Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Well, my recent adventures with the stent have put me in a reflective mode, and for some reason, I got to thinking about night fishing. In the late eighties, the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I lived for three years right on the beach in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on the island of Guadalcanal. Back then, people always looked askance when I told them we lived in White River, it was a tough part of town. And they were right, it was rough.
It didn’t matter, though, because I started playing keyboards with a rock band called Unisound that was based in White River. We rehearsed over at Chris Brechtefeldt’s garage across the road in the heart of White River, with the big garage doors open. All the locals came to listen and dance in the evenings when we practiced. So the White River folks high and low knew me and the ex-fiancee, we were protected, and we never had any problem.
There was a guy from Kiribati named John who kept his outrigger canoe pulled out of the water and stowed by our house. There’re plenty of Kiribati folks in the Solomons and have been for years. In general they are an energetic, interesting, musical group of people, with lots of good fishermen and seamen (and women) among them. I discussed some of their history in my post “So Many People … So Little Rain”. Kiribati used to be called the Gilberts. In fact, “Kiribati” (pronounced “Kih-rih-boss”) is the local spelling of the word “Gilberts”. The problem was that the i-Kiribati (the Kiribati people) didn’t have letters in their language for “G’, “lb”, or “s”. Also they don’t use two consonants next to each other, you need a vowel between.
So they used “K” for “G”, “rib” for “lb”, and “ti”, as in “motion”, for the “s” sound. From that you get Kiribati, “Kir-rih-boss”, as a transliteration for Gilberts.
Anyhow, this i-Kiribati guy John had a tiny little outrigger canoe, just big enough for two people, but he always went out by himself. It looked like the one in the photo above, except it had about a three or four foot tall stump of a mast with a flat board on top to lash a lantern. He’d go out at night about dusk, paddle offshore and light his lamp, and then disappear into the night. Much later I’d see him come back, one, two o’clock, always with big fish. And I mean nice fish, large tuna, rainbow runner, mahi-mahi. I was curious to see how he did it, so I asked if I could go out with him some night. Sure, he said, next time around.
The picture below shows where we were living at the time. It was right on the ocean. In the summer, the ocean temperature is around 29 °C (84 °F). In the winter, the ocean temperature goes down to a bitterly cold 26 °C (79 °F).
The waters off of the house are called “Ironbottom Sound”, because of the number of ships and planes on the ocean floor from World War II. They make for superb wreck diving, but that’s another story.
It was one of the nicer locations I’ve lived, right on the water, a small two-bedroom house. Solomons doesn’t get big waves, the islands around break up the motion. A wave a few feet tall, maybe a meter, would be a big wave on that side of the island. So the ocean mostly grumbled and murmured outside the bedroom window.
The previous tenants were a newlywed Canadian guy, his local Malaitan wife (from one of the Solomon Islands called Malaita), and about eight or so of her family, including his new mother-in-law. His wife was a “custom bride”, meaning that he’d paid the customary shell money and pigs and the like as “bride price” for her. They still had a week to go on their rent when we met them.
He liked the house. I asked why he was moving. He said that the problem that he and his wife had with the house was that under the Malaitan customs of whatever tribe she was from, the mother-in-law was his “tabu”. In their custom that meant when she was around, he couldn’t be alone with his wife. So the sleeping arrangements were:
• His new bride slept with her mum and a couple other single ladies in one bedroom, and
• Two other married couples had the other bedroom, and
• He was sleeping with the single guys in the living room.
As a result, he was happy to move out. He said he was going to rent a really small apartment, with only enough room for him and his sweetie. I could only applaud and hope that she was ready for something new. They packed up, all ten of them or so, and my dear lady and I moved in … the place felt empty without ten people living there.
In any case, after we’d been living there for a few months, one evening about dusk John knocked on the door and asked if I wanted to go out. Sure, I said. I had on the usual islands attire, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. We carried the canoe out to the beach next to the ocean.
He brought with him the usual island fishing setup—an empty plastic soft-drink bottle with monofilament fishing line wrapped around it. He also had what looked for all the world like a butterfly net. It was a piece of bamboo, with a round ring with a net at the end of the pole. He had a kitchen knife. Finally, he had a “Tilley Lamp”. This is a very bright pressure-style kerosene lamp. All of that went into the boat.
Now, the beach there, as on most tropical islands, is made of coral rubble and sand. John said, put some small pieces of coral into the boat. He showed me the size he wanted, about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. We put a couple dozen of them into the boat. That was it. I asked what he was going to use for bait. He said we’d catch the bait. I didn’t ask about the small pieces of coral.
The sea is calm most of the time in Honiara, and particularly so at night. We tossed my sandals into the canoe and lifted the boat into the warm dark ocean. Barefoot, I moved cautiously over the coral rubble, but John’s feet could handle broken glass, he just strode naturally. We hopped in, and paddled out into the welcoming blackness.
Night on the ocean is always a magical time and place for me, and it’s triply true on the tropical ocean. There was no moon, but the stars provided plenty of light. As we paddled away from the shore, the lights of the city became visible. I was careful to keep a close watch on the lights behind me as I left the coast. I always want to be able to make my own way back home if I need to. To do that you need to recognize the lights, along with the shifting shapes of the black hills against the stars. So I watched our house get smaller and smaller, and noted the lights and the loom of the hills as we slid out into the warm embrace of the Ironbottom Sound.
Once we got offshore, John pumped up the Tilley lamp. He took a piece of cord and lashed the lamp to the top of the mast. His matches were the tropical kind where only one in three actually lights, so it took a moment to get it lit. Then … we just sat there.
After a while, he indicated something in the island way, by making the “pssst” sound and pointing at it by jutting his jaw and looking with his eyes. I looked, and I saw a fish hanging motionless in the water, mesmerized by the light. Flying fish, John said softly. He reached out with the net, and with a single, deft movement, he dipped that flying fish right out of the water with his goofy-looking butterfly net
He killed the flying fish in the usual island manner, by biting its head to crush it and kill the fish instantly. I said a silent thanks to the flying fish. It’s strange to relate, but a fisherman occasionally dies himself while killing fish that way. The first time I tried it was right offshore from our house on the beach in Honiara. Some local guys set a sinking gill net just offshore. It entangled fish down near the bottom, in water three or four meters (10-13 feet) deep. They invited me to help them clean out the net. They showed me how they dove down with mask and snorkel, bit the fishes’ heads to kill them, and then took them out of the net underwater. I had a cold, and my head was stuffed up. As a result, I couldn’t clear my sinuses, which gives you a whacking headache when you dive, and you can’t go deep. I remember hanging upside-down underwater so I could reach the fish, with my sinuses exploding inwards from the pressure, biting a dang fish’s head and thinking, man, this is about the strangest fishing I’ve ever done …
Anyhow, every few years some guy is doing that, and the fish just swims full speed ahead and gets wedged in the fisherman’s throat. Because of the spines and the scales, and the slipperiness of the tail, it can’t be pulled out and the poor fisherman asphyxiates … like I said, Death has bad eyesight, and you never know if he’s there for the fish, or for you.
But I digress. John killed the flying fish by biting its head, and laid it into the bottom of the canoe. And in quick order, he’d gotten two more. So I asked if I could give it a try.
Friends, I’m here to tell you that flying fish actually know how to laugh. At least I swear the flying fish that gathered around to hang transfixed and worship the miraculous fabled midnight light laughed at me. I took that deceptive bamboo pole with the net attached, and despite energetically straining what I estimate to be a conservative four percent of the surface water in Ironbottom Sound through that bamboo-handled netting, I never did come up with a single flying fish. They didn’t fly at all that night, but they can sure swim. And even if the flying fish weren’t laughing at me … John sure found it funny. He took the net back and caught one more for style.
Now, flying fish are astounding creatures. Before I first saw one, I somehow imagined them as being clumsy in the air. Like … well, like a fish out of water, I suppose. But those jokers are really good aviators. They sometimes fly in flocks like birds, gliding along just above the surface of the water. Here’s a question for you. Does a school of flying fish turn into a flock of flying fish after takeoff? Anyhow, like birds, sometimes the whole group/school/flock of them will swerve as one to avoid some predator in the water, they show schooling behavior both above and below the surface.
They also can fly for a long, long ways. They take off and glide and glide … but when they slow down, they don’t need to go back into the water. Instead, they just drop down close to the surface until the long lower tail fin is in the water, give a few flips with their tail to build up speed, and keep flying. Doing that over and over as needed, they can go for a long, long ways before they drop back into the ocean. You can see in the photo how the lower tail fin is stiffened for the purpose. They go back into the water, not just anywhere, but where it’s safe. And here’s why I bring up all of that flying fish natural history.
Flying fish have wings, and they’ve learned how to fly, for a simple reason—to the big fish, they taste really, really good.
Everybody in the ocean would love to invite them over for dinner. They learned to fly because they are voraciously pursued by just about every large fast oceanic predator.
And that makes them just about the best bait imaginable if you want to catch large oceanic fish. The smell of flying fish seems to drive them crazy. I’ve always caught fish when I’ve had flying fish for bait. And now that we had bootstrapped our bait, it was time to go fishing.
So we turned off the light, and in the darkness we paddled a couple of miles over the soft midnight ocean down the coast, to some spot he knew. The slow stroke of our two paddles in the warm night was almost hypnotic. I used to fish commercially from a two-man rowboat, and I was reminded of that time. There is something elementally satisfying about the slow, rhythmic movement of two men working in concert to move the boat along, with the dark loom of the land slowly sliding by, and car headlights occasionally flashing from the blackness along the coast.
Once we arrived we got ready to do the actual fishing. He took his kitchen knife and cut the flying fish into small pieces. He put a piece of flying fish onto the single large hook on the end his fishing line.
Then he showed me what the coral chunks were for. Pieces of coral have lots of small holes in them, where the coral polyps used to live. He hooked the point of his hook loosely into one of these holes, and he started lowering the coral chunk and the hook down smoothly into the ebon ocean. When the hook and the bait and the chunk of coral got about a hundred feet (30 m) down, he gave the line a shake … and the coral chunk came loose and fell off, leaving a free-floating delicious piece of the world’s best bait drifting around deep underwater at night. Irresistible for big fish.
I followed suit, baiting up, hooking my hook into a chunk of coral, carefully lowering it down, and shaking the coral loose. Soon, he caught a fish, and brought it on board. It was lovely fish, a rainbow runner, Elagatis bipinnulatus, a member of the jack family. He killed it in the traditional way of fishermen the world round, with a short club. Again I thanked the fish, like I always did on the Kenai, but not out loud, only in my mind. In another man’s boat, I follow his lead.
Then I caught a fish, another nice rainbow runner. Then he caught one more, but I got nothing for an hour or so. Finally, I felt a single strong tug on the line. As before, I started to bring it in hand over hand, grabbing the line in the safe way from underneath. John sat and watched. One arm’s length at a time I brought it to the surface. As it neared the surface I leaned over to look down into the dark ocean and see what kind of fish I’d caught.
And when my catch finally did break the surface, it wriggled its tentacles, squirted a triple ration of black ink directly in my face, let go of my hook, and headed back to the depths where the only light comes from the creatures who live way down there.
John found it hilarious. I was far less amused.
“How come you didn’t know it was a squid?”, he asked when he could finally catch his breath from laughing. I allowed as how the squid fishing I’d done had been with nets, and we were catching a tonne of squid at a time, and besides they weren’t a foot and a half (50 cm) long, they were half that size, and how was I to know it was a dang squid anyway? He found that curious, that a fully grown man could be a fisherman for as many years as I had been and still not know what a squid feels like on a hand line, even a kid knows that …
But like all good fishermen, after he got done laughing, he explained it. They don’t hit the bait and run with it like a fish. They kind of explore the bait, maybe yank on it, and play with it. You can tell the difference by the feel. Also when you pull them up, they’re more of a dead weight than a fish is.
I said great, let’s catch that squid, I’ll eat him. He said, do you eat those? I looked at him like he’d looked at me, even kids know squid are good to eat. Sure, I said, they’re delicious.
He said you couldn’t catch them with the hook, they’re too soft. The only way to do it was I’d bring it to the surface, and then he’d net it with his magic butterfly net.
And that’s what we did, I felt the yank and hauled it up slowly to right below the surface. When it was close, he caught it in the net. He whacked the net hard against the surface a few times to kill the squid and then brought it into the canoe.
After that, it was late, we had three good fish. The moon was coming up in silent silver majesty. John said the fish didn’t bite as well in the moonlight. Besides, my T-shirt was drenched in squid ink. We headed back. On the way back, I asked John what they had done for bait before they had kerosene lamps, or out in the atolls when the kerosene ran out. He said that they used torches woven out of coconut fronds, no surprise on a coral atoll where there’s no wood. He said it was a pain, though, the torches didn’t burn too long and they shed hot embers and ashes. But it was still the same ancient bootstrap technique, start out with a coconut frond and some chunks of coral, end up with fish for the table. Human ingenuity …
We came in to the beach with the sea almost calm, and carried the boat up the few feet from the ocean to our house. John wanted to give me one of the fish, but I knew they were feeding his family and what he couldn’t eat he sold. Besides I had the squid. We shook hands in the enfolding tropical moonlight. I thanked him for the fun. He laughed again, that easy island laugh. I knew he’d be telling his friends for a while about the crazy gringo guy flailing away at flying fish without even getting close, and taking a face-full of ink from the squid … but then as the only white guy in the band I was already an object of good-natured laughter in the neighborhood, it would only add to the story.
But I tell you, those fried calimari rings tasted so good, it was worth it just for that … and the real win was the chance to paddle the dark stillness of Ironbottom Sound and see the fish and the reef glowing beneath me, and watch the stars shimmering in the inky mirror of the ever-mysterious ocean.
When I was a kid, I liked stories with morals at the end. For me, I’d say the moral of this story is that if you want to ride on the night wind of adventure, often all you have to do is ask someone if you can give them a hand in their voyage, that and be more than willing to laugh at yourself.
My best wishes to all of you, here are today’s wishes in no particular order:
For life, larger music wilder laughter stronger drums greater struggles shorter sorrows deeper passions stranger dreams For freedom, brighter magic stronger witches endless nights unknown allies slower dances grand delusions deadly fights For blood, more mysteries crueler tyrants harder choices more fear deeper danger faster rhythms calmer voices
Thanks to all,