Great Tale From the Deep
That green canvas flopping lazily in the wind is worth its weight in gold you think to yourself, as the blistering noon sun beats down on the little boat trolling painfully slow amidst the gentle swells behind Churna Island. You really can’t move. It’s too hot. Way too hot. The green canvas is the only protection against the sun. Under its shade, lying on a mattress, with the wind blowing gently, it is comfortable. But you know that if you step out of the shade, it is more than 40 degrees centigrade, and out here in the Arabian Sea the sun reflects right back up at you from the surface of the water. You’ll get blast furnace from above and below.
No, I’ll just stay here, right here in the shade. I’ve got to be an idiot to do this. Be here, in this heat. Why do I do this to myself? You make the effort to tear away from the random bickering in your mind and sit up to check if the rods are trolling properly. Because the reason you’re subjecting yourself to the heat is that you are fishing.
Fishing? Not just fishing, the best kind of fishing. The kind of fishing that makes you glad at the end of the day. It is the tough, cheap, do the best that you can with what you have type of fishing and you’re very happy when you partake of it. You think this defiantly. You think about the canvas, you think about the heat and you think about Churna Island and your rods trolling the different depths of the Arabian Sea. But mostly you think about the fishing and how great it is to be there and how happy you are. At no point do you think that every angler thinks exactly this very thing, everywhere in the world, on every boat that an angler is fishing and thinking on.
There are seven rods. You’ve spread them out in a 180-degree arc, all bent merrily under the strain of the saltwater plugs, and each moving to its own pumping rhythm. The rod tips tell you, as you strain to look at each one carefully, whether the lures are tracking properly. You know that the lure is working well when the rod tip moves in a repeating cycle of mini pumps. Yes all the rods are good. No seaweed, jellyfish or other tangles in them. Behind the boat from 20 to 80 feet away and at different depths from surface to 30 feet below, your lures are frantically doing their best to entice large, angry and hopefully hungry game fish. There are shallow running lures, medium and deep runners. All are made out of plastic and have their own unique shapes and move like injured, scared baitfish. All on 20-pound rigs with long rods that allow you to appreciate every tail beat and head shake when fighting a fish. Can’t horse your fish in with these rigs. You have to play them into submission.” You think proudly. A teaser runs way back down the center of the trolling spread with a small skirt at its end and it is making plenty of “noise” on the sea surface. It is on a fifty-pound setup and that’s the heaviest rig you’ll run when fishing inshore. You know that perhaps only once a season something will hit the teaser and skirt. But you still run it because “You are on the ocean after all, and very big things live in the ocean.” Perhaps you run it because you like the look of it and it makes you feel superior to the other boats around you who are all doing that same thing. You like the look on their faces when they think that a couple of your plugs have gotten entangled and are dragging pointlessly on the surface. Or maybe its just that you cant wait a month more to head really far offshore where you know you need the big baits and big tackle and that big fish will punish the heavy tackle regularly. But for now you are happy where you are. In your boat, with the right tackle, the right conditions, evidence of good fishing in your icebox from the morning and plenty of good prospects ahead of you.
There are many different species of gamefish that swim below you. You try not to think too much about the fish because you know that it’s bad luck to and that because when you’re not fishing, for some ridiculous reason you will be thinking plenty about the fish. Now is not the time to think about the fish, it’s time to catch the fish You’ve already caught an early morning barracuda and a queenfish. You settle back and think about the morning fish as if it was on another day. The morning seems so far away now in the noon sun.
The barracuda struck before the sun was even up. The medium depth silver plug got bit five hundred yards out of the fishing village. Line spasmodically peeled out of the tiny Garcia reel. “Barracuda” was the first thought. A few minutes later the wolf of the sea materialized, the mangled silver plug firmly affixed in his canine jaws. He remained stationary on the portside, brownish silver in the dark water of the false dawn, regarding you with his deep yellow expressionless eyes. You released him even though he pushed 11 kilos because he fought poorly, is too common and because Barracuda take themselves too seriously, they look ferocious, have a lot of teeth, and no balls.
An hour later it was the surface lure that got smashed. Queenfish, seven kilos, and broad as a shield, jumping and metallic in the early morning sun it gave you all you wanted for ten minutes on an almost fly rod type spinning setup and 200 yards of eighteen pound line, most of which got wet during the fight. You would have released the queen but you hadn’t caught one in a while and you enjoyed being connected to her electric energy so the villager on board gaffed him in the shoulder and put him in the huge icebox where his colours would not disappear and he would not spoil in the heat that you knew would come.
Now, a few hours later, after trolling listlessly in the heat, you have decided to take half time. “Lets head to the hill” shouting above the drone of the engines you try and get the attention of the local boat operator/gaff man/fish gutter/fish finder and general handyman. The “hill” is Churna Island. A few miles offshore, towering out of the empty vastness of the sea, mysterious and wonderful. Nobody in your knowledge has lived on this forbidding rock, except perhaps for a pair of osprey with whom most of the fishermen are acquainted. One of the old men in the village swears that every time you see the osprey you will catch a grouper in that day. He swears by this and I am still waiting for my grouper. The Naqva finally gets the idea through a mixture of shouting and miming, and he leaves the reef area where we have been trolling for most of the morning, and slowly heads southeast towards the protected area behind the inhabitable rock that is Churna Island. Like a very old man, broken backed and shrouded, Churna looms overhead. Interesting from a distance, suddenly immense when you are within a kilometer of it, overwhelming when you are behind its protection from the seas that blow in from the southwest. You expected more from the morning but now the midday heat weighed against the approaching shade of the Island indicate a definite leaning towards a break in the day’s festivities. At the western end of the island there is a cave in the calm water. The wind plays wonderful tricks here and despite the intense sub continental heat the temperature drops into a comfort zone in and around the cave. Here we moor the boat alongside the regulars and cool down.
The boatmen begin to swap reports in local dialect, and you watch quizzically as the short, podgy, Danny Devito of saltwater anglers in the next boat waits eagerly for the translation. Danny is clad in the brightest orange lifejacket you’ve ever seen, Ray bans perched on a toadstool nose, below which a luxuriously long moustache droops down then back up, much like a plastic largemouth bass lure frozen solid. All this topped off by an enormous Vietnam paddy field worker type hat. Animated, the story of the wasted barracuda and much needless delight on my part at playing a queenfish on a rod that resembles spaghetti is told to the neighboring boatman, who in turn tells the beaming, orange angler the gossip in hushed tones. As the story is told, embellished and absorbed, orange angler’s grin is enhanced into a hearty laugh under which I imagined his copious belly to create tsunamis where he to perchance fall overboard. He now makes ready for fishermen talk, after having decided that I am suitably low enough on the “fish caught ladder” to be given some advice.
“What you really must do young man, is to call out to the fish. Really feel them, feel the ocean on the day and decide what you are going to run and how you are going to run it. You see you have to fish with confidence, yes. Indeed, confidence, my son. Confidence and steady talking to fish” He essays
“And you have spoken to many fish today?” I venture. Here it comes and I brace myself.
“But of course, what else? I have two huge mackerel, seven barracuda (some of which would be the biggest that you’ve ever seen) and before I forget, a monster grouper.”
Suitably embarrassed, “You wouldn’t have happened to have seen those birds, the osprey, by any chance?” I joke, in a tone that says that I am not the competitive type of angler. I have only caught two fish. I am not competitive at all today. But let me meet you some other day, you orange angler thing. “Oh yes, of course, that’s why I caught the grouper you know.”
“Yes, so the villagers keep telling me”
“Have you seen the osprey today?” He asks me, now clearly enjoying this exchange.
“Yes.” I had, around eleven in the morning. It had taken my mind off the lack of fish.
“Yet you have no grouper?”
“No.” I am officially an incompetent angler in the village now.
“Well we can all only improve with time. Please join me for some biryani.”
You do, and at once begin to understand why the angler is so ample. The biryani is homemade, spicy, rich, the chicken juicy; the whole affair is absolutely oily and excellent. You break out your canteen and soon a veritable feast is laid out on the boat for all to enjoy. Our friendly angler discards the orange life jacket to reveal a vest underneath, and tucks into lunch. Between mouthfuls he discovers of my morning barracuda release.
And what’s this? You released a fish? Surely you mean he broke off at gaff?
“No, I released it.”
“But why? Why would you do such a thing? Why would you release an 11 kilo barracuda?” The expert asks, in between mouthfuls.
“It did not fight well, it simply swam to the boat and stood motionless by the boat side, I would not have eaten it, and saw no sense in gaffing.” I offered tentatively.
“This is just not right; there are hungry poor people who would have gladly eaten that fish.”
“Yes, this is true, but that’s the way I fish, sometimes I don’t kill the fish.”
“This is why you have not caught as much fish as me, it is just wrong to waste fish. You wasted the barracuda and now you will not catch anything. The osprey will also not help you today.”
Suitably chastised, you finish the meal in silence and thank the angler for lunch. After a smoke and change of some unproductive lures, the china made engine is pumped and started, screaming in agony at being used to propel a 32 foot boat through the swells. But it’s perfect for trolling. The rods are set back out as you head to the reef again. The tide is rising again and the afternoon promises to be good. You don’t mention it, but there is one particular species your after. It visits the reef behind Churna every year like clock work, never in large schools but rather in pods of ten to fifteen fish. It is the very reason you had this boat made and you fish the “alleyway” of reefs every year almost out of tradition. Some years you are lucky enough to catch this species, some years they elude you. But tradition and logic do not always mix, and no season is ever complete without putting in the man hours for your favourite species. It is slow, tedious work trolling in relatively shallow water, and the afternoon breeze induces a trancelike sleep under the green canvas. Belly full, you cannot help dozing off.
It could have been a few hours or a few minutes when you wake up again, but thoughts of how long the siesta lasted are furthest from your mind because you wake up to the best sound to any angler. The reels is literally shrieking like a banshee as line is torn of the spool on a never ending, gut wrenching and immensely satisfying run of what can only be the species you most wanted. “Sangra” screams the naqva. “Cobia” you find yourself echoing in your mind. Automatically you have rod in hand, reducing the lever drag on your small daiwa reel to give yourself a chance to deal with the marine monster. Two hundred yards of 20lb line disappear into the sea, but always horizontally. The cobia does not fight deep; it will fight like a lion. Face to face, on the surface, daring you to bring it close. The crew have now removed all the other rods and placed them in the rocket launchers, the engine is off and now the only sounds audible are the reel drag protesting at being treated roughly, the waves lapping up against the hull, and your heart beating at five hundred beats a minute.
The game is on, the run finally ends and the cobia now tries to dislodge the stretch 25 from its mouth. You desperately try to keep a tight line. Reeling in frantically its a few minutes before you finally feel the pressure of the fish. Just as you start to pump the fish you see its fin a few hundred yards away. It has surfaced and is circling the boat far away. The fight is tough, the fish large and fresh and your nerves are on edge. You are taken on a complete circle of the boat after the fish. It will be the first of many. When you work the cobia to within 50 yards of the boat it is off again. The reel shrieks and you hold on for dear life. The run is as long as the first. Once again the line is tightened and you repeat the pumping process. The pumps are not like tuna pumps though, they are calculated, slow, and often long and made in a way to keep slack out of the line. The cobia is visible through all of this and although far off you can tell that it’s not a small fish. The naqva is standing by, big gaff ready and a second one with another crew member. He shouts encouragement which you don’t hear; he prays that the fish will come close enough to gaff before the light tackle gives way. You realize that there is no forcing the fish on this tackle. Frankly even with fifty pound tackle there is no way to horse this fish in. You know you are outmatched, but that’s what you are there for. A third run is taken and you thank god that the reel is a lever drag and as smooth as they come. The 20lb line is expensive and has stood up to severe friction. It’s still all holding together and you start pumping yet again. Careful measured pumps with as little pressure you can put on the fish and finally you feel a slight reduction in pressure at the other end. The cobia is finally tiring. It has been the longest 20 minutes of your life but for the first time you feel that you have a chance. The head shaking is slower, the third circle around the boat is just completed and the cobia is now back to within fifty yards. You catch a glimpse of the fish’s profile in the gentle swell. Its five feet long, thick as a tree, gorgeously indigo brown and has a tail like a construction grade spade. Then once again only the fin is visible, the bulk of the fish is under the water again. The tail beats are also slowing down. Fifteen yards off portside now and you reduce the drag further. Thumb on spool to apply pressure, you guide the cobia closer. It yields inch by inch reluctantly giving way to the constant pressure. You feel like you are taming a small donkey. The cobia is now within gaff range and circling the perimeter of the boat. The naqva follows it around and takes a gaff shot of the starboard. More of a swipe than a well calculated shot, the disturbance is enough. If the cobia was calm until this point, it is calm no longer. Animating back to life, the fish sounds straight down and under the boat.
You are experienced though and are expecting this. The drag is down and the thumb releases line off the spool with little pressure, just enough to prevent a birds nest on the reel. The rod is trust into the water to prevent the line from rubbing on the hull. Hundred yards fly off the spool in seconds and for the first time the fight is vertical. Now you are worried. The tackle can handle fish fighting on surface but the vertical fight is another matter. The rig is not geared up for this sort of pressure. Also the fight is now 45 minutes old and you know that the hooks are in danger of being straightened. Another fifteen minutes of the slowest, gentlest pumps you have ever taken and you see the fish in the depths. It looks tiny and you know that it is way deep. Inch by inch you pump it up, trying not to make any jerky movements. You coax the cobia into surfacing. Except it surfaces well out of gaff range and starts circling the boat again. Your nerves are on the point of giving way but the fish is done. It rolls lazily to its side, exhausted, and allows itself to be bought within gaff range again.
Finally you realize that you have won, the large amber eyes look at you in bewilderment, and you feel your heart tear as the naqva sinks the large gaff into the tremendous beast’s side. It would roll and thrash madly at gaff but your crew is experienced as well, and a second gaff in the shoulder prevents this. Now with all their strength the crew hoists the cobia over the side and its falls heavily in the boat. You sit back in amazement. You have caught them before, you may even have caught larger ones, but every single time you gaff a cobia you want to cry. It lies heavily on the boat, unmoving except for the gasping for air.
The guilt of killing such a superb creature is lost in the extreme excitement of the crew. Photos, posing, and much back clapping ensue and you are justifiably proud of the way you handled the fight. Each fight is a test of character and each one adds to your personality as an angler. Tuna breaks your back, the marlin is a freight train, but the cobia is royalty. It is the perfect combination of in and offshore angling. It is your favourite fish. You cannot bear to watch it die now and put it under the helm in the shade. When it is cut into fillets you will feel less guilty. As it is happily eaten over the next two weeks in your house you will feel better. But you will never remember it as a steak on a plate or as a brown log as it is in the photos. You will remember it 5 feet away from you, in the water, its colours the way they are meant to be. Huge, powerful, broad and proud, its eyes’ looking at you in incomprehension just before it was gaffed from its realm. You will remember the game fish that gave you something to talk about for the rest of your life.
You promise never to kill another cobia again. It’s more than just a fish, its more than just fishing. It’s the best type of fishing you will ever do.