Big One

By Bruce Truter

I was once the proud owner of a ski-boat, a 14- 6 Catfish. That was the model name given it by the makers; in the 20 years we fished together I never did get round to baptizing it; we just called her the boat. I used her for fishing both on the river and the sea, as she was ideally suited to both, though a few more inches of length and a higher prow wouldn't have gone amiss some days at sea. We, my boys and I and friends and acquaintances, had a lot of fun with that red-and-white boat. We also had some excitement beyond that which old man Neptune (or whoever pushes the WIND, WATER and MIX buttons out there) occasionally threw at us when he became irritable at little men in little boats thumbing their noses at him.

I also had a tackle shop, and as a bit of a sideline I used to do some offshore charters. As I wasn't exactly lighting my cigars with rand notes at the time (nor since), and wasn't sell my fish, the charter work was more a way of partly subsidizing my own fishing than bringing in extra income. At the beginning, a half-day charter would, if I recall correctly, have cost you all of R5,00, tackle and bait and the skipper pulling the anchor included. AND you kept your fish. Sometimes, when the sea called strongly and there were neither friends nor paying clients available, I'd go out alone. I used to enjoy that, fishing where, when and how I liked not having to think up new answers to So, where are all the fish you told us about? Being alone on the sea is about as alone as an ordinary man can get, and most times it was wonderful, whether the fish bit or not.

But as I intimated earlier, the deep blue sea can pump your adrenaline as well as pluck your heartstrings.

I was enjoying an after-work beer in the pub with the fellow who would be paying me to take him fishing the next day. We were discussing fishing strategy when the fellow sitting next to us chipped in, politely, and said he simply couldn't see what people saw in fishing, such a boring pastime. After including him in the next round (you have to try and help these people), I asked him what, if he didn't fish, he did for kicks.

I'm from Rhodesia, and every chance I get, I'm off into the bush, hunting, he told us. So? I said. What's the difference between hunting and fishing? They're basically the same thing.

But our new friend thought not. In the bush there is always something going on, always something to look at, even if you aren't hunting. But you go out to sea and there's nothing but water. Water, water and nothing but more water. I'd be bored out of my mind, he said. You're wrong about that, I told him. What about the fish, the birds, the sea itself.

Sure, he said, every now and again you have to wake up and winch in a little fish, I guess, but that's it, no real action, no excitement.

Sometimes the fish are big, I said.Ya, maybe, but still, it's no contest, the fish don't have a chance, you just reel them in. But with hunting, now, say for dangerous game like elephant or buffalo, they can fight back. If you do something wrong, they can clobber you. That's what makes the difference. It's real action. You can't get that fishing, he informed us, quite forcibly.

You ever been to sea? I asked him. Well no, actually I haven't, he said. But I went out once with a mate on Kariba, so I can imagine what it's like, only it's a bigger dam, and probably even more boring.

To cut a long story short, we persuaded him to join us the next day. He was on holiday anyway, and many tides had come and gone since an elephant had trumpeted or a buffalo snorted in the bush in the Kowie River valley.

What about sea-sickness? he wanted to know. That's part of the action, mate, I told him.

We crossed the bar at sunrise and headed south by west. The sea was in the gentlest of moods, a lazy swell aimlessly ambling along and not a wind ripple in sight, ideal conditions for opening the taps on the two 25 Yamahas and, like the song says, feeling the free, fresh wind in your hair, life without care.

I cut the outboards in 20 fathoms of gin-clear water off the Beacon, an old and much used landmark in the pre-electronic days. I rigged the rods and down we went. Alec, the Rhodesian, fumbled a bit, but at least he knew which end of the pole to hang onto, and seemed keen enough to give this boring business his best shot now that he had no option.

After a short drift with only peckers worrying the baits, we upped lines and I moved us a little closer inshore. We were hardly down when we all three had good pulls and I boated a nice dageraad. Both my crew missed. Contrary to a belief amongst those that have never done it, it can take a while to get the hang of bottom fishing. I moved the boat up-current a little way and dropped the anchor. It was a rocky bottom and hardly any current, so a short scope did the trick and we were soon baited up again.

Okay, fellows, I said, the fish are here. Lets see what you can do.

But instead of picking up his rod, Alec, who, as is the way of hunters, had been looking around here there and everywhere at his strange surroundings, pointed westwards towards the shore and said, Hey, what the hell is that?

I followed his pointing finger, expecting to see porpoises or seals or penguins or something else equally commonplace at sea. What I saw, maybe 400 or so metres away, was a long black thing sticking way up above the surface. Even at that distance there was no mistaking what it was. That's a killer whale's dorsal fin, I said, in my coolest matter-of-fact way.

How big is the thing under the fin, asked Alec.

Umm, if I remember rightly, they can get to round about 8 tonnes, I said. I wanted to say something about elephants but some sixth sense told me not to get too cocky.

Are they dangerous? asked Alec. I'm really not sure, I said. Some people say they are and some say they aren't.

Well I don't know about you guys, but personally I'm not too keen to find out right now, said my other crew member, quickly followed by, Hey, there's another one, about a hundred yards behind the first. Don't you think we should get out of here?

Not yet, I said. Lets fish. You guys go down and I'll keep an eye on them. If they keep their present course they shouldn't come too close to us.

I'd seen killer whales a few times before, once close by. But on all the previous occasions the boat had been moving, never at anchor. I'd also see photographs of killers performing tricks in oceanariums, where, as a reward for being so obedient and clever, they gracefully accepted fish from the hands of their trainers, their big mouths open wide to show the rows of big white teeth. I'd wondered how come their trainers still had arms, let alone fingers; but according to them, the trainers, killer whales were as friendly and as docile as porpoises, once you got to know them.

But I also recalled stories of how killer whales hunted in organised packs, and how they easily killed prey as big as some of the smaller whale species. And how, when they hunted seals, they would use their big blunt heads to smash into ice flows to either break them up or dislodge their quarry. Once the killers had them in the water, it was blood, blubber and foam and that was it for the seals - snackers. Also, I remembered seemingly authentic reports of killer whales purposely smashing into, and subsequently sinking, a number of large sailing yachts.

So I knew a bit about killer whales and their reputations, both good and bad, but Id never lost any sleep over them. When you go to sea in small boats you can't afford to think too much about some of the things that are out there. If you did, you'd stop going.

Seeing I already had a good fish for myself, I was more interested in watching the two whales while the crew did the fishing. Both of them were getting good bites, but neither seemed able to hook a fish, mainly, I suspected, because their minds weren't fully on the job.

For most of the time we could see either the dorsal fins of the whales or the feathers of damp air above them as they exhaled. They moved slowly and somewhat aimlessly past at between two and three hundred yards between the shore and us. I was about to bait my own line again when both fins swung sharply and started to move out to sea behind us. They speeded up and the fins started to zigzag wildly all over the place. Then both fins went down and stayed down. I wasn't too happy with that.

You fellows still getting bites? I asked.

No, it's suddenly gone stone-dead down there, not a touch.

Okay, up lines, I told them. Those bloody goggas are around here somewhere, and I don't like it when I can't see them. Lets go.

Not really panicking, but moving a touch faster than usual, I started taking in the anchor rope. I got it straight up and down, but the grapple had found a good hold in the rocks below and was stuck solid. I had just finished making the rope fast to the bow cleat with a view to pulling it free with the motors, when from behind me came an urgent shout.

Hey, here they come!

My first thought was to cut the rope, but when I jumped upright and looked around I knew there wouldn't even be time to reach for a knife. One of the whales was porpoising in long bounds straight for the stern of the boat, making a lot of noise and leaving big white circles of foam in its wake.

I don't remember how I got to the back of the boat, except that I had to side-step Alec, who had left his eat in the stern and was headed for the bows, all of fourteen feet away, but suddenly I had a starter cord in each hand and both motors were running. In the second between hearing the motors come to life and spinning round to grab the wheel, I looked down into the clear water and saw the whale planing up straight for the transom. It was coming so fast that - deep inside, where you can't fool yourself - I knew we would not be able to get out of its way in time. As someone once said, In my heart, my knees were shaking.

I swung around, slapped levers hard against their stops and leaned over the wheel, urging with body and mind the boat to go forward - and every moment waiting for the smash that would lift us out of the water.

First the stern dug in from the thrust of the motors, and then lifted abruptly as the anchor rope pulled the bows down to almost beneath the surface. Then, thank the good Lord, the 50 mechanical horses ripped the anchor free of its hold and we shot forward. Only then did I dare look over my shoulder. Precisely through the centre of the turbulence left in the water by the starting props, the whale climbed into the air, not slowly, but fast, until it was almost totally clear of the surface, the sea streaming off it like a waterfall going over a big shiny black rock. Then, with a splash we could plainly hear above the roar of the outboards, it fell back and disappeared beneath a circle of bubbling foam. The anchor was ripping along the surface behind us, and fearing the rope may foul the props, I slowed down so we could pull it aboard. But the whale was still coming, again in those long, porpoising bounds. I shoved the throttles forward and hoped for the best. The big creature followed us a short way and then dropped back and finally disappeared.

They say a big fright can make a man turn pale. I can tell you that that is the truth. Both of the crew, who up to a short time before had sported healthy outdoor tans, were almost see-thru, and I'm sure I was the same. I don't think any of us had taken a full breath from the time the motors started until they stopped again for us to bring in the anchor. All three of us continued to hang onto things with grips of steel for a long time after it went quiet.

Was the killer simply being playful, just out for a bit of a gambol with a strange playmate? Or was it maybe hungry? Make of it what you will. But for a second or two, I don't think it would have made much difference to us either way.

That evening Alec bought the first round. He held the neck of the bottle hard against the rim of the glass and poured his beer extra gently, the way you do when you don't want it to foam.