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A day in Buzios

Although the city of Buzios in Brazil was originally founded by fisherman who named it in reference to a type of shellfish that was prolific in this part of the ocean, there was very little information in the travel guides that made any reference at all to the fishing. One fact that stood out in my mind was that it was a resort village on the northern coast of Brazil that had been discovered by the French actress Brigitte Bardot in the sixties and that somewhere on the island was a bronze statue of her likeness staring thoughtfully out to sea. It was a sleepy little fishing village nestled comfortably on a long peninsula and surrounded by majestic bays of turquoise waters and small islands that had at one point in its history, long before Brigitte showed up to sunbathe nude on its beautiful beaches, served as a both a hideout for pirates as well as a supply stop for Portuguese slave traders.  And a thousand years before they arrived, the Tamoio and Gouticas tribes inhabited the area, the original aborigines of this coastal region of the country that were later exterminated through disease, slavery, or by a series of devastating attacks by the Portuguese for having allied themselves with the French in the battle for control of Rio de Janeiro in 1567. The only modern vestiges of their existence as a people remain in the miscegenated bloodlines of many of today’s local inhabitants

Although modern day Buzios – generally known for its swanky restaurants or pousadas, exclusive shopping, and beautiful golden beaches – is a sophisticated paradise for jet setters and celebrities, my singularly obsessive thoughts revolved around getting a line into the clear blue waters offshore and as such immediately headed off the dock where we had tendered towards the fisherman’s wharf in search of a boat. It didn’t take long as most of the fishing boats were still out, and probably had been since well before sunrise and only a few of the trawlers were still moored at the pier. They were mostly all colourfully painted an azure blue and painted white halfway up at the mid-section of the hull where the boat met the waterline. The reason for this is that from a fish eye perspective, they were camouflaged to look like the overhead sky and cloud formations. These were small trawlers equipped with diesel engines, and each vessel had probably been built by the man who would ultimately live or die at sea of his own hand and was a reflection of his boat building abilities. Each boat was made to the specifications of the fisherman, who in these parts was also the mechanic, engineer, boat builder, carpenter, plumber, fisherman, and guide.

The two other boats were empty and both in apparent and differing states of disrepair and malfunction. One had a section of planks ripped away from the port side bow near the gunnel while the other was opened up in the middle like a disembowelled fish and parts of its engine lay strewn across the deck like discarded offal.  At the furthest end of the pier a man wearing only ripped shorts was resetting his long lines and affixing the hooks to what appeared to be a bicycle tire minus the rim. His rhythm of motion was both fluid and perfect, informed by a graceful economy that only the seasoned can perform through a lifetime of practice. The first step was to clean the hook and discard the bait if still attached, then he proceeded to wrap the line around the center in two overhead swooping and circular motions with his right hand, laying the mainline in perfect concentric rings at the tires center and bringing the hook on the trailer line down and setting it into the rubber tire with his left hand. The absolute perfection of his technique fascinated me and I watched for several minutes before easing into a conversation  with him regarding the whereabouts of  a boat for hire to take me out for sailfish – para pesca en el mare por espadon, I explained in my horrendous Portuguese, mostly gleaned from watching television with English subtitles. – Ese possible aqui?

As the linguistic obstacle reached its inevitable climax, having exhausted my repertory of words and no longer having a firm grasp what language was actually spewing out of my mouth and resorting to hand movements and charades, his instincts as a capitalist kicked in he quickly seized upon the opportunity, answering  in a universal language even aliens would understand – Si si si es possible para cento dolares por hora

We negotiated terms and agreed to three hundred dollars for a half day of four hours and not three minutes later we shoved off from the pier and began to slowly motor out of the harbour. The boat motored towards the end of the eight kilometre peninsula upon which sits the city, a confluence where cool ocean currents coming up from Antarctica and warmer ones travelling southwards from Brazil collide and mix, making it rich in plankton and a prime area for baitfish like anchovies and sardines, which in turn brought in larger predators. Unlike many other areas of the ocean where the continental shelf could run hundreds of miles offshore, it was my understanding that the drop off here was close to shore and there were pelagics that could be caught within sight of land.  As he possessed no modern electronics on board other than his cell phone, he began scanning the clear skies for signs of feeding birds with a pair binoculars barely held together by electric tape. He was short and stocky, powerfully built, at least in his mid-sixties, skin as dark as leather, with hands and feet that were gnarled and calloused by the hard work of a lifetime of a fishing boat.  His eyes were brown and bloodshot, with tiny veins that formed like rivers from his iris and dumped into the jaundice ponds that had formed near the lachrymal pockets. Edwidge looked like he had been on a drunken binge for the last few years.

As we passed by the beaches or praias and moved beyond the rocky Ponto de Criminoso he motioned to me to get the lignas out of the compartemente on the sides of the boat. There were crudely made compartments with rusty hinges that had all but fallen out. The one on the port side contained a few pairs of rusty pliers, a few sebeke rigs for catching baitfish, a small anchor, lure box, pair of polyurethane gloves, half a cut bonito, now somewhat dried-out and rancid smelling, and a big ball of line. There were no rods. The absence of rod holders fastened to the stern, gimbal belts, a fighting chair suddenly sank in – the big ball of line was the rod and we would be hand lining for sailfish.

Ligna espadon con la mana? I queried sceptically.

Si, Si, came the his reply as he unravelled the first twenty feet of line in loose coils upon the deck. He disappeared inside the cabin for a moment and returned, holding nothing more in his calloused hands than a nine inch long stainless steel cylinder that was roughly the diameter of a large bic style pen, with a steel cable running through it crimped to a large single hook with feather trailer attached. Anchovas artificielle he said as he deftly tied it to the end of the hand line and handed it back to me as if I actually knew what to do with it next. His cell phone rang and he disappeared into the cabin, drawn into a long conversation with a loud and angry female at the other end of the line. Apparently, even in paradise love can sometimes be a difficult proposition. It sounded like he would be busy for awhile.

The mechanics of hand fishing are not really that difficult to grasp as it is something that is almost hardwired into our genetics as human beings. At some point or another in our genealogy you can rest assured that somewhere along the line of our ancient ancestors, somebody somewhere was catching fish with a hand line. It was with an inexplicable sense of ease and understanding that was approached this exciting new type of fishing. The artificial anchovy was tossed into the prop wash and the ball of monofilament bounced wildly about the deck as another eighty feet of line was let out behind the boat.  The bait was heavy and running well through the water every so often breaking through the crest of a swell before disappearing again in the turquoise water and leaaving a trail of bubbles behind it. Great care was given towards ensuring that the line was always held between the last two fingers and then under the middle finger and back over onto the tip of the index and at no point was the line ever wrapped fully around a single finger. Even a neophyte like myself quickly realized the potential for losing any number of digits, be it fingers or toes, to the strike of a sailfish or tuna. For some reason my mind began to ponder about the number of fisherman there were in Brazil, after falling asleep in the hot sun with the line tied off to a finger or toe, were traipsing around minus a few digits.

One thing was certain – there would be no doubt about it when a fish actually hit. I tried to visualize it over in my mind in an attempt to mentally prepare myself for the encounter. I broke it down into three stages, a triumvirate of co-dependent circumstances required to successfully capture a sailfish in this fashion. The first step was to assure that my trolling technique would actually entice a fish to strike and that secondly, and more importantly, without my losing any fingers in the process, the hook would manage to find some real estate.  The third and most daunting stage would be the actual consummation of our unity, the nuts and bolts of actually fighting a sailfish mano a mano, hauling it hand over hand and then letting the line run through your hands as the fish raced to liberty, a scene probably repeated over and over replete with sweat, blood, and invective, until the fish was finally brought to the boat. While simple in theory it is not an easy feat in practice and certainly requires more skill than achieving the same end result with a rod and reel.

With the greatest range of motion possible, I began working the line by swinging my left arm in an exaggerated motion to above shoulder length and then by dropping it back as quickly as possible to behind my back and single-mindedly repeating the motion every few seconds like a metronome.  This additional action imparted to the lure often worked well to trigger strikes, a lesson learned from fly fishing streamer flies at ice out for landlocked salmon in lakes five thousand miles further north.  Still busy on the phone, the Captain peered out from the cabin, smiled and gave me thumbs up on my technique, as well as indicating the area ahead of us where we would be trolling. It was a rocky shoreline upon which all sides of the tides and currents seethed and crashed and foamed, and a tumultuous spray or mist of water sent high into the sky above, forming an ephemeral rainbow above the rocks.

No sooner than we reached the outside perimeter of the craggy rocks fifty feet to the starboard side of the boat, mist from the surf raining over the boats wooden bimini top, the unmistakeable fin of a sailfish broke the surface behind the lure and nailed the metallic anchovy at the end of my line. The ferociousness and force with which it hit was beyond any fishing sensation ever felt before. Its viciousness and malice of forethought registered from the tips of my fingersnails and resonated through my body, like an electric current, to the tips of my toenails. Instictively, I reared back my arm with all my force and for a split second was able to feel the energy of this fish at the other end. It was like hooking into a natural disaster, like a hurricane, avalanche, or tornado. The line immediately seared across my fingers as it tightened suddenly against the great weight of the fish. And then in a second, was gone, and the anchovy was once again swimming uninterrupted. There had not been enough resistance and the hook had not found a hold in a soft corner of its mouth. I turned towards the cabin to see if El Capitano had witnessed the brief struggle but he was still on his phone, gazing ahead into the vast sea.

I retrieved the lure and verified to see if everything was still intact and that the hook had not in fact broken free during the brief yet vicious encounter. All was in order and it was quickly thrown back overboard and the process of working it back and forth by hand continued for a few hours without producing another fish.  Edwidge, who had been oblivious to what had transpired earlier at the stern of the boat, seemed fascinated as I later recounted the brief encounter with the pelagic and showed him the red line seared across the palm of my left hand. He laughed, turning up his own palms which were criss-crossed with scars of varying lengths and widths, and proceeded to the compartment where he retrieved the gloves and tossed them at my feet. Edwidge then pointed to his watch and indicated that our time was up and that he would be heading back towards the harbour at trolling speed.

Sensing the precious few moments ticking away I feverishly worked the lure through what seemed to be promising water, deep blue water that was rich with aquatic life in every form.  In the short period it took us to return it was as though time was condensed in the absolute present of the moment, where the universe was comprised of only myself, the boat, the sky above, the line in my hands, and somewhere deep behind the boat, the hope that there was a hungry fish searching for an easy meal. This heightened sense of focus and awareness seemed to last an eternity but gradually, as shoreline came into view and other boats sailed by in the channel, time and consciousness recalibrated reality, all hope was finally abandoned, and the perfect moment was soon to fade into memory.

Carefully, so as not to create any new kinks in his line, I slowly wrapped the monofilament back onto the ball, snipped the lure off with a pair of pliers and tossed it back into his compartment. The day was done and the only reminder of this new experience would be the blistering red line that had been branded by a sailfish across the palm of my hand, a way line where Buzios had left its indelible mark.

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