Top Shelf: Fish tale from ‘bug’ town Down Under

Dec 29, 2019 by Timothy MacDonald

Top Shelf: by Chef Tim MacDonald

It’s late afternoon in Gladstone, Queensland. Crocodiles swim within meters of the local children, separated only by “hazard nets,” and the sun begins to set. The children are throwing rocks at seagulls, and behind them a haphazard barbecue takes place on the foreshore. It’s a low-country boil kind of gathering, and Sean Brocks’ cackle would not be out of place here.

Our yacht, on a South Pacific odyssey to Hawaii, has made a brief stop on the way to the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns. Picture an industrial town dwarfed by 300-meter-plus coal stacks, and cargo vessels filling up after the black gold is extracted from the earth. It’s a town straight out of the first act of “The Deer Hunter.”

Characters a plenty – salt-of-the-earth characters straight out of Springsteen’s “The River” – surround me. Coal miners, Bick Benedict cattle ranchers, and yacht crew. An unusual mix. Fried chicken and waffles. Honest, reliable and trustworthy folk rarely seen in this day and age. A throwback to the ’50s, yes, but in my book, it’s a safe existence worth preserving.

This is not the town where a man wears €300 Versace velvet slippers or swings a black leather “man-purse” down the main street. Here, RM Williams dress boots, hi-vis coveralls and steel cap boots are the norm. 

All the usual suspects appear at the barbecue, but a local delicacy that is not the norm to us in Lauderdale is also present: the “bug.” There is no simpler way to eat them than to boil them, split them, add salt, lemon and pepper, and enjoy.

The next day, a 5-liter Holden V8 Ute speeds by me as The Angels’ “No Secrets” bellows from the speakers, and great towering smoke stacks spew waste into the air as the early morning trawlers set out. Other trawlers moored in waiting line the port. The W-DEE is in hibernation and awaiting “another life,” but in her heyday she hauled up delicacies from the depths.

Known simply as “bugs,” one abundant crustaceus catch is a cross between a shrimp and a small lobster. The meat is sweet, soft and a perfect pairing with lemon, salt and good mayo. The Queensland mud crab, not in season, will have to wait, but Blue Tail King Prawns caught just two months earlier are snapped up for a song at the local fish and chip shop-cum-fish market. The 10-pound box bares the trawler name, the grade, and the rarely seen recent catch date. 

In an industrial fishing town, what you see is what you get. It’s another bookmark in my life as a motoryacht food heater, and the first of many new encounters to report on this South Pacific crossing.


  • 10 “bug” tails
  • Murray River salt
  • Fresh cracked pepper
  • Meyer lemon


  • Boil the “bugs” in salted water for 10 minutes, drain, cool and split, removing the innards.
  • Squeeze fresh lemon over the bugs, and season with salt and fresh pepper. 

Tim MacDonald ( has more than 20 years experience as a chef. He was named Concours de Chefs winner for Yachts over 160 feet at the 2011 Antigua Charter Yacht Show. His recipes are designed for the owner and guests. Comments are welcome below.