Fishing Bootstrap Style

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.

outrigger canoeThere 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.

WARNING: What follows is another tale of the tropics, the science being piscatorial and aquatic in nature, and the usual rules apply—if you fall overboard, you get wet, and if you push the “Continue reading →” button it’s at your own risk. Void where taxed or prohibited.

The picture below shows where we were living at the time. 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.

ge honiara house

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 metre, 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 … 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 metres (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 ones 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 sieve, I never did come up with a 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.

flying fishNow, 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

       louder 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

  faster rhythms

        higher voicesAnd if you're like me, choose what remains,

    more fear

        deeper danger

  and death as the truest advisor.

Thanks to all,


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You just post these stories to make the rest of us grind our teeth in envy of your colourful life, don’t you?
And I expect the house you lived in has been drowned by the ever-rising seas that are (we are told) swamping all the Islands.


Aint life grand? 🙂


The gliding flight of flying fish is a good example of the aerodynamic phenomenon called ground effect.


Thanks for sharing, Willis! Lovely story, we are all jealous….

Willis Eschenbach

RoHa says:
November 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm

You just post these stories to make the rest of us grind our teeth in envy of your colourful life, don’t you?

Thanks, RoHa. The door to adventure is always open. I post these stories to encourage people to walk though it, to choose the path less travelled by.

I don’t think I could survive that open door. LOL.
I love the stories.


Many thanks, Willis. As an aside, flying fish can do more than 15 knots, and while they usually just skim the water surface they can fly at least as high as 15 ft. This from experience, as they could fly faster than our ship when it disturbed them, and some mistakenly flew sufficiently high to land on deck – disappeared into the crew’s curry pots.


Willis, I was just editing some of my adventures as my kids want me to write my life story. I just poured a glass of red and was having a break when I came to your article. Synchronicity? I just lost 10 minutes in your memories and was there for every breath.


For me, at first light the 4 – 8 lookout went round the deck picking up the high-flyers, and the best of them didn’t go into the crew’s pots, they ended up on my breakfast table.
Happy days. (Sigh.)
And even if ASDA could source them, they wouldn’t be fresh enough.


Entertaining post. Thank you.

Joe Public

Thanks for sharing yet another episode of your exciting life.


Hi Willis
It is a major story after a minor heart attack, fortunately for you and us, the WUWT readers that it was not the other way around. All the best to you.


Thank you for posting the story, it made vivid and enjoyable reading.

Dodgy Geezer

Willis – I presume you have read the ‘Islands’ books by Sir Arthur Grimble?
‘A Pattern of Islands’
‘Return to the Islands’
Similar stories of a Glibertese District Commissioner in the 1920s. It doesn’t appear to have changed much…

James Bull

Thank you Willis as always a great read. As I have found if you want to learn how to do something go to those who do rather than those who think they know.
Your story reminded me of things those on the Ra and Tigris voyages of Thor Heyerdahl told of flying fish landing on board and supplying them with fresh tasty fish with no fishing. He was another man who looked at things and when told it didn’t happen or was impossible he found people who did and could do and then did it.
James Bull

Brian H

Evolution works in mysterious ways. Developing a bad taste would surely have been easier than learning to fly! I guess it was the side-benefits …

Paul Marko

“Death has bad eyesight.” If that’s not the title of a book, a song, or in a verse, it should be. Don’t think I’ll forget that one for a while.


Great read Willis, thank you.


real glad youre ok and here to keep writing such interesting stories, true ones:-)


I can only echo the previous sentiments. I would be a much poorer world without the delightful illumination you provide!

It would be a much poorer world.


Thanks, Willis, for a great story.
If you have not already done so, you may like to read the stories of warm seas, sailing, flying, music and some intriguing crime, in Jimmy Buffett’s “Where is Joe Merchant?” and “A Salty Piece of Land”. Both are worth a read – and the escapism works every time.
Good health!


I enjoyed the story. I too can tell many such stories from my childhood days living in our house 10 feet off a beach in the Seychelles Islands… but I won’t. But what I will say is that in all the years gone by, and when I have returned to the Seychelles, there is absolutely no evidence of any rise in sea-level. The sea, to this day, still laps the sloped beach in front of my house every day same as it always has… in line with the high tides and low tides that occur at delaying times each day, each week, each month and each year.

Gail Combs

In honor of Willis’ bout with the US healthcare system, The Obamacare network is now open. link (Do try to apply)

David L. Hagen

Brings back good memories of being invited to go night fishing off the Big Island in Hawaii using multiple hooks, and of the phosphorence (bioluminescence) highlighting the bow wave and paddle swirls while being taken up a lagoon in Malaita at night.

Ah, flying fish. One of my top 5 experiences windsurfing was having a school (flock?) of them cruising in the air right in front of and alongside my board off Kanaha Beach Park. Majestic (and yummy!). Thanks Willis!


Loved the story, as usual. My lovely ex-fiancée and I try to go to Cozumel at least once a year where they have an abundance of flying fish. Every time, I try to get a photograph of one. After about 7 years, I still don’t have a good one but I will keep trying. Thanks for the picture so I now know how truly abysmal my photography skills are.
PS Good to hear you are still with us after recent bout with our healthcare system.

gopal panicker

good for you willis

michael hart

Nice one, Skippy.
So is the taste of flying-fish appreciated away from the locality (of the flying fish)? That is, could you maybe use flying fish paste to make bait in other parts of the world?

always wondered, and never bothered to research, how they breathe (or if they do) while airborne.
maybe this article will drive me to actually do it.
have never seen one, way too cold here (Maine) but always wanted to see some.

Gail Combs

Great Story Willis.
My life has been a bit more tame but I certainly do not regret following the road less traveled within my capabilities – caving, hiking and climbing – while working and living in cities. I think those weekly trips kept me sane.
Hopefully writing about your adventures to the delight of the rest of us will help keep you sane as you heal.
dmacleo says: @ November 12, 2013 at 6:42 am
…. have never seen one, way too cold here (Maine) but always wanted to see some.
You maybe able to:

Flying Fish
Flying Fish, a fish having large fins with which it can glide through the air. Most flying fish live in tropical and subtropical areas of the ocean, but some range as far north as Maine….

On the other hand you do have Blue Fish, YUM! I really miss fresh blue fish since I moved south.


I just want to know when the compilation book is coming out. That would be a wild read.


Thanks Willis!
You brought back long forgotten memories of my grandma showing me, at a very young age, how to subdue squid for processessing for dinner. We had to bite them between the eyes for them to stop moving about. Perhaps we had it backwards, but we used a mallet on the fish? 😉


Some of my favorite stories told by my late father were of Guadalcanal. His ship (USS Colorado BB45) was stationed there for a while during the war. He spent many a fine day sailing and fishing in the islands. He claimed to be the only sailor on the ship who actually enjoyed sailing more than drinking. Your story, coming soon after Veterans Day, brought a tear to my eye.

David Jones

Great to have you back. Take care of yourself, or perhaps the ex-Fiancee should take care of you!


Thanks Willis. Always my favourite posts on WUWT.


Willis: at less than 10 miles from Henderson Field it must, as you say, have a whole mass of ships and planes on the ocean floor from World War II, many of them from Tokyo Express runs down “the slot” in 1942. Amazing to think that was more than 70 years ago now – the first successful US land offensive of WWII and essentially the turning-point of the Pacific war.
And sorry to read of the health issues – but I’m sure you will always stay positive which is also a large part of the battle won.

Thanks, Willis. Very good story.
I used to catch squids in the Caribbean with white-blue lures that had many small hooks on one end.

Willis, may you live well and prosper!
You do a lot of good.

Dave in Canmore

“The door to adventure is always open. I post these stories to encourage people to walk though it”
Thanks, one can never have too many reminders

Pat Moffitt

Wonder why more fish have not evolved in a similar manner to flying fish? Most fish already “fly” albeit in a denser fluid – gliding in air as such does not seem so great an evolutionary “leap.” Curious as to why we don’t we see this evolutionary adaptation in more “bait” fish.

Gord Richmond

Thank you for a wonderful story. I look forward to your health issues improving.


Magnificent, thank you. There can be fewer better experiences on this earth than being out in the countryside at night, the velvety dark, twinkly stars…. strange how different it is in the city ….


Great story! Thanks for sharing. So glad that you are still here to enlighten us.

Great story Willis!
I was thinking of telling you to go fishing in your cardiologist thread; thinking about it is almost as good. Check your local library for books by Phil Wylie written about some of his favorite characters, Crunch and Des; great reads too.
Those rainbow runners are also good bait, but more for the bottom feeders, groupers and snappers.
Fishing in the gulf of Mexico in a similar way, netting baitfish drawn up by the lights and catching sea trout (weakfish relative) and snapper. One time, our baits were getting stolen extremely fast by blue runners, a close relative to the rainbow runners, and my fishing buddy got frustrated and instead of releasing his latest runner, he filleted it. Cutting the filet into chunks, he baited up and dropped it overboard. Surprisingly, the other runners left it alone and when it reached bottom he got a snapper. We both did well using runner chunks and catching snapper and grouper. Yum!

“michael hart says: November 12, 2013 at 6:23 am

So is the taste of flying-fish appreciated away from the locality (of the flying fish)? That is, could you maybe use flying fish paste to make bait in other parts of the world?”

First, a quick answer; absolutely, but I don’t know about the blender fish (paste) idea. Consider it like shrimp, crab or lobster as being irresistible to critters of the sea and land. But the critters like them as fresh as possible. Even chum, chopped, crushed and blended fish works better fresh.
However, many people worldwide enjoy flying fish. Those extremely yummy colored fish eggs adding snap, pop and pizazz to Sushi are often Tobiko, English, roughly pronounced in imitation of the Japanese word, means flying fish roe.

General P. Malaise

thanks for the story. I always look at WUWT and it is your stories I always read.


I have never heard of anyone using flying fish as bait fish- Is the Gulf of Mexico different? Plenty of flying fish in the Gulf – they look exactly like the pic. I would count the seconds they seemed to be up in the air, and often they surpassed a count of 20. We were probably going 10 knots or a bit more.


Did your fisherman use a circle hook?


TheLastDemocrat says:
November 12, 2013 at 10:43 am
Wiki says this, without a source:
“In the Solomon Islands, they are caught while flying, using nets held from outrigger canoes. They are attracted to the light of torches. Fishing is done only when there is no moonlight.”
Maybe the article’s author could cite Willis, & update the light source.

Willis Eschenbach

Zek202 says:
November 12, 2013 at 11:04 am

Did your fisherman use a circle hook?

Naw, just your regular hook from the Chinese store …