“If fish coulda keep him mout’ shut, him would neva get caught.”
RUUAWK – – AAWWK ! . . . .
. . . . Ruuawk – – aawwk !
My eyes pop open.
RUUAWK – – AAWWK !
(very loud, very close and from directly above)
. . . . Ruuawk – – aawwk !
(quieter, but just as strident, coming from outside)
The last vestiges of sleep drain slowly from my head, running like molasses on a chilly fall morning. I sit up, rather clumsily, in the waterbed. In the dim pre-dawn light I fumble for the seam in the mosquito net and snake my hand through it, creating an opening through which I place my feet onto the floor. I look into the apex of the high vaulted ceiling where the planes of the octagonal roof meet, expecting to see a large feathered creature staring down at me. I see nothing but the dim shapes of rafters.
RUUAWK – – AAWWK !
I duck instinctively. The call fills the large open room, reverberating as if amplified. I wait for the response from outside, but it doesn’t come this time. It sounds like the call of a huge, rather upset, bird. I’m not yet fully awake and I’m perplexed by the magnitude of the call and my inability to locate its source. I turn on all of the lights but still can’t locate the bird in the dimly lit, dark colored wooden apex of the ceiling. I open the twin patio doors, hoping that the bird will see the light and take flight to freedom.
Peering upwards, I perceive a slight movement. A small yellow delta shape moves on one of the ceiling rafters near the top. My eyes try to create a big bird out of the dark spaces behind what I assume to be a beak, but nothing materializes.
Still looking above, warily, I climb the steep ladder to the loft and creep as close as I can to the small yellow shape perched on the rafter. I peer intensely at it and slowly an image resolves. It’s a gecko! One of Jamaica’s more common lizards. Its body is about six inches long and it has a long slender tail of five inches. He’s looking back at me. I’m obviously not what he was expecting in return for his vocal efforts. I’m astonished that such a small being could generate such an ear splitting call. “What are you doing in here?” I ask him quietly.
I climb down from the loft and when I look up again I can no longer see the little yellow patch. The gecko has either skedaddled or done his chameleon thing. Whatever the case, he doesn’t favor me with another serenade.
I grope for my watch on the kitchen counter and push the winder to illuminate the dial; it’s 5:30am. I have a rendezvous at the water’s edge in 30 minutes, so I’m thankful for the gecko’s wake up call.
The bedroom door opens a bit and a bleary-eyed head topped with a tousle of blonde hair pokes out.
“Are you going?” Amy croaks.
“Yeah, see you in a few hours.”
“What was that noise?”
” A gecko, I’ll explain later . . . go back to bed.”
I pass my toothbrush over my teeth, pull on my shorts, grab my hat and sunglasses and head out the door.
The sky is a lightening gray. To the east, a pink hue spills up over the trees marking the place where another Negril morning will dawn. Venus is high in the sky and very bright, outshining everything celestial. I make my way down the cement pathway to the water’s edge. This morning the sea is slowly undulating, its surface unbroken. Even though the sun won’t rise for another twenty minutes and the water is dark, I feel the urge to jump in. But there will be no dip this morning, not until I get back from fishing.
I settle on a flat spot at the cliff edge and look out to the western horizon. My pick-up should be along soon. The air is still and cool. Occasionally the sound of a cock crowing in the distance breaks the morning silence. I sit in the quiet splendor of the pre-dawn, looking into the sea, the tranquility of the morning soothing me like a balm. Far in the distance I hear the distinctive steady drone of an approaching outboard. I stand up and look northward along the shore. A single boat approaches, trailing a long white wake in the calm water. Aboard, I make out the shapes of two people, one standing amidships and the other sitting in the stern. That will be my fishing ride.
Joseph waves as the boat arcs in to the shore. “Yeah mon!” he calls out.
The boat noses into the cliff edge. I hop from the swim ladder onto the bow and down into the boat. Joseph offers his hand and gives me a hearty clasp. From the back, Winston nods his head in my direction, baring a snaggle-toothed grin.
The boat is a wooden runabout. By the look of it, it has been hand built from stock lumber and marine plywood. It’s in decent shape, by Jamaican standards, although there is some water sloshing about below the floor decking. It’s about 18 feet long with a five-foot beam. The deck and foredeck are painted red, it’s sides yellow. Near the bow on each side, in tall red letters, is painted ‘Mi-Deh-Yah’. About three feet aft of the name are two large stylized ‘S’s, complete with curlicues. I look around the boat for fishing gear. There are no rods, no reels. What I see are two long, weathered poles, which are in fact long flexible branches cut from trees. There are four white plastic bleach jugs with fishing line wrapped around them. A milk crate sits on the deck, it contains a spool of line and a half dozen tuna trolling jigs, big hooks with plastic heads that have trailing tentacles making them look like little octopuses.
“Do you feel lucky this morning Joseph?
” “Well,” he says, looking at the sea and out to the horizon, “it looks like it could be a good day, maybe Jah will bless us today.
As we move out I spot a couple of Jamaicans snorkeling just off shore. They’re trailing white floats behind them. Joseph sees me looking, “They’re hunting for barracuda,” he explains.
Joseph stands about six foot two. His build is lean and muscular. There are some traces of gray starting to show in the sides of his neat beard and his hairline has begun to creep back on his scalp. His dreads are well kept and hang just above his shoulders. He’s wearing a loose fitting, zip neck golf shirt, embroidered with a Nike swoop, and dark cotton shorts. Joseph has a confident smile that reveals even white teeth.
Yesterday morning I was lounging at the waterside after a dip when Mi-Dah-Yah motored up to the cliff side. On board were Joseph, Winston and two guests who were staying at one of the other villas. They clambered out of the boat and up the ladder. They had just returned from a tour up the coast. I asked Winston if they could come back later and do the same for me. I had never seen the seascape south of Rick’s Café and was curious to check it out. Winston said no problem and they picked me up a couple of hours later. During the tour it became clear to me that Winston and Joseph were first and foremost fisherman.
One thing led to another and as they dropped me off back at the villa Joseph said, “Mi pick you up at 6:00 tomorrow mornin’, right here.
Although Mi-Deh-Yah is a far cry from a charter boat, the enterprising fisherman is ever willing to supplement his income for the small burden of an extra passenger.
Joseph and Winston busy themselves setting up the trolling gear. The 40 horse Yamaha outboard pops and coughs as it idles, leaving a thin wisp of blue smoke in the still air. We drift slowly seaward. Winston retrieves two of the trolling jigs from the milk-crate tackle-box and attaches them to three-foot wire leaders which in turn are attached to the fishing line that is wound around the plastic jugs. He throws a line astern, gives the Yammy a twist and lets the line play out through his hand for about 150 feet. He stops letting the line out when he encounters a little black marker wrapped around it. He then wraps the line around his big toe. He repeats the process with a second line. We now have two lines running out over the transom.
Meanwhile, Joseph has taken the two long weathered poles and is setting them up as outriggers. The butt ends of the poles are placed into holes that have been bored into pieces of plywood that are nailed to either side of the hull ribbing. When set in position, the poles reach across the boat and extend to hang out over the opposite gunwale. The poles are lashed together where they cross amidships and lashed again to the gunwales. Strips of tread cut from an old tire keep the poles from chaffing the wood where they rest on the gunwales. The purpose of the outriggers is to allow for the deployment of extra lines that trail far out from the hull so as not to foul the lines that are set from the stern. The tips of the outriggers are equipped with quick releases to which the trolling lines are affixed. When a fish takes the bait, the force of the strike snaps the line out of the quick release and the fish is then reeled in.
On Mi-Deh-Yah the quick releases are hand carve d out of a section of a tree branch about as big as a man’s thumb. A rudimentary pulley system, rigged from a length of fishing line that loops through corroded fencing staples hammered in to either end of the poles, allows the quick release to be ferried in and out along the length of the outriggers. The outer lines, set to trail at about 175 feet so as not to foul with the stern lines when the boat turns, also terminate in spools on big plastic jugs. I note that the stern line plastic jugs are smaller than those on which the outer lines are wound. With the outrigger lines set, there being no rods to hold, Joseph and I each grasp a line in our hands. We hold the line lightly, so as not to lose any skin or a finger should a really big fish strike.
“What are we trying to catch?” I ask.
“The Bonita tuna, kingfish, barracuda, dolphin fish and sometimes, if we’re lucky, a marlin.”
From our vantage point on the water the splendor of the Negril cliffs reveals itself. The height of the cliffs ranges from a few feet above the water to fifty feet just south of Rick’s Café. The entire cliff face of the West End is riddled with small coves and caves of varying sizes. The biggest cave, suitably, marks the coast at Negril’s most exclusive resort, ‘The Caves’.
We motor out to about one mile from the cliffs and turn to the east, towards the Negril lighthouse. Winston points at the water and moves his arm parallel to the shore. “This is where the ledge is,” he indicates. “This is where the tuna are,” adds Joseph. We turn along the ledge and start our first trolling run.
Winston sits quietly on the transom deck, holding the outboard tiller in his left hand. He’s a slight man, about 5’9, maybe 30 years old. Orange tipped dreads spill out of his oversized leather cap, falling in a jumbled shawl across his shoulders. He has a full, ragged beard. A pair of sunglasses, resting on his forehead, are lodged just beneath the brim of his cap. Winston is wearing a blue pullover sweat-top, three sizes too big for him, and a pair of worn, red nylon shorts. He has a quiet demeanor, but emanates the self-assurance of years spent on the water. Winston is barefoot, as we all are.
We head east, directly into the bright pink glow that decorates the horizon like a broad swatch of inverse bunting. Bands of clouds are stacked up there, the bottoms painted pink by the approaching sun, their tops slate gray. We sit quietly, each of us wrapped in our early morning thoughts. The motor purrs, pushing Mi-Deh-Yah through the flat water. As we pass the lighthouse the rim of the sun peeks up over the horizon, casting extraordinary beams of orange across the surface of the water. We are immediately bathed in their warmth. A frisson of goose bumps wells up across the back of my neck. Yes. I close my eyes for a moment, then open them, and I let the scene before me flow into the cache of memories that I access on cold winter days.
We continue eastward, directly into the rising orb of the sun. The earth rotates, and just before the full disc breaks completely free of the sea, it trails a small stubby stalk, momentarily creating an enormous mushroom shape.
We make a wide turn back towards Negril, the eastern edges of the high clouds to the west glow, as if they have been spray-painted in chartreuse.
There are other fishing boats out, some are trolling for tuna as we are. The boats closer to shore are pulling traps.
A tern glides effortlessly above us, turning on its swept back wings, it looks as if it could fly at supersonic speeds. Winston peers up at it. The bird is fishing, his hunt for breakfast just starting.
“Do you fish with traps?” I ask Joseph.
“Yeah mon, that’s usually what I do.”
“How many traps do you set?”
“Well you see, I usually have about twenty five to thirty traps, yah know. But just now I only have ten out, because I haven’t got them all back out after the hurricane
“How does a hurricane effect your fishing?” I wonder if I should be talking. Some fishermen don’t like to talk on the boat as they believe it can keep the fish from biting. But Joseph seems okay with it. “Well, it takes about three days for the ocean to settle enough to go out . . . but the water doesn’t start to clear for another three days and the another three days for it to completely clear up.
“So, it stops your fishing for about ten days?” I ask.
“Yeah, about ten days before the sea is nice and flat,” he moves his hands in a settling motion, palms down.
“How long do you leave your traps out?”
“Well, yuh see, usually about one week. I bait the traps with bread and breadfruit and it takes about a week for the fish and the sea to take away the bait. If the current is stronger, then the bait don’t last that long. You have to know where to put the traps, where the fish will feed.
“How do your traps do?
“It depends on the time of the year. In October, for about three days, is the best fishing of the year. When the fish are moving through,” he waves his arms in a flowing motion, “ the fish take the bait in the traps and when you pull them up you can have 100 pounds in each trap. But that only lasts for two or three days and then the fish are gone.”
Winston is standing in the stern, quietly scanning the surface of the water. The dancing reflections of the sun on the silky surface of the water draw my gaze, the effect is hypnotizing.
A flying fish erupts out of the sea beside the boat. It propels itself along mightily by kicking the water with its with tail fin, leaving a trail of diminishing size ripples in the water. Once up to speed it stops kicking and glides for about a hundred feet on its outstretched fins before it splashes down. I’m surprised at how far it flies.
“They do that to escape predators,” Joseph says.
“I bet it works,” I respond.
“Yeah mon, except when they are trying to get away from a dolphin fish. The doplhin fish is the fastest swimmer in the sea. They follow the flying fish by watching their shadow and when it comes down, they catch it,” he makes a chomping motion with his hand. “Yeah mon, the dolphin fish is very fast.”
Time passes. We troll some more. When we make abeam the Pickled Parrot we carve a wide turn back to the south. I watch the lines trailing from the outriggers cut the water behind us. Another boat, trolling as we are, passes us about fifty yards to port, moving in the opposite direction. Joseph stands up, looking at the other boat he makes an exaggerated shrugging motion, holding his arms cocked out to his sides. The mate in the other boat holds his hand, with the index finger extended, high above his head.
“Deh have one,” Joseph says.
Winston points to the northwest, he says something in patois to Joseph. I make out the word ‘squall’. Far away on the horizon is a dark patch of cloud with a frame of lighter clouds in the shape of a wide capital letter ‘U’.
Joseph says, “Not’ing to worry about.” For me, fishing has never been entirely about catching fish. I like to catch fish but I’ve been on a few fishing expeditions where I’ve come back empty handed. Fishermen don’t like to admit it, but if pressed each and every one of them will admit to having been skunked. But as the saying goes, ‘The worst day of fishing is way better than the best day at the office.’ So I’m happy just to be on the water enjoying the company of Joseph and Winston and if we catch fish, well, that will be a bonus. However, I am keenly aware that for these gentlemen, and they are gentlemen in every sense of the word, getting skunked means going hungry.
“What does ‘Mi-Deh-Yah’ mean?” I ask Joseph.
“Mi-Deh-Yah?” he laughs, “it means ‘I am here’,” he points down, indicating ‘here’, “yah know, its patois.”
“Where do you live?” I ask him. “Well, I live in the fishing village in Negril . . . yah know, beside the river near the beach.”
“Between the craft market and the river, right?”
“Yeah mon, yah know it.” I’ve walked through the tiny fishing village on a few occasions. It offers a glimpse into a lifestyle that differs starkly from the up-front, largely tourist face of Negril.
“You’re from Canada?” Joseph asks.
“Uh huh, Ottawa, have you ever been there?”
“Yeah, to Toronto, quite a few times when I was younger. Had some good times there. I been to Germany and the States too, Pittsburgh. But now I just like to stay here in Jamaica. Yah know, fish, burn a couple of spliffs a day . . . feel good.”
“Yeah mon,” he replies, with an earnest emphasis on the ‘Yeah’.
A school of small fish breaks the surface to shoreward.
“Bonita,” Joseph says, “they’re feeding, but they’re too small for us . . . way too small.
The fish create a travelling pattern of burbling swirls on the water.
Nearby, a group of a half dozen flying fish launch themselves in formation. They splashdown fifty feet away. We leave the feeding Bonita in our wake. I’m amazed at the activity on the surface. Although we’ve been trolling for a while and haven’t caught anything yet, there hasn’t been a dull moment.
After a while, Joseph picks up the thread of our conversation on travelling and says, “But now I’m having a lot of pressure put on me to go to Chicago . . . lots and lots of pressure mon.
I don’t ask, but I assume it’s a woman. Joseph is a good-looking man. Winston listens to our conversation but remains quiet. He’s standing up in the stern, tiller in hand, scanning the water ahead of us. “Grass!” he says, and veers the boat to starboard. We plow through an area of floating grass and seaweed.
Joseph looks concerned, “Rassclot!” he says, invoking the generic Jamaican epithet. As a result of the turn, the port outrigger line has come inboard, Joseph grabs it and starts to pull it in with an efficient bent-over, smooth hand-over-hand motion. He retrieves the line until the trolling jig is skipping along beside the boat, clearing bits of grass and seaweed from the line as it coils up on the deck at his feet. He repeats the process on the other outrigger line and Winston does the same for the stern lines.
“Rass!” Winston says. I look ahead expecting to see more grass and then realize that, being a man of few words, Winston is expressing his exasperation at the floating grass and lack of fish while economizing on his verbage.
A sea turtle comes to the surface ten feet to port. It’s a large hawksbill. His shell is over three feet long. He examines us with a large curious eye. We all watch him, no one says anything. The turtle submerges but re-surfaces five yards on. Again, he gives us a long look. Falling to stern, he dives again, we watch for him to come back up but he doesn’t.
Winston and Joseph exchange a few phrases in patois, speaking lowly. I don’t get all the words but I recognize the tone; two fishermen pondering where the fish are, wondering if they are going to catch anything. We churn along in silence, making another turn just past the lighthouse. I think about other fishing expeditions that I have been on; the expensive boat and all of the latest high tech fishing gear. I regard the utter simplicity of the set-up that we have. For a moment I consider asking them if they would like me to send them some commercial gear, but I worry that they might take it as an insult and I demur. Then I realize that commercial gear would just be an encumbrance for them. It would corrode and break and be replaced in short order with handmade gear. I begin to admire the utility of their gear, it’s perfect for what they are doing.
Winston mutters something, points to a few birds off to starboard and veers toward them. Joseph explains that the birds are fishing for the same bait-fish that our prey are after, that the birds are a sign that fish may be there.
A flying fish breaks the water and arcs over the stern, reaching a height of eight feet. This gets a rise out of Winston, he calls out, “Mon, he climbed,” and laughs. I notice that he has the roach end of the spliff that we smoked stuck to his bottom lip.
The sun, recovered from the effort of rising, has turned its attention to heating up and the temperature is rising. We troll, running with the slow undulations of the sea. It’s as if we are pushing along over soft rumples of plush velvet.
“The fish, they just don’t want to bite today,” Joseph says to no one in particular. I don’t answer. I consider it bad luck to talk about dry spells when in the middle of one.
“Maybe a jack dolphin came by and scared all the bonita out to the deep,” Joseph muses.
“What’s a jack dolphin?” I ask.
“Oh, a lone hunting dolphin that comes in close to shore, we call it a jack dolphin. It comes in fast and hunts along the ledges in here. When that happens it scares all of the fish out deep,” he points out to sea, “and the fishing is bad.”
“What’s your record catch?” I ask.
“One day we come back wit’ eighty t’ree Bonita,” Winston says from the back.
We troll slowly past a boat that is stopped in the water. The fishermen are gathering in their gear and simultaneously bailing the boat. I check the level of the water beneath the decking, it hasn’t risen since we started. Mi-Deh-Yah is sufficiently seaworthy that we won’t have to bail. I point to the stationary boat and ask Joseph, “Are they giving up?”
“Yeah . . . . but we’re going to make another turn . . . . hope for some food, yah know?”
No sooner are the words are out of his mouth that the port outrigger line twangs out of the quick release and I feel it tug in my hand. I stand up and start to pull the line in, imitating the technique that Joseph used when he cleared the lines of grass. There’s moderate tension on the line as the fish on the end of it moves jerkily further out to port.
One of the stern lines has a fish too. Winston, standing up, pulls the line in and steers the boat with his thigh on the tiller. “You okay with that fish?” Joseph asks me. I nod, continuing to haul on the line. Then the other outrigger line snaps free and Joseph turns his attention to it.
My fish is zigging into the stern line that Winston is hauling. He gestures to me and I lift the line over his head and move to the other side of the boat. Joseph and I pull our lines in side by side. He calls out as he sees his fish deep in the clear water directly below the boat. In short order he has the fish aboard. He holds it up, dangling from the line. It’s a Bonita tuna, a beautiful fish about 2 feet long. The Bonita has unusually large eyes for its head size, which gives it a shocked expression. It has a dark back, a faint yellow lateral band and a silver belly. I know this fish by its Florida name, ‘black fin tuna’. Joseph extracts the hook from its mouth.
While watching him with his fish, I’ve slowed in the retrieval of the one on my line. “Keep pulling!” Winston says from the back of the boat. He doesn’t want me to lose it. I haul on the line and see the fish flash under the boat twenty feet below. Six more tugs and I have it aboard, Winston lands his across the stern at the same time. Now he’s smiling. We’re not going to be skunked today. The three fish could be triplets, they are identical in every aspect.
We admire the fish for a moment and then put them in the back of the boat, they flop wildly, whacking their bodies on the transom. Soon all four lines are set and we are trolling again, heading north along the coast.
“How much do those fish weigh?” I ask Joseph.
“About seven pounds,” he says, “a good size. But you can catch much bigger ones out in the deep water.” A good-sized Bonita is a twenty-pounder and they can go as much as forty pounds.
“Grass, dere!” Joseph motions to Winston.
The boat veers but in spite of the maneuver we enter into a large area of floating grass and seaweed. We make a big turn back towards Negril and once again clear the lines.
Around us, most of the trolling boats have left the water. I realize that this is our final run. We come abeam the villa and stop to retrieve and stow the gear. I dismantle the outriggers and place them lengthwise along the gunwales. Winston sees my efforts and comments appreciatively, “You’re doin’ de work!”
As we approach the cliff side of the villa Joseph apologizes for the lack of fish.
I respond, “Anytime you catch a fish, it’s a good trip, and we caught three.”
“Yes, we give t’anks for what we caught,” he agrees.
We pull up in front of the villa. Amy is sunning on one of the lounges. Winston cleans the fish by making two cuts across the belly, anterior and posterior, then reaches in the forward cut and wrenches out the offal. He drops it in the water. Then he chops the head off one of the fish and fillets the body for me.
I jump ashore and wave goodbye to them. They both give me a hearty wave and Mi-Deh-Yah turns east, cutting a swath toward the fishing village.