Five Hours on an Island

A line of fishing nets stood on the gray water at a distance beyond the shore and some houses. While exiting the L300 van, a stinky odor greeted us but we could not determine what caused it. Each of us held a fishing rod with care. I never held one before and noticed that the float was not attached to the line. Gabby said it was already in place and I’ll find out more later.

Gabby’s brother-in-law, Dhon Develos, organized this excursion at a place in Valenzuela city called Kapitan Larry’s pond. The term Kapitan refers to a barangay captain, or the head of a village. I met Dhon back at the hike at Mt Marami on July 10. Most of the participants in that trek also joined this weekend getaway on July 31, 2016 – Cecille “Cess” Olivarez, Sherwin Mark Lomibao, Hency Joyce Gamara, and her boyfriend John Vincent “JohnVi” Chua. This time, I also got to know Christian “Xtian” Villanueva and Elena “Len” Ibana. We were accompanied by the driver and his fellow, making our group 11 in total.

Ducks strolled rather clumsily on the path as we talked to the baranggay‘s residents and bought supplies such as some sort of dough balls, bottled water, and canned tuna. Sherwin even brought cucumber, onions, calamondin (kalamansi), and chilies for a salad. Then several men with their catch arrived at a makeshift dock like a bed made of bamboo. Our plan was to rent a cottage where we could reel in fish from a nearby pond. With visitors still enjoying their time in all of those huts, we had to make the most of our fishing trip on an island.

Gabby led the way as our first batch went aboard a pump-motor boat with two enjoined hulls that increased passenger capacity. Dhon, Sherwin, and Xtian stayed behind for the second batch as they secured our lunch and asked some friendly people to cook boiled white rice on a large cauldron. The boat shook slightly as I stepped in. I sat on a vacant part to hopefully balance the weight throughout the vessel. The fisher folk onboard chatted mundanely. There were worries that the boat could tip over and capsize. Yet I felt quite enthusiastic rather than anxious. Hency took some photos, including those of herself that resulted in her mobile phone remaining at the hands of our friends from the second batch.

The boat could not take more passengers. We waved at our three companions as the engine groaned with a sound like one found in a Filipino motor tricycle. We all sat down with the hulls keeping us dry and afloat, separating us from the murky water. I had a chat about with a fellow next to me. We talked about fish before moving on to a bit of politics like the recent State of the Nation Address. Then he continued the conversation with another passenger as I observed the surroundings. Wooden poles held translucent walls of nets typically found on a fishpond. The place may be called Kapitan Larry’s pond but its waters cover the size of a lake, large enough for a few ‘islands’ to form.

We approached a tiny island with a few small trees and a man in a white outfit who was already fishing. Our vessel bumped into his fishing spot, literally. He complained although not in a way he would utter foul words at us. In fact, that guy even assisted in steadying the boat so passengers could disembark. (About two hours later, he also left the fishing spot by riding the same pump boat.) After a couple passed by me, Gabby said our group would spend the time there. That fellow who chatted with me earlier held tightly on a stump just off the bank to prevent the boat from veering away while we stepped on to dry ground. I wished it was as epic as Douglas MacArthur’s landing on Leyte back in World War Two.

Two dead janitor fish from the genus Pterygoplichthys were each impaled on a thin yet sturdy metallic cable. Hency said they would be made into fish sauce, known locally as patis. A makeshift lean-to consisted of bamboo poles and some netting for a roof. Overhanging tree leaves might shelter us from drizzle but we would be soaking wet in heavy rain. A stretch of trees and some houses on the horizon separated the lake from the overcast sky it reflected. I could say the island spanned an area of six square meters.

Remil and Cecil, a couple in their forties, brought out several fishing rods, a toolkit complete with hooks and sinkers, and dough bait of a darker color than what we brought. Remil pressed the dough around the hook, stood at the bank, and threw the line farther than we could probably do later. He rested the rod upright in a hole on the soil. Then the couple waited for the line to vibrate. Remil repeated the process on three more fishing rods.

I decided to have a conversation with Remil and Cecil as time went by in this activity that required a lot of patience with cunning and luck. Remil shared that the lake used to be farmland. In the 1970s, heavy industry in Valenzuela caused water from the nearby estuary to rise. The residents’ way of life transformed from agriculture to aquaculture as a result of the flooding. A mix of freshwater and saltwater supported not only tilapia and milkfish (bangus) but also a type of fish that the fisher folk called ‘jaguar’ due to its spots, janitor fish, and apahap. According to Remil, the apahap preys on smaller fish, has an elongated green body, and looks like a grouper. If I saw one, I could confirm what is it called in English. Remil added that the residents around this lake also raise crabs and shrimp. From time to time, a lone egret would fly above us. I mistook it for a seagull. Kingfishers swooped on the water’s surface and caught unaware tiny fish with their beaks.

Our group also learned a technique involving bait that Remil nicknamed the ‘bomb.’ He placed multiple hooks at the end of the line. Then he covered them by wrapping a chunk of dough about three to four times bigger than one put around a single hook. He threw the line and the large ball of dark brown dough landed on the water with a violent splash.

Moments later, Remil bolted to one of his fishing rods and then reeled in his catch. A fish jumped out of the water, its scales shining under a silvery sky. It submerged again but was no match for Remil. The line came closer to shore until it revealed a medium-sized milkfish. Unlike those I saw on wet markets, this one was white like an albino instead of grayish scales that resembled a mirror. It gasped for air as Remil removed two hooks from its wounded mouth. The ‘bomb’ worked. Still alive, the milkfish was dropped into a net bag, which Cecil submerged near the bank’s edge so the catch would be very fresh when brought to the fishing community.

Dhon, Sherwin, and Xtian later disembarked from that two-hulled pump boat with additional fishing gear, food, and drinks. Gabby and Dhon, who owned the fishing rods we brought, attached the hooks, floats, and sinkers on the lines. The two and Remil taught us how to use bait. Len was the first to throw the line, followed by Hency and JohnVi. Despite their success earlier, Remil and Cecil failed to catch more fish after an hour went by. They only reeled the line in to replace bait that deteriorated under the water. Fishing with rods may be thrilling but no easy matter indeed.

I asked Gabby politely to lend his fishing rod so I could give it a try. He agreed eagerly, saying I might have the luck after all. After the bait was placed, he taught me how to throw a line, lock the reel, and then rotate the crank a bit to entice fish. Everything went well but minutes passed and I did not catch any. I tried the second time. There were ripples and I reeled in the line. Still, there was nothing. Then I realized it was the wind instead of a fish’s tail that stirred the water.

We started complaining not only about the inability to catch fish but also about getting hungry. Lacking a grill, charcoal, and other objects for cooking, we decided to have lunch. Xtian and Sherwin already sliced cucumbers for the salad, which tasted salty, sour, and spicy in an exquisite blend. Xtian also shared a large can of Pik-Nik shoestring potatoes. A few among us drank gin in small amounts, mixed with water and tube ice. No one got intoxicated. For lunch at 2 PM, we ate rice with canned tuna. The driver and his fellow also brought fried chicken and slices of cured meat known locally as embutido.

A drizzle fell upon us while we were eating. Fortunately, the stunted small tree and the lean-to kept us relatively dry. Hency brought out padding that she and Dhon hung on the bamboo poles as a small roof. I relied mostly on my blue folding umbrella that still stretched out despite having damaged parts. After two years of staying inside backpacks, it must be replaced though. Remil said the drizzle would last only a while as the sun shone gradually, its light scattered evenly by a blanket of clouds.

20160731_154525Fishing resumed when the rain finally stopped. I just sat down with Remil, inhaling deeply while appreciating the relaxation brought by the scenery. At some moments, I chatted with Len, Cess, and Dhon. Sherwin always gave us relief through cheerful comedy. Our trip made us forget office desks, formal papers, and deadlines for a definite time.

We kept on throwing lines and bait into the water but the fish seemed to know how to elude us. Len pulled her line from the water. We had a closer look at the bait and saw it nibbled but not bitten. Then Sherwin actually caught a small fish that Dhon witnessed, only for the catch to escape the hook and swim to safety. Xtian joined in with his own fishing rod, determined to reel in a milkfish with every technique he came up with. The lack of success only increased our resolve. Yet I could hear comments about giving up what cannot be achieved despite every effort, a message with a deeper romantic meaning known as a current trend called a hugot.

Later on, the line on one of Remil’s fishing rods began shaking. A battle ensued. He spun the crank ferociously. The line danced on the water as it kept coming closer to shore. Remil exerted more energy and stared intently at the ripples. Just as what happened earlier, the milkfish that bit the hook flew into the air but this time it was bigger. Everyone cheered in awe. Remil grinned as he held his catch. Cecil put the fish into the net bag. Then the pump boat arrived. Waving his hand, Remil signaled the operator that he and Cecil would board the vessel and head back home. They posed for one more picture and told the crew I was writing a blog. Bidding farewell, we also told the couple to take care. The vessel’s engine cast foam on the water as our group still dealt with the fact that we had not caught even one fish yet. Meanwhile, those on a nearby island had success in fishing.

Dhon managed to reel in a shredded piece of netting. I thought this was only the stuff of jokes and cartoon shows but this time I saw it for real. Hency caught something even more remarkable. While sitting on a bamboo pole that served as a makeshift bench, they yelled about finding a ‘bullet’ at the end of the line. It looked like a 7.62 millimeter round, complete with primer at one end and the actual hardened bullet at another. At least it would not decay and also inedible. (When we showed the ‘cartridge’ to the boat operator later, he said it was just a piece of lead used as a weight for fishing nets.)

From left: Sherwin, Dhon, JohnVi, Hency, Cess, The Blogger, Len, Chan

Past 5 PM, our group decided to call it a day. As daylight faded, the water’s surface looked fierce as if subjected to a storm. I waved at an incoming boat. Gabby and Dhon collected the fishing rods. Sherwin and Xtian took care of the used paper plates, empty cans, and other refuse. I carried the cauldron still half-full of boiled rice. We boarded the boat one by one, ladies first. The vessel rocked a bit and was pushed by the current. A bush prevented Dhon, Sherwin, and Xtian from embarking on to the boat easily. Re-positioning to a bank that did not have obstruction, the three finally stepped in and everyone sat down amid the engine’s noise. Eagerness got the better of me and some of us as we beat the wooden surfaces with our hands and yelled like our precolonial ancestors as seafaring warriors going on a raid. The pump boat sliced through the water steadily. We arrived at the dock about three minutes later.

Failing to catch fish from the lake, our group achieved redemption by purchasing freshly-caught milkfish for dinner. We still had that cauldron and rice along with soy sauce, chilies, and onions. A bamboo cottage built on top of water served as our accommodation. While waiting for the grilled fish, I chatted with companions inside the hut. Gabby, Dhon, and Xtian resumed fishing on an adjacent pond. When our supper was ready, we feasted on it with our hands instead of the customary spoon and fork.

The fishing trip was a first for me, particularly in using the crank, line, float, and hook. Dhon said we would have better chances in the future at Fisher’s Farm, a fishpond and swimming resort in my home city.


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