The Last Asylum
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 too 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 backward to make your stay as comfortable as humanely possible but don’t expect any 5star luxuries!
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 turnoff. 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.
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 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 6 pm and John was out buying supplies while I pitch camp and watched a beautiful crimson sunset overshadowed 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 fluorescent Rapala fire-tiger which was on a slow retrieve, suddenly bang! a Trevally took the lure midway 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 the 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.
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 reach 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 a 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.