) I strapped the cooler, waterproofed it, made certain it could not open and headed for the airport, lugging a heavy, cold package with ice crystals forming on the outside and an eerie gray smoke oozing through the duct tape seams.

At the airport, the American Airlines ticket-takers went through the usual rigmarole about where my bags had been, who had packed them and if I had kept my eyes on them all the way from the hotel. Yes. I packed them. No, no one asked me to carry on anything suspicious.

“So, what's in the cooler?” the gentleman asked.

“This, sir, is a fine kettle of fish,” I quipped, smiling.

“Any dry ice?” he asked.

“Yes sir.”

“How much?”

“20 pounds,” I said, proudly, confident he would be impressed that we had enough to assure the fish would stay frozen for the duration.

“Way too much,” he replied. “Four-point two pounds is the maximum. You'll have to get rid of some of it.”

So, how do you dispose of 16 pounds of dry ice at an airport at 12:30 a.m.? A pleasant lady working at the counter said a few weeks back security took care of a similar problem. She called security; they told her to tell me to dump it on the curb.

I couldn't begin to imagine the hullabaloo I could create by dumping 16 pounds of an eerily smoking substance in an international airport terminal. Neither could the folks at the ticket counter.

“Don't do that,” they warned.

“Don't worry,” I reassured them. “But, do you have other suggestions?”

The lady said if it were her fish to fry, she'd take it to the hotel across the street and ask if they would swap some regular ice for the dry stuff. She also said checking the package as baggage would cost me another $40, which, by that time, was small change.

Once again, I strapped the cold, eerily smoking, precious cooler across my aching shoulder, walked through the fortunately deserted parking garage, slipped through a fence, slid across a recently watered grass median and into the hotel, where a friendly young woman put me in touch with the restaurant manager who took care of me and my fish. He even used his own duct tape to re-seal the cooler.

Back to the airport, through security, where they asked if I had any dry ice in the cooler.

“Absolutely not.”

The fish rode perfectly well in the overhead compartment and I can only assume that the drops of cold water that splattered the passenger in front of me came from a leaky air conditioning duct.

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