Monday, October 22, 2012
Three hours on the dusty, rutted carabao trail had shortened our spines by at least six inches. Just one more hour on the bumpy road and we’d have our arms sticking out of our knees and our heads resting on our hips.
“Are you sure this is the right carabao trail?” uttered the head on the seat beside me.
“I’m definite!” I said, as I tried to peer over the dashboard.
The old man from the last barrio we passed had reeked of lambanog as he gave us directions. It was a good thing there wasn’t anyone smoking or he would have turned into a living flamethrower. There being no convenient road signs, he made references to rocks and trees along the track to keep us on course.
Three hours down the trail and we were convinced that the trees had either been chopped down for firewood or had grown ten feet taller in the interim. The rocks obviously had weathered down at the same time. Certain references had also been made by the other dwarves in the car as to the possible maternal origin of the old man.
Suddenly the carabao track ended. There in front of us was a big green lake. We scrambled out of the car, our knuckles and gaping jaws dragging on the dry gravel. We stretched for a moment, allowing our spines to telescope us to our natural height.
This is it!” shouted Anton as he pulled out his rod… after taking that much needed leak, he ran to the back of the car and pulled out his fishing rod. I knew exactly what was in his head: a high speed slide show filled with images of big dalag and hito fighting each other for our baits.
I thought back to how we came about the secret lake. It was an early Friday evening at the shop and the group was debating the possible repercussions of fishing the fenced-off Subic Bay marina. Anton had just finished a list of legal fees that we would incur if we were caught decimating the pargo population of the marina when the man walked in.
Silence filled the small store, along with the familiar stench of a full day’s fishing under the hot summer sun. We knew at once that we had a proeither that or a nutcase. It wasn’t so much the smell as it was the look. His sandals were worn down to their straps. His jeans were caked in mud, fishscales and blood. Snelled hooks hung out of his pocket and a landing net worn from use dangled from a belt loop. At first glance, he looked like he was wearing a brown shirt. Then we realized he was naked from the waist up. Sunburn had etched its trademark collar and sleeves on his skin.
He smiled a big toothy grin and opened the sack he was carrying. A huge dalag head hit the floor with a loud thud. We gasped in shock at the sight; in our minds a phantom fish body had immediately swum into the shop and attached itself to the decapitated head. Most of the ghostly image was still outside the shop tail slapping unmindful shoppers. Mike, in a vain attempt at maintaining his casual composure, leaned against the counter, sending a large stack of fishing CDs crashing to the floor.
“That’s a pretty big fish,” he said, barely hiding the tremble in his voice.
That insane grin was still on the man’s face as he spoke. “That’s one of fifty I caught.”
The tension that filled the room was as thick as gulaman in a freezer. What ensued were shouting and cursing, enough to put fear in any man’s heart. Shoppers cleared the storefront faster than if someone had yelled “bomb!”.When the smoke cleared, the scene was too horrible for anyone to witness. Three grown men on their knees with palms together. Supplication from this grinning despicable man was the farthest from our minds.
“Please tell us where you caught them!” we implored. After thirty minutes of prodding and haggling, he finally gave in to the tune of three Shad Raps and a spool of line. A great deal, or so I thought at that time.
After eight hours of fishing, we had caught nothing substantial. Some self -righteous anglers would even consider the two birds we snagged while flogging the lake as “fowl catch” but we think otherwise.
“If it breathes, it’s fair game” was the motto of the day.
“That guy must’ve cleaned the lake out,” growled Mike as he packed his rod.
“Maybe he used electricity or dynamite,” Anton muttered.
I wasn’t worried at all. “Well, we still cut the price of those Shads three ways. Right? I mean you guys never complained when I bribed him with them. Right???”
We drove back through the goat track and after two flat tires reached the barrio. Mr. Lambanog was still there, we extinguished our cigarettes.
“You caught nothing?” he asked, releasing a cloud of volatile vapor.
“The man reads minds,” I thought. “A man fished the lake a few days ago…didn’t catch a thing. So did the two guys last week and the week before.” he said.
“Can’t expect to catch anything in that lake. Some fool used cyanide in it a year ago. Left nothing alive … it’s great for swimming though, kills the lice.”
“That man …a few days ago, what did he look like?” Anton queried.
“Can’t remember, but he had this weird grin on his face when he left.” The old man gassed.
We drove home in silence. We all knew what had happened, someone had sent anglers on a long, useless quest counting on an angler’s innate greed as a lure. The poor victims, we’ll never know how many, found out what we just did. Since they could never get back at whoever sent them for fear of being branded as sore losers or even worse! – poor fishermen, they decided to pass on the gag. A cruel, slimy chain letter of a gag. Such unsportsmanlike attitude. Many anglers would have been saved from the pain we endured if this was ended by those boors before us. How many more victims would have fallen prey had this not happened to us?
“Stop by that market on the highway,” Mike said flatly.
“Let’s make it a really big pla-pla,” I added in an even flatter voice.
Loud music from the mall grounds was audible from where we anchored. It served both annoyance and comfort to us. The harsh beat broke the calm of the night air but also gave us a feeling of security - much-needed considering the state of the outrigger canoe we were riding.
At times like this, one tends to question ones’ mental state. The claustrophobic darkness, the wood and bamboo shingle that passes for a boat and the ever-present danger of turning into the ocean’s version of roadkill by passing kaladkads (trawlers) would deter a normal, sane man from venturing out. Yet here I was, a 9-to-5er just off from work still wearing the constrictive attire that society requires of white-collar grunts.
Why? It’s all the fault of our ancestors. Ever since the first man threw a rock at that rising fish and picked up the stunned creature, the adrenaline rush he felt burned fishing into our genes.
Eons after, we still feel the rush; equipped with modern tech-laden gear we venture forth into piscatorial territory searching for prey, spending long hours on the water risking everything - including our sanity – for that one moment to heave that rock.
We were not alone. In the darkness, occasionally silhouetted by the garish lights of the mall, were other mental institution candidates. Paddling similar kindling boats, we all waited for the fish to appear. No suitor after a fair maiden has spent more time sitting and waiting than an angler after fish. No soldier has more focus or sharpened senses than one in anticipation. Sex (at my age) would take second place to the excitement felt.
When it begins, the first sign, whether it be the sound of a faint splash or the white spray of broaching fish, the insane go crazy. Paddles hit water each boat trying to be the first to get to the fast-fading activity. Audible clicks from reel’s bails and clutches and the woosh of rods sending off their missiles cut through the quiet. For a brief moment the din from the mall pales in comparison.
It happened right beside us. The water exploded just a few meters off the stern. Any closer and the force may have taken our fragile decrepit hull apart. White spray fluoresced in the pitch black, baitfish flew out of the water followed by the hulking shape of a predator, our prey.
Barely had the water stilled when my lure fell on mark. I worked it in…twitching my rod to give it that sashay that fish oh so love. Left, right, left, right; the lure crawled on the surface with a clacking sound designed to draw as much attention to itself.
Mayhem broke loose! A fish took a liking to the walk and hammered my lure. Steel bit back slicing through hard cartilage and seating itself to the hilt. The predator felt its meal pull back and this enraged it. Thick, strong muscles kicked in and propelled the fish south, my line a thin gossamer thread, pulled tight shedding water in a fine mist. Milliseconds later my rod bent the force moving down its length like electricity running straight into the reel, to the spool, through the gears and finally to the drag.
Mechanical engineering and physics took over. Predetermined amounts of pressure, stress and coefficients of friction all factored in to protect the line kicked in. The drag gave line. Smooth metered, calculated amounts of line, each inch countered with a braking force designed to weaken, exhaust the adversary.
The fish changed tactics taking to the air, once, twice, three times it flew in a headshaking rage trying to rid itself of its tether. Each time I dropped the rod, experience has taught me to give such tactics slack.
The adversary drew its last card, charging the boat then sounding. Again my rod read the strategy warning me to reel hard and extend. Its final thrust parried, the predator succumbed. I pumped in the last few feet of line and the long silver sheen of my trophy materialized. The boatman dipped the net and brought it onboard. I dispatched the fish with honor and as always thanked it and our creator for the blessing.
The noise from the mall creeped back into my consciousness, I flew back from that stone-wielding ancestor standing on the muddy riverbank to my person, a businessman getting his loafers soaked in saltwater in a leaky boat.
I smiled and sat down. An inmate waiting for his next shot.
Paranaque, Manila Bay.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
The moonless sky was full of constellations, straight from the heavens to the horizon. The air was heavy with the pleasant smell of sea mixed with nocturnal blooms of the surrounding foliage. Soft, cool sand shifted under my feet as I slogged down the beach to the waiting banca. All these I burned in memory for recall at a later time.
Perhaps while stuck in traffic under the sweltering heat and acrid air of the city.
The heavy load of fishing tackle I carried made me feel like a warrior geared for battle. Over-eagerness and fear of being ill-equipped overcomes even the most veteran of anglers when preparing. The urge is at its peak the night before leaving. Whatever resolve one has to pack light and stick to essentials crumbles and turns into a mad dash to cram everything into the tackle box. Still, the morning after, the aching feeling that you left something important (your flying gaff…just in case that Marlin suddenly materializes) still lingers…
Fernando the boatman was already there moving about the banca doing the countless preparations needed before heading out to sea. This was just a front, a facade to cover his impatience. I knew the boat had been ready a full hour before. I was late – but what did you expect from a man sleepless from excitement? I only survived the long drive by filling up on the strongest brew available at every gas stop along the way. This was another mistake I knew I’d have to recompense. A full bladder on an ocean of water is intolerable torture, a situation sure to arise every half hour.
Fernando trotted up and relieved me of my tackle. Rods and gaff went to the hollow at the bow; my tackle bag amidships at my feet; food, water and everything else fit in the stern behind the motor. This distribution of weight is critical in a craft as small as a banca, and the boatman makes sure that the boat is on even keel before launch. Failure in his part may mean we take a much undesired swim miles from terra firma.
The banca itself is a marvel. No sane salt-blooded sailor used to the high freeboard and apparent safety of big mono hulled crafts would venture a trip to the big blue in this matchstick. Roughly the shape of a peapod and not much bigger, its hull is made up of ¼ inch marine plywood (I’ve seen small jewelry boxes with thicker sides). The engine is usually a 2-stroke affair not far removed from the ones used to power lawnmowers. Its extreme reliability is only rivaled by the racket it makes. Running at full bore, this motor sounds like a .50cal. machinegun firing inches from your head. Why they remove the muffler is a puzzle to this day. Freeboard is so low you can touch the sea by reaching down from the gunwale without your elbow ever leaving the boat. Outriggers of bamboo spread out port and starboard bound with heavy mono to crossbeams (batangan) which are in turn lashed to thwarts fore and aft. These concessions to the otherwise streamlined shape are needed for stability especially when landlubbers like me are on board. The secret to the boat’s strength lies below the waterline. Its keel is one continuous solid piece of hand hewn hardwood. The backbone that holds everything together.
Fernando was my age but years of sun and salt had weathered his face to a much older set. Generations of seafarers lay behind him. He had three children and a wife who’d always wait for his arrival at sunset by the beach. I thought this was because of the excitement of the catch, until I found out that every year, the sea claimed at least one fisherman’s life. They stood there with a prayer in their hearts, waiting for a glimpse of their loved one’s safe return.
Fernando and I had a lot and little in common. The love of the sea and everything that swims in it, the thrill of hooking and the fight forthwith – we craved these.
We, however, were different. I lived in the city and navigated the concrete byways. The closest I got to water was when I needed to cross a bridge. The most danger I’d ever be in was a fender bender. He, on the other hand faced life taking risks every day. Being on the ocean at the mercy of Mother Nature and the old (much older than he, according to him) Briggs and Stratton engine, life could be lost at the blink of an eye. Although quiet by nature, Fernando was always ready to answer my queries about why things were such in the sea. His wisdom about everything salt and with fins amazed me, but I was aware that to know less was an error that could take one on the fast train to meet his maker. He in turn was amazed by the gadgets I brought on board. He marvelled at the lures and reels but spoke with disdain of the GPS. He never relied on anything that ran on batteries, not when lives depended on it. For him, dead reckoning and the good ol’ magnetic compass was all he needed. Fishing for me was a break from life, to him it was life.
We pushed off. The act of helping lift the banca off the sticky sand together was a tradition, a start of a journey of equals. The engine roared to life on the first pull, a good sign for the ever-superstitious clan of fishermen. We ran through the mirrored calm of pre morning darkness, startled flying fish ever so often fleeing our bow wave.
We reached the first reef as the sun broke over the mountains in the east. Fernando slowed the boat as I dropped the plugs over the side. We had line out about one hundred feet long on each side, the right side longer by a few feet to prevent tangling. When the reel’s clickers were set, Fernando raised speed to seven knots. I poured some of my drinking water over the two reels, a sort of blessing and with the practical purpose of lubricating the line. We trolled the reef’s edge, moving seaward when the reef rose and back close again as it fell. The engine’s throb lulled me to sleep. An hour later, I was awakened by the complaining ratchet of the starboard reel. Line was zipping out spraying fine droplets of water, miniature diamonds in the early morning sun.
I struggled to pull the rod out, the heavy set drag held the butt firm in the makeshift holder. I pointed seaward, and Fernando pulled on the tiller, turning the boat. I got a moment of slack and in an instant, I had the rod out and tucked on my hip. The fish shook its head before boring for the deep. “Talakitok, Mamsa!” I shouted to Fernando. He nodded, throttling down and angling the boat out keeping an eye on the line.
The dance began. The fish would take line and I’d feel its power through my rod and the whir of the reel’s spool as its drag gave in to the force. The fish would stop, winded, and I would raise the rod and reel down to gain line. A mild morning breeze came up and hummed on the taut mono. The fish sounded again. I wasn’t worried, Fernando had steered us away from the shallow reef were the brute could have broken us off on the sharp coral heads.
Five more runs – each shorter than the last – then finally I felt the fish follow my lead. A few more pumps and I saw the familiar flash of a jack on its side. The fighter made one last run at boat side, pulling line beneath the keel. I stuck the rod into the water to clear the keel and pumped him up again.
The fish lay there just beneath the surface exhausted from its efforts. I too paused for a while to take in a few deep breaths we gave our all and both got winded. Fernando handed me the gaff, I lifted the magnificent fish and a good part of the sea into the banka. I took my knife and cut its gill filaments – to dispatch a fish with haste is to show it respect. I thanked our creator for the blessing and the fish for the opportunity and its sacrifice.
Fernando was smiling, proud of our triumph. We would share this trophy as was our tradition and has been as such for hunter-gatherers since time immemorial
“Ayos!” I shouted with a thumb’s up wave. I motioned towards shore; this would have to do for the day. The concrete byways demanded my return. Already, I was dreaming of my next trip…