Life in Salt: Handline Fishing in the Fijian Islands on New Year’s Day

by Owen James Burke

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Many hours of my life had been spent trying to catch a yellowfin tuna. My patience was beginning to wain, and I was starting to think maybe I’d try to focus on something else, something that might be taken at a more sedate pace, like golf. Instead, and with sincere gratitude, my restless hunt for a tuna modestly culminated on a New Year’s Day in a small fiberglass skiff, hand over hand from a spool of monofilament line.

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Handline fishing has been my favorite way of fishing since fishing with my grandfather as a kid, and when the manager of Dive Kadavu  said that they didn’t have a “proper” fishing vessel, but could put me in touch with a villager and his skiff, I think my excitement came to their surprise. In plain fact, I preferred it, I told them.

I had agreed to set out early the next morning with Cookie, one of the local fishermen, and After about 13 bowls of kava in the local village on New Year’s Eve, I stumbled my way home through the dark and was fast asleep well before midnight. For some unspecified reason, Cookie had a little difficulty rousing me from my dreams on that first morning of the new year, but he finally managed to get me up and out the door shortly after sunrise. “Fiji Time” is wonderful, but it leaves room for speculation as to how early “early” means, and Cookie is not one for clocks, so had I set an alarm, it would have been done in vain.

He pulled his skiff up onto the beach in front of my bure (boo-ray) or beach hut, and we were off to the point where the outer reef lies.

“Nothing,” he said, as we came around the point, ten minutes later.

That fast? How? Why? Minutes off the beach, no line yet wet, and his doubts were high.

“No birds,” he continued.

Birds mark surface activity of fish in open water; if there are no birds around, there probably aren’t many fish either. There are very few birds that manage to survive out in the desert, open ocean, and for good reason. Despite our imagination of a subsurface highway rampant with giant fish, life in the ocean can be spread just as thinly as that in the Sahara. We were silent for some time, and I began to daydream as the engine idled us along the edge of the reef.

After six months in Taiwan, I was content doing just that. Besides, I’d spent so many fruitless trips tuna fishing, what was one more? The seas were calm and the weather was pleasant, and by me this was fine.

The next thing I knew, the outboard engine was roaring, and we were veering eastward. Birds were converging, and, of course, Cookie had spotted them first.

It was as if hundreds of butcher’s knives were chopping the surface at once. Tuna were hurling themselves at a school of squid whose only defense was to amass in a ball. As we passed by, my hands prepared for a sudden weight to bear as my soul prepared for the compounding weight of another upset. 

Luck, or a gift from on high. The line in my hand drew taught. I felt my arm pulling away from the skiff, and just as I realized what was happening, the line went slack. Now I was throwing line in every direction behind me, trying to catch up to the fish that was now swimming directly at the boat. I reconnected, and it began to dive, or sound. Back out with the line. The fish took one brief rest, of which I took full advantage. I believe that before either of us knew, it was on the deck and I was preparing sashimi.

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My New Year’s Day breakfast was raw fish with a squeeze of orange and a splash of sea water; it can be taken trustfully when I say I’ve had many worse.

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