Fishing In Tilting

A writer’s account of jigging their first cod…

Our team of volunteer writers, editors and photographers are working hard to reconceptualize and rebuild into a sustainable media outlet, a big part of which will be dedicated to providing an outlet for our exceptional writers – young and old, published and unpublished – to express themselves and share their work. So it’s with great pleasure and honour that we received the following message from a young writer on Fogo Island:

Hi, I wanted to submit a piece I wrote about a fishing experience I had, here on Fogo Island, Newfoundland … I have read this piece at a recent reading here at the SlipWay (in Tilting, there’s a community of writers as well as a residency program that invites writers and artist to visit Fogo Island) on Fogo Island and as it was well received, I thought I would send it off to The Independent, to see if it’s something you might be interested in featuring in your “Life” Section – after all, this pertains to life in it’s truest form here in Newfoundland; fishing.

Fishing in Tilting

To Joe, Leo and Nick.

However brief, the experience of being on the water and glimpsing what it means to be a fisherman on Fogo Island has changed me. Even though I proudly profess my heritage as an islander, not having to be at the mercy of the sea to survive, I’ve come to see how disconnected I am from the island environment. It’s a lifestyle, one that requires you to know the sea, to be at peace with yourself and nature. When it’s just you in a boat surrounded by the sea and fish you come to realise just how truly sane and beautiful, the life of a fisherman is.

That evening, as I stood on the fishing dock in Tilting with the clouds reflecting onto the sea, purples, pinks and yellows of a dying sunset, I was grappling with feelings of both fascination and repulsion. I watched ejaculate and shit pour out of a cod’s sex pooling out unto a cutting table already painted with blood and guts. It was beautiful and raw propelling my mind back to the first time that day I laid eyes on that very Cod.

The dark waves chomped at the boat as we made our way noisily toward open waters. I was happy. Renewed by these waves that seemed to help us gallop along as Fogo Island dimmed in our sights. I was a fisherman heading out to catch my wares for the day. Soon I would be casting my line into the deep blue, watching it sink, following it with my eyes as far as they would allow. Where cute silvery fish swimming about, doing what fish do, would come upon my shiny silver hook reminding them of food dancing in the underwater currents. An injured herring for the taking perhaps, or some form of yummy shellfish? A lazy crab maybe? But no matter their fancy, the fish want to grab on to my hook. Are compelled to do so. Because I, in my deepest of hearts, believe I am the fisherman who just needs to cast the line and the fish would come. I am the fisherman who, through sheer instinct could will the cod into my boat.

So it was to my surprise and chagrin when my fellow companions, Leo, native Newfoundlander and seasoned fisherman; the trace lines on his rugged face an indicator of his time at sea, Nicholas, recent settler from St John’s and Joe, the American from Michigan, kept pulling in fish after fish after fish and I, nothing. Here I stood in all my glory: black running pants over my jeans, green wellies up to my knees, fisherman jacket protecting me from the spray of water; jiggling my line with fervour, only to pull in the shiny hook I had casted. And when Nick tried to show me how to hold the line and jig it so the fish would bite, I couldn’t help but exclaim – maybe a little too gruffly, “I know what I’m doing man!”

“You’ve got to do it like so.” Nick prodded gently as my face grew creases in places I never knew possible. He could see I was getting frustrated, even if I couldn’t admit it to myself. It was an exhausting technique of pulling the line taut as you realigned the spool with the thin fishing line. Constantly pulling up, stop, hold tight, pulling up, stop, hold tight, and over again. “But I’ve got my own technique” I said with determination.

Did I also mention how stubborn islanders can be? I would not let go of this idea that being an island girl somehow meant I knew how to bring in fish, even though in Jamaica, truth be told, I had never fished once.

Did I also mention how stubborn islanders can be? I would not let go of this idea that being an island girl somehow meant I knew how to bring in fish, even though in Jamaica, truth be told, I had never fished once.

The only time I came close to fishing growing up was when my uncle Lloyd would survey the array of fish brought in by the fishermen from their trips out to sea. There we stood on the white sand beach of Hellshire near Portmore, surrounded by people soaking up the hot sun, as my uncle haggled with a fisherman on price. After what seemed like hours to me as a child, fidgeting back and forth on my tip toe as my stomach grumbled, my uncle would point at a few Snappers, beautiful and red, and say, “Dat one dere masa. Cook it up fah me good and ting, right?” The truth is when it came to fishing I was good at doing one thing; and that was eating the fish. Escovitched with a side of festival: sweet dough made popular by fishermen’s wives cooking over sizzling grills under makeshift canopies adorning the beach.

But see, fishing had to be in my blood. As sure as my hands, nose and legs were mine I was convinced, like an old car I just needed a jumpstart. It was also possible that after all those additional years living in NYC, where catching fish was as easy as a hop, skip and a jump to the frozen aisle section of Whole Foods, my innate fishing skill had become buried having lain dormant for so long. How could I say I was a true islander without actually catching fish?

On the far end of the boat, Joe grinned from ear to ear as one by one he brought up a cod the size of my leg. Leo’s hands moved like magic as he pulled up a cod, grabbed it by the gills and then slit its throat before setting it in the boat. He didn’t miss a beat. Even when I interrupted him to ask, what was that worm-like thing on the underbelly of the fish, he replied without hesitation, “dat dere is the bellybutton.” It took a few seconds for me to realise he was teasing. Shouldn’t an island girl have known dat dere was not the bellybutton?

Sure enough, hanging motionless on my line was a cod. I held him in my hands and he was smoother than anything I had ever felt. His big eyes stared as his gills opened and closed. I petted him. I fell in love with him, as he lay there motionless in my arms. The tears welled up in my eyes.

Every time the wave pulled on my line I yelled, “I got one! I got one!” and I yanked at the line with such earnest you would’ve thought I was pulling up a pot of gold. I peeked over the boat as I pulled up the green fishing line convinced the weight was a big cod; bigger than any of the others the guys had pulled in. The silver slither I saw approaching was indeed going to be the biggest, most delicious cod anyone had ever seen! And I caught it! I pulled even faster. It didn’t take long for me to realise the light on the rippling blue water was playing tricks on me. It was just the hook. No cod. For all my jiggling not a fish would bite.

I was just about to give up when Nick saw the look on my face and came over to my side of the boat. By then I was watching my hook sink, its silver glow disappearing as it fell to the bottom. “Here, let me help.” Nick motioned for me to hand him the line. This time I didn’t put up a fight. He pulled, held the line taut, stopped. Pulled, held the line taut, stopped. “You’ve got to keep at it,” he said as his hands worked with the line in quick repetitions. I started to face the fact that maybe my technique wasn’t so technical. Maybe fishing wasn’t exactly “in my blood” as I had put it.

“I think I’ve got one.” Nick said as he handed me the line. “Now, don’t let go, hold tight and pull it up quickly.”

I really wanted to be the girl who brought in her own fish. I wanted these men to look at me and say, “she sure know how to ketch fish, by!” I pulled like I’d never pulled before, like I did see that pot of gold glimmering in the water. Sure enough, hanging motionless on my line was a cod. I held him in my hands and he was smoother than anything I had ever felt. His big eyes stared as his gills opened and closed. I petted him. I fell in love with him, as he lay there motionless in my arms. The tears welled up in my eyes.

When Leo reached for him I fought the urge to throw him back into the water. As Leo slit his throat and red gushed, I wondered what he was thinking. Leo threw him in next to the other cod, bloody and dead or dying. Not one of them flopped about or fought to get away when our hands grabbed them as they came in off the lines. It was as if they knew what was to come the minute they were pulled from the sea and had decided not to resist. Almost like they wanted to be caught. I thought of the story of Jesus on the waters of Bethsaida, when he fed five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish. (“And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. 42 So they all ate and were filled.” – Mark 6:31-44).

I wanted to believe the fish lying still in the boat next to us were giving up their lives so that we could be full. Maybe that was me after seeing their blood spill, trying to find some justification for their slaughter. Even an island girl had to have heart.

Nikkie, Joe and Leo

As we sped to shore, the belly of our boat full with fish, I was happy. And yet, staring at the back of Leo’s head as he guided us back to shore, it was hard not to feel a bit silly. Here was Leo, a fisherman by birthright taking three very green people out to participate in something he did every day to make a living. To him, it was his way of life. To us, it was just supposed to be a fun experience. But, when the dock came into view in the glow of dusk, everything seemed so clear to me. I had touched the cod with my bare hands while blood coursed through its veins. I had watched the knife slide easily from one gill to another. I wanted to go back. Back out on the open sea with a line and the sound of the waves lapping hungrily at the sides of the boat.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in the 80s, Niquae spent her formative years reading by flashlight under the sheets incessantly indulging in a love affair with words. Nowadays, she spends time on Fogo Island focusing her energy writing poetry, short stories and informative essays addressing social issues and scenarios impacting people. Niquae does her best thinking staring at brick walls while engaged in in depth conversations with herself.

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