Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Writing in his memoirs in 1909, Charles Frederick Holder described, in heart-stopping detail, the moment his fishing boat was forcibly capsized in shark-infested waters. A nearby boat managed to rescue Holder who, although an able swimmer, was being drowned by his heavy corduroy suit. Holder’s boatman, Jim Gardner, however, was not so lucky. Holder looked on in horror as Gardner was repeatedly dragged beneath the waves, reappearing for split seconds above the water, all across the horizon. Holder’s boatman was being mauled. However, in a brief moment of resurfacing, Holder thought he could make out a grin on the boatman’s face. Holder summoned up his courage, dived back into the water and began to swim towards Gardner shouting, “Hold on, I’m coming!”
“Hurry!” Came the boatman’s reply. “I’ve got your tuna, sir!”
Such is the epic nature of fishing that it has generated more great literature than any other sport (that I can think of). Anton Chekov, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver all loved to fish and have written famous tales about their exploits. In one epic true-to-life tale, Georgina Ballantine, a Scottish gamekeeper’s daughter, writes about the day she caught the largest fresh-run salmon in British history - a record that she still holds almost a century later.
Fishing and literature are a timeless combination in that each practice encapsulates, both literally and metaphorically, humanity’s struggle for existence in the natural, unforgiving world. Fishing exemplifies the ‘test of character’ and, as such, provides endless material for writers studying the human condition. Perhaps that’s why so many great authors love to fish.
But what about booksellers?
Gathered on the jetty before me are around ten eager amateurs along with four seasoned fisherman. The sun is setting and the water is calm; the wind is still and the tide is high. The conditions are perfect.
In all, over a thousand different fish are known to inhabit the waters of the Maldives Archipelago. The fish can be fundamentally divided into two main taxonomic groups: the cartilaginous fish that includes sharks, rays and skates; and the bony fish that includes perch-like fish, scorpionfish, pipefish, and pufferfish.
Fishing for the cartilaginous group is, today, both rare and illegal; however, the practice used to be commonplace. Before the ban on shark fishing, the traditional way to catch whale sharks was by thrusting a large hook on the end of pole into the shark’s gaping mouth as it came up to the surface. The shark was then allowed to tow the fishing vessel around until exhaustion set in. When the shark gave up the fight, a knife was thrust through the top of its head and into its brain.
While the practice of shark fishing has all but disappeared, fishing for mantra rays has increased dramatically. The manta rays’ gill plates are now commodities prized by the Chinese ‘traditional medicine’ business and the manta population is suffering accordingly.
But today is a day of sustainable fishing. Line and reel, fresh bait, bony fish only.
Iqbal, the island’s Imam and our de facto captain, is my instructor and hands me the gear. It’s as simple as can be: a thin plastic wire with a weight and a long hook on the end, wrapped around a piece of plastic that looks like a frisbee.
The sun is a burning red, salt hangs in the air and soon we are hauling up blue-fin tunas, black jacks, rainbow runners and sweetlips. Fish are being piled into the box, dinner discussions break out and the mood on the boat becomes one of boisterous camaraderie.
As time ebbs on and the sun sinks low behind the horizon, I (as per usual) have not caught a fish. As I look back on my fishing memories, I realise I’ve never caught anything but mackerel. And even then I only tied the line to the boat - I didn’t even put the bait on myself.
Suddenly, however, I feel something and begin to haul in the line. My forearms, strengthened to Herculean proportions by turning many a page, begin to strain. Sweat gathers on my brow. After what seems like hours of battle, the shimmer of the weight becomes visible below the surface and I’m ready to bring the beast from the water. The spectators are gripped with anticipation. What will it be? A snapper? A jobfish? A shark?
It’s a small eel. A writhing mass of putrid muscle, just under a metre long, has wrapped itself around the line. It’s not even taken the bait - the tuna chunk and the hook hang below as useless as the fisherman they belong to. I’m disappointed. In fact, everyone’s disappointed. I’m not even allowed to bring it aboard for what would be, admittedly, a very strange picture.
Yet we beat on. I think it must be the deeper waters we’re currently traversing but the fish are becoming increasingly bizarre. Those around me begin hauling up all manner of creatures. Scorpion fish, pipe fish, angler fish - mostly poisonous creatures that signal to the fishermen that it’s time to go home.
The dhoni (our trusty vessel), swings around and skips homeward bound with a cargo full of fish. As we approach the jetty from which we began this expedition, I think back to what a day it’s been - and what a day it was. It was a day of patience and perseverance. It was a day of fortitude and resilience.
It was the day that I almost caught an eel.