Another man's fish

I have often thought how alike fishing and success are. I mean the unfairness of it all, the seemingly random nature of them both. In fishing you can get a man who has done his homework. He has studied all the available literature. He knows the vagaries of tides and bait. He has patience. He knows which hook to use and how to read the water. And then the biggest fish of the day is caught by the guy standing next to him who has only fished once before and didn't really want to come anyway. Then the guy who has tried so hard has to listen to the novice saying things like "Ja well of course you make your own luck." It's funny how it's only people who got lucky who say that, I mean, you never hear parents who've just lost a child say that. It's the same with success in life.

But still, there are fishermen who have a magic feel for it and it runs in families, unlike success. This story is about one such family, the Bergendals.

The old mans triumphs were legendary. He didn't put a lot of time in, Mr Bergendal, he would just know that the conditions were right to do a certain thing to catch a certain fish. I myself saw him go down to the rocks in front of his house when the South Easter was blowing a gale and come back up with a silver musselcracker when nobody had caught anything decent there for years. His three sons all had the fish gene too, and as much fish as they all caught were cooked by Annette, their mother, in as many ways as you can imagine. It was a household that revolved around fish and the sea.

I was friends with Carl Bergendal, and on this particular occasion I stayed overnight at their house so that I could go out with them on their boat in the morning. We were awoke, when it was still dark, by their mom bringing us coffee. We stood in the kitchen and sipped while Annette packed the lunches and told us about an encounter she'd had the day before, with the ghost of a young boy who'd been killed on the railway line. She had had quite a chat with him by all accounts, and he was fine (apart from being dead). Annette was a spook auntie, coming as she did from the Breede, and the spirit world was not a strange or fearful place for her. If you told someone else one of her stories you would perhaps feel a little foolish, but when she was telling them to you, face to face, you could see that there was no doubt that it was so.

Nobody spoke very much to Mr. Bergendal as he was not at his best first thing in the morning. I was trying to contain my excitement at going to sea, but Carl and his brothers were old hands. We left for Simonstown in the pearly pre-dawn light, through the mute towns and along the winding road next to the sea, me and Carl shivering in the back of the Land Rover and watching the boat snaking along behind us in the shadow of the mountain.

Then we were at the Simonstown slipway where there were quite a few boats queuing to get out. The Bergendals put their boat in the water with me trying to not get in the way. Although the brothers knew what to do, their old man still shouted at them rather a lot. I then discovered, and continued to throughout the day, that Mr. Bergendal was one of those souls who felt very strongly that the only way to get someone to learn anything on a boat was to shout very loudly at them. In this he was not dissimilar to many of the local skippers. Although I found it rather unsettling, the boys were not put out at all and would grumble and curse back at him in a most disrespectful manner.

We putted slowly out of the harbour, passing the huge Navy boats and the yachts on the way before opening up the engines. At speed the boat juddered as it smacked over the chop, I hung on tight and watched the wake splay out behind us. We were going out to the point, that is Cape Point, for snoek. There had been a discussion about the best place to go. Andre, the eldest brother, had heard that there were kob off Seal island which was in the opposite direction. However, his source of information was one Flippy du Toit whose word was apparently somewhat less than reliable. So we thundered on to the point. Halfway there we hit a brown patch of water and Mr. Bergendal slowed right down to discuss this development. Brown was not good, at least not good for the snoek. For the kob rumour at Seal island it was very good. But perhaps it was an isolated patch and the point was still blue. It was decided that we would continue, but Mr. Bergendal was peckish so we waited while he opened a hamper. As he munched on a sandwich he gestured to the shore.

"Look there Andre, there's Bruce Newmanns house" he said with his mouth full. A big burly man, he was not blessed with social graces. We all looked shoreward. Right up high on the mountain there was a huge white house, standing alone. "What does he want with a house up there? Must be shit if he runs out of cigarettes" said Carl.

"What does he care", shouted Mr.Bergendal with crumbs flying out of his mouth, "he's a bloody millionaire"

That was when I had a little insight into Mr. Bergendal. I had always thought that he was pleased that he had such a nice boat and that he was such a good fisherman and had a close family. But I saw then, in the way that he spoke, that he felt life had been unfair to him. It was a bone of contention between him and the abundant universe that he was not also a millionaire.

Presently we headed on out to the point but it was no good, the water was brown everywhere. We tried for an hour or two. One shoal came by, probably lost, and we landed a few. They were right up at the top and things got very confused. I watched Mr. Bergendal, who was fishing with two handlines, hook one. He hauled it up and over the gunwale, whereupon it dropped off the hook and started kicking his lines into a tangle. Then his other line went which didn't help matters. In the middle of the kerfuffle Mr. Bergendal raised his eyes to the heavens and asked, almost plaintively, if nothing in a mans life could go right.

That was when Carl struck at a fish right on the surface, missed, and the lead flew out of the water and socked into the side of Mr. Bergendals head. Mr. Bergendal then said some terrible things about Carl. He shouted for quite a long time. Andre and I looked out to sea and tried to laugh silently.

By then the shoal had passed and Mr. Bergendals mood was not exactly sunny, we pulled the anchor up and headed back into the bay. There were four or so snoek, not worth going to offload for the merchants at Kalk Bay, so we headed straight for Simonstown. The old man had caught two and Andre and Carl one each. I did mombak, that is to say catch not a sausage. We hammered back, I watched the inert snoek and pondered the unfairness of my mombak. As we drew up to the Simonstown slipway another boat passed us on their way out. Their skipper knew Andre and they had a brief conversation. Apparently we had got it all wrong. They were murdering the kob at Seal island. Catching the dik, in local parlance. Flippy du Toit had come back with the water coming over the gunwales. Suddenly we were enthused again. We turned around and headed as fast as we could for Seal island, everybody was convinced that our day was going to turn around.

There were quite a few boats dotted around the west side of the island and we anchored amongst them. Then we proceeded to catch lots and lots. We could hardly put the bait out without it being taken. The only problem was, we were catching sharks. I'd never seen so many sharks caught. The kob were all gone. We persevered, unable to believe that we'd got it wrong again, until it finally sank in. We headed dolefully back to Simonstown. Then, when we were halfway across Fish Hoek bay, I saw something amazing. Mr. Bergendal stopped the boat, right in the middle of the bay. He looked about the water in a strange way. He even seemed to smell the air. He told Carl to throw out the anchor. The boys asked him what he was up to. He said we were going to ledger, that is fish on the bottom, for yellowtail. We did actually think that he'd lost the plot. There had been no reports of any tail in the bay. There were no birds, sterretjies, working. But we waited while Mr. Bergendal set up two rods with whole sardine as bait. He seemed to be in a kind of trance, not setting up in a hurry but being very painstaking about the traces and so on. Then he cast them out. We waited, almost humoring the old man. So it was with the greatest surprise that we watched him haul out two of the biggest yellowtail I'd ever seen in less than fifteen minutes. They gave a tremendous fight, splashing in a fury around the boat until Andre gaffed them kicking aboard. Once the second one had been landed Mr. Bergendal seemed to be satisfied, we upped anchor and went home.

Later on, after the boat had been washed down and everything packed away, we cooked one of the yellowtail over a fire at the Bergendals. From their garden on the mountain slope you could look over the bay, we all had a beer and talked about the day. It was still warm, Mr Bergendal had his shirt off as he sat back in his deck chair, his dog at his feet. Annette was laughing to hear the story of how Carl hit his father in the head with the lead, and Mr.Bergendal also laughed as he reached down to stroke his dogs head. It was not just a laugh about the lead though. He was laughing at the way we stared at the fish, how hungry we were, and he knew how good it would taste. Mr Bergendal was laughing with the contentment of the moment and I could see that he had forgotten that he was not a millionaire.

"Ja" he said, to no-one in particular or perhaps to his dog, "you can't go chasing another mans fish."

He laughed again as he turned to watch the late boats inching home over the wrinkled blue.