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Is my rod big enough? Boris Johnson’s fishing notebook

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

You remember the climax of Jaws — the primeval moment when Quint the crazed Ahab-like fisherman goes mano a mano with the monster of the deep? He comes to the rear of the listing boat and straps on a leather belt with a phallic protrusion: a metal receptacle into which he shoves the haft of his puny fishing rod. And you look at this terrifying mismatch between a man’s tackle and the might of nature, and you think, ‘How the hell is that going to work?’ Such were my feelings, amigos, on a blustery day in the Indian ocean when I realised I had a whopper on the line.

‘That is a big fish,’ said Paolo the skipper, and his eyes widened as my reel spun and the taut yellow filament shot out behind us. Just as in Jaws, there were three of us afloat, and we had been at it since sunrise several hours ago. We had chugged up from the island of Benguera, off the coast of southern Mozambique. Now we were a couple of miles off a long sandy island called Mazaruto, and the weather was starting to cut up rough. There were spots of rain, and the hull was slapping against the troughs in the grey-black sea. ‘This is good for fishing,’ Paolo had told me earlier, as I tried queasily to keep my footing. ‘When it is like this the fish cannot hear the boat.’

Paolo and Eric seemed to be staring at the trackless main, as if they could see the very spoor of the fish. What are you looking for? I asked. Surely one wave looks much like another? ‘Birds,’ explained Paolo. The big fish eat the sardines; the sardine guts come to the surface; the birds follow the sardines and the successful fisherman follows the birds. Thanks to the cunning of Paolo and Eric, I had been lucky. We had about ten lines over the back of the boat, and for the first two hours we had nothing. ‘Come fish! Come fish!’ chanted my shipmates, clapping and stamping their feet; and then the first one did.


It was a Spanish mackerel, and when I hauled that glistening silver torpedo over the side of the boat I felt like Papa Hemingway himself. I felt as macho as anyone from the pages of Wilbur Smith; and when I say mackerel, I don’t mean one of those tiddlers you might catch in Cornwall or Scotland. It was about three feet long, the biggest thing I had ever caught. Much to my surprise, Paolo and Eric showed no interest in immobilising the fish. They simply bunged it in the plastic chest that served as my seat, while it bumped and bonked beneath me like some relative cruelly locked in the attic.

The next fish was even bigger, a huge streak of muscle called a wahoo, and apparently the fastest fish in the sea. By now I was feeling the pace, and I dozed as the dying brutes slapped pitifully beneath. Then for the third time we heard that magnificent and stirring noise — the unmistakable bzzzt of a reel responding to a bite; and this, as I say, was a biggie. In case you don’t know, the principle is that you haul the rod up to create some slack, and then let it down again while reeling in as fast as you can. The first problem was that, of all the rods we had bristling on the back of the boat, this fish had picked the one that was most weedy and liquorice-like; and the second problem was this fish was so damn strong.

I had been told about another client of Paolo, who thought he had caught a Leviathan, and after three hours of struggle he hoisted an absurd and disembodied head. Tiger shark took the rest. ‘You must hurry,’ said Paolo, and I tell you I bust a gut to bring that fish in. I heaved and grunted and strained and swore and cut my hands; and just as I thought I was finished, and would have to give in, I started to get the upper hand. Slowly, with the help of Paolo, I brought him closer and closer; and then the angle of the line changed.

‘He’s going under the boat!’ said the skipper, and there he was five metres beneath us in a sudden shaft of sunlight — huge, tranquil, cruising in silence. ‘It’s a shark!’ I cried, as I saw the dorsal fin and the deep blue back. No, said Paolo, it’s a tuna, 30 to 40 kilos; and when finally we got him on board I saw how utterly beautiful he was, with his black fin tips and bright yellow serrations and his clean unfishy smell. Then they cut some major artery and as he thrashed and bled I felt my pathetic guilt at killing any living thing. But Paolo and Eric were thrilled, and their jubilation was infectious.

On the way back we saw whales leaping and twisting from the water. Back at the Azura hotel I fell fast asleep and woke with that feeling of having been in a fight or a car crash or a game of rugby. That night we ate tuna under the stars, first as sushi and then as steak. It was delicious, and I had the impression from Marina that, after 20 years of marriage, I had actually done something useful.

Boris Johnson is a former editor of The Spectator.


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