Islands of the Bulls
Strange things happen when you out fishing, expected the unexpected. This story is exactly about that, a deserted island and a paradise for a fisherman, soon turns into a nightmare, haunted by charging bulls and blood thirst rats. Yes, fact is always stranger than fiction and fishing is never just about the fish.
It was a hot summer afternoon. Sitting in the hotel balcony, I sipped on a cold beer and watched the green palms fluttering playfully, oblivious to the imposing heat. I was waiting for the phone to ring; Ali, a good fishing buddy was to call anytime soon. We had a boat to catch at four o’clock from the docks, that would take us past the breakwaters and out to the big island in the middle of the current. Ali said we would need to get out with the ebbing tide before it ran too low, or else the boat wouldn’t make it pass the shallows. Our plan was to fish on the island for the entire night and if all went off well and the bulls don’t show up as we land, we could just about get a quick fishing session before sunset. I had double-checked my gear, which was all neatly packed away in my old haversack. The rods in their cases rested against the balcony wall. I poured myself the last of the now partially warm beer, thinking more about those bulls than fishing.
The phone rang. Gulping down the mug, I rushed down to the lobby. I had just enough of time to drop the keys in front of the startled manager and exchange some pleasantries. He wished me luck.
Ali smiled and asked, “All packed?”
I nodded and jumped onto his scooter. We raced down through the narrow winding streets and onto the jetty. I could see the blue sea and the trawlers, busy loading up for the night’s fishing. Some had just come in laden with fish and were sitting low in the water. There was a strong afternoon breeze and we strolled up to a fish auction nearby. The fresh mackerels were laid out on ice along with the sardines and squids. A little away off, in the shadows of a shed, lay a large Sailfish. It was deep grey-black, all its brilliant hues having long faded away. As it lay there, its now lifeless eyes stared back at me. I reckoned it would have been a great fight on a rod and reel. Ali came along with the bait and I showed him the fish.
“That’s something I need to catch,” I said.
Ali replied, “You’ll need to go deep for that. At least 30 fathoms, off the outer reefs.”
“I did not know about the outer reefs.”
“Not many do. It’s where the Kingfish are caught just after the rains. Let’s get going now, we have a tide to catch.”
Our boat was waiting in the canal at the back of the docks and we jumped in. The water was black with diesel and oil residue from the trawlers, the ebbing current was moving out fast, carrying along with it an assortment of rubbish from the city. This would all go out past the breakwaters and into the sea. Yet the water outside managed to retain its blue. That’s because the oil stayed back and clung tenaciously to the mud, and also to the feet of fishermen. What goes around comes around.
The boatman started up the engines and we were soon on our way. Moving swiftly along with the current we passed the docks and the trawler fueling stations, which were chock-a-block with all the boat captains shuffling in to fuel-up first. We passed the ship-building factory, with its huge sky-blue painted sheds which towered imposingly above us. I could see a half-finished hull of rather large tug-boat, while the sound of clanking steel pierced through, a crane moved about sluggishly, overburdened with a heavy sheet of steel. Welders worked in flashes of sparks and were precariously perched up on the sides of the hull, they were building her up slowly, one bolt at a time.
Ship building factory
We moved on, passing the huge boulders of the breakwaters. And then the breeze hit us. It was a fresh gust that instantly evaporated away all our sweat, making us relax. There were smiles all around and we watched the island ahead which just about another 15 minutes away, or maybe a little more.
I turned to Ali and said, “You know I am keen about the fish, but these stories around bulls sound quite exciting. And while we are at it, I wouldn’t mind a catching a Sail like the one we saw in the market.”
“I don’t know about the Sailfish, but you will certainty get your share of bulls if we land in one piece,” replied Ali.
“One piece! Are they hostile?”
“Yes. They are both big and fierce, with a hatred for boats. But I’m not sure if they hate us folks as much.”
“Why the boats?”
“It’s a long story.”
“We have got 15 minutes. That should be more than enough.”
Ali smiled as he stared down into the cobalt depths and told his tale.
“There is a lighthouse on the island. While it is automatic now, but more than a decade ago men manually operated it. A lighthouse keeper stayed on the island along with his family. The huts in which they lived still remain, though in a poor state of repair, to the south of the island. If we get a chance we should visit them.
And if I remember correctly, there was a coast guard posted on the island too. In those days the smuggling of gold was at its peak. The story goes that the lighthouse keeper had a friend on the mainland who owned quite a bit of cattle. They met every Friday, when the keeper came across to buy supplies and, of course, to knock back more than a few strong ones. We do not know whether it was the lack of fresh milk or the abundance of grass on the island that prompted the friends to cart two bulls, one cow, and a couple of goats over to the island. Its said the goats and cows went quietly, but the bulls gave them a hard time, they came in kicking and screaming.
All went well for sometime, the cattle took to their new surroundings and I guess the keeper’s family had more than their share of fresh milk.
“Then came the orders for the automation of the lighthouse. When its implementation was completed there was no need for the lighthouse keeper to stay any longer. Also, the liberalization by the government on the gold trade policy had nullified the smuggling business. So when the faithful day dawned, the lighthouse keeper, his family along with lock & barrel departed from the island for good. However the livestock was left behind as they had become quite feral in nature, and to attempt getting them on the boat was judged to be a risky proposition. So the cattle remained to roam free on the island, and become its new undisputed owners.
“As the years rolled by, the goats became fair game to the poor local fishermen, who developed quite a palate for the so called island mutton and its distinctive salty meat. This unique flavor in their flesh arose from the fact that when the springs on the islands had dried-up these goats had taken to drinking seawater. But while the goats became a delicacy, no one interfered with bulls. In fact, the fishermen avoided them. Then again years rolled on, the bulls grew stronger and bigger. In the summers they too drank saltwater, and the salt gradually made them very irritable and aggressive. To make matters worse, the cows supposedly died or disappeared. This made the two bulls lonely. They probably reckoned that the cause of their abject condition was the boat that had originally brought them to the island to suffer. Hence, the bulls decided that all boats within striking distance must be destroyed. So much so, that on sight of an approaching boat they would gallop into the water, ready for a destructive confrontation.
“Soon enough a few local nimrods on a fishing trip to the island got the short end of the stick and had to rush hell-for-leather back to mainland . And ever since then the two bulls’ reputation has become legendary. Now only die-hardy fishermen come here to fish at a cost of limb, or maybe their life,” with that bit Ali abruptly ended his tale.
I couldn’t help but smile, and so did Ali while our other eight companions grinned rather nervously.
Island of the bulls from a distance
My thoughts about the bulls were broken by a sudden jolt. The boat hit the beach and there was a flurry of activity. Some of the men jumped off, while others handed them the equipment. The engine was kept running, and within the next 5 minutes we had all our stuff on the beach and the boat scooted off. The guys were running at breakneck speed while carrying the iceboxes, tackle, and rods up onto the rocks. Once all the equipment was up on high ground with us, we finally decided it was safe enough to rest.
Men getting the equipment up in a hurry
I looked around half expecting see the charging bulls, but what I saw was a small beautiful cove, fringed by a white sandy beach. The lush tropical vegetation spilled onto the beach, a large Banyan tree stood out against the rest. It must have been over a hundred years old. The thick undergrowth was interspersed with bamboo and a few palm trees. To the south the land rose steeply, forming a small barren hillock. On the very top, where the land plateaued out, stood the lean whitewashed structure of the lighthouse. It was surrounded by a thick clump of trees.
After a while the men formed small groups and dispersed to their chosen fishing spots. Some chose a marked trail to the west, which mended its way into the thick undergrowth, while the others started off on a brisk trot towards the hill. I watched the men skirt the side of hill and then disappeared over the shoulder.
“Let’s get a move on,” whispered Ali, “we need to fish off ‘Tongue Rock’ before the sun goes down.”
I picked up my gear and start following Ali along with two other chaps.
“What is Tongue Rock?” I asked.
“It’s a rock that sticks out into the sea on the windward side. The waters deep, once you get there you will know what I mean.”
We walked briskly towards the West, the undergrowth started to clear into neat clumps of rather rounded compact bushes interspersed with larger boulders, around which we zigzagged. Eventually we crossed over and onto the beach. Here the landscape was different. Huge basalt rock formations were everywhere. Some were out into the sea like miniature islet, while others stood close by like carved stone monsters.
Being on the windward side, a cool steady breeze blew from the Northwest, as we made our way along the beach to a large undulated rock formation, that reach out into the sea for about 200 yards. And yes, it did look like a dark slated grey tongue sticking out, as if to mock the incoming sea.. Climbing onto the rock, which was about 15-20 feet high, we made our way to its top. The water below was a deep liquid blue and it got turbid as we got further out. At about 50 yards out I saw a rock reef peeping out of water, this could become a sure disadvantage when fighting a big fish, as once hooked it would run straight out and cut the line on it. At the end of the rocky tongue the water got really deep. You know when its deep, by the colour of the water and the roll of her deep swells.
There were a few chaps from the earlier group already fishing. They had their hand lines out and were sitting on their haunches staring tentatively at the water. Ali and I started to get the rods ready. I was fishing with a medium heavy tackle and was glad, as I debated whether to fish lighter.
At the edge of Tongue Rock
“Ah, here’s one,” I heard Ali say.
The guy on the hand line was hunched over and holding the line tight. After a few minutes he gently hoisted out a beautiful red snapper, about 4 pounds in weight. It radiated beautiful crimson glow as the sunrays glinted off its body.
I picked up the rod and climbed to the extreme tip of the rocky tongue, where the rock sloped abruptly into the water. This made my position extremely precarious. Nevertheless the water looked promising, its deep blue-green swells hit the rock with a sudden tremendous force. When confronted with deep water there is always something sinister about it.
I had on a deep diving lure, that if pushed would swim at depths of 20 -25 feet. I lifted the ‘light-medium’ action rod and casted off out into the deep, slow retrieving with the rod tipped down. I was anxious; something big could be down there – a large Trevally or Grouper. It could be anything that could pulverize the gear and me in seconds.
After my first cast, my confidence grew. The second cast went still further out. And then midway back, the strike happened. The fish hit hard, hard enough for me to lose my footing. My right leg slipped down the sloping rock, almost flat down, and nearly in the water. I managed to get a hold with my left arm while in the right held the rod, the drag screaming. The fish took the line out in jerks and then ran steadily. Not thinking clearly, I didn’t know what to do next, when suddenly I felt a strong arm grip me from above. Ali pulled me up and in the same breath he yelled, “Let it run! Let it run!”
By the time I managed to get up on better ground, the fish had miraculously stopped, after taking out nearly 50-60 yards on a light drag. I tightened up the drag a bit, and started to reel in. As I managed to gain a bit of line the fish took off again, though this time its run was shorter. The fish did 2 more runs before I had it below my feet and one the lads went down to hold the trace and lift the fish up. But on seeing the lad, it dived deep again.
“Don’t let it dive! It will go under the ledge and cut us off,” hissed Ali.
I lifted the rod up firmly and she rose. I could see flashes of white coming up from the cobalt depths. The fish did a short semicircle and the lad griped the trace. I immediately loosened the drag to get some slack line and he gently lifted the fish up, but it was heavy. Then Ali went down and helped them both up. We had landed a Finger Mark Snapper, silvery white with a tinge of grey. She was about 10-12 pounds. When they put her down, she thrashed about violently. Someone suggested putting it in the pool and swiftly everyone concurred. The fish was put into the shallow pool, its dorsal fins and tail stuck out, but it remained quiet.
Ali said, “It’s not often that we catch a white snapper. They are good fighters, harder than their red cousins.”
Then someone shouted, “Another one!” and everybody rushed to the action spot.
I looked at Ali and said, “I need to put her back. This is my first catch of the season.”
“Do what you want. It’s your fish. But do it before the lads get back, they will not like it.”
I knew what he meant. Picking the fish up, I realized how heavy she was. I put my finger in between the gills and went as close as I could possible go and then with a gentle toss, I let her into the incoming swell. She hit to water with a flat splash but the last thing I saw a swirl of a strong tail and the fish was off to swim another day. Soon the water showed no trace of what had transpired.
When fishing off the rocks for species like Snapper, Trevally Barramundi, and especially Grouper – remember you cannot horse the fish in. If u do so, it will run straight for the rocks and where it will cut the line in no uncertain manner. You have to let the fish have its first run and then with gentle firmness coax it back in.
If it’s a big fish and you try to horse it in, it will break the line or pulverize your reel with a sudden surge of speed. If you let it run too far or too wide, you risk the chance of a cut-off on a submerged rock or reef.
“Let’s get a move on. The tide is rising quickly and the Tongue will soon get overwhelmed,” announced Ali.
“Ali, does the tide rise drown these rocks completely?” I enquired.
“No, but it comes up high enough. And I think in the monsoons the high water submerges her. But in that season nobody comes here, it’s just too rough.”
We walked slowly back, doing a few quick cast at promising spots. Once off the rock, we walked across a small pristine beach fringed by a beach weed that grew profusely at the top end. The coarse sand sported a deep yellow colour and our feet sank deep into it. I noticed that the beach had an extremely steep inclined into deep water. This would be great for beach casting, especially on an upcoming tide with hungry predators coming in to hunt. Ali told me how he caught a 40 pounder Ray here on a full moon night, that took him well over and hour to land. At the end of the beach we climbed a small rocky knoll, which descended onto some flat rocks with a sharp drop-off. This was going to be our basecamp. The rocks were about 20 feet from the water, but I was told when the tide rose it would come right up to the top.
Ali, along with a few guys, got busy collecting firewood and setting up camp. I strolled on a bit and once out of sight, I reclined on a comfortable rock to watched a beautiful sunset that was just about to peak. I can never tire from watching sunsets – the beautiful ever-changing hues from crimsoned red to purples to deep uranium blues and finally the dark sea with a backdrop of a glowing horizon.
Sunset on the island
A voice broke the silence, “There are big Groupers here, ones that break 120 lbs line as if it were plain thread,” said Ravi smiling, who was on his way back to join us after his own little fishy sojourn.
“Wow! That’s almost as thick as a rope. To break that line they must be really big and powerful,” I said.
“Enough to drag us all in,” shouted Ali from afar, “They must at least 100 odd pounds, now come across and lets bait up.”
I watch as the guys got their hand-lines ready. Some of those lines almost looked rope-like, 80+ mm thick! They were baited with fresh sardine and casted close. I sat back to watch the action.
About 20 minutes later there was sharp shout that a fish was on and the man at far end rose quickly, anxiously holding onto a line that was fast flowing out. Others shot contradicting advice that kept up with the speed of the out going line. “Let the line go!” – “Don’t let it go so easily, he will cut you off!” – “Don’t slack up!”
Here was one of the big Groupers taking off, the line continued to flow out steadily, until a 150 yards was out, leaving the spool almost empty. Wrapping a piece of cloth around his hands, he tried to apply drag pressure onto the spool and line to slow the fish down. It worked for a few seconds and then the fish changed direction and started moving parallel to us.
That’s when we heard Ali, who had just return with a pile of firewood speak sternly, “Give him some more line or he’s going to cut you off on the reef.”
It was too late, the grouper did exactly that, in a second the fish was gone. The limp line was pulled in.
There was nothing to be said, so we went back to help set up camp. It was quite dark now, the sky was clear and myriad of stars filled the universe above us in extreme clarity. On a clear night away from the city’s light pollution, a clear star-studded sky can assume an almost magical aura. I could almost reach up and touch them. Ali had the fire going, and we all sat down to an early dinner. After the meal some of the lads sat around and smoked, while the rest of us stared into the fire in deep introspection of day’s fishing. My thoughts wandered, settling on the bulls – their lonely lives, them braving the weather and the storms that must be blowing over this island in the monsoons.
With these pensive thoughts I wandered off from the fire onto the rocks. It was pitch black. Suddenly a huge beam of light flashed past me. Startled, I turned up and stared up into the dark and then a second beam from the lighthouse followed. It lit up the surrounding rocks with an eerie glow. In this brief surrealistic lighting, I could see the place crawling with animals – and then it was dark again. Honestly, this fluctuating vision freaked me out and I quickly turned on my headlamp. All around were animals, the size of rabbits, scattering in the beam of the headlamp. I took a few steps back to focus the light and then one closest to me jumped down close and I saw that it was a big rat, a type of bandicoot. Hundreds of rats all around, the place was swarming with them. The rats did not show any fright, and they moved about causally, sniffing the air with their upturned noses. Disgusted, I picked up a log of driftwood and flung it at them. With a screech a rat jumped up and turned around menacingly, watching me through its black beady eyes. Slowly backing up with some quick footwork I reach the camp, shouting, “Rats! Millions of them.”
The men looked up with no expressions and then Ali spoke,
“Yes, this side of the islands has some big ones. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.”
“But Ali!” I explained, “These rats show no fear, one almost came for me!”
“Take it easy. They will not come close to the fire. But you need to a keep an eye on the fish in the bag though, they will nibble them down to the bone if they get half a chance.”
I could not get the rats off my mind and my imagination started running amuck. What if for some reason you fell among the rocks, cut yourself, and couldn’t move? These monster rats would smell the blood and be driven into frenzy. Being ‘nibbled down to the bone’ got a completely different connotation. Henceforth I have to watch my steps. If the crazy bulls didn’t get you, the mutant rats would!
The lads fished on and we had a few fish between us. Ali rolled into a superb fight with a big Grouper (20lbs) and landed him after a good 20 minutes. I caught a huge albino eel, he came in kicking and biting which just added to my now nightmarish thoughts. The eel gave us a tough time with its slithering all over the place. Soon its antics had messed up the line. We cut it loose and threw into the brink. Somewhere around 3am, we heard a tremendous splash in the dark. After having thoroughly checked out the water with our torches, we could still not account for its cause. A fine mist made visibility poor and a quick informal roll call was made.
The albino eel I hooked into
Ali’s larger grouper
At around 5:30-6am, the first signs of sunrise came in. Behind us, the sky from the east started lighting up with a purple hue. My night’s ordeal made me a very tired man indeed. The tide was ebbing and men were still fishing in it with unceasing passion. Three red snappers were caught in quick succession before we finally decided to call it a day. We headed back across for our rendezvous with the boat.
On our way back, we crossed two hills and then skirted along the beach. But there was no sign of the bulls. The men got a bit nervous though while negotiating the last part, which was through the thick jungle. Having reached the little cove of white sands we awaited the boat, while the men compared their catch from the night. There were about 25 fish in total, ranging from 4lbs-25lbs, the majority being Groupers.
Sunrise on the island
Half an hour later there was still no sign of the boat or bulls. To kill time, I walked up to the rocks, which formed the outer end of the cove and started spinning. The tide was really low and water close to the rocks muddy. I casted out into the clear water and did a slow retrieve. As the lure came in close I could feel it bump into the rocks below. I did a couple of more casts and with each retrieve I closed my eyes and imagined the lure to be a fish, a tasty morsel waiting to be plucked. Then it all happened quickly. Something gave me a tremendous pull and the drag started screaming. I knew I was onto something big. A good many yards of line was already out, when the fish finally stopped and I start to reel in. A couple yards in and the fish jumped right out of the water, a huge Barramundi with its silver glinting of the early morning sunrays. It landed in a tremendous splash. The men on the beach were on all attention and that’s when the fish jumped the second time, and then a third. And that’s when the line went limp and the fish went free, swimming out to sea and past our incoming boatman. I walked back. No one said a word. It was as if it was a dream, and tired men do dream.
Ali smiled, “It’s time to leave.”
We jumped into the boat and pushed off the beach. The motor sputtered to life and we left. I was tired and wanted to reach the hotel and sleep a day, without being chewed or rather nibbled to the bone. It was a lot to digest for one night. And then someone tapped on my shoulder. I looked back and saw Ali pointing towards the island. There on the hill with the sun in its face, a formidable statue of a bull could be seen. It was big, its muscular body was distinct even from the distance we were at. It just stood there as still as a carved rock, looking on. Then for a brief second, it turned its head and looked back at us. And then it was gone.
Tired men do dream. And all ten of us dreamt of bulls.
Island of the bulls