Standing on 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 a 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 a 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 of excitement in the dark. Getting entangled in our lines, we ended rocking the boat and spilling our vodkas into the river.
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 learned to be careful and to discern between a lure and the real thing. And, they have also learned 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 enables 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 Xacuti, conjured up in my brain, to a point where a chilled pint of beer magically appeared under the hot tropical 11 o’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 it’s 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 12 o’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 the pond, but he waved me off with a smile as if to say “I have been here, done that!”
1 o’clock found us sipping chilled beer in Bishop’s 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 Bishop’s 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 dog’s 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 with 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.