The first big fish of the year

Ever since I first met Neu, I have wanted to catch a cumuripim (tarpon) with him.

Neu’s 56k Cumuripim / Tarpon

Neu’s 56k Cumuripim / Tarpon

I love to go fishing with Neu, though readily admit that it isn’t something I would like to do for a living, it really is exhausting work, up before dawn then sailing out for hours (sometimes days) to the fishing grounds. Sailing the jangada requires constant physical effort from all the crew, especially the master, and the fishing is done in the most basic way possible, no fancy fishing gear here.

In the last couple of days there have been a large number of cumuripim caught off the coast here. By this time of year, the fish have usually passed by here on their migratory journey down the coast. This year it would seem they are a bit late, as the catch rate until now has been lower than usual. To make the most of their unexpected arrival, Neu and some other men, planned to go out on Sunday morning (since writing this the men are no longer allowed to fish on Sundays). Neu said that now that the winds have dropped, it was safer for me to go out with him.

At four in the morning we headed down to the beach. Dolla, who usually fishes with Neu, had gone out the day before on Neu’s other boat with Neu’s brother Kito and some others, they wouldn’t be back until Monday. This morning we were fishing with Lano, a lad of about 17.

It was still dark when we left the beach, no other boats set off as early as we did, though Neu said they would come out shortly, he kept looking back to check for one boat in particular, a man who had been very lucky and caught three cumuripim on the same day, Neu wanted to  find out where he was fishing so we could go there too. The men are quite happy to share the details of good fishing grounds with each other, but it’s hard to be specific when there is no reference point, Neu only had a rough idea of where we were going.

The sky began to lighten,  the rising sun making the monstrous clouds form dragons and dogs on the horizon, soon the dark night sky had given way to the pale blue of morning, the clouds turning grey, tinged with pink edges before the sun finally evaporated the last shadows of night and the clouds billowed in their whiteness. We sailed on, the north easterly wind made the journey a slow one, and Neu decided to drop anchor closer to shore than he might have done had the wind been more favourable to us.

I do not normally suffer from sea sickness but on this morning I began to feel very unwell, I sat with the fishing line wrapped around my leg (the men all put the line around their legs to alert them to a cumuripim taking the bait), until I realised that I was going to throw up. Argh, how I hate that feeling. Having done that, I felt better but told Neu I would sleep for a bit. Sleeping on the deck of a jangada is not an easy thing, what with the boat tipping up and down and waves slopping over you every now and then, but it’s amazing what you can get used to.

After a short snooze I felt almost normal. The fisherman Neu had been watching for was approaching us, Neu and he communicated by vague shouts and some kind of hand signals, after which Neu said we should set sail again, the better fishing ground was further out. The lines were all reeled in, the anchor line pulled up hand over hand, the mast lifted back into position and the sail re rigged. We set of chasing the other boat.

Some time later we dropped anchor again. Neu re baited all our hooks, and we re tied the lines around our legs, this bit always leaves me slightly apprehensive, I had never felt a cumuripim tug on the line but knew that some of the men, including Neu, have been pulled right off the boat by the force of it, I’m not sure I fancy that.

Not long after Neu swiftly stood up and gently wrapped his fingers around the line, Lano was on his feet too, looking intently at Neu asking him if he’d got something, Neu said “here we go” or words to that effect and yanked on the line.  Neu began to slowly pull in the thin nylon line hand over hand, using his thumb nail as a brake, Lano and I reeled in our lines to avoid the cumuripim getting tangled in them. Neu saw me watching him and said for me to look back to shore, the fish would shortly leap out of the water, it’s common for the fish to get off the hook at this point.

Neu was standing right on the edge of the boat, still pulling on the line, the fish leapt, arcing through the air, it’s silver scales reflecting the light, a diamond shower spray of water all around it, then smacking back down into the water it dived, pulling the line back into the water snick snick through Neu’s fingers. Snick, snick, snack, then faster thwack, thwack, thwack.

Neu said it wouldn’t pull out much line, it was a smaller fish, probably 30 kilo’s, it would leap and dive a bit but not go that far. When it slowed Neu began pulling again, squatting on his haunches, still right on the edge of the boat, I’m sure had I tried that I would have been in the water. Neu began guiding the fish back towards the boat, he told me to pull the line with him, just so I could feel the weight.

The line was much heavier than anything I have ever experienced before.  I was thinking how our young Labrador weighs less than this fish, I wouldn’t fancy pulling him through the water against his will on a thin bit of nylon, and Neu has caught fish twice this size before. I was watching how Neu has to be so careful with the line, he was cut quite badly before when the line got caught around his watch strap, the cumuripim pulled away and the line tightened around Neu’s arm, cutting deep into the flesh, leaving him with a crisscross pattern of scars.

Defying the laws of gravity, Neu was squatting down and leaning right out over the side of the boat, trying to bring the fish round to his side. Lano was preparing the harpoon, a metre and a half of steel with a very sharp arrow head point. This was the bit I was not looking forward to seeing, I know it’s the only way to land the fish but it is so brutal.

To the side and below us the dark grey shadow of the fish was coming closer to the boat but it wasn’t ready to give up yet. Out when the line again, snick, snack, snick, snack, snick, snick ,snick. Neu was on his feet again, slowing the line but letting it go, out to the side the fish leapt again, trying to lose the hook.

Back Neu pulled it, constantly guiding the fish, not wanting it to go around the boat, keeping it to his side of the jangada. Closer, closer and then away again, over and over. Neu said the fish was tiring, it wouldn’t be long now, he took the harpoon from Lano.  Kneeling on one knee with the line held tight in one hand, Neu brought the fish alongside the boat, with the other hand he drove the harpoon down through the water, straight through the fish.

Instantly the fish ceased its struggle, it was finished. There was no air of celebration, no whooping and hollering, just get on with making sure the fish is secured on the boat.

Of course Neu was pleased, it means some much needed income for us, but Neu has utmost respect for this fish (as I think do all the men), somehow its shear size makes the taking of its life more significant.

When the fish was secured, Neu sat back and grinned at me, “you feel it’s weight?” he asked, I smiled and nodded, he asked if I thought I could have pulled it in, laughing at the idea, I told him I knew I couldn’t have done. He came back to sit by me, baited a new hook and said we might be lucky and get another one.

I sat feeling the tug of the ocean on my line round my leg, tug, release, tug, release then tug, tug and tug some more. I looked at the line round my leg in disbelief, it was definitely getting tighter, “NEUUUUUU” I just didn’t know what to do. He leapt to his feet shouting “Yes? Yes?”, Lano who was closer to my now outstretched leg, grabbed the line pulling at it and nodding his head, while telling me I needed to get it off my leg , which I knew but being somewhat stunned by having caught a fish, something I have so wanted to do, I lost all ability to react.

By the time Neu got the line, the fish was gone. He looked at me and asked if I was sure, Lano confirmed there had been a bite, We reeled in the line, the bait was still there but the wire that attaches the hook to the line was all twisted, it had definitely been in a cumuripim’s mouth. Neu laughed and said “Claire, why you yell for me, you know to pull the line?” All I could do was smile sheepishly, at least I know what it feels like when one very big fish takes the bait.

We didn’t get another fish that day but the one Neu caught weighed in at 31 kilos saleable meat and is considered small.  None of the other 8 boats that went out that day caught anything.

©Claire Pattison Valente 2009

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