Yesterday I went FISHING. That’s right, FISHING—in the baddest-ass, most old-school sense of the word. Picture a wooden canoe-shaped boat called a dory floating half a mile out in the lagoon, a hunk of fresh-caught sardine hanging from a large hook, the setting tropical sun muted by the distant haze, and you will only begin to understand the perfection of the adventure.
It started when Jerry and Shannon, two would-be friends from uptown, came and picked me up at a pre-arranged time after school.
“I have to go back to my room first,” I said.
“To rub that cream on yourself?” Jerry asked.
“It’s called sunblock, yeah,” I said.
A quick stop and we were off to the Point, where Jerry’s buddy was waiting with the dory. Once on the water, Jerry quickly unfurled a simple but ingenious mechanism—a triangular sail, consisting of one mangrove shoot for a mast, a tattered wedge of black plastic sheeting, and another hanging shoot for the boom. The boat was narrow and old and wooden, and the three of us sat in a row, with me in the center, hauling on the sail, and Shannon in back using a paddle for steering.
“First, the bait,” Jerry said. We headed for a small inlet on the opposite shore from the wharf. Another boat similar to our own was heading back, having just come from the inlet, and Jerry called out, “Got extra?”
“Yeah, come get it!” the men said, very friendly.
We neared the other dory and quickly furled the sail. Jerry kept shouting instructions to Shannon about how to paddle correctly, and I guess Shannon was screwing up because we almost capsized twice before we were able to bring the two boats side by side. The man in the other boat had already collected a bucket of what was to be our bait—finger-length sardines that they had caught in the inlet with a large weighted net. He leaned over his boat with the bucket of still-flopping fish and dumped it smoothly into the bottom of ours. There’s something quite unforgettable and unique about the sound of 30 wet finger-sized fish falling from several feet onto the bottom of a wooden boat. Suddenly the space around my bare feet and ankles had become a sort of little aquarium, with little fish splashing and wriggling around.
“Fuck! We forgot the knife!” Jerry said.
“Here, borrow ours,” the guy from the other boat said. A knife came through the air over my left shoulder and landed amongst the pile of sardines flopping in front of me. Jerry dug it out, picked up one of the living fish, placed it next to him on the wooden bench, and without hesitation or ceremony proceeded to cut it into three equal pieces—head, fin, tail. The tail stopped moving once it was separated from the body. He proceeded to repeat the process until all the sardines had turned into matchbook-sized morsels apparently ideal for our prey, then we pushed off from the other boat and put up the sail and in twenty minutes we were at the fishing grounds with about a half-dozen other small boats already gathered.
After we put down our anchor, Jerry handed me my really complicated set of fishing gear—a wedge of hard insulation foam, around which was wrapped a fishing line with a hook at the end and a little iron nail six inches above it for weight. The hook at the end of the line was buried in the foam, and Jerry showed me how to remove the hook, slide on a piece of bait, and drape the line in the water. Each of the three of us on our backless benches took positions we hoped would be comfortable—Jerry facing back toward me, me straddling the bench to the side, Shannon leaning back against the boat’s stern, and we waited.
There’s something wonderful in fishing that, like alcohol, brings out true but secret facets of a personality: Jerry began singing with what was to become his trademark vulgarity, “Punani too big, punani too rude, so I’m-a fuck that punani with a vicious attitude”; Shannon got philosophical and asked me if I believed in god, and I in turn began trying to explain what the word ‘evolution’ meant.
After about twenty minutes my line jerked down and then was still.
“Missed a big one!” Jerry said. “Them fish smart! They know right when the mind starts to drift.” Jerry had all kinds of fishing wisdom and know-how. He showed me how to feel vibrations on the line with my finger and how to pull at the right moment when the fish is on the hook.
Another twenty minutes went by without a catch and Shannon started to get antsy. “Let’s try move down there,” he said, gesturing to a spot a couple hundred yards away where there was a cluster of other dories.
“Nah, wait for it,” Jerry said, and then as if to punctuate the statement yanked his line and pulled up what was to me an impressive-looking catfish. I got excited about it but they said it was nothing, that we’d catch much bigger, and we settled down again and watched our lines. Every few minutes I’d reel in and my bait would be gone, and I’d feel a little embarrassed but each time Jerry would kindly and patiently hand me another piece from the sardine bucket. The boat rocked gently.
“I’ll tell you what, pussy fa get fuck,” Jerry sang softly. “Pussy in the car, pussy in the truck.”
BAM. Shannon’s line snapped downward and he leapt to his feet in the dory.
“HOLD HIM! HOLD HIM!” Jerry shouted. Shannon’s line whipped through his hands. “Easy now, play him, don’t give him to much.” Shannon hauled line in when it was slack, let it out bit by bit when there was too much tension. After about five minutes he hauled in a two-foot fish called a bila-pau, and threw it into the center of the boat, where it writhed and jumped. “Club it! Club it!” Jerry said to me, handing me the wooden paddle. I was standing on my bench and the fish was underneath, thrashing and making this weird croaking noise.
“Jesus, I don’t know what to do!” I shouted.
“Just club it!”
I tapped at the body of the fish with the flat part of the paddle.
“Like this?” I said.
Shannon leaned in, took the paddle from me, and with a downward drive rammed the sharp point of the paddle into the place where the fish’s neck would be, just behind the eyes. There was a kind of a crunch and the fish stopped moving.
“Like that,” Shannon said.
The rest of the afternoon we hauled up various other little ones, keeping the meatiest, throwing back the babies. And by we I mean not me, because I didn’t catch anything all day, a fact which Jerry and Shannon kindly neglected to draw any attention to. Shannon even handed me his line a couple times so I could feel what it was like to have a fish on the other end.
We started joking with the other guys in the neighboring boats, and inevitably the comparison of the sizes of our respective catches turned to innuendo. Jerry started bragging that our catch was the longest, then asked me if I could put him in touch with one of my eighth-grade students, adding some sort of explanation about how the best time to pick a banana isn’t after it gets ripe, but rather just before, when still green. I politely declined, and Shannon said he’d rather have a banana that’s too ripe than one that’s not ripe enough. I started singing, “Daylight come and me wan go home,” and they seemed to take that as a message because right as the sun disappeared behind the low-lying jungle horizon in the distance they wordlessly drew up anchor and started to paddle back to the wharf. Shannon told me I could keep his bila-pau and fry it up when I got home—that even though you could sell a fish like that for a good couple bucks, he caught them all the time, “way bigger than that!”—and I’d appreciate it more to keep myself.
It was dark when we pulled up back to the dock. We threw the fish into a couple plastic bags and I treated Jerry and Shannon to a beer. Shannon let me walk through town with the bila-pau and people on the street called me out for having caught a big one.
Aside from its total uniqueness the thing that was most special about the experience for me was the kindness of my companions. They were unquestioningly patient with my ineptitude. Jerry had a fishing wisdom that belied his ridiculous rhymes; Shannon a quiet generosity that needed no recompense. And as much as they bragged about the commonness of our big catch, it turned out that this wasn’t really the case, for at the end of the day, when I asked Shannon for a big-fish glory story he turned and said, “Truth? That guy in your hand’s the biggest one I’ve ever caught.”