One Fish Two Fish

Ze started fishing by dropping a line over the side to catch his bait. Jangadeiros must first catch their bait. The line had four tiny hooks, each tied to a short leader and spaced about a foot apart. A sinker at the bottom weighed it all down. Ze set the hooks bare,  just below the surface, the monofilament fiber running over a leather sheath he wore as a glove on his right index finger. He then started to jig the line, bobbing it quickly with his hand to attract attention. It didn’t take long: a minute or two later he pulled out three small fish. Presto-Presto-Presto,  just like magic.

“HA,” I cried out. It looked so easy.

The little fish beat the air furiously, causing the line to jump and quiver. Ze held out his arm to proudly show me his catch, then plucked off the fish, setting them on top of the icebox. The hooks now free, back into the water they went. He repeated this hat trick for another twenty minutes, building up a pile of bait he and his mestre would use through the night.

Every so often one of the fish would jump off the lid and land on the deck. Ze was quick to pick it up and put it back on the box. And like a patient father he talked to each one: “Are you trying to escape?” — “Not this time, little one.” — “You’ll only get back on the end of my hook.” But one fish did reach the water with an heroic leap that sent it flying right in front of his face. Like a toad’s tongue his arm shot out to stick it but he was too late.
“You missed him, Ze,” I laughed.
“He was fast. But I’ll get him later.”
He wasn’t joking.

João was off to a slow start. Seeing that Ze’s line had four bait hooks attached, he decided to add another to his own. Retrieving the tiny barb from the liner of his hardhat, he spent most of the time trying to thread the leader through the microscopic eye. It was maddening to watch him: lifting his hands closer to the light, squinting his fifty-something eyes to focus (no reading glasses here), creeping his stubby fingers back and forth and back and forth while the glistening tip of his very pink tongue, looking more like an alien proboscis, followed along. Several times he thought he had it only to see he didn’t when he pulled on the line. (I learned some new Portuguese curse words then.) Eventually he succeeded, tied his knot and bit off the excess line. Now he was ready to go.

Meanwhile Ze was on to bigger fish. From the basket he picked out two thick spools, each with a single hook and sinker. There were no beads, swivels, springs or clips — just lines and knots tying it all together. Ze inspected the hooks and pulled on each to test the leader. Satisfied, he baited the hooks with the filleted side of a small fish, then stood at the transom to put out his first line. This was bottom fishing: a lot of line had to be pulled from the spool to get the hook down to where the fish were feeding. And with each outward swing of his arm the nylon ticked softly from its wooden batten.
tick—tick—tick . . .

When the sinker hit the seafloor the line bunched up on the surface. Ze pulled out another couple braços, then wrapped the line around the top of the nearest espeque post to hold it. He could now put out his second hook. This was lowered a few feet forward from the first and he finished it off in the same manner: stripping more line, wrapping the end around the same espeque post, placing the remaining spool on top of the icebox, both of the battens still pregnant with line.

The real fishing could now begin. Standing between the two lines at the rail, Ze brought in the slack and took a line in each hand. He then extended his arms out over the water at each side and started jigging, vibrating the fibers ever so faintly, shooting down little pulses that said,  take me—take me—take me.

João was finally catching some bait — one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish (Dr. Seuss). But he was much more interested in what Ze was doing. He kept glancing over his shoulder to check on his progress, and would stop altogether when anything happened.

This was understandable. With his scarecrow lankiness and lightning reactions, Ze was an easy man to watch. Most of the time he stood calmly at the rail, arms stretched out, palms upturned (put him in a robe and let his hair grow long — such a Moses you would hope to sign). But when a fish hit a line it was like flipping a switch. Ze would leap from the deck while shooting up his fist to set the hook. As his body came down the fist came with it, reaching out to feel for the fish. There were just two possibilities – fish on or no fish.

No fish was no fun. Ze’s fist would drop and he’d shake his head in disappointment. His frustration didn’t last long — there was work to be done: he had to raise the hook to check on the bait. This was done with a flurry of arms, beating like dragonfly wings to bring in the line — hand over hand over hand over hand. If the bait was still on and firmly attached, back into the water it went and down it sank, the pile of line evaporating quickly from the deck. But if the hook was bare — You bad-bad fish! — he shook his head and returned to the bench to stitch on another piece.

Fish on and his eyes would shine; he’d haul it up as fast as he could. The line was strong so he didn’t have to worry about breaking it. There was no playing with the fish, making sport of the catch. It wasn’t about that. It was about landing the fish quickly and getting it into the basket. It was about produção (production) — moving on to catch the next fish. More than anything it was about survival — putting food on the table — man vs. nature in a timeless encounter.

In the first skirmish man easily won. The fish was small and Ze brought it up fast. When it was next to the rail he simply reached down and handed it up. Once on deck the fish fought for its life; it beat the planks wildly, was making such a fuss I moved down the mast to get a better look. I was surprised to see how small it was, a red snapper, weighing less than two pounds. Ze had pulled it up so quickly that the swim bladder ballooned from its mouth like a giant wad of bubble gum.

Ze grabbed the araçanga and gave the fish two sharp raps on the head. Instantly the tail stopped kicking — the fish was dead. Picking it up, he pulled out the hook and used his knife to nip off the top end of the tail fin. This is the traditional marking for a proeiro’s fish. (The bico da proa cuts the lower caudal lobe, the contra bico notches the head, and the mestre leaves his fish unmarked.) After dropping the fish into the sambura, he turned and gave me a wide grin. “Now we will have lunch tomorrow.”

For another half hour I watched them fish. In that time Ze caught a second snapper, similar in size to the first, and João, who finally got his single line into the water, hauled up a ten pound jewfish. It was a beautiful fish, craggy and ancient looking, and João was very happy with his catch. Holding the fish off to the side with a finger through its gills, he bent down to peer inside the basket (though he knew exactly what was in there). He then lifted his fish in my direction and shook it. “This garoupa is better eating than the cioba and harder to catch!” Having made his point, he dropped the fish into the basket and returned to his spot.

Next chapter: One Man Band