The Sails of Tiracol
If Goa boasts of deep waters, then it’s at Tiracol. Bashfully beautiful, with the river at her stern and the open sea to her face – Tiracol’s water is deep blue, at times transparent enough to see down into her cobalt depths. Sitting on a wooden stool with his back to the wall, an old seasoned fisherman recounts in a plaintive voice, “from third finger rock I saw them in the moonlight, their huge fin like sails, sticking straight out of the water as they rushed past, in those days we did not know what they were or where they came from, but these big fish had come here to stay a while, to hunt at will and then disappear – to go back from where they came”. The old salt was walking us through a nostalgic tale about the mighty sailfish that once haunted these waters along with a profusion of other gargantuan predators – ranging from the Giant Trevallys, Barramundis, and Red Snappers, Groupers and Threadfin Salmons to the mighty Sails. The story might seem a little farfetched but even today if you were to stand on third finger rock and gaze into the swirling waters, like I did – on a moonlit night with the salty wind in your face – you would believe… just like I did and believe everything else about Tiracol – big fish, folklore, strange stories – there’s a lot in the offing.
This story is not only about fishing and yet it has everything to do with it. It is about the outdoors, places, faces, the fatigue, the highlights and disappointments, which all eventually converge to shape a nostalgia memory. I have tried humbly, to highlight the little things that every angler experiences, when he picks up his rod and reel, and sets off to catch a fish. The fish of his dreams beckons him along, but it is the very essence of being one with nature – that is his ultimate reward.
We crossed the river at first light. The south side is called Keri and the north side – Tiracol. The crimson sky with its green purplish tinge reflected over the water, giving it a dark look. The tide was turning from low to high and the water was still on the ebb. The previous night’s sluggish current made the river look tired. I stood there in the cool morning breeze clicking away with an old SLR, but I was restless as I could only think of fishing in the upcoming tide, which would soon turn and come in fast.
“Ken what do you make of it?” I shouted over the hum of the old barge’s engine.
He shouted back from the stern – “Looks great, full of potential, I can almost feel the fish at the end of my line”.
Ken’s had 65 years under his belt and can walk many miles a day – but only if there was fishing to be had at the end of it. He’s passionate, easily excitable and has been a friend for quite some years now.
I lit up a cigarette and we drove off the barge down a winding road which had the river on one side. I could smell the brown grass on the other and it made me happy; the thought that I could get away from it all, even for a short while, made me smile. There is only one road from the jetty to the village; as you enter the village you pass through a time machine which takes you back a good 50 years – right into the Portuguese era, with partially cobbled streets, newly whitewashed old houses, the ancient church, all wearing a deserted look. We stopped at the crossroads and counted four bars which were all shut but come noon when the sun burns down on you, those very shutters would open and the aroma of fried fish would float through. That along with chilled beer and fresh mussels marinated with a liberal dash of palm Fenny would take centre stage – a much needed sustenance to recuperate both a tired body and soul.
I knew that if we stopped for breakfast we wouldn’t make the tide and there was no one serving breakfast anyway. We took the left road and drove up a steep hill until we reached the fort which had an imposing gate with a rather well dressed guard who was asleep in an upright position. The fort has now been converted into a posh boutique hotel, but such places hold no fancy for me. There is a small pathway to the right and as I scrambled up, passing Ken and the wait -a-bit thorns hooking into my rod case trying their best to hold me back, I could smell the salt in the air. Excited, I ran past the bend and was suddenly faced with the open ocean – it was like a benediction. From the top of this headland you can see the vast expanse of the open ocean and all the way down the coast – 250 nautical miles… maybe more and below the deep cobalt waters with three rocky ledges pointing like fingers right out to sea. These were some of the best waters I have seen in awhile.
From the top of the hill we made our way down to the water, descending onto the second flat finger-like rocky ledge. The water was deep blue and very clear, in fact at some places where it was shallow we could actually see the bottom. Ken got his gear out and went straight into action; he arched back casting far out, and then did a slow retrieve. The anticipation and excitement of a strike on the first cast was killing me. The lure came in untouched and then again with a whooshing sound, it immediately shot out to sea. While Ken was busy I was attracted by some movement on the far end of the ledge – a man suddenly arose from a hunched-up position; he was an angler dressed in bright blue overalls just like the ones worn by an oil rigger. He was bait fishing, so I walked over quietly so as to not disturb the spot and whispered “What are they biting on?”
“At the end of my line” was the sardonic answer and in the same breath his rod lurched backward and out came a palm sized bream.
He smiled and with a heavy Portuguese accent said “not big but very tasty”. I smiled in approval.
The Sea Bream is one of the most well flavoured fish I have ever eaten in Goa, in the monsoon you will find that they sport a layer of fat which comes through when you pan fry the fish.
He introduced himself as Santana Fernandez, an original son of the soil, but who now works in the Middle-East, drilling oil for a living. He was down on holiday and he had only one passion – fishing; well that ironed things out for us and we started to chat. Santana had caught many a good fish; in fact he’d pulled out a 30lb Giant Trevally from the very rock we were standing on. He told me about the very big snappers that were hiding underneath which wouldn’t bite. He spoke about better days, days when he never went back empty handed and there was always something for the table – Barramundi, Grouper, GT’s and so on and so forth. In fact on a good day, three to four Thread-Fin-Salmons were taken on the feed. But now for the past 5 years things were getting from bad to worse – the fishing was on a steady decline; in fact most days he drew a blank and it was only on rare occasions that he caught anything worthy of mentioning over an evening drink. Nowadays it’s rare that anyone else has a story about a fish anymore. In fact it’s a regular complaint – overfishing, lack of policies, the Government does not have the time or the inclination and do they even care? How many of us really do? Well once we go over the brink, we will probably awaken to an abrupt end… but it’d be too late.
I walked over to my kit, took out a brand new Strike Pro lure which I had planned to field test and carefully tied on the Fluoro-carbon trace to my 17 pound test line, while Santana gave the lure a look over. He carefully examined the shiny, sardine like tapered body, the hooks and the trace. Finally with a look of approval, we were ready. I was using a light, flexible, custom-made Japanese rod along with a beautifully matched Okuma Avenger 12 ball bearing reel.
I cannot stress on how important it is to have a rod and reel that’s well matched – not only does it enhance your casting distance and fighting technique but it also lets you cast longer without tiring. Sometimes that extra hour on the water makes all the difference. So standing at the edge of middle finger rock, I casted and the line hissed out seamlessly. On hitting the water, the lure made a light splash. I start to reel in slowly keeping the rod tip down; this made the lure swim deep. I could feel the strong action of the lure as it swam but every now and then it had a sudden burst of erratic motion; this is important to entice a strike. As the lure came in close we could see its dark profile swim deep through the clear water.
Santana said “you are sure to get one if only the time was right, it’s too hot now the fish will swim deep”. With that he turned, said good bye and left but not before shouting over his shoulder
“Fish in the night and you may get something… maybe something big”.
Ken was resting on a rock; the sun was now beating down on us mercilessly. I was just about to cast when I suddenly saw something rather large come up very quickly out of the water and then disappear. I shot out a low whistle to catch Ken’s attention and then all at once, in front of us a head with a snorkelling mask popped up, gasping for breath. Here was a diver with a harpoon gun right under our feet! He waved to us and shouted back in a thick Russian accent “not a fish in sight” and then plunged back. The last thing an angler wants is a diver with a harpoon underneath his feet; fishing then makes no sense. We watched him for some time as he skillfully swam about poking around underwater rock formations, occasionally coming up for a breath of air. With our luck out, it was time to head back. As we climbed the steep hill we could almost sniff the fried fish and feel the chilled beer trickle down our parched throats. The sun’s unforgiving rays burned the back of our necks, yet we struggled on, trading off an arm and a leg for a sip of that chilled beer, which later turned out to be a costly trade.
We made it up and back to the car fairly quickly. And just a stone’s throw away we found a restaurant that was perched on the very slope we had driven up earlier. On seeing our fishing gear, the owner, Francis – who himself is a fisherman, got excited and a heated fishing discussion on spots and tides ensued which ended in him offering us food, accommodation, fishing tips and a fishing guide thrown in for good measure. With this stroke of luck we settled in. First a glass of chilled beer and then a long shower; while I stood underneath that spray of deliciously cold water, it felt like paradise, especially after that steep walk in the sweltering heat. I couldn’t help but thank my stars for chancing across Francis and his warm hospitality. We had a grand lunch which consisted of fried fish, French fries and some tangy fish curry rice along with a simple green salad. The discussion on fishing continued and once more we were regaled with stories on the abundance of fish. When Ken lamented the fact that the place hadn’t produced a single fish yet, Francis stood up abruptly from his lunch and declared confidently, “Anthony (the local guide) will definitely put you onto a fish, and it will happen tonight!”
There was little to say to that but await the prophecy. So we retired to our rooms for an afternoon siesta. I left the door open to let in some gentle sea breeze and with that we immediately slipped off into a deep slumber. We awoke around 4 o’clock – sweating profusely; the sea breeze had long vanished and the old ceiling fan stared down at us motionless. The famous Goan power-cut had descended upon this quiet town, making it all the more silent. Thankful for the power shedding, we jumped out of bed, dressed up our tackle and rushed off to the river. Francis showed us a spot up close to the lodge, where the river met the sea.
The rocks there were slippery and the outgoing current was fast; I could see leaves, branches, logs, all the flotsam and jetsam rush swiftly out to sea. On the opposite side of the river, the low water exposed the sand banks. These were the banks of Keri – which were famous for its Barramundi fishing. On full moon nights, many big Barramundis were caught spinning off these very sand banks – which incidentally are still one of the best places to fish for Threadfin Salmon. I sat on a rock watching the ebbing tide while Ken casted out into the fast current. An hour or so passed by quickly. It is funny how time flies by when you are on the water and especially before sunset. I often feel everything happens quickly or is it the sun hurrying back home after its tiresome ascend from east to west? It was time to head back and it has always been and is difficult to get Ken away from the water, so whistling out to him, I said,
“Ken you do the best of three and then we leave”.
Three best casts, is always a good thing to do before you leave a spot for the day – there is no logical reason, it’s just a belief. On the first cast, I saw Ken stiffen up and knew he had a hit. I could hear the drag start to sing as the rod tip arched over. The fish did a long hard run and then again a short one. After that with each turn of the reel Ken gently played in the fish. I stood close at hand in readiness – to hold the leader in-case the fish showed early. After about 10 minutes, we were able to hoist a beautiful silver Finger-Mark Snapper out of the water, it was about 4 pounds, and its flat shiny body glinted against the rays of the now low sun. Carefully unhooking it, I let the water from the current flow through its gills. Once revived, I gently released the fish, it shot off – to live another day. With that triumph, we hurried back to the lodge, to meet with Francis’s fishing guide.
Anthony had already made his appearance; he stood up as we came in. In the candle light – the relief of his wiry physique against his dark tan spoke of many hours spent toiling in the sun. He had an honest face and I believe that at forty a man earns his face, whether good or bad. We shook hands and then got straight down to business. He gave our gear a once over, speaking only when necessary.
“Be ready at 9‘o’clock” he said and turned to leave.
“Hey Anthony, do you know anything about the Sail fish?” I asked. He stopped and his eyes lit up.
“Yes, but that was a long time ago, they came in around October, with the sardine run and stayed till January. We used to see them feeding in the deep waters off third finger rock.
“Did you try to catch any?”
“We tried for sure, but in those days we did not quite have the equipment to land them. Once a friend of mine hooked a big sailfish, it was a full moon night; we could see the fish’s big top sail-fin break the water surface as it came in to take the lure. After that it ran, until we were completely spooled out. There was nothing we could do; our reels and rods were no match for these strong fish.” He continued, staring off into the dark “I knew someone at Chapora, who once caught a sail using heavy hand line; the fish cut deep wounds in his hands. But now they are no more, I haven’t seen a sailfish in many years. Tiracol was an angler’s paradise, but now it’s all lost”, with that he concluded his conversation and left.
We had a quick dinner and started assembling our gear – torches, kit bags, etc. getting ready for what they call an “all -nighter” of fishing. Francis, who’d decided to accompany us, sneaked some fresh squid as bait from the kitchen.
At 9 o’clock sharp, Anthony arrived out of the dark with his fishing rods and armed with a head lamp which was switched off. He obviously knew the terrain so well that he had no need for light. So our party of four set off accompanied by a couple of local mongrels, who came along to watch the fun. With Anthony in the lead, it was a silent trek through the jungles. The air felt crisp, mixed with a strong assortment of jungle fragrances. I noticed that there was no moon, just myriads of stars that twinkled above in the clear, steel grey sky. We reached a plateau on the top of the hill, here the jungle thinned off and land was interspersed with fields. Francis mentioned that he owned quite a bit of property up here and during the monsoon when the fields were in cultivation, wild boars, civet cats and foxes were a common sight, as they came in to raid the crops. Ken nervously glanced around adjusting his torch beam. After a while Anthony took a sharp left and as we took the turn we were faced with a sharp drop off. Down below we could see the dark rocks and the white surf breaking on the rocks. This descent was a tricky one, with Anthony again in the lead, followed by Ken, Francis and me bringing up the rear.
Every one of us was slowly making our way down with rods in one hand and the other clutching onto anything we could get a hold on – the bushes, rocks. I don’t remember exactly what happened but somewhere towards the bottom, I miscalculated my step and slipped, the next moment I felt the sharp twist of my ankle. There was a rush of intense pain and a sinking feeling that something was seriously wrong. With my adrenalin pumping I straightened up and took a few steps, at first I felt nothing but then the pain came back in waves of increasing intensity. Using the rod butt as support I made it down and onto the rocks. The party below was waiting for me, I immediately sat down inserting my ankle into a pool of cool sea water, I then confided to the group about my twisted ankle. Francis quickly suggested that we crepe up the ankle with Kens cloth rod case. In the process of doing so we saw that my ankle had turned blue with a serious swelling, this clearly was a concern to everyone.
To diffuse the situation I said “Why don’t you guys fish, while I take some rest?”
“It’s a long way back, and this ankle does not look too good” said Ken
“At this point I think some rest would do me good, we came to fish so let’s fish”
Anthony and Ken went off down the third finger rock to spin off the edge. I couldn’t do much so Francis helped me get a bait rod ready using the squid and we casted off the rock. As the line went out, the water below seemed fairly deep. Firmly jamming the rod between my thigh and the rocks I lit up a cigarette and took stock of the situation. In the starlight I could make out the dark silhouette of Third Finger Rocks undulated formation point out to sea. The wind had picked up, and every now and then I could feel the spray of salt water on my face as the upcoming tide surged in.
I said “Francis, this sure looks like sailfish country, the water here must be deep”
“Very deep” was the answer and he continued “We used to catch big snappers here on squid, sometimes they were so heavy that we could not pull them up on the ledge, the hand lines used to cut in to our palms. Then we used to tie wrap cloth around the line and then pull them up.”
I said “ Sure thing, this spot has certainly got a strong aura”
“Yes it does, there is also a cave, not far from here, in fact it’s at the bottom right of the path where you sprained your ankle”
“Francis tell me more about this cave, is it a deep one?”
In a plaintive voice he then started narrating a rather strange story “Some years ago and all the way from Belgaum, two young Muslim men used to come here to fish, in fact they were very skilled fishermen. They used to collect their food and supplies from my lodge and then come across and stay here in this cave. When they had a good catch they used to present me with a fish or two. After a while they started to get their families along, to camp out in the cave, staying there for almost a week. They were a nice lot, always stopping over to collect their food and water supplies and also to have a short chat with me.
Then late one night I heard some loud banging on my front door, I being a light sleeper, quickly got up, arming myself with a stout lathi and went to see what the ruckus was all about. On opening the door, I found my Muslim friends, in-fact the entire family panting away in perspiration and looking terribly scared. After making them comfortable and offering them some hot tea, I inquired what made them desert their camp in such a hurry. They said that after some late night fishing, the entire family had assembled in the main part of the cave with the intention to call it a day. Just as they were about to snuggle in, the youngest child spotted something with a nebulous glow, floating about near the entrance of the cave? Soon everyone was wide awake and watched horrified as the nebulous glow started to take the form and shape of a young woman, whose head hung down with a rope round her neck. That was all they could take and in unison the entire family took to their heels.”
“Very interesting story Francis, but if the ghost of that woman made an appearance right now, I wouldn’t be in a position to do much, not even swim”
At this comment, Francis looked visibly hurt and said plainly “I just told you the story, as it was said to me”
I tried to salvage the situation, saying “I absolutely believe you, in fact all this makes good material for a story that I may want to pen down someday and even mention you as a part of this escapade”
That got a smile on Francis’s face, he got up and walked ahead to see how the others were faring. The condition of my ankle was not looking good; in fact it was deteriorating. With this current predicament, I wondered how I would ever make it back and I must confess – that the thought of Francis’s nebula woman floating around was quite discomfiting. At that very moment I felt an immense tug on the rod and as I turned around, the sudden shift of my ankle made me scream in pain. There was something big on the other end and it was quickly taking yards of line from the spool in quick bursts. Armed with the heavy Penn Conquer 8000, boasting 50lb braid and a strong Rapala boat rod, I confidently tugged hard to set the hook and possibly stop the run. But that had no effect on the fish!
The line just kept going out. In desperation I tightened up the drag ever so slightly, slowly pumping the rod, at which the fish showed signs of relenting. I started to get back some line. With my hands occupied and my headlamp off, I was doing all this in the blind. But then there was another stronger run and the fish started taking off the line faster than before. From the way it dived I instantly knew it was a rock cod in the 30 pound rage. And I also knew for sure that if I didn’t get it to surface soon, the chances of the fish snagging the line down on the sharp reefs below were high. While this tug-o-war was on, the tide started to rise dangerously close to my rocky perch. I shouted out for Francis, then for Anthony and again for Ken, but there was no response. The sound of the thrashing waves drowned out everything. The fish had started to tire and was circling around close when I managed to turn my headlamp on. That was when Francis suddenly showed up.
“Have you hooked something” he said.
“Yes, yes and it’s big” I cried out.
“Give me the rod, let me land it”
“No, I will manage, the fish is down below, but there is no chance of us hoisting it up this rocky ledge, so go and get Anthony”
On the side the fish was, the ledge was at least 8 feet from the water below. Shuffling over closer to the edge, I peeped below. Through the surf, the light of my headlamp faintly revealed the huge brownish body of the struggling fish; at that moment I nearly lost my grip on the rod. I quickly sat back and started slowly guiding the fish around in small circles, but never letting it dive deep. By now the rest of the crew had arrived and were anxiously shouting out advice, sometimes contradicting each other. I hung on to the rod while Anthony was looking for a foot hold to get down below. All of a sudden, I felt the line go limp and the sinking feeling that something was wrong! The fish was off, the end was sudden. So close, yet so far, separated just by eight feet.
“Francis here take the rod, it’s all over”
“Damn it! Have we lost the fish” said Ken
“Yes, it’s gone, the hook slipped off”
There was nothing much to say, I leaned back to have a smoke. There was a feeling of relief that came over me. With the fish gone, my ankle pain was back with renewed intensity. It was unanimously decided that we should leave. Anthony and Ken crafted a pair of make-do crutches out of a fishing gaff and some sticks, and so began the long and arduous return. I will spare my readers all the anxiety that I experienced ascending that steep cliff. Anthony was by my side, gently coaxing me along and after much pushing and shoving I made it to the top.
Asking the rest to carry on, Anthony and I sat down at the top to have a rest. We gazed below into the dark abyss from which we had just ascended, while from above the stars twinkled back at us unassumingly. I thought about the sail fish and their free spirit, their ability to roam the oceans at will. I thought about fishing and all the risks we take, the geometry of chance which even knowledge and the best equipment cannot surmount. That’s fishing, and its very nature of unpredictability is what draws us to the sport. And we must never get bigger than the sport.
“Anthony, will the sailfish ever come back”
“I don’t know, maybe they will, maybe not, but will you ever come back?”
“Definitely I will! For there is a sail to catch”
“You may then need to catch some breeze first” he said with a broad smile.