Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blood, Mud, and Saltwater: a guest piece!

I was blown away by this piece of writing from Linden Jones, who at 12 years old is already dealing with a serious fishing addiction. He has the writing talent to bring us all right into the deadly pluffmud with him! I hope you all enjoy this as much as I do. Thanks to Linden for allowing me to post his epic story!

Blood, Mud, and Saltwater
by Linden Jones

The jolt was unbelievable. I tripped over a sunken log (like the oaf I am) and fell to my knees. My head went underwater; when I came up again I spat out mud, crushed pieces of seashell, and a lot of water. I stood back up in the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees, knee deep in water and ankle deep in the deadly pluffmud. The sinister mud didn’t hurt you but it acted like dried cement when you stepped in it. I leaned back with my rod to pull the fish towards me.

To my surprise, it actually supported me. With another vicious tug, I saw a reddish-brown hump rise out of the water, glistening in the twelve noon sun. And I knew I had hooked a red drum.

And so it began…My knuckles turned white as fresh snow over the handle grip on my rod. I was jittering all over with the pure shock of this animal’s strength. And then it hit me.

I don’t want to lose this fish. I don’t want to go back to the house and have my cousins tease me about losing this fish. And then it was like I went deaf. I didn’t hear Dad yell. I didn’t hear Uncle Frank yell, “Fight ‘im, boy!” I reeled the line. And the fish knew that I had challenged him. With a pull that made me feel like a chew toy, and made my arms feel like rubber bands, the fish struck back.

I was yanked forward, but resisted long enough to pull back with the line. The rod and I had fused into one living, breathing warrior. My line, instead of the 12-pound test braid nylon, was now the lifeline that held everything together. I knew that if the lifeline snapped, I would drown in an ocean of insults. The fish knew this, too.

He made a run for an oyster bed, to cut the bond that tethered him to me and his lemon juicy, chili peppery, warm and steamy fate. I quickly cut him off with a technique that I only use for the strongest bass and the heaviest catfish. He was heading away (massive mistake) against the incoming tide and heading down. I pulled back with the tide and up diagonally, overwhelming him and pulling him one step closer to victory. I may be a rookie in salt water, but I am the fresh water master.

Fifteen minutes later, I was covered in blood, mud, and salt water. My arms and legs were sore, and my face burnt like an idiot who had tried to put out a fire with gasoline. And I was holding a red drum.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Best Love Note Ever

I spent a couple weeks in Wainwright, Alaska this past November. I was taking part in a survey that asks how people share their foods, especially subsistence foods, with other in the community. Sharing is a major part of traditional Inupiaq life. Relative to modern 'white' norms, sharing of food is still very high. The act of gathering and harvesting local foods, and the preparation and consumption of these foods, is a major part of life in many parts of rural Alaska. The people in Wainwright, men and women, young and old, are amazingly warm. Kiara Bodfish, probably about 8 years old, wrote me a special note:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Living Fisheries rises from cyberspace hibernation!

Hi All,

The fishing adventures haven't declined, despite the lack of blog documentation! I keep planning to post new stories and to rekindle old tales, but time slips away from me...

The F/V Icky Thump, my 22' jet-black Tolman skiff, continues to allow me to search for halibut:

as well as salmon and crab (for the dinner table):

Being a flat-bottomed craft, she handles a heavy load well but is prone to making all hands on deck leave an inch shorter than when they stepped on deck, due to spinal compression. Heck, I was never good at basketball anyway. Since returning from overseas, we've had two good fishing seasons on the Icky Thump, injury-free and almost profitable! Much of the success of the past couple seasons is due to excellent deckhands, who double as friends and family:
Eben. Who says Vermonters don't take to the water?

My dad. In the 1970's, he lobstered out of a 14' skiff along the Maine coast. That makes 22' seem spacious!

Katie. A Kasilof (Alaska) native who has seined and setnet for salmon for many summers, and now works with subsistence fishing communities in northwest Alaska:

Two good friends in Homer made the transition from skiff fishing to a "real" boat. Skiff owners always take slight offense to this designation of 'real', but I think we all know what is meant. A foc'scle, steering station, and fish holds are 'real' treats that few skiffs afford! In recent years, Kyle and Emily have transitioned from the Galway Girl (a 22' V-hull Tolman), to Bong Hits For Jesus (a 26' fiberglass setnet skiff), and now to the Northland (a 32' Rawson gillnetter). Just when the bottom line of a fishing operation start to go from red to black, fishermen go and buy a new boat or a new engine! Who says passion follows logic?

You can follow the adventures of the F/V Northland up close and personal at their own direct-marketing venue:

I've made a few trips to a great community of 200 or so folks in the village of Nanwalek, located about 35 miles from Homer. Here's an idea of the layout around Homer/Nanwalek:

Subsistence fishing is a major part of life in Nanwalek- sockeye salmon, coho salmon, halibut, bidarki, and octopus. I'm fascinated by the use and valuation of octopus by the community. In industrialized ports like Homer and Kodiak, octopus is caught as bycatch (mostly by pot cod fishermen) and is used mainly for longlining bait. In Nanwalek and other remote communities in the Gulf of Alaska, octopus is hunted during low tides and is a highly prized delicacy used in special meals!

I visited the whaling community of Wainwright (Alaska) this November, located on the Arctic Ocean to the west of Barrow. This is a Alaska Native community where most of the meat consumed is harvested locally. Whale, seal, caribou, and bear are hunted, as well as lots of fish (mainly smelt, whitefish, cisco, char). Unfortunately, the timing of my trip didn't align with good smelt fishing or whaling season, but it was incredible to hear stories of recent harvests, and the region is beautiful.

I also migrated back to Maine for a while around the holidays and explored fisheries in the northeast, although most of this was shoreside 'research'- very different than jumping right into the gurry on deck. I did get the chance to turn over a few lobster pots one icy January morning with a new friend, Curt, in Portland Maine. Curt also recently made the shift from skiff fishing to a larger vessel with the entertaining name "Li'l More Tail". I think the name makes Curt cringe, but it can be bad luck to change a boat name. If it were me, I might take my chances with Lady Luck.

Hopefully I'll make the time to type up a rant or a tall tale more often this coming year, and maybe I'll get around to expanding on some of the above experiences. There's a lot to share about small-scale fishing!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Octopus Hide-and-Seek

Six of us- Monaynee, Makol, Hadji, Stephen, Mosquito and I- met on the beach just as color began to enter the day. What was just moments earlier a scene in grayscale beach now included a slight pink-orange, and a few minutes later the shallow waters offshore give the first hint of their screaming blue identity. The tide was still pulling away, but the pace was slowing and low slack wasn’t far off. Today, the boys were showing me how to hunt for octopus, Zanzibar-style . We took a long walk through ankle deep water, eventually reaching deeper water, and finally reaching the Gambaguru. Today there was plenty of wind to carry us out to the reef.

In theory, octopus hunting is straightforward. Bring decent footwear for pacing around on the exposed coral reef. Keep an eye out for all the damn sea urchins, because stepping on one doesn't tickle. Carry a couple pieces of bent coathanger and a spear. As an old Maine friend would say, make sure to bring Percy along (Percy Verance) for company during the search. Be ready for a battle if you find an octopus.

Octopus make their lairs in the nooks of the coral reef. They are cunning masters of camouflage disguise, shape-shifters, and I’ll make the case that they’re the strongest living thing, pound-for-pound, in the world.

Stephen told me that octopus tuck into tiny caves and holes that have a certain look, and that the first major challenge is in finding one. Cleverly placed loose rocks, empty shells (middens- the leftover remains of urchin or mollusk meals), or a tip of one arm is about all you can hope to see. Surprising even himself, Stephen happened to spot an octopus within minutes.

The second major challenge is getting the octopus out of its cave. After watching Stephen’s battle, and having some experience with an occasional octopus brought up on the longline in Alaska, there is no way I can describe just how superhuman the strength of an octopus is. We are outmatched 100:1 or more. Even with the unfair advantage weapons- wire and spears and knives- the suction-cupped beasts are formidable.

After five minutes of work, squatting in six inches of water, Stephen had only managed to get a grip on a single foot of the octopus. This was after poking and jabbing it in its body scores of times. After ten minutes, he managed to remove a second leg. After a short eternity, he asked to me to hold a third leg that he’d pulled loose of the coral. Stephen is a strong guy. From just one leg I could feel myself getting pulled toward the octopus hole. Luckily it wasn’t even a fist-sized hole. The fight continued. After a half an hour, hundreds of stabs to the body and legs, unsuccessful attempts to break into the from above coral and from the even smaller rear entrance, all but one of the legs were free of the lair. Still, it took another few minutes to pry the thing free. Refusing to quit passively, the octopus came out guns blazing, dousing black ink on Stephen from his neck to his ankles. It just missed getting him in the eyes.

I looked at the octopus in awe. This was a big one for this reef I was told, but still it was only about a kilogram and two feet long from top of mantle to tip of it’s legs. This one would have overpowered and outlasted me, so imagining what a really big octopus could do stretches into the land of myth and monsters.

Today, this was the only octopus that Stephen located before the tide rose and covered the reef with water and waves. Mosquito had forgotten his shoes (or had wanted a little more rest and had conveniently left his shoes ashore), and was tending to the boat. The other three men had managed to win wrestling matches with five octopus between them. Mosquito tells me that on the best days it’s possible to collect 20 octopus. Better eat your Wheaties, but no need to go to the gym if you have an octopus as a personal trainer.

Fried octopus is delicious and very popular both in Stonetown and on the east side of the island, selling for around 5,000 shillings per kilogram on the market in Stonetown, and more if it’s fresh. You often see men biking down the roads leaving to the Stonetown Market with a sand-covered octopus draped over the handlebars. Incidentally, octopus is also the best bait around, because it’s tough even after death and stay on the hook. They’re great hunters in their own right, the octopus, grow quickly, and are devilishly intelligent. I’m a fan of the animal in all forms.

Stephen's catch this particular morning will be traded for enough food staples to serve up the bulk of 30 or so meals, and a small piece of the octopus will also be bait to entice swimming protein aboard the Gambaguru in coming days. A noble cause for one stubborn sucker.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Eight of us met on the Jambiani beach in the afternoon and worked on shifting a heavy, half-buried seine net form above the high tide mark into the boat. This dhow of the day was bigger than the Gambaguru, heavier, and most appropriately named Doza’, as in “bulldoza’”, because it was capable of handling so many people and lots of gear. Filling up the ranks for Captain Mahamoodi were Pandu, Hadji, Ahmed, Ali (a different Ali than we’ve met before), Ari, Mosquito, and one pale-skinned accessory. After the gear, we all climbed aboard and poled out to sea, as there wasn’t enough wind to push the beast along.

The fishing council discussed options for the day's set as we alternated poling duties. The spot finally settled upon was about four feet deep, with a bottom of dark coral and seaweed. A big rock anchor and a large buoy, attached to one end of a long net, was tossed overboard. The boat carved out a broad U with the net, with the opening facing up-current and southward. The net hung about three feet deep in the water and stretched several hundred meters. Immediately, across the opening, a thick line with palm frond “brooms” tied in every three meters or so was laid in the water. These brooms serve to sweep fish down into the belly of the net, closing the mouth of the U-shaped set. To my mind, when seen from underwater, each frond bundle looked like an octopus in attack mode. Whatever it looks like through fish eyes, it was effective at turning the catch around and back within the cup of the net.

By now the water had dropped to around three feet. Between us, there were five masks and snorkels. All but one man jumped out of the boat and took up a position along the perimeter of the net or on the line between the octopus dummies. We gradually sealed the mouth of the net and continued so that the ring described by the dark blue net slowly telescoped smaller. Those of us with masks kept tabs on the underwater activities and gave updates on where the concentration of fish was. (I tried to help with pointed fingers, waving hands, and grunts of “Poa!”). When the net had been drawn to a ring around 30 meters in diameter, Ahmed and Ari carried over a separate piece of net- this one much shorter- and a black rectangle of fine mesh. The black rectangle is the final trap into which the fish are herded, with the aid of the short stretch of net. As the mass of fish converged on the black mesh box, its mouth is closed, and the bundle of fish is carried over to, and dumped into, the Doza’. Snorkelers do a sweep for straggling fish, and the herding process can be repeated if need be. Kelp and seaweed are sorted from the finned quarry. The coordination required for this sort of fishing is impressive. The fish will feed eight Jambiani families as well as their friends and neighbors.

The process was incredible to watch from underwater. Even when knowing well that fish caught were going to good use, I couldn't help but sympathize for individual fish as they watched their boundless reef paradise hatch walls, and for the walls to rapidly encroach on their freedom. There was a brief period of panic as they tried to escape their new foreign environment, but the black mesh box seemed to attract them like a magnet as a place of safety. A false refuge. Life for a fish is hard, with or without humans.

We made a total of three sets, and each set took around two hours from start to finish. There were lots of laughs all around- this was a feat of teamwork and cooperation, without oil and machinery to share any of the load. The second set was laid out in the rain just after dusk, and the third set was done by moonlight. I’d guess that each set yielded about 20 kilograms of fish. Sometimes Mosquito tells me that a single set will fill the boat to the gunwales (which I’d guess is several thousand kilograms of fish), and that the fishermen are then forced to swim home (smiling no doubt), and then there are feasts, spontaneous beach parties, and lots of fish for the market. The tale of a boatload of fish is the equivalent of the rare giant bluefin sunning himself just in front of the boat in the Gulf of Maine, the big piraracu biting on the Solimones in Brazil, the winning numbers on the lottery, guessing the day right for Alaska's Nenana Ice Classic. A rare event, almost a miracle, but the exciting thing is that it might happen any old day.

Attempting to prove my usefulness, during the second set I noticed a spot where the bottom of the net was hung-up above the sea floor. I rushed over to close the leak as a few small fish zipped out and away. Just as I blocked the gap, a large pufferfish was huffing his way to the exit. We had a showdown: my arm-flailing bravado versus his patient beady gaze. I thought about trying to push him back in with my hand as he seemed frozen in the water column. Just then he triggered his quirky defense tactic and inflated into a spiny football in front of my face. He and I both popped to the surface in surprise. I let the prickly danger blimp float away free.

Heading in by the light of a waxing moon, surrounded by happy shouts in Swahili, and now with wind to carry us effortlessly, I couldn’t help but smile like the rest of the gang. The passing rain had already cleared for the stars to poke out, and unknown southern constellations dancing out in the blackness. Once on the beach, Mahamoodi generously sorted the fish into eight even piles, after taking a few choice fish as owner of the boat, as is the custom. The group had automatically given me a share of fish, and this action meant a lot to me. Mosquito was quick to quietly dissuade me from returning my share back to the group, as he was eager to acquire an extra portion, under the vague promise of a grand barbecue for the mzungo. I never did see the the barbecue, but it was a fine trip and I'm sure the fish all went to good use in and around Mosquito's home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Passing to Level 5

When the wind is too weak to push a dhow by sail, using a long pole to poke along the bottom is the alternative. Poling is also the method Mosquito opts for when passing over the shoal water that makes up the barrier reef. Mosquito, Stephen, Ali, and I were going fishing “Inside” today (by inside, Mosquito means "outside"). Passing through the breakers can pose a big challenge for a sleek dugout canoe, and although I couldn’t understand the Kiswahili, I could sense by the tone of the conversation that the location where we passed through the reef was important. The day was quite nice and I myself was looking forward to a little splash of warm water in the face.

This timing of the pass through the shoal waters reminded me of the only video game I’ve ever played: Donkey Kong. To be specific, Donkey Kong Level 4, where the world is an urgent reddish hue, and you have to learn the timing and location of the deadly bouncing spring in order to time your passage and once again touch the princess (before the barrel-rolling gorilla snatches her from your arms and jails her on the top platform in Level 5). It seemed really hard back in the day. Needless to say, we watched the wave action and poled on through, to the vast fishing grounds outside of the reef. Real-life Level 5 is big. (Real-life video gamers are probably making fun of me right now.)

I’ve heard mention in town that the offshore waters of Zanzibar are especially prized fishing waters, coveted by many other nations, especially China. (These were Zanzabarians saying this, so of course they’re proud of their waters.) Apparently there is some alliance between Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa to protect their collective waters from foreign fleets and from Somali pirates. This is just intercepted talk, hearsay, and I haven’t been able to find out any details of this or any of the agreed-upon rules. Regardless, I doubted that pirates or fisheries enforcement would be interested in the Gambaguru. Today we’d taken a bigger sail for the boat, initially made out of sailcloth but well patched with assorted other materials. “GAMBAGURU” was painted on the sail, although it was upside down and backwards. Still, a badass boat name.

After spending the other day receiving harsh criticism on my fishing abilities from Mosquito, today was my day to celebrate a lucky revenge. Depending on a whole range of things, not the least being blind luck, two fishermen right next to eat other can and often do have very different catch rates. Of course the experienced fisherman is guaranteed to ignore and discredit all the physical variables that could justify this and will claim that the difference comes down to skill, even if he fronts with modesty. This is a global phenomenon of fishing psychology. For whatever reason (skill), totally unexplainable (skill), almost certainly because I was using a bigger sinker than the others (nope, skill), I ended up catching fish almost continuously (skill), while Mosquito and his brother struggled to catch fish, and Ali couldn’t catch a thing, gave up, and took a nap in the bow. I kept quiet but was secretly smug.

One benefit of this sort of fishing is that it was be very selective, and you can release unharmed any unwanted fish. However, here in Jambiani every fish is edible, and there are no rewards for beauty, so little was released, but none is wasted. Like the fishing inside, we eventually gathered a spread of fluorescents and pastels in the bottom of the boat. Octopus and sandworms presented in the right way (skill) yielded some tasty fish. Even with decent fishing adding up to several dozen fish, I’d guess that for every ten minutes of backbreaking digging that Ali had spent gathering sandworms at low tide with nothing but a stick and bare hands, we only returned about one-tenth of one small fish. Maybe we should all shift to eating the marine spinach.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Living Rainbows

The outer coast of Zanzibar, as mentioned before, is buffered by a coral reef running more or less parallel to the shore, a couple miles out. This reef knocks out any swell coming in from India, so inside it’s smooth sailing. The Gambaguru sits anchored in two or three feet of water when not out fishing. In fact, at low tide, much of this inside corridor isn’t much deeper than a meter or two anywhere. The water is absolutely clear, deceptively clear, making the jet-black sea urchins two meters down look like they’re within an easy arms reach. Most of the inside seafloor is bare white sand, mostly void of bigger forms of life, but where odd-shaped patches of coral and seaweed lay on top of the blank slate, life is suddenly abundant and flamboyant.

It was towards the darker patches just inside of the reef that Mosquito, his younger brother “Captain” Stephen, and I headed today. Traveling to the fishing grounds, albeit a short journey, was especially quiet and pleasant in the Jambiani-style dhow/outrigger. We turned into the wind over a dark patch that Mosquito selected, out went the anchor, down came the sail, and we were ready to fish. The secret recipe for success today: careful presentation of a #14 Royal Wulff pattern, two pound tippet, laid out by a weight-forward QRST5 sinking line using a graphite 5/6 weight rod. Just kidding. A couple plain old hooks tied onto hefty monofilament and baited with small chunks of octopus, with a small piece of lead clamped on a foot above, worked just fine. With a flick of his wrist, Mosquito tossed his line 10 meters away from the boat and let the bait sink to the bottom. Nibbling commenced. He set the hook, and in most cases a bright little reef fish came up on one of his two hooks. Sometimes he caught a pair with one haul. Many times the octopus had crawled away from its station, and Mosquito needed to rebait. Sometimes Davy Jones decided to keep the hooks. So it goes. You’d think Davy Jones would be sick of collecting fishing gear by now.

Here the three of us sat, slowly collecting a kaleidoscope of fish in the bottom of the boat. Mosquito tells me that some days catches can be as high as 2,000 fish, with a good crowd of good fishermen aboard, and when the bite is on. Today we caught about 40. Sometimes barracuda, tuna, and turtles, even the occasional shark, wander into the tranquil swimming pool on the land side of the barrier reef, but this day we only encountered fish like chang choray, mcheche, gowgow, cunday, chengua. Big scales, bright colors, and mouths equipped with predatory fangs or coral-crushing chompers.

We eventually called it quits, raised the patchwork quilt of a sail- a faded banner of advertisement for Zanzibar grain, Arabic meal, Camel-brand flour- and slid back toward the palm trees, which welcomed us with ecstatic waving. The darker patches on the bottom faded into white sand, and then closer to shore more dark patches appeared but instead these had straight edges and the patches formed definite rectangles. I hadn’t noticed the geometry on the way out. Mosquito tells me that here they cultivate a certain seaweed species (a marine look-alike to Old Man’s Beard) to dry and sell to the Japanese. “They eating like a-spinach,” he told me, and I could tell he was more of a fish-and-rice kind of guy. This side of Zanzibar must be damn close to paradise: the sun continues to smile, the trees are friendly, and there are thousands of rainbows swimming just offshore.