Friday, January 18, 2013

Palau Landscapes

 So I'm doing a photo project on a small island in Palau.  The island is called Angaur and it's where I lived during my Peace Corps tour eight years ago.  Here are some of the landscape photos I've taken during my first month here.  I will begin the actual project, which is portraits of the people, this week.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sailfish From Shore

One of the two important components to me spending the winter on a small island in Palau is fishing.  (The other is the photography project.)  During my time in Japan I accumulated some good gear for the type of fishing I can do in the tropics (Giant Trevally).  The Japanese lead the market in rods, reels, lures, and line.  They are very passionate about chasing GTs all over the world, so they make the best gear.  I was able to get decent pricing on this stuff ($400 for a rod instead of $800+ abroad, $30-70 for the lures instead of $100+) so I collected it over the last few years in anticipation of coming back to this island.

Now I'm here and I'm stymied by the weather.  For weeks the winds and swells have been coming out of the north so strong as to prevent me from fishing all the best points on the north and east sides of the island.  This limits the spots I can fish to only about one or two points on the west coast.  One of those points is located on top of some cliffs that are 20 feet above the ocean.  I have to walk through the forest then walk along the razor-sharp limestone formations to reach this point.  The key to this point being good is that the underwater 'wall' dips in very close to shore so that if I hook a Giant Trevally here, I'll have a chance of landing him.  Usually GTs will dive deep and swim close to the wall.  If the angle is wrong for me my line will just sheer off on the top of the wall.  But this point offers me a decent chance of surviving a diving GT without shredding my line.

I use big popper lures that are handmade out of wood and have a big cup on the front.  I jerk the lure through water, creating a big splash on the surface.  This doesn't really emulate anything in nature, but for some reason it drives GTs crazy and they will attack it hard (sometimes).  Other fish will hit, too, but the primary quarry are GTs.

So I was fishing this point last week during the last hour of daylight.  I didn't have a flashlight so I wanted to get out in time to make the trek back along the rocks and through the forest, so I counted down my last five casts.  On the fourth I had a hit.  I reeled the lure in and cast it back out in the same spot and got more hits.  The behavior of the fish told me it was a curious GT - he was swirling just under the lure, hitting it out of the water with his nose, etc.  So I kept casting to him until finally, on the fifth cast of him playing around, he finally hit.  But he didn't get hooked very well and was only on for a couple seconds.  I kept casting but he was done; he'd learned his lesson.  I began counting down my last five casts again and again on the fourth cast I got a hit.  But this time it was solid and the fish was hooked.

He ran for a few seconds then jumped.  I was astonished to see a sailfish on the other end.  Sailfish are billfish (like marlin) and generally live miles offshore out in the blue water.  Though technically the spot where I was fishing was blue water (it was a sheer cliff that went 400+ feet straight down).  Hooking a sailfish from shore is a VERY rare occurrence because it's so uncommon to be able to fish blue water from shore.  There's a famous point on the east coast of Australia where it's possible, but there are very few other points in the world where this can be accomplished.  This very well could be the only sailfish caught from shore in the world this year (or this decade?).

I knew my gear was strong enough to handle the fish (80lb. line, 200lb. leader), but now I was presented with two problems: (1) sharks and (2) landing the fish from my 20 foot cliff.  The sharks did turn out to be a problem and that is nearly 100% predictable.  After 5 minutes of the fish jumping and fighting there was a big commotion and lots of fins on the surface, then the fish stopped fighting.  I reeled him over the reef and he came right in under my cliff, minus his tail.  There was no more fight in him as he couldn't swim, but now I had to get him out of the water before the sharks came back for more.  I crawled down to the lowest spot I could reach, which was still six feet above the water, but lifting a 40 pound fish out of the water by a piece of monofilament leader is impossible, at least using my hands.  So I went back up and started leading the fish south, hoping I would come to a break where I could get down to the water.  I did find a spot that I had to jump down (banging myself up pretty badly) and pull him out.  Then I had to crawl back up the rocks with a 40 pound fish, then drag him back across those rocks for ~200 yards, then a couple hundred more yards through the forest, all in the dark.

I left the fish next to the road and rode the bike back to my host family's house, where I told them that we needed a truck.  They called some friends who gave us a ride, then we hauled the fish and weighed him - 40 pounds!  So he was probably 50-55 pounds before the shark attack.  Needless to say, my family was pretty excited about the fish I was providing.

[my hands after handling the bill and then using the mouth/gills to drag the fish a half-mile]

The next night I went back to the same spot and hooked another, smaller fish.  I only had him on for 6-7 seconds before the sharks attacked and ate through my line. I lost both the fish and my lure.  The next night I hooked a fish and had immediate shark problems again so I've decided to give this spot a rest as it seems I've taught the sharks that big splashes on the surface will lead to a troubled fish.

I was able to get out to a good northern point briefly last weekend and I had a hit from something big and black (probably a GT), but did catch a small bigeye trevally.  I've been stuck in Koror for five days, but I'll be heading back tomorrow.  Hoping to have some good new fishing stories soon!