Motorcycling & Fishing down the Maharashtra Konkan coast – Part01

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Motorcycling and fishing have always been synonymous to me, one leads to the other, and the freedom they both provide will always remain unmatched. This travelogue is about riding down the beautiful Konkan coast of Maharashtra on a motorcycle, with a rod and reel tucked away in my saddles. Yes, tucked away in all readiness least I stumble upon a great fishing spot. The memories here have been painstakingly collected for over a decade and a half now. Those were the days, before the advent of GPS phones, when directions had to be read on an old map and eventually good-natured local folks had to point the right way through. While some of the places may have changed, I would like to believe that most of those places along this beautiful Konkan coast still remain the same. While I write, I relive those days in vivid detail, one moment at a time, when I would jump on my motorcycle and forget about the trials of a mundane life. Though these roads are long, every mile will clear your head. The one thing you can be sure of here, is all roads lead to the sea 🙂

 From Mumbai to Bankot on the Maharashtra coast

Bankot is a small sleepy town which lies on the opposite side of Harihareshwar. This town is based at the foot of a hill.  Above, on the high red hill covered with low bushes, stands the old, now much-ruined fort, small and square. There are two separate bastions connected with the fort. One of these called the Refuge, (locally called Panah) was built by the Habshi,  to guard the creek from pirates. The other bastion, higher up the hill and approached from the water bastion by 300 steps was built by the famous Angres. You can see this fort only when out on a boat or on the opposite side. Ceded to the British by the Maratha in 1755, its name changed from Himmatgad to Fort Victoria. Many centuries ago, Bankot was a bustling trading port that eventually fell into decay. Its shallow sandbanks at the mouth of the river made it difficult for ships to pass and the country inland was extremely rugged.  The chief buildings were the custom house, the traveller’s bungalow on the hill overlooking the harbour entrances and the residence of the Parkars, a distinguished Muhammedan family who enjoyed grants of land from Government as rewards for faithful services in collecting supplies for the fourth Mysore (1799) war.

To reach Bankot we took the turn off from the NH17 highway (now renamed to an unromantic 66, (which I will continue to call NH17, the Blue Highway) at Goregaon ahead of Mangaon. Country roads and Royal Enfield go well together. The road ran through some regular countryside and then climbed up some well-wooded inclines. We crossed the Savitri River at a place called Mhapral. This is the same river that meets the sea at Bankot.

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View from Mhapral bridge

A pit stop on every bridge for a “look-down” at the water is a must. A few snappers were sheltering in the green waters, near the pilings of the Mhapral bridge. Deeper down, I imagined a big old grouper fast asleep, dreaming of some rather fishy dream that only fish can dream. We saw the sand boats busy mining gravel all along the river, with their men and buckets going in and out of the water. In the meantime, a local lad got chatting with us and gave us some new directions – a shortcut to Bankot! The first rule is that shortcuts in the countryside are everything but short! We hit this so-called shortcut and discovered that road was in the process of being made and not laid. It was literally being cut through the mountainside by heavy machinery. Red mud and boulders were never a challenge for our Bullets (Royal Enfield) and we hit the dirt and the going got tough. To ride up that so-called road you needed a good sense of humour as our motorcycles bounced off the boulders at incredible angles. Slipping and sliding, we created nimbus clouds of red dirt. After an hour on this treacherous road, we reached the top of the hill and eventually found our way back to a tarred road. Spattered with red dust, we stopped for chai (Tea). The owner of the roadside tea stall was in an exceptionally jolly mood. After having a good laugh at our plight, he said that there was a shorter route up here. Alas! if and only if we had asked the right folks. With the tea tasting horrible and the scorching sun at its zenith, we wished that this tea would miraculously convert itself into beer.

The afternoon found us crossing the hill into Bankot, the view of the estuary from the top was breathtaking. We could see the river hurrying out to meet the sea, while its banks were fringed with mangroves. Further west was the white sandy beach and on the other side, up north, was the rocky headlands of Harihareshwar, another good spot for some fishing. It was a blazing hot afternoon and the fresh sea breeze did us good by reviving our tired and sweaty spirits. I heard John, one of the co-riders, shout out with glee “Let’s get our swimming trunks out and hit the water”. That really revved us up, we raced downhill hell for leather and into the sleepy village, rattling up the neighbourhood. Some lazy mongrels showed their immediate offence by barking. Further down the road, we stopped by a whitewashed Mosque and asked for directions. Here, I noticed that the local population looked pretty well dressed, most of them wore fancy branded sports shoes as they walked out after finishing their afternoon prayer sessions. Riding forward, this road wandered through the villages and descended downwards to the sea. At this point, the road buffered by casuarina trees runs almost parallel to the river, which makes this place a beautiful pit-stop and worth a few casts. We rode on until we reached the beach, then jumped off our motorcycles and ran to the mesmerising white sandy shores to soak in the view. The wind was up, creating quick, foamy waves on the sea that looked like a trail of white horses running across the bay. To the north, was the mouth of the river and to the south, further down the beach, was a cliff. This cliff has it’s rocky headland reaching right into the sea, making it a good fishing spot. While the casuarina trees that skirted the beach made an ideal camping ground.

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Bankot Beach

So we decided to the head off south, towards the cliff stopping for lunch at a small hotel in the village of Velas. This is the original village on the coast, two miles south of the fort, and is inhabited chiefly by Hindus, whereas Bankot is by Muslims. The hotel owner was helpful sort of chappie, however, was clueless about fishing. He gave us some helpful directions to the rocky cliff and then served us some piping hot chicken curry with steamed rice and an onion salad with green chillies. We washed the lunch down with some cooling Kokum juice.
Our hunger sated, we rode out of the village and came across a small bridge. Beneath this bridge, the dry bed made a capital parking spot. Here our Bullets would remain safe and sheltered. We then lugged our saddlebags and gear towards the Casuarina grove that lined the beach. This was a tedious task under a sweltering sun. Once under the cool shade of the trees, we lumped everything down and threw ourselves on the soft sand. Having lit a few cigarettes we watched the smoke curled its way up mingling with the dabbled sunlight that filtered through the trees. After the long ride under the heat, this lay-down under the silence of Casuarinas felt extremely fulfilling. Everything seemed quiet and asleep except for the faint metallic and rhythmic chirp of a crimson breasted barbet (Kop, kop, kop). The sea breeze continued its steady blow drifting us off into slumber land.
None of us wore a watch so telling the exact time became impossible, which in a way, was a boon. We woke up to an early evening, a perfect time for some fishing. While the rest of the gang cleared the campsite and set up the tents, I readied the fishing rods. A handy fireplace was propped into shape with a couple of stones. With a kettle of tea brewing, it was unanimously declared – we now had the most desirable camping site on this entire west coast.

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Our campsite among the Casuarina trees

After a refreshing cup of tea, we picked up our rods and dashed to the beach. The sand was soft but still hot from the afternoon sun, and we could feel the heat through the thin soles of our slippers. On the beach, we found a small fenced patched, which had a board saying ‘Turtle nesting site’(which I will elaborate on later).

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Turtle nesting site on Bankot beach

We walked across to the base of the cliff and worked our way to the very end. Here, the tongue of rocks reached out into the sea and the waters were a beautiful dark blue-green.The upcoming tide made it a perfect setting for a fishy evening. I remember Siegfred was only guy armed with a digital camera and was ecstatically clicking away at everything from rocks to snails. We started by casting out a few heavy lures and I also had a rod out with bait. An hour later we had no fish between us but a lot of photographs, which Siegfred had been shooting insatiably. With a bright flash going off every now and then, his photography stint was turning out to be an irritant. I noticed a lot of crabs and barnacles on the rocks, tell-tale signs of a healthy ecosystem. This reminded me of an article I read, which complained about the effluents from chemical factories that were polluting the waters further up the river. A sad thought crossed my mind of how this healthy ecosystem may not last forever and will soon disappear within a blink of an eye. And with the blink of that thought, the sun slipped below the horizon in an explosion of crimson purple and John hooked into a fish. We all rush over to watch him fight his fish. In spite of the rough upcoming tide, he skilfully played his 4 pound Red Snapper into the opening of a small pool and landed it. In the excitement for a great shot, Siegfred nearly dropped the camera and himself into the brink. He eventually did not get the picture, he said, “It was too bloody dark!”

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Fishing on the rocks at Bankot

With a fish for the pot, we headed back to camp. It was dark while we walk along the beach, debating whether a night or an early morning fishing session would be more productive. The upcoming morning tide seemed to be a better bet. Time and tides are the most decisive elements of successful fishing. I personally prefer to fish an upcoming tide, starting from the turn – low to high. This provides a wider spectrum for hooking into a variety of fish. Remember that different fish feed at different times, most of them using the upcoming tide to access their favourite foraging spots. I have also noticed that the actual feeding frenzy lasts for a very short time. You just get a 15- 20-minute window and then the fish move on. The outgoing tides have their own merits, especially an hour after the turn of a full tide.

As we got closer to camp we spotted a figure shuffling about our tents and we immediately made a dash for the camp. The figure just stood there and watch us race in. On getting closer, we were greeted by a smiling man of average height and seemed to be local. He quickly explained that the restaurant owner had told him about our fishing expedition and he being a fisherman decided to come across and offer some valuable advice. We got chatting at once, he started with tales of big groupers in the 40-pound range that broke his line and some even bigger that straightened out his hooks. He proclaimed that there are very big Barramundi during the months of December and Harihareshwar on the other side is a better place to fish for them. He got quite excited seeing the little 4-pound snapper that we had caught. I thought that to be strange, especially for a man who is used to tackling only 40-pound fish. I humbly requested that his highness should spend the next morning helping us catch those big groupers. To which, he gave me a rather evasive reply and pushed off.
The next thing on the menu was dinner. Before which, a couple of rounds of whiskey was dished out to the crew and this put us in better spirits. While cooking a camping dinner innovation is a must, then even the humblest of food take on an exquisite taste. When out camping we always carry a few pots and pans, along with some salt and spices. The snapper was first clean and gutted, then marinated with salt, fresh green chillies and a spice mix that I had pinched from my kitchen back at home. Lastly, a liberal dash of sour lime was sprinkled all over and fish was left to rest. Next, we cooked some Maggie noodles and punched it up with the spice mix and finely chopped green chillies. The pan fried snapper was delicious, its flesh was so delicate that it almost melted in your mouth. The taste of freshly caught fish has an exotic taste as compared to the regular fare we get in the cities. The noodles were spicy, and we all had a couple of extra helpings until the pot was scrapped so profoundly that it needed no washing.

After dinner, we lit up a small bonfire with the dry wood that Siegfred found in the nearby riverbed. We laid down on our mats enjoying the silence and there were many subtle sounds that came through. The creaking of casuarina trees as they swayed in the wind, an eerie owls hoot from the forest beyond the river, and the constant rhythm of the surf hitting the beach. The sound of the waves has a unique tone as it hits the beach. It starts down the beach with an initial thud and then quickly rises to a swishing crescendo as it crashes near you. I could see the stars through the trees, and this fuelled an intense conversation to galaxies, the milky way, and aliens. Summarising how insignificant our selfish wants seemed as compared to this beautiful and infinite phenomenon – called our universe. We chatted about a great many things until the sleepy yawns overtook us.  This reminds us of a beautiful quote from Jerome K Jerome,“Till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out – till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak.” 

We woke up to the noise of someone yelling, the commotion seemed to come from the beach. So rushing out of our tents, we found a man waving his hands and shouting in a desperate attempt to frighten off a horse that was in full gallop.  It took a few moments to digest this untoward but rather comically scene.  In the meanwhile, the horse raced passed us and took off down the beach. On questioning the man we found, he was the attendant who took care of the turtle nesting site and today is when the eggs hatched! As for the horse, the story goes that poor steed had passed his prime and his callous owner had conveniently left him on this isolated beach to fend for himself. Of course, over time he had become the locals adopted favourite. Today the little turtles were taking their first steps towards the ocean and the willy horse is best kept at bay. Unconditionally we volunteered our service, joining the legions of turtle attendants.  The little green fellows were just about making their way up through the sands and with a little help we guided them out to the edge of the water. There was one particular turtle who seem to be a land lubber and insisted on heading up to our tents. It took quite a bit of coaxing to change his mind.

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A land lubbering turtle

We spent that entire morning husbanding our precious clutch of turtles against the vicious crows and Bahramni kites. So engrossed were we in our task, that we forgot all about the fishing, and Siegfred about his camera. Alas, it was time for a wrap.  While we packed up the camp I thought of that big 40 kilo grouper smiling away in the surf, waiting for his breakfast of turtle pie. The fishing will have to wait until our next stop.

To be continued…  Part2 – From Bankot to the Lighthouse of Anjanwale

Karnataka, a great fishing and camping country

Here is a short video that I shot a month ago – in and around South Karnataka. This travel video incidentally provides some beautiful insights into lesser known backwaters, riverine ecoysytems, hills ranges and blue water islands. These places make for an ideal camping and fishing retreat.
I will write about them in my all-new & up-coming series called “Fishing in Karnataka”. In the meantime I hope you enjoy the below video.

Vengurla Rocks. The devil and the deep sea. – Part 02

Continued from – Part 01, Vengurla Rocks. The devil and the deep sea.


A storm coming in !

A storm coming in !

Some lighthouse keepers are keen sports fishermen and others like to fish for a meal, and then there others who fish to beat sheer boredom, of which they have in abundance.

Back in 1992, Hodekar was the Head Lighthouse Keeper at the Vengurla Rock; he was also a keen angler. He came from a family of fishermen and worked his way up. They say, a lighthouse keeper’s job guarantees lonesomeness, but for Hodekar it was a paradise in disguise. Whenever off duty he fished with hook and line, he kept it simple and mastered the art. Although, fresh fish is a welcomed change to a keeper’s monotonous diet, Hodekar kept just enough for the table and one meal. He fished for sport, always letting the big ones go.

Staying on this Rock, surrounded by some of the most pristine fishing waters on the coast, he studied the tides, watched the water, and observed subtle changes in its color. And when the wind changed, he knew which fish it would bring in. Hodekar taught his staff how to fish. When the Kingfish (Spanish Mackerel) were in, he showed the keepers how to skillfully wrapped their hooks with strips of white cloth and cast them out at the incoming shoals of fish. Hauling the lines back through the deep blue water, the white strips of cloth resembled squids, and Kingfish took them readily. One year just after the monsoons, while fishing with this homemade lure of cloth and line, Hodekar hooked into a Sailfish. Back in those days the Rocks used to be a seasonal haunt for Sailfish. Along with the Kingfish, other large pelagic used to come here to hunt the schools of sardines, who in-turn took refuge among the numerous coves and reefs.

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Waters where the Kingfish, snapper, barracudas and other larger pelagic used to abound

Hodekar saw the Sailfish come in fast, dispersing a shoal of feeding Kingfish in it’s wake. It’s magnificent dorsal sail-fin slicing through the water like a blade. Casting the line with precision, he got the lure to land just behind the fish. As he quickly pulled it in, the Sailfish spotted the lure, and in a split second with an enormous splash the fish took bait and steamed off. A tremendous conflict ensued, taking out many yards of the line the fish fought hard for four hours, non-stop. It jumped out and tail danced on the water like only Sailfish can do; shocking the now gather staff by its agility and size. Some off the keepers were afraid, for it exhibited strength enough to drag Hodekar into the water. It was about 7 feet in length and had the thickness of a man’s body. But Hodekar fought back with skill and stamina that came from a bloodline of fishermen. While he played the line out to the powerful rushes of the fish, the line burned into the flesh of his palms and his hands bled from the deep cuts it made.
It was 6’clock in the evening when the Sailfish finally gave up the fight. Hodekar brought her in and kept her in the water besides the landing steps at the bottom of the Rock. He said, the fish would be safe here for night and they could haul her up at sunrise, but in the morning the fish was gone. Hodekar had set her free. She was indeed, too big for the table and one meal.

Early one morning, to be precise 20th July, Hodekar had just finished his night watch and picking up his fishing gear, he set out into the darkness. Except for a light drizzle, the weather was unusually calm for peak monsoons. He stop over at Josephine Jacobs’s  gravestone – a memorial slab had been laid from where they drop her body into the sea. Being her death anniversary today, he said a quick pray and descended to the water below, via the steep steps that were hewn into the rocks. Hodekar never climbed-up those steps alive again. His body was later spotted floating some distance from the Lighthouse. Without a boat, and with rough seas, there was little anyone could do. The staff helplessly watched as the body drifted out to sea, and a blanket of rain came down and nothing more could be seen. Later, in spite of the bad weather, the coast guards and local fishermen conducted a daring search, but Hodekar’s body was never found.

Hodekar, died on the exact same day as Josephine. Was this a strange coincidence? What actually happened? Nobody knows. There were no witness’s, only theories. The rocks were wet and slippery, he could have fallen and hit his head on the Rock, this must have knocked him unconscious, and he drowned.

The weather being rough, a rogue wave could have washed him off. But, Hodekar was a strong swimmer. Often, just for fun, he would swim out half a mile to the incoming supply boat, and then ride back with them.

Another probable theory was that, somehow, he must have got entangled with the fishing line, and a big fish must have dragged him under. And there was no trace of any line or fishing tackle left behind.
During the monsoons, there are often sharks spotted around the Rock. They come here to breed. Local fishermen have caught them at 2-meters long, enough to drag 4 men under. I have seen an old photograph of a black marlin; about 12 -14 feet long, who had entangled itself in a net and was then dragged shore.

All these theories were born out of the imagination, but I feel somewhere, in one of them lays the truth.

Other mysterious deaths & disappearances

Some years later, a Lighthouse attendant by the name of Mr. Sreehari, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It happened while he was serving out his 4-month stint, during the dreaded monsoon. He walked out one evening on the pretext of getting some fresh air and was never seen again. There was no floating body, no shout of despair and no evidence whatsoever, to explain what had transpired. He just disappeared into thin air. The isolation and depression of being lock down on the rock for long periods, compounded by unrelenting weather conditions, could have strange effects on the mind. Or, was it another infamous 20th July?

Back in the 70’s, Mr. Bangalore was serving as a Head Lightkeeper on the Rock. Being in fair weather season, he took a calculated risk and decided to let his family resided with him. All went well for a while, and then, all of a sudden, Mr. Bangalore’s child took violently ill. When they tried to medicate her she threw up, exhibiting signs of extreme dehydration. As her condition worsened they put her on a boat and headed for the mainland. En-route, the weather strangely turn bad; the sea became turbid and the waves rose up so high that it was impossible to land. They tried the jetty first, but the sea there was too rough. They then headed for the beach, where the surf threatened to swamp the boat. After a few desperate, unsuccessful attempts to land, it was unanimously decided to turn the boat around and head back to the Lighthouse. It looked, as if the Rock was refusing to relinquish its victim.
On the way back, the child who was now unconscious took her last few breaths. And there, in the midst of those hapless and shocked occupants, she silently passed away. The next day the mourning party managed to affect a landing somewhere, further down the coast. Reaching the mainland, they gave the child’s body a decent burial.

In the mid 90’s, a similar incident repeated itself, replaying the horror note for note. Only this time, the lightkeeper managed to get his sick daughter back to the mainland, and to much-needed medical help, which saved her life. After this, no one dare challenge the Rock’s reputation, and although families occasionally visited, they never stayed.

Suman Kolwankar, a local fisherman, was out fishing early one morning in August. In spite of the monsoon, he decided to risk it. The wind was down to a medium breeze, but the water was still choppy. If he could get to the Rocks, he was quite sure of coming into the large shoal of Trevallies. During this time of year these fish were always found in large shoals there, and he would be the first to reap this fishy harvest.
4 hours later, found Suman heading, pell-mell back to shore. His catch, not fish, but three pale and frightened men, one was so emaciated that he could barely stand. These were lightkeepers, whom he had recused from the Rock after answering their distress signals. Initially, the men spoke very little and most of what they said was gibberish. They had ran out rations a week ago, especially water and had faced extreme starvation. But this was the monsoon, and the lighthouse is equipped with a rain harvesting system that could easily collect and store water. As for food, 3 months of monsoon rations, were always stocked well in advance. Why had the official’s on the mainland not answer their SOS messages? Why were these seasoned lighthouse keepers refusing to speak up? The facts were, that something out there had given them a serious fright, reducing them to nervous wrecks. Even to the simple fisher folk, the gaps in their story were quite evident, and with a little imagination, there was quite a different tale to tell.

A Fishing incident that nearly cost our lives

Back, over a decade and a half ago, in my early days of boat fishing, the waters around the rocks were extremely productive. In the early hours of the morning, at the base of the Lighthouse Island we used catch snappers and Trevallies. And in the evenings, when the winds were not too strong we took the boats out again and hooked into Barracudas. The fish hid in the waters on the lee side of the rock, and from among the shadows they used to lurch out at anything casted out to them.

Fishing close to the Rock

Fishing among the Vengurla Rocks

One evening in early October, we had a rather dangerous session of fishing that has ingrained itself into my memory. While out spinning from the boat, close to this rock, a big golden snapper somewhere in 20-pound range took my lure on the retrieve. It fought hard and tried to cut the line among the sharp rocks on the reefs below. This made the fishing difficult, and the men had to take to their oars, as there was constant maneuvering to avoid a cut-off. Eventually the fish tired out and I reeled it in alongside the boat. I remembered the picturesque moment well – the crimson rays of the setting sun reflected off the fish’s body, heightened its golden hue to a point that the Snapper looked like it was made of pure 24 carrot gold. Everyone on the boat seemed mesmerized by this potent hue and someone said the sea has a gold of its own.

Excited we casted out again and got another strike, and this fish ran hard. The drag started to scream the line out, whilst the sun sank silently into the sea. And darkness quickly enveloped the rocks, as if, someone had thrown a wet blanket in. I remember it being humid and sweaty; for that evening the strong westerly wind had refused to blow, as it always did. Without the wind, the water kept calm and this made good fishing. If the wind didn’t come we could fish well into the night.

The barracuda on the end of the line jumped out, creating a huge splash. I could see the silver glint of its long snake-like body as it tail danced on the water. And then, in its excitement to get away, it hit the Rock, cutting short it’s aerial sortie. The stunned fish dived deep to shelter itself among the rocks at the bottom. And there was a good chance it would destroy my line on the sharp yellow barnacles that infest these rocks.

These things were all happening fast and in our haste to nail this fish, we drifted closer in. That’s when a huge swell arose from nowhere and pushed us right into the Rock. I clearly remember, hearing the crunching sound of barnacles as the boats hull slowly crushed against the base. The men were furiously trying to back up the boat while the guy at the motor struggle to start the adamant machine. We could feel an immense and invisible force, it was, as if, the Rock exerted a magnetic field that was drawing us in. And as this happened we could smell a thick odor, primeval and animal like. It seemed to emit from the cervices within the Rock; there was no denying it. The odor was everywhere, hanging dense, as if, something in there was alive. A shout distracted us, the lighthouse keeper who had rushed over, had been yelling out something incomprehensible from the top. I can still picture his dark silhouette waving frantically.

The swells retreat made a deep gurgling sound as the water rushed back through the sub-terrain channels of the Rock, and out. The man at the motor heard this too, and taking advantage of the seas retreat, he jumped down with the steering oar, and pushing hard against the rock, the rushing water took us back out. And all this happened in pitch darkness. Before the next swell came along, we had managed to put about 50 yards between the rock and us. Here we floated around, trying to put our jolted nerves in order. Another, mighty swell rushed into sub terrain channels, exiting in the form of a spray through an orifice higher up on that rock face.

This up-close and deathly encounter had left the men terribly spooked and I heard them nervously whisper, “The rocks have come alive and the omens are clear.” The boat’s motor finally stuttered to a lucky started and we took the quickest way out of the rocks via the open sea, which incidentally was the longest way home.

The strong westerly breeze sprung up and we could feel the tide turn as the sea turned choppy. The hull of the boat came down hard on the clefts of these rising waves, spraying us with salt water, which washed away our sweat and we felt better, but no one spoke.
Looking back, in the distance, I watched as the Rock slowly morphed itself into unshapely mass on the horizon. I thought about the strange odor that had emoted from the Rock, almost animal-like in nature. Did we imagine it? Was something hiding within those crevices? All this made me too tired to think and I laid back in the bows of the boat and stared up at a dark sky. I remember there were no stars to be seen that evening, and everything seemed like a black void. Except, for those eerie flashes from Rock’s white beacon, straddle somewhere up, a 110 feet high.


Jagged reefs and rocks that haunt the waters of Vengurla

Jagged reefs and rocks that haunt the waters of Vengurla

I still visit Vengurla every year and the fishing has got progressively bad, to a point that at the present there is no fishing to be had at all. There are times when we draw a complete blank, not even a single bite or flash at the lure. The cause being – that at the very start of the season the trawlers over-fish the area and wipe out large shoals of fish. Whatever is left, falls prey to the locals, who now use dynamite on the reefs, instead of nets. The destruction is immense and painful. You are better of fishing at a local pier back home than here. At least, there, you may still have a chance of hooking into a stray.

Going back to the Vengurla Rocks

Going back to the Vengurla Rocks

I go back, not to fish anymore, but as a tribute to the Rocks. It has become a sort of pilgrimage to get on a boat and ride out to open sea. And as we approach the rocks, we recognize them by their form and call them by their names. On the lee side of the Rock, in the calm of the shadowed waters we cast anchor, and the gentle swells of the sea, rocks us into stillness. Sometimes, just for the heck of it I let out a hand-line with a couple of baited hooks. And as the line gradually sinks, my thoughts drift in and down; gradually merging with the fabric of the sea. And all those stories, especially the one about the young bride comes back to me in vivid detail.

In-spite of everything that has transpired here, I have become rather fond of the Vengurla Rocks. It comes to me, that this is not an evil place or a spot of unlucky incidents. It is just that, there are places far out at sea or deep in the folds of a mountain that need to be left alone. When we humans pry into it’s domain, there is a price to pay. And then, coincidences and imagination fuse to form a common thread, a sort of medium for reality to unfold. And, we then become actors, playing-out our beliefs in a self-created universe where Devil and the Deep Sea are more than just figments of our imagination.

Tight-lines!
Dean

Vengurla Rocks. The devil and the deep sea. – Part 01

Vengurla Rock Lighthouse during the monsoons

This story is born out of an idea I originally had for a book called “The Devil and the Deep Sea,” and as I wrote, I thought it worked better as a photo-essay. Where the pictures and text strive to create a sense of empathy for those lighthouse keepers, who have, through the ages braved isolation and death on that lonely Rock.

Being lengthy, I have divided this story into a 2-part series. So let the devil in that deep sea unfolds itself…

The lay of the land
There are places and things in this universe that inexplicably strange. When the strangeness gets out of control and cannot be understood we called it – the coincidences of our imagination. But there within lays the truth, disguised as fiction. And if you really want to seek-out this truth you will need to go away, maybe far out to sea, into the heart of a jungle or deep into the folds of a mountain. Places where man has little reason to go. And though these places are hard to find, they still exist. And when you find the imagined you will need to stay very still and watch, knowing it has lived longer than you and knows more than you, and know us better than ourselves.

A Dutch explorer, 300 years ago, wrote, “There is an archipelago consisting of large black rocks near the coast of Mingrela (Vengurla) about 9 miles west north west, the water there is deep and treacherous. For under the water, lie rocks that are barely visible. While the ones above, are large and have an excrescence upon their trunks, which gives them a semblance to prehistoric monsters, that lay crouched upon their backs. They seem restless as though their souls lay locked within and wait in anticipation, through the millennia, for the spell to be lifted. A local piratical tribe hides among them in skiffs, waiting to plunder the unwary. These environs are best avoided by setting course a further due west from the harbour”

vengurla rocks

Rocky islets & crouching monsters

From the first time I saw the Vengurla Rocks their mysterious aura fired my imagination. Some of them are large black boulders, bent over and full of muscle. While others are big enough to be islets, some are small enough to be just rocks, peeping out like jagged teeth from the deep. And yes, these rocks do give an impression of crouching animals. I have fished the locale for years, heard and read, some rather strange tales. And even free dived beneath, onto the shallow reefs that border the channels of deep water. Sometimes, coming a bit too close to their barnacle infested hides for comfort.

The Vengurla archipelago consists of about 20 largish rocks, and the smaller ones stretch up the coast to Malvan. The tallest island is about 180-200 feet and sports a lighthouse with a white fixed-light 110 feet high. Flashes from this light can be seen for about fifteen miles. All the rocks are quite bare and some are covered with clusters of a coarse tangled jointed grass. Being bare and devoid of water and vegetation, the Portuguese, called the Vengurla Rocks, Ilheos Queimados, or Burnt Islands. Before the ice ages, the geology suggests that these rocks were part of the coast, and stood like rocky headlands before the sea. Then those seas warmed up, the ice began the melt and the water rose, cutting them off and creating islands of their summits. Like icebergs there is a lot more below, than meets the eye.

Burnt Rock – The old Lighthouse
As you approach the islands from the East you will see a cryptic masonry structure upended on a bare rock, named Burnt Rock. This was the first lighthouse built by the British in 1800’s. Back in the day, the lighting apparatus that was to be installed, did not reach there on time, and it was then decided to burn a log fire as a source of light. And from the darkness came forth a large flame, a warning, to those on the horizon “Danger lies about”.

Burnt Rock Vengurla

Burnt Rock Vengurla

Imagine a dark moonless night on Burnt Rock, with a snarling flame burning above and below, cobalt black waters that were infested with huge shark, and barracuda equaling the size of men. An unsettling thought passes through lighthouse keepers’ mind that reads – ‘caught between the Devil and the Deep Sea’. The closest form of help is a treacherous two hours journey by boat. During the monsoons, he is locked down for 3 months (June, July and August) when the journey to the mainland and back is impossible. The sea then, boils with fury, and the waves rise to the size of small hills. There are eyewitness records of waves rising to 70 odd feet and more! Surging right over Burnt Island, submerging it completely. A few unfortunate souls, who had fallen ill there, have died from the lack of medical help.
Through the trials of time, this masonry derelict stands intact as a 100-year-old historical tribute to lighthouses all over the Konkan coast.

Vengurla Rock Lighthouse

Vengurla's New Lighthouse

Vengurla Rock New Lighthouse

The New Lighthouse stands apart on a larger rock called “Vengurla Rock”. This rock is much higher than Burnt Rock and this will hopefully keep the raging monsoon seas from washing over. The Vengurla Rock is pierced from side to side by a huge tunnel-like cave, and about, the middle of the island, owing to the falling in of the roof; a shaft has broken down into the cave. On a high tide the water rushes into these cervices and is then pushed up, spraying out from apertures at the side of the rock, like a geyser. This new lighthouse erected in 1931 by a John Oswald, who was, then the chief inspector of lighthouses. The Light Tower is entrenched on a granite base and sports a solitary coconut tree that has managed to take root among the stone. The towers precedents are surrounded by a few decayed structures. These were the homes built for the lightkeeper families, back in the early 1960’s. But, after a sequence of mysterious deaths and difficulties in providing timely medical help, families are now discouraged. The lightkeepers now stay in the bachelor’s quarters under the lighthouse, and do not stray far after dark.

Vengurla’s Bird Island
Towards landward side, and not to far from the lighthouse is another large rocky islet, called Bird Island. It gets its name from being a nesting site for birds, particularly the Bridled Tern and Indian Swifts that breeds of the rocks post the monsoon. This rock, beside being covered by tufts of resilient grass, gives an appearance of being whitewashed at its bare points; an effect of thousands of bird droppings.

Bird Island tock vengurla

Bird Island

About a decade ago there was a controversy about poachers scaling this rock to get at the Swifts nest. These nests are the prized ingredients that go into the making of the famous Chinese Bird Soup. After persistent pressure from birding enthusiast, an investigation was conducted. The authorities managed to bust a well-managed racket. Apprehending the culprits who came all the way from Kerala to pillage these nests, and then smuggle their booty out to the Far East. Finding markets right up to Japan. I remember that the National Geographic magazine had done a feature on this and also covered the Vengurla’s archipelago in a well-rounded article.

I have a peculiar fetish for lighthouses. Often built on a faraway rock or jagged headland, there is something unique about their stance that’s attractive. Like silent, ancient sentinels, they bear the testament of nature’s fury and flow. Some seem to be entrenched in kind of loneliness where time has lost its grip. Their clocks tuned only the rhythms of the sea, to its ebb and flow. Besides being maritime marvels of engineering, the function of a lighthouse runs beyond warning sailors of a potential danger. They serve as position beacons for sailors, and a few sophisticated enough to track ships within a 50 miles radius. To do all of this, a lighthouse varies its pattern of light flashes, so that each is unique to a particular locale. Some are even equipped with state-of-the-art radars. I have spent hours staring at these intermittent flashes, and, after a while they tend to synchronize with the beat of your pulse. Piercing through the poignant darkness these flashes are a welcoming sight for returning fishermen, who have spent days cruising the deep.

In the course of visiting these lighthouses, I have befriended a few of their keepers, and that has resulted in some interesting conversations. Often these tête-à-têtes were held on top, in the towers lantern-house, overlooking the vastness of the sea. From there the sheer immenseness of the landscape was overwhelming. Besides the natural beauty, the reward from these sojourns was an assemblage of rather strange and interesting of stories. Some were about big fish, while others were about strange happenings at sea. Freak tidal waves that have swept away the unwary, and daring smugglers that still operate in the dead of night. And some were nail-biting tales of ghouls from the deep that would make you renew your ebbing faith in God. Having given the readers a fair idea as to lie of the land, I will now relate events that have direct bearing on the mysterious relationship between this Rock and its lightkeepers. Where the dread of isolation, sickness, and death, is as plain a reality as the sea that surrounds it.

The keeper’s bride that never left the Rock
This happened a long time ago; back in the 1930’s, the lighthouse keeper’s newly wedded wife, by the name of Josephine Elizabeth Jacob, had come to stay on the rocks. She was pretty, and dainty, and was, extremely spirited for a 26-year-old. Leaving behind all her comforts and joys of her home in England, Josephine opted to stay on the Rock with her husband. She did this, knowing well that her husband’s professional pursuits of a lighthouse keeper will take them to some trying and desolate places. And the adventure in it sounded exciting, as it has always done so for the spirited young.

Before her arrival, Clifford ensured everything was as perfect as possible. The lighthouse being recently built was in mint condition, but the rock by its sheer isolation from the mainland had limited resources. Applying his final touches, Clifford looked out over the calm blue ocean and saw the dark clouds accumulate on the horizon. This omen clearly meant that the dreaded, 3-month monsoon lock-down was soon coming. The monsoon turns this sea turbid, and winds blow with such fury that most of the time there is a need to huddle indoors. Then, any journey between the mainland and rock is suicidal. Cliff pondered on how his wife, a young woman from a city, would deal with this drastic change of environs. Of course, he had disclosed the hardships of this venture as truthfully as possible and had even given her the option to stay back in London until the monsoon subsided. Josephine just shrugged it off. They were newly married and every day, and everything, and every moment was precious. The destiny of lovers isolated on a rock, day in and day out, was too romantic a proposition to pass upon.

The faithful day dawn, when Josephine and her husband took the boat trip across to the lighthouse. It was a warm summer morning with a clear sky and the sea was a liquid blue. In the transparent shallows, shoals of little fish darted around the pillars of the jetty. The boat cruised out to open sea and Josephine felt a sharp sense of freshness, like one feels after a long restful sleep. She could see the rocks in the distance and the excitement made her cheeks pink. Cliff was close beside and holding her hand, he looked positive. As they went along they waved cheerfully at the bunch of gulls that ambled about in the wake of the boat. It was all picture-perfect.

On reaching the island, a small welcoming party consisting of the few staff members showed the girl around. There wasn’t much to see on the bare rock, but the staff made a good show of the lighthouse apparatus, and its fine white-fixed light, 110 feet high. Cliff had put out a beach chair, the ones you could sunbathe on, and lunch was laid out on the porch over a checkered tablecloth. It all looked serene. The 360-degree view from the top with its immense blue seas looked liked a million dollars. A gentle wind made surf caps on the waves, and they rode like little white horses on the sea. Everything seemed almost vacation-like, this could be somewhere in the Mediterranean, and again it could be anywhere in the world.

The days passed on fair well. When Cliff was not working he took her fishing, and the snappers they caught made very good eating. In the evenings they sat on the porch with their tea and watched the sun set. The strong vivid hues of reds slowly faded to purple and then blue, and then they sipped wine, still sitting on their deck chairs, as everything faded to black. Moonlit nights on the Rock were magical; the dark waters shimmered with a nebulas glow. And conversations drifted to strange and interesting stories, some were about local pirates, who hid among these very rocks and plundered unsuspecting merchants en-route to Vengurla and Goa; then active seaports. When the dark clouds covered the moon, Josephine shivered at the thought of pirates. How this beautiful paradise could have witnessed so much violence. The first rains fell that night; the first drops tasted of salt and then gradually sweetened, heralding the start of the tropical monsoon.

As the monsoons progressed, the wind intensified into regular gales. Lightning ripped the skies open and thunder, which followed, shook the rocky foundations of the lighthouse. It was an awe-inspiring to watch these seasonal tropical furies unfold. At the times, the sea turned so furious that waves morphed into pyramidal watery giants. Rising up, with their pinnacles grasping out towards something unseen, and then collapsing back onto themselves. Grey was the colour, followed by deeper greys and then black, and the air was always filled with a salty spray. The mist from the surf enveloped and soaked everything. At times, the visibility got so poor that the keepers had to keep the light flashing, all through the day and night.

The stormy monsoons at the Lighthouse

A stormy evening at the Vengurla lighthouse

Josephine spent most of the afternoons and evenings up at the lantern room, staring out at the magnificent elements of nature out-doing themselves in strength and fury. The wind rattled up the solid glass windows of the lantern room while the rain lashed down with such force that no one dared venture outside. This, now, had become the way of life on the rock, and as June turned to July, the storms intensified. It was then, that this cloister phobic environment began to take a toll on the girl. It all started with mild evening fevers and she being a strong-hearted woman brush it off as a change of climate, and as the days passed by the fevers worsened. Cliff, with limited medical resources on the island tried everything possible to contain the fever, but the situation only deteriorated and the girl fell into a delirious state.
Sitting by her bedside, he knew that the only way to save Josephine’s life was to get her off the rock and to a hospital on the mainland. A task that was now impossible so they hoisted an SOS signal and shot off flares and waited anxiously for a calm day when a boat from the mainland could make the perilous journey, but there was never a calm day, and no one came. On that faithful morning, of July 20th, 1933, Josephine passed away, in the arms of her helpless husband.

The empathy for such grief is unfathomable. A new marriage, a new job and the new place, which had the promise of a new life; all lost, even before it had a chance to begin. And the grief on the rock was far from done. It was obvious that they could not take the girls corpse ashore for a decent burial, nor was it possible to cut a makeshift grave into the hard granite rock. The staff, not being able to dig a grave, pieced together a coffin out of wooden boarding planks and weighted it down with rocks.
In the evening, in the midst of a howling wind they said a short pray and lowered the body down into the sea. And the waves leaped out swallowing the coffin. Such was the suddenness of this act that Clifford couldn’t take it anymore. In a fit of hopelessness, he tried to jump off over the edge, but the staff anticipating this held him back firmly. While they pulled him back, he cried out to Josephine in desperation and it was louder than the wind, and the wind felt silent, and all witnessed this brief spell of stillness, as that grey evening faded to black.

Like it? Now read Vengurla Rocks Part 2Strange deaths and disappearances of the lightkeepers

The Barracuda Pond – An Excerpt from the series “Fishing Goa”

Goa Barracuda

Standing upon the grassy banks of the pond, I stared into its brackish green water. Everything was still, except for the chance ripple of a dragonfly dipping into the water. Being the start of June, it was hot and sticky, and I could literally cut through the humidity with a knife. Among the deep greens of the pond, something moved, and swam into the shallows. Coming up close I could see the dark strips on its back, and then a glint from its silvery, snake-like body. It was a barracuda, five feet in length, maybe more, and as thick as a man’s thigh! Shocked, I stared at this monster, as it circled around and swam back into the deep.

“What the devil was that?” I whispered.

“Those are the Barracudas, I had told you about,” replied Gus with an accomplished smile.

He sure did tell me about a few barracudas, trapped in a pond, but I wasn’t prepared for something this big swimming about in a green puddle.

“How the hell did they get trapped here?” I inquired

“Last monsoon when the river was in spate, its water scaled over the embankments, flooding the pond,” he explained. “Along with the water came the baby barracudas. The river receded back, but the fish stay behind, and feeding on the mullets and prawns, they grew big and fat from sitting around doing nothing.”

“Yeah”, I replied, “I can imagine, stuck in pond full of food, it’s like those farmed chickens, who are made to eat all day. Any respectful, sea-swimming barracuda would never get this fat.”

Gus is a dear friend and an old fishing-buddy; we met during the early days of my year-long fishing-sabbatical. Back then, when I was catching nothing he taught me a few local fishy tricks, and in return I taught him how to spin, and together, we caught many fish. Years rolled on, he stayed on in Goa, like he always did, and I made the mistake of going back to the city. He caught fish at will, and I spent many moons pinning about it. And Goa did him good, while the city made me restless. So being in Goa for week, I decided to take him up on his offer to checkout his barracudas, and while on the job, also smash a few beers.

We rode towards the backwaters of Britona on Gus’s Scooter. Passing the beautiful whitewashed church, the road meandered along the coconut trees, and the river ran on one side. Riding along, we were becoming a part of everything that was green and sunny, and it reminded us of all the good times we had. Back then, we used to stay up all night on Gus’s small boat, in the middle of the river with our lines baited with live Tiger Prawns, the ones they serve up in those fine restaurants for a fine price. Gus always wanted to fry the Tiger’s with a sprinkle of lime; instead we gently slip the hooks into the back of their tails and let them out. And when we caught something, there was always a lot excitement in the dark. Getting entangled in our lines, we ended rocking the boat and spilling our vodkas into the river.

White-washed Britona Church

White-washed Britona Church

This pond, or what the Goan’s called “Manoos,” was built with an opening at one end that let the fresh water in at high tide. This opening was big enough for the water and bait fish to enter, but not large enough for the barracudas to get out. And I think these fish stay back, intentionally.

A mullet jumped out to wildly escape from the barracudas and we watched the swelling bulge of the water as the barracudas attacked.

“Hey Gus, looks like they are feeding, I am going to cast and hook into a few of them”

“Try as much as u can” was his sardonically answer.

So casting a small lure out at the spot where the mullet jumped I retrieved the line slowly, in anticipation of a big strike, but the lure came back untouched. So I tried again, and then a couple of times, but the fat barracudas refused to strike.

“To hell with these lazy bastards,” I snuffed out.

“The are not lazy, just smart,” replied Gus “ they have learnt to be careful and to discern between a lure and the real thing. And, they have also learnt to bust our lines on the oyster infested rocks below.”

“Now watch this,” saying so, he threw in some squid from our bait box and immediately out of the dark green water appeared two huge barracudas, swimming very casually they flashed pass the squids, checking them out, and then, with a swift strike, they gobbled them up.

“Try that, with a hook and they will not touch it,” concluded Gus.

Fascinated, I threw in some more bait, and a couple of more barracudas came in, swimming with an unconcerned and carefree gait. Absolutely fearless, if coaxed, they would feed from my hand, but that’s an unnecessary risk you don’t want to take when it comes to a mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
Their intelligence, which enable them to discern between rigged and un-rigged bait, was quite riveting.

“Listen Gus, if they can’t be hooked, why wouldn’t the locals, not net them?”

“Well, wouldn’t you love to get into the water and lay-in that net” came another sardonically reply, “Recently, Bishop’s dog got a nasty bite while it was wallowing in these shallows, and that bite has left the dog with quite a limp.”

Shocked, I inquired, “Is it the same Freddy Bishop who runs the bar down the road?”

“Yup, the same guy and you have to try his Ladyfish fry and chips, he’s also got fresh crabs. We can grab a bite there later, and he will tell you all about it.”

Immediately, gastronomical thoughts of fried fish and fresh Crab Xaccauti, conjured up in my brain, to a point where a chilled pint of beer magically appeared under the hot tropical 11o’clock sun. And the pond morphed into Bishop’s cool balconied bar, and before the barracudas appeared, all fried and served up, Gus’s bark broke my reverie.

“Are you going to sit here and lick your lips or are we going to get to the river and fish. You know we can’t grab a drink till it gets after twelve.”
He had some strange rule of not drinking before the clock strikes twelve. Well as for me its always striking twelve somewhere in the world.

“Lets not fish today. If you don’t mind, may I feed the bait to the barracudas, it will be 12o’clock soon, and…” before I could complete, Gus started walking off.

“I am going spinning. You can feed those bastards all you want, just don’t get your fingers bitten off.”

So sitting there, I started to feed them, one squid at a time, and they came in to take the bait. There was no rushing and grabbing and mincing. Instead, they played among themselves, and passing the bait around they fed at their own pace.

Apparently, these fish were not hungry; they seemed bored. My “No strings attached, ” or should I say, “No hooks attached,” entertainment, seemed like a welcome change to their monotonous pond life . In the distance, Gus was busy spinning away; I could see his measured casts and then his slow retrieves. He seemed to have a lot of faith in the out-going tide. I know for a fact, that the Mandovi River is quite productive on an out-going tide. Though, the peak-time, to fish her, is at the turn of the tide, when the water lays still.
My thoughts drifted to the barracudas that we had caught out at sea. Some were 5 feet long, but never this thick. The fish in this pond were like you and me, city dwellers confined to our limited spaces, and the lack of exercise makes us all heavy. I felt good about the comparison, and sad, that I just had a few days left in Goa. So feeding the fish, I soaked it all up.
Seeing another fisherman walking by, I intentionally pointed at pond, but he waved me off with a smile, as if to say “I have been here, done that!”

1o’clock found us sipping chilled beer in Bishops balcony. It’s remarkable what a beer can do for tired man’s impoverished soul, especially after he’s had some fruitless fishing under an unrelenting Goan sun.

Bishop required no queuing, calling out to “Margit” his dog; he showed us a partially healed scar on her hind foot. It was quite a deep job. We said a few nice things, but this did not measure up to Margit’s expectations, and starting to whimper mournfully, she created quite a fuss and an ideal precursor for Bishops story.

And he started … “What da fuck man, we went fishing last day, and when we passed that Manoos, this silly girl went to the water for a dip, as she always does, you know how hot it can get in Goa, man! And those buggers came for her and bit my poor Margit’s leg.”

I interjected, “Did you see the barracuda bite the dogs leg?”

“Of course, what you talking, man! If you don’t believe me, ask Margit.”

We looked at Margit and she gave us a nod of approval.

“I ran and pulled her back, one more second Man, and my Margit would be in heaven,” making the Sign of The Cross, Bishop continued, “there were 3 barracudas, in the shallow water, what teeth they have man! Ralph who stays by the church, was also there, he threw his rod at those monsters, and his rod is still in the Manoos

A brief spell of awkward silence followed.

Then, proclaimed Bishop “When my brother-in-law gets back from the rigs, I will borrow his gun and shoot the bastards,” ending with a threatening huff.

Gus, giving me a wink, kept a serious face, I was dying to smile and I knew if I did, the barracudas would have something new to chew on! So, playing along, I kept a poker face, sipped my beer, and as the tide turned we graduated to Feni. It started to drizzle, which soon turned into a steady downpour. As the rain cooled things down we ordered more Feni along with ladyfish and chips, and chatted about friends down the coast who hooked into the biggest fish and how the locals caught nothing but plastic, and from the best baits to the price of Tiger Prawns was all incidental, as the moment silently faded into memories.

Staring out, from the balcony at the rain, I thought about the barracudas and how resilient they were. Surviving from little fry to thriving giants, they did well against all odds. And in that little pond their reign lies undisputed; commanding respect from man and beast alike.

Nature’s life force is absolute, and so eager to express itself even through hopelessness, it will, indeed, seize upon anything through which to manifest itself. Working indiscriminately from within a little pond, to the unfathomed depths of the ocean.

A sense of respectful affection had seeped into me, and Bishop’s threat of shooting the Barracudas was not quite the end I now envisioned.

Reading my thoughts, Gus whispered, “Buddy, before the end of next month, our Goan Barracudas will be out, swimming away to sea.”

“Why is that?” I inquired.

“The monsoons seem to have begun, and before the end of July the river will flood over and there will be no pond left, and those fish will then, swim free.”

“ What about Bishop and his gun?” I provoked.

Standing up on the chair, raising his glass high, Gus sang out aloud, “Here is my rifle and this is my gun, one is for fighting, the others for fun.” And for Margit, he sang it aloud again, this time in Konkani.

And we laugh so hard and so long that I could almost see Margit smile.

Tight lines
Dean

The Island of the Bulls

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

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.

light_house

The Lighthouse

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.

intro2

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

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.

The Cove

The Cove

“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.

Edge of Tongue Rock

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

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

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

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.

Tight lines
Dean

Island of the bulls

 

Writing again

Image

Its been a while since I have penned down anything, I mean anything worth your reading. So I started with my mission, it’s a thing you do when there is no one left to impress, nothing left to prove, no money to made, just passion and heart … and those are the things we must get down to doing. Over the decades of my wage-earning work as a designer I would, in times of particular monotony, push away from my desk and confide in my big buddy at the back, that I was on the brink of abandoning not only my job but my home, community and my entire life’s routine.
Ask what I would do and where I would go I would say with considerable conviction that I would start over on a small island in the South Pacific set at the center of the finest fishing waters on the planet. “I will” I told my sole listener, “spend my days in a small boat floating about in the brilliant blue where every now and then a fish would flash a bright silver greeting under the beautiful tropical sun.”

“Yes that sounds fine” my skeptic buddy would impatiently reply. “but how long would you do that before you get tired of it all and the whole cycle kicks-off again.” And my answer would always be the same, “I’ll try it for a good twenty years, and then take a second look.”

Each time I told that ritualized tale, I transposed myself to the center of a reefed water universe, alone with my fish and my fishing. And the fancy became a dream and all dreams dreamed long enough come true…

Cheers
DG

Hooked – Fishing in Goa Part 4

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.

Tiracol river

Crossing the Tiracol river

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.

Tiracol Village

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.

View from the top

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.

Rocky ledge with deep water

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.

The lures

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.

The diver

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.

En-route to the fishing spot

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.

The sand banks of Keri

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.

Third finger rock – the fishing spot we were head too on that faithful night

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.”

Third finger rock at night

“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.

Nostalgic & Beautiful Tiracol

Marine Predators of the Malabar coast of India & Goa

In this article I strive to describe the fish we spend hours, sometimes days at end chasing down, many a times they have eluded us but every now and then we win and success always taste sweet.  Through all these jaunts I have learned a bit about them and the more I learn the more I’ve come to love and respect these albeit formidable yet marvelously crafted creatures of the blue.

I believe similar species of fish behave differently elsewhere and in accordance to the environment they live in. I have based my observations on the fish caught off the west coast of India and Goa in particular. They are my personal experiences and you may have a different point of view which I do respect, I also respect the fact that like humans ‘no two fish are the same’ each has its own personality.

Below is a list of fish species I hope to write about and that can happen only over a period of time. So please bear with my sporadic ability to cover only a few just now, and more as and when I get down to it.
Barramundi, Threadfin Salmon, Red snapper / mangrove Jack, Giant Trevally, Yellow Fin Trevally, Sea Bream – Pallu, Grouper / Rock Cod, King fish / Surmai, Tarpon, Croakers, Scats, Queen fish, Sail fish, Black Marlin, Gar fish, Sweet lip, Barracuda, Bonitos, Wahoo, Tuna, Parrot fish, Cobia, the elusive river mullet.

Red Snapper /Mangrove Jack and Grouper / Malabar Cod.

red snapper

red snapper

These blighters are first on my list as they provide some of the most entertaining sport and are relatively easier to find. They live in estuaries, thrive in mangroves, love rocky reefs and are sometimes not adverse to aimlessly swim around open beaches. The Snapper is tenacious and unpredictable. Once he launches his attack there is no half measure – in short he thoroughly hooks himself. The grouper is happy gulping down anything and everything he deems edible, which sometimes includes things that are bigger than him. Once he figures that the situation is unhealthy – which means being hooked good and proper, he makes a B line to his rock den. If he does get home he spreads open his gills and locks himself securely between rocks, no amount of pushing and pulling will then dislodge him. I have seen my trace wires come back baldly mutilated from such engagements. Once hooked both snappers and groupers will tend to foul you against rocks in hope to cut off your line by diving deep and rubbing themselves against rocks on their way down. They posses immense strength but lack in stamina, not that u going to feel the difference if a big one is on the other end of your line.  I have caught snapper off the coast in relatively deep water and the initial fight gets you thinking that you are hooked onto something huge, the sheer power and brute force exerted on the first run is incomparable. They always come in kicking and screaming alternating with a solid but short burst of energy as soon as they see the boat. Once out of water the snapper tends to give up and die quickly while the old grouper will tenaciously hang on to life.

Mangrove habitat

Sappers love mangroves in fact they live, breed and thrive in there. They are ambush predators and love to hide in dark shadows underneath mangrove trees and rock pilings.  When a potential victim presents itself, a snapper literally pounces on it with amazing speed and agility, a powerful bite from the jaws and the prey is done for. The business end of both snappers and groupers sport a row of sharp teeth that can grow to almost half an inch, a powerful tail acts as rudder providing that instant thrust. So when casting for snapper try to have your lure reach right beneath those over hanging mangroves and into those dark corners, then slowly retrieve it at an even pace, occasionally giving the lure a slight twitch – this excites the fish a bit inducing a quicker hit.

Mouth of a grouper

Bait
Both fish feed on almost the same diet crustaceans, fish & prawns. But they are both extremely partial to squid and crabs. When it comes to dead bait squid works the best as opposed to mackerels or sardine unless the latter are extremely fresh. Most live bait is readily accepted. I have found live crab especially the black variety to deliver excellent results. Firstly it’s easy to insert the hook  near the tail-end (not the shell) and after that the crab does not slip off the hook easily; secondly once dressed up on the hook they live longer than most other live bait, third and most importantly with a little bit of practice crabs are comparatively easier to catch in the wild and will stay alive all day without a peep of complain.  Catfish infest the waters of Goa and I learned from the locals how to hook them up in the tail and present them to groupers, frankly it does not work for me all the time, but when it did, I caught my biggest grouper from shore – a 50 pounder! (Read Fishing in Goa – part 2 – Illegal Fishing at Vasco)

Red snapper on shad

Most lures work well especially on an upcoming evening tide, snappers and groupers tend to get much bolder once the sunsets, expect a frenzy of hits at twilight. But the Shad is the clear winner in the artificial arena. I think when presented well, it’s almost irresistible; the shad not only looks but also feels real. Both fish gulp it down which is big help in setting a hook. Another advantage with shad, that sports the hook on the top-side, is swimming it close to rock pilings and reefs without the hooks snagging up on them. I have caught most of my snappers on shads which also accounted for the big fella on the left, he was hooked from the shore.

General and specific observations
Just after the monsoons you will find juvenile snappers ranging from about a pound or two, congregating at the mouth of small brackish stream or pools.  I have spend hours at end playing around with them, they are extremely moody and at certain parts of day they shy away from everything, including a small splash of chummed bait while at other times they come up close to investigate. If u happen to throw a piece of prawn at them they will quickly gobble it up, attach it to a hook and they will stay away.
Once the sunsets, there is a noticeable change of behavior, they get quite edgy and once curiosity gets the better of them, you can then have a some very entertaining sport on light tackle, I would recommend using a fly here. Once caught, be sure to release these feisty little fellows, if u must keep just one for the table. Back home I have a snapper in my fish tank and she’s extremely moody – feeding veraciously on certain days and completely ignoring food on an another. There’s nothing much to deduced from that – except that unpredictability is a common trait in females of all species.
The Malabar grouper sport a beautifully spotted coat which is dark brownish in colour, there are lighter variations but they all built to merge perfectly into their surroundings, making them almost invisible to the naked eye. The Snapper is distinctly reddish brown and in some cases pale grayish yellow-ochre. They sport vertical stripes, which tend to further break up their profile providing them some extra camouflage (the stripes fade quickly once caught). I have seen snapper exhibit  colour variations depending on the background and temperament.

Spotted Malabar Grouper

In all – both the snapper and grouper are extremely adaptable fish inhabiting a wide range of habitats – from deep oceanic reefs to almost fresh water rivers. These fish have provide me with many hours of entertainment not just at the end of line but by sitting by the edge of bank and watching the youngster squabble away at hook-less lure.
Long may they live to see another day.

To be continued…

Hooked – Fishing in Goa Part 3

The Last Asylum
Polem, Goa

Polem’s secluded shimmering blue waters, thick jungles and jagged headlands have always held a special place in my heart. Polem makes a perfect fishing paradise; in fact it’s one of the last intact and unspoiled beaches of Goa. But what really makes Polem my favorite haunt is that it lies in close proximity to one of lesser known and extremely beautiful wildlife sanctuary called Cotigao WLS. The locals know very little about Cotigao and to garish tourist it’s invisible. The sanctuary boasts of small but cozy self contained cottages (I believe built more for the angler than for the wild-lifer). The staff consists of some warm and dedicated individuals who stretch themselves backwards to make your stay as comfortable as humanely possible but don’t expect any 5star luxuries!

Cotigao WLS

Cotigao WLS

After a long drive it’s a privilege to sip off a piping hot pot of tea and listen to last of the evening birds chirp their way into dusk. The sun sets as the cicadas continue with their unvarying hum, the last calls of the “Did you do it “plover backed with the bark of deer serves as a reminder – that you are now in the jungle and its dark shadows looming large all around. An old forest guard unhurriedly walks up to make conversation, firstly about the local wildlife and then by the look at the salt on your shoulder he drifts invariably to fishing kabbar! The cook butts in with his vivid version of a large grouper weighing at least 50 pounds – which he more likely saw at the weekly markets than caught. So on and so forth the talk continues into the night while the pot of tea is surreptitiously replaced by a mug of rum.

Polem is about 60kms from Margao and about 30 kms before the border of Karnataka in the district of Canacona. To reach Polem by road you will need to ride the NH17 highway pass the famous beach of Palolem (the name of which one must not get confused with) and then carry on pass Cotigoa WLS, 10 odd kilometers after that is a small right turn with a sign board on which the words Polem Beach are barely legible. Watch carefully or you may miss this turn off. There is fuel pump before you reach the turnoff and a restaurant or a highway beach shack which provides some excellent fried fish to be washed down by chilled beer. Having taken the turn off, a quick steep descend will take you down to the palm fringed beach, passing by few small tiled houses and a bar. Polem does not have a variety of restaurants or fancy places to stay (at least when I used to frequent this place many years ago, but sometimes Goa can change at a blink of eye) so if you plan to make it an all-nighter then you must carry your sleeping bag and enough of food & water, let me caution you before we start as there is a trek to be undertaken via the jungles to the headlands.

Polem Beach

Polem Beach

Once you find yourself on the beach there are 3 immediate options – Fish the beach with bait casters, I have caught guitar sharks and big rays here so front with some solid trace -wire. The second – go south and fish the rocks but be careful as these rocks are the size of huge slippery boulders with foaming white water at the bottom.  The third is north, cutting through the jungles in order to fish the deep waters off the headlands rocks.I prefer the third. If you look out to sea you will notice a small island in the center of the cove, this makes an excellent spot for a quick trawl and it sits in the middle of the tidal currents. I am crazy about islands it’s almost a fetish and someday soon I am going to camp on this island under a full moon and fish both tides thoroughly – I can just about imagine the water exploding with GTs and Threadfins while huge snappers test the drag to burning point.
Now that I have given you the basic lie of the land lets proceed to some fishing. Start walking on the rocks which lie to the northern end of the beach, be careful as these rocks are covered with slippery moss, and after about an hour of walking you will reach a rocky cove which is nearly abreast with the island. The cove sports its own small patch of sandy beach with thick jungle in background. Here is a fresh water spring close at hand, which makes it a capital spot to pitch camp. Just before the jungle begins there is a large shady tree and underneath here you will find ashes of old campfires and spare wood left behind by fishermen on overnight fishing sorties. I have spent many a night sitting around a camp fire grilling fresh fish. On a starlit night the sand on this beach sports a eerie nebula’s glow which is amplified by the surrounding dark rocks.

The sandy beach

The sandy beach

The water is averagely deep (10 – 15 ft) with rocky reefs, some that surface only at low tide. The best time to fish here is when the tides receding. I remember the first time I fished Polem was on a biking trip with John who’s an old friend of mine. It was about 6pm and John was out buying supplies while I pitch camp and watched a beautiful crimson sunset over shadowed by a rapidly building thunderstorm. I decided to do a few quick casts.  The water was an opaque blue green and I had on a florescent Rapala fire-tiger which was on a slow retrieve, suddenly bang! a Trevally  took the lure mid way and rushed off with the drag screaming, I managed to quickly subdue its run just before it got to those submerged rocks.  After a few tense moments the fish was landed, it was approximately 10 pounds in weight and I quickly chucked it into a nearby pool to keep it alive. On the second cast I got hit very close to shore by a huge snapper, he fought like a demon, rushing into the surf it somehow unhooked itself and dash off leaving me shaken up, it was a big one in the 15 -20 pound range, without a landing net it would be a hard haul on the rocky ledges. This was unusual because snappers generally hook themselves rather thoroughly, they attack the lure or their prey with real gusto, pulverizing it with a huge bite. That evening we had the fish for dinner fried in oil we extracted from some ready to eat tinned food and as a finale we washed it down with some famous Goan port wine. Next morning was a day of tough fishing. We struggled the entire first half without a bite and then lost a huge grouper which tenaciously cut Johns line over the reef. Finally we managed to land a 12 pound red snapper. This fish was caught in middle of the afternoon on the outgoing tide and I hooked in standing on a rather high rock, this precarious hookup called for some very quick gaff work by John who managed by acrobatically clinging on to a rock with one hand and gaff in the other.

The red snapper

The red snapper

Night fishing here produces some excellent game on bait; you need to use squid or some very fresh mackerel. During the monsoons I have seen locals using hand line pull out huge groupers, an assortment of snappers, croakers and guitar shark.

Leaving this pristine small cove and clambering over the shoulder of the hill you will come across a treacherous gorge. This gorge can only be negotiated by climbing higher up the hill and then through thick jungle. Here you may come across wild boar, the elusive fox, hare and I have even found pug marks of leopard, thou sightings are extremely rare. After cutting down through the jungle and onto the rocks  you would eventually reached the headlands. The water here is a deep blue reaching depths of 15 – 20 feet and churns around like a washing machine. Huge snappers lurk close to shore, at casting distance you will find Barracuda and Trevally. First and most importantly find yourself a good foothold, arm yourself with some strong braid (30lbs), double check your drag setting and cast out, a slow retrieve will work the best. I would suggest u keep ready a landing net or good pair of gloves as pulling up a fish from the turbid soup could be quite a task. I have caught GT’s here in the 10 – 15 pounds range and lost some nerve racking fights to what I can describe as monstrous beast in the range of 30 pounds and above.
One early November morning I casted out a plug right into the incoming current and as I just started to retrieve a huge barracuda ( 4.5 feet) hit the lure and ran off like freight train, as he tired me out and  I tired him in he suddenly threw himself straight out of the water with a  tremendous leap, this leap was so sudden and startling that I nearly slipped off my rocky foothold; of which the consequences would have been disastrous. After a lot of kicking and screaming I landed him. That faithful November morning we had 6 fish between us – 3 snappers, 2 barracudas and a grouper  in the 20 pound range which we promptly released.
Polem continues to be one of my favorite haunts away from Goa’s madding crowd and yes the last asylum for a fisherman like me.

Polem Bay

Tight lines
Dean