Catch as Catch can

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By Tony Deyal

After I got badly sunburnt in the sea last Saturday, my friends asked me to write an article on fishing. I took the bait because one thing I know is that good things come to those who bait and I am a master baiter.

I have allure. I give away whatever I catch because I am not shellfish. And I am so happy in the water that I sing, “Nearer my cod to thee.” What both the fish and my friends don’t know is that when dealing with fishermen like me, even though everything I write is reel, there is always a catch. One thing about all fishing stories and tall tales is that the one that got away is always bigger than the one you “gotta” weigh.

Fortunately, fishes have their own scales. Unfortunately, in balance, they don’t like me. Last week, when I wasn’t getting the fish to bite, I thought it would be a good idea to try my well-sharpened communication skills. I dropped them a line but they refused to respond. I then switched on my radio and played something catchy.

I was caught long before the fish. I went to spend a weekend by my friend Trevor and his father decided to teach us how to fish. First we had to dig for worms. I came up with a multi-coloured, many-legged creature and Trevor jumped back in alarm. “Dat is not ah earthworm,” he shouted. “True?” I asked. “What planet it from?” I had to learn how to take a piece of string, put a cork from a bottle on the string and then tie the end to a small safety pin. Then I was taught to break off a piece from one of the worms, leave enough wriggle room, thread it onto the sharp end of the pin and then immerse the pin and worm in the water.

Then I had to watch the cork bob until it got pulled down. When that happened, I had to whip the bamboo rod upwards to “hook” the fish and then take it off the hook. Simple? Basically, a jerk at one end of the line waiting for a jerk at the other end. The first bite I got, I pulled so hard that the fish, a small Coscarob or what we called a “coskie” of the Cichlidae family, flew off the hook and ended up so high in the bamboo patch that we could not reach it because the hook, freed of the fish, had continued its journey and ended up stuck deeply into my back. Despite this initial setback, I was hooked for life.

It is not that I hadn’t learnt the language. We were so poor that for years the only banks I knew were in the “rice land” where my father and other members of our extended family first built small clay or dirt walls, basically, banks, to create little dams or water catchment areas. Later, in the rainy season, we slithered and slid through the mud, reaped the rice, beat the hell out of it, dried it on the road where I stood guard from the front step armed with some stones to throw at the birds and chickens which came for their share and finally, when they said “It ready”, watched as Pundit Saddoo grind it in his mill.

The banks also kept in fish and I watched as, with little bamboo poles, small hooks, “fish” pots made with chicken wire and wood, and even flour or worms as bait, they caught fish with names like cascadoo (cascadura), wahbeen or guabine, some of which jumped out of the water, coscorub, catfish, mama-teta and cutlass fish. What scared all of us were eels (jangie or zangie) which, I was warned, could “suck out youh toe”.  Since we all went barefoot in the muddy water this was enough reason for me to stay on the bank “helping”.

Then I went to the nearby Orange Valley Bay and saw one of my father’s friends in a boat going round and round very slowly with a long piece of wire in one hand and the tiller of the boat engine in the other. “What he doing?” I asked my Uncle Jacket. “He trolling.” my Uncle said tersely. “What is that Uncle?” I pestered. “He trying to ketch fish,” Uncle Jacket responded sharply. Since this was the only fish I really knew, I enquired, “Wahbeen?” Uncle Jacket laughed loudly, something I was not used to, and then said with a smirk, “Dey don’t have wahbeen here.” He continued, “The man trying to ketch Kovali (Crevalle Jackfish)”.

I found out later why my Uncle had laughed so loudly. First of all, the wahbeen is a freshwater fish and secondly, ladies of the night or prostitutes were also called “wahbeens”. Lord Inventor had a calypso about “Dem wahbeen women they have so low/ If a razor-blade fall dey could pass below”. That was also the first time I saw a catfish (pronounced KYAT-FISH).  It was huge and, apart from its large whiskers, had no resemblance to a cat at all. When I declared loudly, “But that don’t look like a kyat!”, Uncle Jacket laughed even harder. “Cat” is also a Trini term for a woman’s sexual organ.

In thinking about fishing and why I love it, I realise that for someone who worships the English language as much as I do, fish and fishing are more than a mere drop in the ocean of literature. Consider being “like a fish out of water”. When your boyfriend leaves you, “There is plenty of fish in the sea”, or you can boast, “I’ve got bigger fish to fry”. Right now I am “fishing for compliments.” A few times out in stormy weather and lightning, I found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea, but at other times, when my friends were spear-fishing, everything went swimmingly. I’ve seen too many con-men up to “fishy business” and that is a mere drop in the ocean of Caribbean politics.

Many of us have met the lady who broke our hearts and left us gutted, or women who are warned “don’t take the bait” and yet date someone who is considered a bottom feeder. I have seen a whale blubber. I have often promised to leave the fishing business to the fish since they start on a small scale. Poor as I am, I have never borrowed money from a prawn broker or a loan shark. When things are not working out, I pray to Cod Almighty, grateful that fishing continues to be the only sport where a limp rod still comes in handy.

Last week as my son Zubin and I helped push the 27-foot pirogue (fishing boat) out from the sheltered bay into the burning, blazing sun with our friend Peter, who knows all the “banks” and with whom we have trolled for kingfish, we could not think of any happier days, past or future. Zubin was off to Oxford in two days. Despite the sunburn and the fact that as Trinis say “We ketch our nennen”, this was, once more, the best present that we could give ourselves.

*Tony Deyal was last seen asking, “Why are they called ‘sperm’ whales?” Because they were discovered by seamen.

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