Milking the Milkfish

I have barely popped my head up the companionway to stare into the morning sun with my still sleepy eyes when I hear shouting from the shore. It’s Papa Saitu. “Biat, Biat,” he calls out, and when I go up to the bow holding onto the port forward shroud shielding my eyes from the glare in the sky and ask what’s going on, the usual quite commanding: “Come here!” echoes back. I make a sign to hold on, I’m dressed in only a sky blue towel wrapped around my waist. My intentions were to take a quick shower at the water hatch but that idea is being scrapped. I pull up my shorts, throw on a T-shirt and paddle Alunita over to Papa Saitu’s house. It’s time to see him bare chested for the first time and he has me sit down to a cup of tea. “How is your leg?” he inquires, “Can you go in the water?” Just yesterday I took my first swim since the infection on my leg had started to keep me landlocked. It was an involuntary drenching; we had gone fishing on Alunita, who’s now a proud sailing craft. The wind was a bit fresher than usual and we managed to dig in the ama on the leeward side enough to flip her over. The scab down on my shin had stayed intact in spite of the maybe fifteen-minute submergence. So I answered positive, that I should be able to go in the water by now. “You can come hold the net for me? We go fishing?” Papa Saitu asked, “I come pick up you from the boat!”

Half an hour later we were zipping over the azure water southward along the edge of the lagoon past islets of coconut trees interspersed with passages where the seawater comes flowing in from the outer reef. The further we left the village behind the more birds were circling through the sky. A couple of morning squalls were passing by to the South and the North, one had a little bit of a drizzle to spend for us, just enough to pull us completely out of our sleep and overcome the shock of being out and about without any breakfast in our stomachs. Papa Saitu snaked the skiff around coral heads strewn about our path, dark patches dotting the light green blue bottom under the sparkling water, and finally pulled her towards the beach by an islet with low crooked brush. The outboard was down to idle speed and the water was now getting shallow and shallower. Papa Saitu tilted the motor up and soon told me to throw the little rusty grapnel anchor hook over the bow. Those handy little anchors are made from three pieces of rebar, which are welded together to make a four pronged hook with an eyelet on one end to tie up the rode. I had one made for us to hold Alunita steady over the coral heads when we go fishing. They’re great, except for when they get stuck so good that even if you pull on them from all sides they don’t want to come up. So far however it has always eventually given up its stubborn grip and found its way back into the holding space for it in Alunita’s hull.

We’re now jumping over the sides of the skiff into the less than knee-deep water. Papa Saitu unloads a black tub onto the water. It floats and you pull it behind you with a piece of rope or by the two handles attached to its rim. It contains a net, which we soon unravel. It’s maybe three feet high, the black top line has floats strung to it every foot or two, while the yellow bottom line sports lead weights that roll over the soft sandy bottom. Once extended it stretches for maybe a hundred feet and the current coming from the pass to the South side of the islet shapes it into a semi circle. Papa Saitu’s eyes are hidden behind the sunshades I had picked up along a dusty stretch of road on Nuku Hiva and given to him earlier, but I can sense them straining to scan the surface of the water around us. He passes me the tub and sends me along the net to pick up the fish. Now it’s my turn to strain the eyes, because I can’t see any fish at all. I ask what color they are, but get no response. Once I get to the other side of the net with the tub still empty all I hear is a grumble exhaled through Saitu’s couple remaining teeth: “Huh! Nutting yet, hey!”

The net is slightly repositioned and now the shades are gliding sideways over the water, definitely following something. Five slithers of white are splashing wildly one third down the floating net. I wade towards it with the tub dancing behind me. “Get the fish!” would certainly be Papa Saitu’s command, but I have no idea how to do that. The majority of the fish we’ve caught so far in this coral wonderland sport some quite nasty spines on their fins and if you don’t grab them just right they can make a mess out of your hand in a second. To my surprise these critters are different. The slender silver bodies are soft to the touch but not slippery so they’re easy to hold onto. The problem is that they are stuck with the nylon lines of the net pulled deep into the gill cavities, the head sticking out on one side, while the rest of their bodies flaps desperately on the other. Gripping them with my left hand I start to wiggle the netting with my right, trying to wring the line out of their gills. Papa Saitu arrives chuckling at this white boy’s amateurish allures. He tries to push the body of the next fish through the netting forward, but that doesn’t seem to work either, the belly bloating up but not passing through the net. In the end I discover that when I run my fingernail under the lines and along the gill flap it’s easy to extract them, free the fish from its entanglement and there it lands in the black tub.

About an hour and a half of wading, pulling, splashing and wiggling later the tub is littered with probably more than a good hundred fish. Most of them are actually easily extracted from the net by doing what Saitu had suggested. You just hold the net with the fish over the tub and they pop forward with ease. In the end the bounty seems to have dried up and the last twenty minutes or so is just waiting and hoping. A little baby blacktip shark is our only catch and I free it from the net, holding it too in a firm grip with my left hand. Its skin is coarse, sandpaper like, and I throw it back into the water. Blacktip sharks are plenty in the lagoon, a signal for a healthy fish population. There are usually a good half dozen swimming underneath Aluna, accompanied by some bigger brown nurse sharks. Both kinds are harmless to humans but do make for quite a frenzy when you’re cleaning fish on board and discarding the innards into the water. Now Papa Saitu gathers up the net and we’re wading back to the skiff to whizz back to the village on petrol power.

Once back home the family members gather to do the cleaning of our catch. It’s a mélange of mallets and milkfish. The milkfish has bigger scales that are pried off with a knife, while the mallet’s are tiny, almost flake like. Three incisions on their belly opens up the cavity enough to scrape out the guts and organs, which are thrown into the water where a horde of sharks are waiting for their share. The nurse sharks slurp the morsels up with a sucking sound, sometimes end up in a fight over an especially tasty portion, but usually just lie side by side and stare with their tiny eyes up at those strange bipedal creatures who provide them with easy meals on an almost daily basis. Soon the big black tub is empty, the cleaned fish divided up into yellow buckets. A good portion of the catch ends up in an empty rice bag with a little plywood piece attached to the closing string. Papa Saitu will later try to get it into the Kwai’s freezer, the best way to send it to their daughter in Rarotonga. To pay for this kind of special delivery, another bunch of fish ends up being a gift for the Kwai’s crew. Our cut of the catch stays in Papa Saitu’s freezer for the time being. We’re granted free access to it and will retrieve those protein bundles towards the evening to fry them three minutes each side in Canola oil, sprinkle them lightly with Soy sauce and then add a zest of freshly squeezed lime when serving them on the plate next to a cup full of bright white rice. Did I mention already that life on the islands is good?

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One Response to “Milking the Milkfish”

  1. Mario Says:

    Hey Beat,

    Can you email me the address to your place in humboldt? I can’t find the email where you sent me the info…

    Mom is coming to visit tomorrow, she’ll be with us until august. All is well. Nice to hear about your travels.

    Mario

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