One fish shames other fish when hooked. It leaps farther, climbs higher and twitches crazier than any other species, the antique arguments of sail, tarpon, marlin and bass freadks notwithstanding.
That fish, fo couse, is the flying fish, yet rare is the angler who stalks the little creature as I did recently from Barbados.
It is widely believed," says McClarne's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, "that flying fish cannot be caught on hook and line. A few light-tackle anglers ahve taken them in the Gulf Stream with fly rods and very tiny flies."
That's the conventional wisdom, and forget it. Flying fish can be cught by the hundreds of on shad darts, tiny spoons or - best of all - chunks of dead flying fish. But only if your guides are Dudley or Jackie or any of the Bajan fishermen who'll welcome you aboard their boats and lead you by instinct, feel or smell to wherever the fish may be spawning. There's no charge and lunch is free, but tips are welcome.
"Advent Geir," Dudley's slimy roundbottomed fishing boat, reached the ocean fishing grounds an hour after dawn. The condominiums of Barbados were down below the west horizon, and except for the dancing petrels, the two BNajans and I were totally alone. No two-way radio, no other fishermen, but below, in the indigo water, Dudley swore our quarry was waiting. "dowone day-yer,"Dudley said in island patois, were shoals of hungry flying fish.
He cut the engine and jettisoned a nondescript tree, like a Charistmas tree in February wilt. There was a line lashed to its trunk and a web of twine enmeshed in tis branches. Barefoot, already sweating, the two men splashed rancid fish oil in the wake of their drift. They streamed out the poorest shred of a net alongside the tree and lowered wicker chum pots ont he upwind side of their boat. "Advent Girl" wallowed crazily like a drifting coconut.
Thus began the strange day's hunt for Exocoeturs cypsilurus, the world's largest flying fish, an 18-inch acrobat that's been timed aloft for 43 seconds and undoubtedly can stay up longer. Cypselurus "glues" seaweed together to form his floation nests and apparently can't distinguish the trees of lthe fishermen from local flotsam and flora.
Dudley Doughty, 57, a Seventh-Day Adventist, and Jackie Mayers, 60, hes hard-drinking mate, grinned at each other when I unzipped and ultra-light spinning rod, its Orvis reel loaded with four-pound-test mono, and braced myself atop the boat's greasy, lurching foredeck. I hadn't the slightest idea whether flying fish would rise to a bait. But I'm leapfrogging the story.
Flying fish mena as much to Bajan kitchens as flounder and snapper mean to Atlantic seaboard chefs, or cod to New Englanders. For eight months of the year, the blue-backed speedsters dominate island tables. luxury hotels feature flying fish on each day's menu and tourists partake with gusto.
Decoration storefronts and the eves of houses are plastic flying fish, metal flying fish, plaster flying fish, until finally visitors wonder. Just how do Bajans catch such a huge tonnage of flying fish? Like nets catch tennis balls? Like hunters blasted the passenter pigeon? And why, only loff the Barbados shore, is the flying fish fishery such a sound commercial venture?
My curiosity carried me one afternoon to a boat landing where a circle of garrulous, colorfully-turbaned women sat amid bushel baskets stripping the fins and entrails from that day's catch! I said I wanted to go flying fish fishing, and that was sufficient.
The largest lady hollered "Jackie,"and in minutes I was introduced to Mayers, a massive man with a massive smile and a massive thirst, who asked me to be on his dock at 3:30 the next morning. At 3:30 a.m., other boats began to refuel but not Jackie's! Uniformly the craft carried one of more Christmas trees on their foredecks.
Most were round-bottomed, in the 25-foot category, in various stages of scruffy disrepair. They took on gas, their crews still groggy, and slipped off into blackness.
About 5O'clack, Jackie and his softspoken, teetotaling boss Doughty caught me leaving the pier, slightly disgusted.
"Sleepin" too hard to get here," said Jackie.
"Jackie drinks," said Dudley, unnecessarily.
We set forth at night without a compass or a flashlight, weaving through the anchor lines. After almost three hours running time, all buoys, all landmarks were invisible, but something prompted Dudley to kill his Lister diesel. "How do you know where to stop?" I asked.
"By feel, by dee smell," said Dudley, sniffing the sea breeze.
So overboard went the tree, oil, net, chum pots, and as I rigged up, Jackie and Dudley impaled morsels of decayed cyselurus on the hooks of their handlines and dropped them casually beside the boat to make sure "day dow-one day-yer."
Within five minutes, Jackie had hooked the first of about 700 flying fish we would bring back tha tday. Jackie's fish zig-zagged just beneath the surface, struggling mightily to be airborne, but the tart string upset its timing and Jackie's handline quickly prevailed.
Then one of the cannibals swallowed my bait. It too zig-zagged, making a series of frenetic but precise 90-degree turns, not just bending but twisting my spinning rod, bebaving as no fish i'd caught before. Acting on impulse, I opened the bale of the reel and gave the little fellow his head. Instantly, the fish emerged from the water, set its foru "wings" and soared off on what sailors call a broad reach. When I closed the bale and raised the rod tip, the fish tumbled back in the water and began to zig-zag again, terribly frustrated. "Day comes in schools," said Dudley.
Droves, waves, hordes might be better works. I couln't bait the hook fast enough, and the wait between strikes seldom exceeded 30 seconds. Lide silver, super-fast trout, the fish darted up throughthe ink-blue water and slurped our baits without slowing up or changing direction. All the action was pleasing to the eye. They weighed less than 11/2 pounds, but the streamlined flying fish demonstrated aerial meneuvers no wingless fish could duplicate.
They performed loops and tail walks, takeoffs and fumbling, goofy, thrashing Immelmanns. As they climbed four, five, six feet above the water they trailed clouds of spray which caught the sunlight and left little rainbows. TO be honest, however, their acrobatics were more impressive than their tyg. They made up for that on the table.
A word here abnout these maniacal little fish which so titillated me. In tropical waters, ltheree are some 100 species of flying fish, and all go about getting airborne the same way. Frightened by a ship's bow wave, alarmed by a nearby predator or just for the fun of it, the fish streamlines its pectoral fin "wings"(which are attached just behind the gill openings) andlashes its tail vigorously from side to side. That acconts for the strange , zig-zagging mition of the hooked flying fish.
With speed still building, the fish points its nose at the sky. As its upper body slices through the surface, the fish extends its folded wings. It continues flailing its tail until the wind over its wings and the tail thrusts free it entirely from the water. Fight results.
When the fish touches down again, a glide at great speeds, they really make only 10 miles per hour or so. As fish to, that's slow. The Atlantic sailfish, believed the world's fastest fish, has been clocked at 68 miles per hour partially submerged.
Eggs laid by demale flying fish are heavier than water and connot survive the pressures of the ocean abyss. Hence adult dish excrete strands fo sticky beige protein which they use to glue seaweed and bits of detritus into floation platforms or "nests." Females pause upon the platform to drop their eggs; males pass by to fertilize them.
Not only does the spawning ritual visually agitate both sexes, it apparently-whets the fishes' appetite. ANd that guarantees success for an angler.
This largest of the flying fishes, cypselurus, abounds along the edges of the Sargasso Sea, where nest-building seaweed is plentiful. Nowe!here does the Sargasso Sea jut closer to land-based commercial fishermen than in the Atlantic off Barbados; hence the unique flying fish fishery there.
The trees cast overboard by the Bajan fishermen seem to appear to flying fish not as uprooted trees but as ready-made nests.The tree of Jackie and Dudley ahd been drifting perhaps three hours when Jackie began to retrieve it, slowly, one hand over the other down the line.
About 50 flying fish had got caught in the netting wrapped around and btween the branches. Their tails poked backward through the mesh and there was a furious whirring and flapping as Jackie hoisted the tree over "Advent Gir's" slippery gunwale. Jackie plucked the fish carefully, like tender fruit, then returned his tree to the water.
Other flying fish, excited by the sub-surface melee, were getting themselves snarled in the Bajans' tattered old net, and it soon was obvious why the net was so tattered. Atracted by the struggling flying fish, small sharks snapped and gnawed at the netting in clumsy efforts ot dislodge somthing to eat.
Somewhere between 100 and 125 flying fish on the spinning rod I renounced fishing and took up beer. Jackie joined me with a thirst my case couldn't quench.
Depending on supply and demand that day, a single flying fish would sell dockside oor four or five American cents. Thus Advent Girl had grossed about $35 during her 13-hour stay on the water, plus my $10 tip. It was one of those superb days I pray never to relive, even now, with my sun poisoning soothed by lotion and this magnificent, memory.