Wolf Avni DEC. 27, 2003
A SENSE OF FISH
Thirty-some years ago, in the early seventies, fishing for tuna off Cape Point with Brian Cohen, on his boat, Kingfisher, I sensed myself to be in the presence of a Master angler, not so much for the show he put on - fine though it was - but more for his discernment of nuances, his perceptive subtlety out on the fishing grounds, where these things matter.
Ostensibly there to shoot a photo-feature on the deepwater game fishery off the Cape of Storms, I had arrived at Simonstown jetty, well before dawn, laden like a packhorse, with my fisherman’s soul and enough photographic gear to take me straight to the bottom should I land in the water. No stranger to the sea, I had done my share of bay and shore-based angling, but the deepwater game was a world unknown to me. The jetty was silent, dark, deserted except for scurrying rats and an occasional chinking from the ferry, where the ferry-master made ready to run crew out to the deepwater boats lying on moorings. The gentle chugging of its engine, muffled in the dark and the blinking of its running lights, to port and starboard, were strangely comforting in the predawn. Occasionally at first, but then with increasing frequency, cars began pulling into the parking lot behind the Marlin & Tuna Club and small knots of crew, still half-asleep, made their way to the end of the jetty, stepped onto the ferry - really just a dingy - and chugged out, each to their boat. One by one, the throaty gurgle of powerful motors kicked into life, moorings were dropped and each craft idled up to the jetty to load bundles of rods, tackle, provisions and their complement of anglers for the long day ahead, out at sea. Slowly the anchorage emptied as boat after boat set a course which would take them past the lighthouse on the Bull’s Nose and out beyond Cape Point, some 30 kilometres away at the mouth of False Bay.
Of my intended host there was no sign, and finally, my ride for the day was just about the only craft still at mooring. As I was about ready to write the whole expedition off, convinced that the day was washed out, along came Brian, sauntering nonchalantly down the jetty, hands in pockets, dressed from head to foot in immaculate white ducks. His helmsman brought Kingfisher alongside and he stepped confidently over her gunwale. For those who were not there, Kingfisher was a twelve-metre Renalto Levi design deepwater sports fisher, function built to ride the steep sou’wester seas that come rolling in from beyond Gough Island, in the deep Atlantic. At that time she was head and shoulders the flag ship of the sport fishing fleet operating out of False Bay; with red hull and white superstructure, wet-decks, a fighting chair more comfortable than a Barca-lounger, winching hatch, a fish-well, and a couple of sumptuous staterooms below. Her fast lines and twin Perkins diesels were capable of about 37 knots in a lumpy sea. There was not a boat that could touch her, not until years later, with the launching of Marauder, the Ovenstone’s Boat.
Brian Cohen had been endowed with a muscular sense of the theatrical and his ‘entrance’ was impressive enough. With a terse word to the skipper, and a dismissive one to me, he disappeared into the forrard stateroom as the boat set off towards the distant fishing grounds. He would not be seen again till we crossed the line between the slate-green inshore waters of the cold Benguela into the sapphire waters of the warm Mocambique current, far beyond sight of land.
With her phenomenal speed, Kingfisher soon began to overhaul the slower craft that had left harbour before her. By the time we planed past the pinnacle known as The Bellows, just out of Cape Point, she had left more than a dozen craft in her distant wake. We cruised along, slicing through rolling swells on the open ocean. At that point, with his crew putting the finishing touches to the boat’s preparation; the heavy rods with Penn Senators clamped to the transom, the yellow and flourescent-green plastic squid rigged on traces, the gaffs and gaffing gloves and tunny priest all close to hand, he came slouching out of his retreat, dressed in regular ‘fishing clothes’, rubbing sleep from his eyes and demanding coffee. From behind my battered cameras, in the eyepiece, it seemed like a cheap script for a B-grade movie and I had him down as the effete issue of wealth and indulgence. To a street kid, like me, his hands were too soft and his self-assurance too smug, but I was soon to change my opinion.
HARDWIRED TO THE SENSES
As anyone who has been out there will know, the experience was essentially one of long periods of inactivity, during which the tuna sounded, and we, trolling along at about five or six knots, riding the slow, rolling swells, would be lulled into a state on near-hypnosis, where the attention wanders as deep as the sky and as far as the ocean. Every now and again a small knot of diving terns would bring us around on a new course. As the boat plowed past the birds, everyone aboard would tense, anticipating the scream of a drag on one of the big Senator reels, as they surely do, whenever a 70-kilogram yellowfin tuna hits a troll at close to 60 kilometres an hour.
The whole point of this tale is simple. Every now and again, in the midst of the whole boat dozing off, with not a bird on the horizon, or any discernable sign of anything in the least bit different to signal surface activity, Brian would seem to arch.
“They’re coming up”, he would say, in a tight whisper, “here they come.......” Almost every time, within about thirty seconds, the fish would be flashing among the lures. A rod would bend and a reel would shriek. “Here they come”, he would say, over and over, like a mantra, staring at the water through eyes slitted against the sun, as if summoning the tunny, and summonsed, they came!
How did he know? His helmsman, up on the flying bridge was a lifelong Malay fisherman, a man with as deep an understanding as anyone can have of the sea, and perched up there, about six metres above the fishing deck, he would have been in the best position to see into the crystal depths of the ocean’s surface, and indeed, he was usually the first to spot birds, or other activity on the far horizon. However, Brian had something else. He had a sense for the fish. Of course, once the day’s fishing was over, Brian disappeared into his stateroom again, no doubt to catch up on his indolence, leaving his crew to bring Kingfisher safely to port, reappearing in immaculate white ducks with not a crease out of place, as she sidled up to the jetty, her fish deck overflowing with huge yellowfin tuna.
What seemed to be wizardry was in fact rather more prosaic. He was so tuned to the entire environment out there, clear down to Tristan da Cunha, that he knew what the fish would do almost before they themselves did.
Some years later, fishing on my own, off a far more modest craft, Bonito, I too came to share some of the remarkable secrets of the warm-blooded tunas, but, be it far out at sea, or sauntering to and from the battered old ferry that used to run us out to our moorings, I somehow never attained the sartorial elegance of the Brian Cohen Show - not until decades later, when Robin Lavery, who, producing a premium range of river apparel, took pity on my pathetic ‘image’ and hauled my sorry hobo’s ass into his range of fine threads.
My wife thanks you, Robin.
What has all of this to do with fly-fishing for trout in fresh waters? Only absolutely everything! It is that selfsame hardwiring of all the senses to all the subtle interactions within an environment that separates the master fly-angler from the hoi-polloi. The principles acquired on the decks of a craft rolling in swells eighty kilometres offshore are as apt when applied to plumbing the depths of upland lakes, or to searching for trout in the currents flowing out of the high berg. As with Smylla and her snow, some people just develop a nose for fish.