Thursday, March 4, 2010


I am not a fisherman! Despite a normal upbringing involving the usual blood sports my upbringing somehow omitted anything more than a passing acquaintance with fishing. Little did I realize the void this left in my skill set.

When we were planning our life afloat the firm policy statement from the officer in command of all matters in which she knows best, was that due to limited refrigeration and the burden already placed on this by my daily beer ration, protein would be provided by a serving of beans unless there was freshly caught fish available!

I was pained by my crew’s assessment of my ability when I discovered the ships library swelled by several recipe books including the arresting titles “The Bean Book” the equally enticing “Rice, Beans and Grains… Great-tasting recipes for better health” and the quite irresistible “Winning Ways to Better Beans”. And not a single reference, not even a scrap torn from a magazine, about fish as a food source!

My humiliation was complete when I further discovered the quantity of beans and bean lookalikes that we were carrying on board: butter beans, red kidney beans, white kidney beans, soya beans, bortolli beans, baked beans, green beans and of course lentils. Lots and lots - green and brown and red – naturally all rewardingly rich in protein. All in vast quantities. If all these beans were served to the inhabitants of a medium sized town in a single glorious feast, the result could change global wind patterns forever.

I therefore resolved to become a fisherman and remedy the glaring deficiency in my upbringing. Thereafter at social gatherings I would raise the topic of fishing and then listen avidly to the wisdom, fueled by beer that would flow from the experienced adherents of this pastime.

My confidence and credibility reached a low when I confessed that I had caught only one fish in my life and that was a Barbel, in Rhodesia, (yes, long ago) and a friend who knows about such things quietly explained that in fishing circles this modest feat did not really count and rather placed me beneath the level at which the cognoscenti would even bother to dispense advice.

A vague idea and the wisdom contained in the ‘Idiots Guide to Yachting’ had informed my quest for a life afloat, so I thought a similar approach to fishing would be appropriate. In fact I was much better prepared as my slim compendium on fishing was richly supplemented by the insights newly gained by standing around the braai drinking beer. Thus armed, I planned a trip to the local fishing outfitters.

The result of this little outing was predictable and inevitable. Did you know that the record for retail spend on any sport does not go to Formula 1 racing, nor to golf; but is consistently won by ‘angling and sport fishing’? The absolute minimum outfit evidently comprises three rods, two reels: one medium heavy rig for trolling and a lighter coffee grinder with two rods for trolling, casting and jigging. In addition was a mountain of jet poppers, rooster poppas, zulu rigs, pulsator lures, bibless minnows, sorcerers, trolling lures, metal baits, birds, bucktail jigs, daisy chains, swivels, hooks, sinkers, spare nylon, spare braid, nylon trace, steel trace – you name it I got it - and the biggest bloody gaff in the shop (this was for lunch, not sport!)

If the shop assistants and the marketing gurus only knew how misguided their efforts are – the most successful sales pitch to me was the helpful little printed ‘how to’ instructions on the packaging. Thus by surreptitiously reading the blurb on the package of some lures, I discovered the art of ‘vertical jigging’. Similarly, my choice of leader and trace wire was guided by those that had helpful little diagrams of suitable knots printed on the packaging. The basis on which hook sizes are categorized however remains a mystery and my choice was informed by comparing a selection of hooks with the mouths of suitably sized stuffed and mounted fish specimens that adorned the shop. I was subsequently to discover that fish are very ambitious.

I also subsequently discovered that one of the most successful and economical fishing rigs is my ‘lunch line’ for the seriously hungry – a merciless monster made up of 50 metres of massive 200 kg breaking strain nylon, tied securely to a cleat on the yacht with a length of spear gun rubber (to absorb some of the shock), which tows a delicious looking pink plastic squid that disguises a great big double hook. The head of the unlucky fish that takes a bite of that, always changes direction: 15 tons of boat moving at 7 knots makes for a powerful rod and reel. To date the bodies of the catches have remained attached to the heads and we have discovered the drowned fish before the sharks do – but just imagine: no fighting the fish, no hard grinding away on the reel, no strain on the shoulders, no lower back pain, no worrying about whether the hook is set properly – you simply hand wind in the defeated fish and prepare lunch!

The normal setup while underway when there is the general threat of beans instead of food, is to deploy the ‘lunch line’ with its deadly plastic squid (depth depending on where the lead weight has moved to); a surface popper / trolling lure on the light rod / reel; and a scientifically designed lure that is guaranteed to dive and remain at the precise depth stipulated on the package, on the heavy rod / reel. Notwithstanding that not a single one of these lures looks even remotely like a little fish or anything else that our target fish might eat, we are assured that each of these lures is cunningly designed and virtually guarantees success for a specific fish species and fishing conditions.

Invariably on sailing through a shoal (say of tuna), every one of these lures successfully hooks a tuna more or less simultaneously! Fish appear to eat anything and everything when they are hungry and conversely, ignore any offering when not on the bite. I suspect fish are stupid. That fishermen spend vast sums pursuing the ultimate fishing lures and debating at length their subtle nuances, is therefore very troubling.

Having hooked and landed a beast brings us to the part of fishing that did not feature around the braai nor on the product packaging – cleaning and preparing the fish. Our haul in the first few months comprised fish that were quite amenable and user-friendly, particularly in that none of them had more than a handful of scales and all were fairly clean. However, recently as we sailed through the pass into an atoll in Chagos we hooked one of the mullet species (I think) and were perturbed to find this guy exuding lots of disagreeably slimy stuff and also having a skinful of scales! I beheaded and gutted the fellow and threw the bits overboard while still in open water, but it was only once we were anchored within the lagoon that I finished the job – scaling and filleting, and tossing the small bits and the skeleton overboard. Irene had in the meantime donned mask and fins and was in the water checking the anchor and the surrounding rock outcrops. We thus discovered another and by far the most successful fishing technique - chumming the water and adding a live bait – within seconds shoals of very large, feeding fish and several sharks were around the boat! Energetic walking on water accompanied by some very unbiblical commentary had our bait safely back on board.

Now that we are anchored in the atoll and therefore not underway, catching fish by the simple expedient of trailing some lures is no longer available and the prospect of beans looms large. The obvious solution according to fishermen is to bounce around for hours in an unstable dinghy, hopefully poised over a submerged outcrop or pinnacle or perhaps a drop-off or a sand bar over which the tidal waters bring nutrients – and patiently ‘jig’ a lure up and down. After half an hour of this mindlessness with even the lightest rod, your arms go lame. As a pleasant diversion you can cast a suitable lure into a likely spot or at some fish you have spotted!

Clearly other yachties also had deficient upbringing as they find no joy in this pastime and therefore devised a more inspired technique. This involves tying the favored ‘lunch line’ securely to the dinghy (usually a little rubber duck with an inadequate two stroke outboard engine) and driving the lot out through the protective reef into the open ocean – where the user friendly pelagic fish are. The dinghy is then whipped up to planing speed and fishing again proceeds by simply trolling a lure behind a moving boat, as befits a yachtie and a gentleman. A danger of course is that the hooked fish is not dominated by the little dinghy and its laboring outboard motor or that the chaos of stopping the boat and bringing in the fish does not occur quickly enough to beat the shark that is attracted by the distressed fish – the image of successively larger and larger fish attaching themselves to the fishing rig does keep me awake at night. It is also possible that the ocean waves being unkind and / or the chaos of trying to land the feisty creature and / or the prickly fellow puncturing the inflatable boat, result in the little vessel being swamped and disappearing entirely.

In my previous life on land Irene on occasion (obviously only rarely and when circumstances warranted!) treated me to a withering look that says ‘you are a pitiful worm’. Now that we share precious moments that are filled with panic and frenzied activity, I get a heated look that says ‘you are a complete jackass’. I find this to be a strangely rewarding elevation in status.

In the manner of many desk-bound bureaucrats, the authorities governing Chagos have decreed that scuba diving is undesirable and is banned outright. Therefore in order to explore the truly wonderful and fantastic underwater world here, you snorkel / free dive and therefore spend time at the surface – which is where sharks generally feed. On every dive thus far we have been checked over by at least one black tip reef shark, who circles us a couple of times before meandering off to a distance where we can keep an eye on each other. At the Ille Fouquet anchorage about three miles away, there is a mob of black tip sharks and several grey sharks that are quite aggressive – reflexively snapping at anything that hits the water from a yacht and also close-circling and crowding swimmers. I have it on good authority from my crew, who recently became an expert in the matter when she earned the endearing nickname “Sharkbait”, that there is insufficient evidence of territorial behaviour by sharks to dispel the notion that these chaps could wander over to us for a visit, particularly as the yachts have departed the Ille Fouquet anchorage and left them with nothing to snap at.

We therefore have taken to diving with the dinghy in tow and brandishing our police batons / nightsticks with the intention of poking sharks on the nose if they get too inquisitive and at the first sign of an agitated shark, abandon dignity and retain limbs by hopping aboard the dinghy. My preferred weapon is of course my trusty axe but I suspect the psychological impact on a shark of seeing ‘crazed fool wielding axe’ would not be quite the same as it might be on terrestrial baddies. When on a seaworthy boat and armed with stout rod and reel, I have a reasonable negotiating position but when both players are in the water it appears the food chain can become a little tangled.

So far we have thankfully dodged all the sharks and much of the stock of beans and I am ever hopeful that corrosion will soon attack the remaining cans at least as much as it attacks every other part of the boat. Nevertheless, my skill set remains challenged as I have clearly not embraced the essential principles and passions of a fisherman. However, fish appear to obligingly commit themselves to the cause when needed and we are delighted with that happy outcome.