Charlie's Story


by Charlie Marais

The snoek is a strong fish. Thyrsites atun, the snoek, is a long, thin, species of snake mackerel found in the seas of the Southern Hemisphere. This fish can reach a length of 200 centimetres, though most do not exceed 75 centimetres according to my friend Wikipedia.

Thirteen years old and I had my first snoek on the hook.  The hand line my dad bought especially for me was 150-pound break-power nylon.  An old piece of bicycle tube was cut in shorts strips and two were around my fingers so as to ensure the line does not cut into my ever softening skin.  Ever softening as this was a wet business. 

The sea was no friend this morning.  It was rough, very cold and we had to fight our way forward to the favourable spot where we could start fishing.  My dad, an old Second World War sailor, had no concern as he does not know what sea sick is.  He says that during the war you either adapted or you died.  Well, he did not die, so I reckon he was adapted to rough seas.  A cigarette hanging from the side of his mount, by now sopping wet and only the idea of a smoke remained.  Many a time the front would fall completely off and he would be left with the filter still in his mouth, but there was no time to pay attention to little details, the sea was rough and the little four-meter boat with two 25 horsepower engines would rise over the first wave and then crash head first into the next. The water was ice cold as fishing for snoek used to be a winter activity in the Cape.  In summer they would have worms.  Well, it sounds worse than it tastes.  The worms were like fat streaks inside in the fish's flesh and I from time to time I had to eat fish containing those and believe me the idea was much worse than the taste.  In fact, it did not taste like anything, just more protein I suppose.  Oh please do not be so squeamish, true survival is a sure cure for those that are picky with their food.  I was brought up under the constant reminder that to eat custard and cake are for the girls, men eat tough stuff without pulling a face. 

As the boat hits the bottom of the trough or gaping hole that was formed behind the previous wave, water spray splashed over the entire boat.  The quantity would be likened to buckets of water being thrown out over you.  For this occasion, which was normal in the rough winter seas, there was this wonderful invention called oil-skins.  The oil-skin jacket and pants, miles too big for me, but as I snuggled and kept every crack closed, I was dry and getting warmer.  Not for long though as the bashing was so powerful that I would became airborne above my seat.  I would grab for life, my dad would grin and the water would find the little crack in the oil skin.  The cold water shocked me back into fighting mode and feeling sorry for myself did not help, the pounding continued.  I clearly recall thinking why my dad could not stop where we were and attempt some fishing, or even better, turn back.  I was far too young to die drowning.

Eventually the eternity of bashing, being airborne and getting wet was over.  Dad was happy with the spot and the anchor was to be released.  That was my job.  The anchor was in the front of the boat on the floor with the rope rolled up neatly.  I had to concentrate as this was the next death trap.  The anchor must go over the side without my thirteen-year-old little body following.  The old sailor would not come after me, he would just shout; "this is what makes a man".  Oh yes, I have fallen out once and I was sure he was going to hit me, but then he was laughing so much he probably forgot to slap me.  I carefully grabbed the anchor and hurled it over the side after ensuring that I would not be caught in the twirls of the rope.  The water splashed back and the roughness of the sea did not help to stabilise my stance.  This was my first snoek trip and for now I was not so sure anymore.  I have been to sea many times before and I knew that this was going to be a tough day, more than experienced before and I would become sick to test my endurance.  Sea-sick was not my friend.

It was cold, I was wet and the little boat bobbed on top of the sea as I longingly looked back at Houtbay which is situated the other side of Cape Town from Sea Point.  My line was in the water.  The others all had two lines in.  Yes, there were three of us on board and the other two was soon chatting and making plans how to lure the fish.  The easiest was to let a hessian bag with old rotten fish hang over the side by the back of the boat between the two motors.  The waiting now began.  On the hook was half a sardine which was frozen.  This was bought as bait and kept in the freezer at home. 

My hands were frozen, or at least it was painful from the cold.  To alleviate this condition, my dad would start one of the motors and catch the hot water from its cooling system in a little tin, which we all used to warm our hands.  It would be a while before the first bite and I was getting settled in just to become aware of the onset of some nasty feeling in my stomach.  Sea sick was no new experience and I had to go along.  Fighting it would just postpone the inevitable.

Getting sea sick works as follows; first you are sorry for yourself, then you are worried that you will die and finally you wish you would die.  I had first-hand experience of gall, the green stuff I have seen after my stomach had no more to give and then when you are really sick, it becomes yellow.  Someone suggested pancreas juices, never mind, it all was extremely bitter and helped nothing to stabilise the situation.

The thing with vomiting is that you cannot rush or actually delay it and it comes with the speed of white light.  My bark and cough as I sprayed "fish food" all along the boat was met with grins from both men.  "Good boy, just do not feed the fish too much, we also need to catch some".  I was not amused.  I would make a point if it to eat some rusks, cheese with coffee before setting to sea, well knowing that I needed something to offer the sea when the time comes. 

I was still dreaming of it to end so that I can be relieved from this torment when my line all of a sudden went stiff.  It immediately started to run through the water and I was nearly in the water.  My dad yelled for me to hold on and now it was me and the snoek.  This was a hand line and then I felt how the line started to eat into my flesh.  The one tube had fallen off and now with the fish running for its life I managed to grip the line tight enough so that it was not slipping in my hands.  My hands were burning, the line had bruised it badly and my left index finger was cut through the skin.  With salt water into the wound, I was dimly aware of the pain, but I was going to put up a fight. Battle scars are always a good thing to be able to show and this time would be no exception. 

Dad was now very excited and he yelled for me to bring the fish in. 

From vomiting to being fully entangled with my first possible catch of such a big fish now on a hand line, must have taken seconds, but the fish was not going to make it easy for me.  "I cannot bring it in", I yelled and just tried to at least hold on so that the line did not slip.  Well, it did slip, quite few times and now the fight was on to see who was going to give up.  He or she must get tired and so would I, but not today, my reputation was at stake.  Not that I had any reputation to start off with, but whatever the outcome would be the talking point for many days to come.  That would seal my reputation.  After all, battle scars are a good thing only if you won.

It was not easy growing up under the ex-sailor.  He did not forgive weakness and he desperately wanted to be proud of me.  The sea sickness he tolerated in amusement, but any other weakness displayed would be frowned upon for a long time.  It was probably all over in ten minutes where it should only have taken two or so minutes.  It felt like the entire morning when I eventually dragged the snoek over the side into the boat.  The cold in my fingers and the sour after-taste of vomit forgotten for now.

The snoek is a ferocious fish and could snap your finger off as it has seriously long and sharp teeth, a very strong yaw and snapping at everything was its only defence.  The unforgiveable would be to drop the snoek in the boat as then it would tangle all the other lines, especially mine as it was now lying at my feet inside the boat.  The trick was the twist the line around your right hand twice, just short of the fish's mouth, and then swing it under your left armpit.  Clamping it now onto your body, while the left hand goes up from underneath to grip the fish around the neck with your thumb on top of the fish's neck.  The right hand then grabs the yaws from the bottom and with an upwards motion you break the fishes neck backwards, over your left thumb.  It is claimed that some fishermen have actually broken their left thumbs as the water is so cold that all feeling is gone.  I would always remember not to break my other thumb, but the fish's neck.

Well, there was no way that I had the strength or skill to do this and as expected, I dropped the fish inside the boat.  Now it was pandemonium.  Both adults threw what was left of their lines very quickly in the water so as to save it from being tangled.  The fish was snapping at everything.  Both my dad and his friend had to lift their feet away from the bottom of the boat.  If it was not so serious, I could have laughed.  My line was now being tangled and Dad was in no good mood anymore.  He was yelling at me to catch and kill the fish.  From this unexpected action required he in addition also lost his cigarette.

Killing the fish now became priority one and for this there was a knob-kierie or wooden club.  With this I attacked the fish and the only way was to bludgeon it to death.  Eventually I got it killed and carefully I took the knife and slit the bottom part below the gills so as to be able to break its neck.  This had to happen as the fish needed to bleed out, otherwise it would go rotten.  Well, that was the story.  For now, the fish was in the bin and proudly I looked at my dad hoping for a nod of acknowledgement.  I got my nod and that was one of the proudest moments as from now on my reputation of catching, landing and killing the fish would make me one of them.  Oh, come now, the fish does not feel pain like you and I.  The future ones would always be handled smoother and let us call it for now - more humane.

Dad lit another cigarette and I, well I was now trying to get the knots out of my line.  I was off the hook for dropping the fish, or at least I was safe for the moment.  It was never difficult to get into trouble those days.  Looking down into the boat and concentrating was just what was required to get the next bout of sickness on the go.  Strange how quick such a process develops and turns into a fully fledge barking with absolutely nothing more to offer the fishes, but strangely coloured bodily juices.