A fishy story with a catch
In life there are many significant Fs. Like Fashion, Friends, Family, Food, Faith and, of course, Football.
But these are minnows, so let’s get real and use the Big F word - Fishing.
Every Sunday afternoon, and sometimes during the week, around 50 men gather to perform a piscine ritual. They do this in a cleared area below a narrow dead-end lane near the Kwansan River as it flows through Sawojajar, an outer suburb of Malang.
They squat along the sides of a rectangular pool and stare with unblinking intensity at the water, so brown it’s impossible to see if anything lives in such a murky environment.
This is a kampong fishing contest. Trainee brain surgeons seeking to learn concentration skills should take part. Then they’d be fit to practise.
It’s clear the scaly ones don’t get caught because the lines are baited with thin strips of best chicken breast, or wriggling grade A worms collected in a paddy of jasmine rice. The catfish die because the fishers skewer them with shafts of willpower.
In Soekarno’s era Kwansan was a meandering rural stream marking the boundary between the East Java hilltown and the ricefields running east to puffing Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak. But once the river was bridged concrete, asphalt and brick invaded the far bank.
Now, like most urban waterways, it’s an open sewer fed by street run-offs, drains and overflowing septic tanks, only saved from being a stinking cesspit by the force of flow. Rushing waters, unchecked by vegetation, have slashed through the black soil fertilized by fallout from Semeru, and cut down to bedrock.
This has left the banks ideal for garbage dumps, cemeteries and Bonar’s fish pond.
In the village he’s known as Sukardi but here he’s Neptune, holding a microphone instead of a trident, sitting under a roof of torn plastic.
“Another catch for East,” he calls, like a cricket commentator, keeping the tally in a big book. “East is leading by 15 catches to West’s ten. Looks like a good one.”
Indeed it is. Rodman Triumphant grabbed his prize in a towel and raced it to the weighing station. One kilo, 115 grams on the digital scale, and the number broadcast to the lines of fishermen. The only woman present was frying soybean cakes and pondering the mysteries of masculinity. Why not just go to the wet market and select a nice fillet instead of sitting in the rain, glowering at the water?
A few looked envious and some even muttered, revealing themselves as amateurs. The professionals stayed mute, never taking their eyes off the lines. These anglers don’t fish, they commune.
To the casual observer they’re just holding a rude rod with a thin nylon string, but in reality they’re on the other end of the line, chatting up the fish, seducing them with promises of an escape from a life of slime.
“Come with me to a better place,” they whisper hypnotically, “we’ll have a bright future bubbling together.” Scoundrels all, they fail to mention this nirvana is a wok with chilli paste.
Bonar started his enterprise two years ago, digging out the 150 square meter pond and lining the sides with old paving slabs. Everything’s made from bamboo and scrap. That’s kept the cost down to Rp 14 million [US$1,200]. On a good day he can pocket Rp 1 million [US$85].
Water from the street above is channelled through troughs in a rickety brick house. Here the catfish, known as lele, are bred for release in the pond below. They’re a staple in kampong diets, but with long whiskers and faces like the backside of a bus they’ll never win a Miss Aquarium contest.
Bonar’s staff fill plastic crates with the biggest creatures and lug them down the slippery slope, wading into the pond to be seen by all.
The men shake their captives free by swirling the crates from left to right. This rite is supposed to show that neither east nor west bank is favored, even though the fish dart away in all directions. Everything has to be open and transparent, even though the water isn’t.
Between catches Bonar broadcasts Dangdut music. It’s not clear whether this causes the fish to rise to the surface in agony or burrow in the mud to escape.
The lele do not go gently into their last good nights. They thrash and fight. Few fishers use reels to rapidly tow their catch inshore. So the fish, like silver-tongued politicians, often get themselves off the hook.
“My father used to breed fighting cocks,” said Bonar who seems a pretty tough guy. If he was a fish he’d be a carp. He doesn’t look like a referee you’d challenge if he declared a rival winner of the Rp 800,000 [US$65] prize.
However, like the lele, appearance isn’t everything. “I couldn’t follow my Pop because I hated seeing the birds’ heads and necks covered in blood,” he said. “So I took up this business, though I still feel pity for the fish.”
The men pay Rp 35,000 [US$2.50] each to dangle lines for 90 minutes. They bring their own gear but buy bait from Bonar along with their feeds and smokes, essential to create the fug of camaraderie. Catches are taken home. The biggest so far topped 2.5 kilos.
There are ponds like this in many towns far from the coast, providing recreation for men with few opportunities to express their hunting instincts.
For those used to the challenges of fly-fishing trout in snow-fed mountain streams, or spinning for salmon from the stern of a cruiser, pond fishing is like shooting rabbits in a cage. Slowly.
But it gets the men out of the house and even if they’re betting on the outcomes at least there’s a chance that they’ll come home with something for supper.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 January 2015)