With Help From Jack, A Sailor Bests a Beast and Atones for a Blunder

Alvah Simon gets a lesson in fishing and sharing with the locals. "The Roger Henry File" for September 27, 2007

Alvah headshot 368

Billy Black

It's risky to follow lasts week's promise of truthfulness with a whale of a tale. I only dare to do so because I have proof, Diana and digital--in that order, for no photograph could hold me closer to the truth than Diana.

Last week we were anchored off a small village in Havanah Harbor, on Éfate Island, Vanuatu. I had already gotten myself into trouble with a man from the village of Sunia for diving on a reef without specific permission from THAT reef's chief. The fact that I had three local guides did not seem to mitigate my culpability. The dressing down I took was a good lesson in humility.

As the borders of jurisdiction were so blurred, I decided it best to stay out of the water. From our cockpit we watched a school of large fish churn the surface in terror stricken flight. Whatever caused that kind of pandemonium had to be the bad kind of big.

I turned to Frank, a villager visiting us, and said, "I think I will go catch that fish."

Diana rolled her eyes because my reputation with pole and line is far less stellar than with the spear gun. In fact, I had become the butt of some pointed jokes onboard. Even our faithful cat Halifax, who normally would sit patiently while I fished for her dinner, was now whining for some improvement in my performance.

Before dusk I loaded up my 7-foot flyweight pram with all the ingredients essential to successful fishing: knife, pole, lures, Jack Daniels.

Seriously, to subdue a struggling fish nothing works better than a liberal dose of alcohol in the gills.

I didn't know if I could row fast and far enough to troll effectively, but it was a good excuse for some exercise.

Trailing a Rappala lure, I rowed a half-mile around the point with no effect. It was nearing sunset, and I had broken our rule about always carrying a hand-held VHF radio. I thought I should at least get back in sight of the yacht before dark.

That's when he hit. The reel screamed in protest. If I did nothing I would be stripped in a minute, so I locked the reel down and used myself and the boat as a drag. By shifting my weight I could create more or less resistance through the water, and through the water this brute was pulling me, in the opposite direction of the Roger Henry.

I would row him back towards the boat a few hundred yards, and he would make a mad run out to sea for that and more. When the fish made a run straight down it almost pulled the bow under. I threw my weight aft, and the dingy spun around like a wobbling top. The fish straightened out and tried another tack.

I was able to coax him in a direction that cleared the point, so Diana could get sight of me with binoculars. Mistake. All she could see was the dinghy going around in tight circles. She was furious thinking I had liberally doused my own gills with that Jack.

Then the rain hit and the lights went out. For the next two hours in the pitch dark I was locked in an ancient battle, not wanting to cut him loose, but knowing Diana would be growing more and more concerned. Like Hemmingway's "Old Man and the Sea," I kept whispering to myself, "I went too far, I went too far."

I was soaked and tiring faster than the fish. But just when I thought it was time to admit defeat, he turned and made a big pull towards the half dozen anchored yachts. Through the rain I could see spotlights sweeping the sea and skies, and heard people screaming and high-speed dinghies buzzing over the water.

"Oh no!" I thought. "She has called out half the forces of the free world in search."

Search party or not, I turned back to my task. I needed to identify the fish as edible or not, make sure he was not foul hooked, and then decide to keep him or let him go. (As if it was up to me.)

I couldn't have known the lights had nothing to do with me. The Vanuatu navy launched a swat team in an inflatable to inspect all the yachts' papers. They jumped on one in the dark, but the owner was in the cockpit of another nearby. Seeing his boat being bordered, and not knowing they were officials, he let out a mighty roar.

Meantime, the beast made a run directly for the Roger Henry amidst all that confusion. I emerged from the dark and yelled to Diana to throw me our net as I passed by. Funny, she did not seem happy to see me.

I shot off managing to get more and more line in. Finally in the glow of Diana's spotlight I saw the silver flash of a frightfully large Turrum (Carangoides emburyi), a fish known to be free of ciguatera, and excellent eating. There was nothing graceful about getting him into the tippy dinghy, as only half of his 50-plus pound body would fit in the net.

Finally, cold, wet, bloody, and very tired, I hauled him onboard the Roger Henry.

He was indeed foul hooked, and had I cut him loose he certainly would have died wastefully. Just like the Old Man and the Sea, I felt more sadness than elation, for this was indeed a mighty warrior of a fish.

The villagers weren't sad, for in the morning the canoes lined up for thick slabs of pure white, glorious protein. I sent a 10-pound bag over to the chief of Sunai as an apology for my heinous crimes, gave the meaty skeleton to Frank's family for a grand boil-up, and kept three days worth of wonderful eating for us.

Halifax's faith in me has been restored, and it only took Diana until Thursday to start talking to me again. Overall, a grand little adventure.

Alvah Simon

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