WHALES ARE REMARKABLE MAMMALS. They're fully aquatic and probably have been for 40 million years. They're intelligent, communal, perfectly adapted to the sea--and they're absolutely delicious! Despite protests lodged by Gore-Tex-clad whale-huggers, gray whale stocks won't be depleted by small-scale hunting of these majestic beasts. Driven nearly to extinction in the early part of this century, the gray whale has rebounded spectacularly since the ban on commercial whaling was imposed in 1986. There are more gray whales on earth now than at any other time in the history of the species. Gray whales are truly the deer of the sea!

With the Makah now hunting the gray, it won't be long before sport hunting opens to non-native residents of the Pacific Northwest. Even before the Makah landed theirs, more than 1,500 hundred whales were legally hunted annually--including 150 grays--by native tribes in Alaska, Canada, and the Russian Far East, and by the Japanese and Norwegians. The attention the Makah have brought to this fine old sport has led to requests by other tribes for permission to hunt; moreover, the image of sport whaling has been completely rehabilitated. It won't be long before average anglers can walk into state wildlife offices and apply for whaling permits.

Why hunt whale? If you've ever pulled a 200-pound mahi mahi into your boat, or landed a 300-pound halibut, you know there's something about big fish. Well, fish don't get much bigger than gray whales. Fully grown adults are more than 45 feet in length and can weigh more than 36 tons, which can present a problem for the weekend angler: You can't deliver your catch to a local processor who will fillet, freeze, and ship your whale meat home. This is a fish that needs to be processed on-site, which means right there on the beach. And that means you will have to do it yourself.

Butchering a 40-foot sea mammal is a daunting task. Where do you start cutting? What are the best cuts? Once you remove the meat and blubber, what do you do with the rest of the whale? Here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions about filleting whale.

FILLETING A WHALE IS ACTUALLY FAIRLY EASY.

Don't let the size of your catch or the enormity of the task intimidate you! Ice down your whale overnight. Kept cold, your whale will produce bloodless fillets the next day, and the meat will taste less "fishy." Roll your whale onto one side. With a chain saw, make a deep cut through the belly of the beast (see point A), from just under the jaw down past the anal slit (see point B). Roll whale onto its back. Using a backhoe, remove your whale's internal organs. Set aside. Lay the whale back on its side, and make a vertical cut from bottom to top just behind the head (see point C). Cut all the way to the backbone, but be careful not to cut through it! When your chain saw hits the vertebrae, turn the saw sideways and cut toward the tail (see point D), remaining as close to the backbone as possible.

With the chain saw, make vertical, parallel cuts through the whale's skin, cutting clear down through the blubber (perhaps a foot or more deep). Repeat this step on each side of the whale, making sure the cuts are about 18 inches apart. Using sharp-edged blades mounted on the ends of sticks, peel back the skin and blubber in long strips. You may want to speed this process along by placing a hook through the end of each strip, attaching it with a chain to your backhoe, and letting ol' John Deere provide the muscle. Set strips of skin and blubber aside.

With the meat now exposed, you can set about carving it into roasts, chops, and steaks. Err on the large side, since you can always cut your whale's fillets down into smaller pieces when it's time to prepare them. For ease of storage, many whalers cut the meat into easily stacked and stored square-foot chunks. Allow two to three days for thawing. Feeds about 16.

Waste not your whale. Its teeth and bones can be carved and decorated to make snuff boxes, jewel cases, buttons, chessmen, cuff links, brooches, and other fancy articles. The skin makes for very sturdy bootlaces, shoe leather, slippers, bicycle saddles, and so on. The blubber you don't eat can be pressed for oil, which can be used in lamps, as lubricant, and to make candles. Any remaining bones can be made into fertilizer, and connective tissues can be rendered into glue or gelatin.

Happy whaling!

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