Among the various relaxing activities that guests can indulge in during a holiday in the Maldives, night-fishing trips clearly stand out as a popular way of enjoying a distinctly Maldivian pastime. Or so the promotional brochures and resort leaflets will have you believe.
I was on a two-day trip to Fihalhohi Island Resort, an idyllic resort island in South Malé Atoll more suited to budget-conscious travellers seeking a “pure” Maldivian resort experience without being distracted by the glamour, extravagant pampering and luxurious accommodation available at the more high-end resorts in the country. I was going through the list of available services at the resort when the words “night-fishing” caught my eye.
According to much of the promotional literature available at the resorts of the Maldives, night-fishing as a form of leisure activity was a long-running tradition in the country that could be traced back to when the Maldivian forefathers (who were apparently mostly fishermen) had first figured out that fish don’t necessarily tuck themselves in for the night when the sun sets over the horizon, and could still be caught just as easily as during daylight hours. I’ve always had difficulty imagining that my ancestors would willingly go back to the sea at night with the sole intention of catching more fish, when they already spent most of their day in a dhoni (boat), labouring under a mercilessly hot sun, trying to hook the tricky and elusive fellows while being constantly rocked and tossed about by the huge waves on the open sea. Why anyone would choose to head back out there again – particularly at a time when they would be at a clear disadvantage given the fact that visibility would be limited to a few feet around the boat – was beyond me.
However, my opinion changed somewhat when I experienced firsthand how soothing and relaxing a night-time voyage on a traditional Maldivian sailboat can be, especially if it’s a calm, starry night with a full moon above, and its slightly rippling counterpart reflecting off the surface of the ocean. So why ruin the mood by engaging in a frustrating activity like fishing, I wondered. At this point I must admit – if it hasn’t become apparent already – that I am a bit biased against night-fishing as I’ve tried my hand at it three times in my life and those experiences had not exactly been successful.
The first night-fishing trip I went to was back when I was a teenager. The group of friends who had organised the trip had each chipped in an equal sum from their pocket money to rent a small mechanized dhoni and a crew of two to take us out to sea. At sundown, equipped with freshly purchased fishing equipment, we anchored off a reef near Hulhulé (where the country’s first international airport is located), dropped our lines over the side of the small boat and settled down. Before the hour was up we had caught more than a dozen reef fish in varying sizes and colours. I say “we” in the loosest sense of the word since even though everyone else had caught at least one fish, I had not been so lucky – unless you count the rock I snagged with my hook and line. A crew member eventually had to cut my line with a knife after I nearly capsized the boat while futilely pulling, releasing and yanking the line in an attempt to dislodge the hook from whatever immovable object it had caught onto down in the depths of the dark water. By the time we headed back, nearly three hours later and almost two dozen fish richer, I had managed to cut my fingers in three places with the fishing line, hook a friend’s shirt and land a huge black eel (which my friends to this day claim was a small black spotted eel, not even a foot long, despite my assertion that it was actually a giant moray eel about five feet in length). We finally managed to throw the wildly snapping and flopping whirlwind of razor-sharp teeth back into the water after several intense minutes of screaming and hopping about on the wobbling boat, struggling to avoid the eel’s maw and grab it by its tail.
The second time was several years later, when I was on an uninhabited island in Baa Atoll with another group of friends. We were all lying back on the beach, relating funny stories we had all heard many times before and staring up at the beautiful starry sky above when someone floated the idea that it would be beyond brilliant to have a beach barbecue of freshly caught reef fish for dinner that night. A chorus of agreement and an hour later I found myself in the middle of the ocean, throwing out a baited line from the big dhoni we had hired to get to the island. The storm hit us from out of nowhere. Within the span of a few minutes the starry sky was replaced by ominous dark clouds and the full moon disappeared behind a huge thunderhead. Being the “macho” men that they were, to a man my friends refused to head back without catching something. At least they got that wish for they all had come down with severe colds by the time we somehow managed to navigate the rough sea, the pouring rain and the powerful winds to make it back to the island in one piece.
My third night-fishing trip ended up with the speedboat we were on crashing into a reef before we had even arrived at one of the many “fishing hot spots” purportedly located near a popular resort in North Malé Atoll. Everyone onboard, severely bruised but otherwise unhurt in the crash, were stranded hip-deep on the submerged reef for one extremely long and suspenseful hour while the Coastguard tried to locate us before the wrecked speedboat was pushed off the reef and into the deeper waters by the crashing waves. Needless to say, no fish were caught on that trip either.
So, as you can imagine, my past experiences in night-fishing were a very far cry from the fun-filled but relaxing activity generally advertised in resort brochures. Despite all that I still found myself intrigued enough by the very concept of night-fishing, what was by now beginning to sound like a Zen-like meditational activity to me, to sign up for the resort’s night-fishing excursion that night.
I arrived at the resort’s jetty around 5pm or so. Two dhonis – one painted a bright blue and the other a light brown – were already waiting with their engines idling, ready to whisk the clients off to the predefined fishing positions beyond the resort’s reef. Those who had signed up for the excursion, two groups of six guests each, started boarding their respective vessels as soon as I arrived. I was assigned to the group that boarded the blue dhoni and sat down on the wooden seats that lined the sides of the boat on the port and starboard side. There are no fishing rods, poles or spinning rules used in night-fishing. It was the lack of modern equipment that made night-fishing in the Maldives such a fun pastime, we were told. Each of us picked up a yellow plastic reel – roughly six inches in diameter – that had been placed on the deck. The fishing line had been rolled around it and the crew had even attached a hook and lead sinker to the line. During my first fishing trip as a teenager, I had to roll the fishing line around an empty plastic bottle as we had only enough money to buy the fishing line. It was crude but had worked surprisingly well. “How convenient it is now”, I thought to myself. Properly attaching the hook to the fishing line and looping it through the hollow middle of the cone-shaped lead sinker was a skill I had never managed to master. Usually the process would take me the better half of an hour, so I usually did that during the time it took the boat to travel to its destination. It was at that moment that I realised that things were going to be much simpler and definitely more enjoyable this time around.
We reached the “fishing spot” after about 15 minutes of travelling west from the resort. The sky was just turning orange in that direction as the sun slowly sank lower and already there were hints of purple and red on the eastern sky. Only a few clouds covered the sky near the horizon and they were fringed in bright gold. We were still pretty close to the resort and could even make out people walking along the resort’s white beach. After weighing anchor the captain shut off the dhoni’s engine, and the crew members revealed a large Styrofoam box on the deck that had been covered by a wide-mouthed bucket. The bucket was empty at the moment but would be used to keep the day’s catch, providing there were any. The box was filled with fish guts and strips of flesh, mostly belly cuts from tuna. This was the bait. The crew clustered around the box and began hooking the strips of fish onto the fishing lines. One by one the guests collected their lines and moved to a preferred location around the boat and threw the weighted lines and bait over the side.
According to the resort brochure, from this point on, the expedition could go one of two ways. The first option is available if the fish are really biting. In that case, the brochure tells me, there’s less talk and more excited shouts as guests begin pulling in snappers, squirrelfish, jacks and other reef fish one after the other. Well, that wasn’t how it went that day so I was left with the second option which states that “if the fish aren’t biting, then things are less exciting as everyone finds a comfortable spot on the deck to stretch out their legs and starts swapping fishing stories while enjoying the beauty of the starry night sky or the moonlit night, the gentle breezes and the peaceful sounds of the ocean waves”.
Looking around the boat I saw a couple, possibly honeymooners, necking at the bow of the boat, their fishing lines entangled as much as their limbs were. There would not be much “fishing stories” forthcoming from that section, it was safe to assume. Behind me, on the port side, sat a man, probably in his sixties, with a jolly-looking face whose whole attire and personality practically shouted “I’m on holiday and I’m having a blast!” He reeled out his fishing line nearly to its entire length and then began pulling it back in, even faster than he had released it. Halfway through he stopped and released it again. He looked at me and winked. “Have to keep the fishies guessing,” he told me in a British accent, and suddenly released his hold on the line entirely. He watched the line stream out into the sea and then grabbed it just as it was nearing the end of its length. He wound it around the leg of his chair twice and then he leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes, smiling jovially all the while.
Two men were standing at the stern of the boat, flanking the rudder on both sides. The boat’s captain was explaining something to them, fast-talking in what I can only assume was Italian. I wasn’t able to figure out whether the captain was giving out some expert tips on fishing or explaining what exactly you were supposed to do with the fishing line, but one of the Italians made a gesture, miming using a fishing rod. The captain laughed and answered in a stream of Italian that I probably wouldn’t have been able to comprehend even if I knew more than a few words in the language. So much for swapping fishing stories, I thought to myself and turned my attention back to my line… and the waiting.
The boat was quiet after that. Everyone was just concentrating on their line, waiting to feel that sudden pull that would signal something had taken the bait and was nibbling on it or, better yet, gulping down the entire bait and hook. I’m not sure exactly what I do wrong at this stage but my past experiences have convinced me that fish seem to be able to sense which line and hook was mine and avoid it as if their life depended on it, which I suppose it does. I’ve tried telling myself that I don’t do anything different than what the others do so it’s quite unfathomable to me why fish wouldn’t take my bait when they would happily chomp down on my fellow fishermen’s bait. There was probably a fish school somewhere in the depths where a teacher fish conducted hour-long classes on how to detect and avoid my bait. Judging by the results through the years, the class was probably very popular.
So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the Italians suddenly shouted out and began pulling on his line. His friend joined in to help his fellow countryman pull in the fish, handing his own line over to the captain first. After about half a minute of excited chatter and pulling, the two Italians pulled out a large, purple and yellow fish; a surgeonfish, I guessed. The crew immediately went to work, dislodging the hook from the fish’s mouth and re-baiting it before throwing the flopping fish into the large bucket. All the guests gathered around to see the day’s first catch. It was a very colourful fish, no doubt very popular among divers and the kind of fish I would be looking forward to encountering if I was exploring the reefs of the Maldives with a snorkel. The captain identified the fish with its local name and the Italians tried unsuccessfully to pronounce it correctly before laughing and giving up and returning to their lines to catch some more.
Not even five minutes later, there was another shout; this time from the couple on the bow. Their excited squeals ended sharply as the woman lost her grip on the line, despite the encouragement from her husband. Luckily, a crew member was there to help and he snatched the line up again and began pulling the fish in. This one was a red-snapper, considered a delicacy when properly cooked. The couple kissed and congratulated each other on their skill, posing for photos with their catch. Even the crew seemed impressed with the snapper. Within the next half an hour so, five more fish were caught: two by the Italians, another by the honeymooners and two large Harlequin sweetlips (which must have measured nearly two feet in length) by the Briton behind me.
By then the sun was setting and the captain decided to move to another location more suitable for fishing in the dark. With seven fish in the bucket, and none of them caught by me, I was feeling the familiar frustration welling up within me. Surely, there must be something – some secret fishing technique – which everyone but me was aware of. However, despite long and careful observation, I was unable to detect the secret fishing technique. Whatever it was, it was really subtle. Of course, I’ve felt a few nibbles on my line too during the first hour but the four or five times I had actually reeled the line in thinking I had caught something, I had found an empty hook – the bait was missing. Whatever kind of fish was brave enough to make a go at my bait, it was being extra-careful. Either that or it was a very delicate eater.
By the time we arrived at the second location to the south of Fihalhohi Island Resort, the sun had set and the bright oranges, reds and purples of a typical Maldivian sunset were fading to darker shades. A few stars were twinkling in the sky and the crescent moon, with Venus to the side, shone down brilliantly on us. As before, we baited the hooks and dropped the lines over the side of the boat. I had reeled out almost half my fishing line when I felt a slight pull on the line. Unsure if I had simply imagined it, I stopped and concentrated on the line in my hand, waiting for the telltale pull to be repeated. The line jerked harder in my hand, and I immediately yanked on the line and began pulling for all I was worth.
“Don’t let him go, son! Keep pulling!” the Briton called out, seeing me pulling at the line. I could feel the fish – it was a big one, I could tell from the weight and the fight it was putting up – trying to escape and began pulling all the harder. By now the Briton was my side, shouting encouragements.
“Oh this will be a whopper of a fish!” he said, the excitement clear in his eyes. Of course, his excitement couldn’t possibly compare with mine at the moment. In the distance, I heard a splash.
“I can see it,” the Briton said, squinting into the fading light. “It’s huge. Get the camera ready, cappy! I want a picture of me with this fish and the man who caught it!” The captain rushed forward with the camera. Even the two Italians and the honeymooners came over, excited about the first catch from the second location for the evening. Even though I heard the splash I couldn’t see it, but that was fine. I could feel its weight from the pull on the line and it was the most amazing feeling ever. I pulled harder. And suddenly, I felt the line go slack in my hands. I nearly fell over but stopped when I bounced off the chest of the huge Briton behind me. I gritted my teeth in frustration and shook my head. I felt a big hand on my shoulder and the Briton said, “Don’t worry. There’s always one that gets away.”
I nodded and continued to pull the line in. As I suspected, the bait was gone and even the hook looked a little twisted this time. Was it a shark? I would never know. The Briton came over and sat down next to me. I started winding the line around the plastic reel but he stopped me.
“Don’t do that,” he advised. “The length you rolled out the line when you get your first bite gives you an indication of how deep the fishies are. You have to mark that length and drop your line to that depth again.”
I nodded. After a crew member helped me replace the hook and bait it with a strip of tuna belly, I began releasing the line again to the previous depth. No one caught anything for half an hour or so, even though there were a few false alarms. I had two nibbles but nothing major and had to replace my bait twice. After a while the captain decided to move to a new spot as the fish in that location were probably too small, because they kept eating the bait without getting caught. As I was rolling the line in, I felt a little pull. I yanked it back, more out of frustration than anything else. To my surprise the line went taut – I had hooked something! Immediately I grabbed the line with both hands and began pulling. Whatever kind of fish this was, it wasn’t putting up nearly as much a fight as the one that had gotten away from me previously, but I was happy that I had caught something again. Now if only I could pull it in before it got away. Soon I heard a splash as the fish surfaced. I pulled it aboard and in the light of the boat’s lamps I could tell it was a comparatively small red-snapper. But the oddest thing was that I had caught the fish by its tail! My first real catch, and my hook had caught the fish by the tail!
“I’ll be damned!” said the Briton, laughing loudly. “I’ve never seen a fish hooked by its tail before.”
Everyone burst into laughter and gathered round. The captain came over and scratched his head.
“You must have hooked it as it was passing by or something,” he said, still looking at the flopping fish with an amused smile. “Definitely one of the strangest techniques I’ve seen.”
I couldn’t agree more, but I didn’t care. I had caught my first fish! And nothing could beat that. My luck was changing, I could feel it. When we moved to the third and final spot for the night, I managed to hook one more; a bluefin trevally, about three feet big. It put up such a fight that it took both me and the big Briton pulling together on the line to pull aboard. The others caught a few more at the location, but none were as big as the Trevally I had caught. At around 7.30pm the captain decided enough had been caught for the night and set a course back to the resort. Everyone gathered around the bucket filled with different varieties of fish they had caught. They were talking at once, recollecting their experiences and grinning from ear to ear. By the time we arrived back at the resort we had all become better acquainted with each other and were laughing and sharing stories.
I wondered aloud about what would happen to our catch when we got back to the resort. The captain said that if we wished he could set up a beach barbecue on arrival and we could all hang out together and have some fun at the beach. Everyone cheered! The resort brochures had failed to mention this part, I realised. I was finally beginning to understand just how exciting and relaxing a night-fishing trip was, and why my forefathers might have chosen this as a way of relieving the accumulated stress of a hard day’s work.
Originally published on http://www.maldivestraveller.mv