Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas on fishing

Geoff Thomas: Bounty from bare basics

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Master canoe-maker Taumafai Fuhiniu keeps a watchful eye on the writer's canoe skills.
Photo / Geoff Thomas
Master canoe-maker Taumafai Fuhiniu keeps a watchful eye on the writer's canoe skills. Photo / Geoff Thomas

Wait for a wave to flow over the rock, push the canoe out and step into it. Then you are away," said my guide, Taumafai Fuhiniu.

It sounds easy, but the swells are ocean rollers that swirl over the rocks, sucking back out in foam-tinged eddies, and the canoe is a hollowed-out log that looks paper thin.

There is no reef surrounding the island of Niue to provide a buffer against the waves, but if it is too rough then the outrigger canoes stay on the rocks under their covering of coconut fronds. The upside to this environment is that you are in 200m of water a short paddle from the coast and the sea floor continues to fall away into the abyss, so you don't have to go far to find the great fish which roam these tropical waters - yellowfin and albacore tuna, wahoo, giant trevally, barracouta, and billfish such as marlin and sailfish.

Taumafai and his fellow villagers go out early every morning when the conditions are favourable. They are usually home by 9am with a catch which provides a good income, as prime species like wahoo can be sold for $11.30 a kilo to restaurants.

A 30kg fish is worth serious money.

So here we were, paddling quietly out on to the indigo waters and, as fellow fishermen have done for aeons, we traded fishing stories, and wife stories, and it became clear why elders such as Taumafai have such respect for the waters that pound their rock and the fish that swim there.

It is a custom that goes back 800 years, when the first sailors from Samoa and Tonga arrived here and, falling in love with the island, remained. Sitting in what seems like an eggshell perched over hundreds of metres of water, with no slap of waves on an aluminium hull and no buzz of a four-stroke outboard, you become enveloped in a feeling of peace, of ultimate contentment.

"This is my second wife," said Taumafai, patting the hull of his canoe, or vaka as it is called. "When I have had enough of my wife's talking I come out here, and sometimes I just sit and don't even fish."

He is the acknowledged master canoe-maker, carving the hull the traditional way from a single log of forest mahogany.

Modern tools may have replaced stone and shell adzes, but the construction has not changed and the finish is so smooth it looks and feels like fibreglass - until you knock it and hear the wood talking to you. The adze marks on the inside are another giveaway. These vaka fishermen are supreme anglers. They use only stout handlines of 400m of 100kg breaking strain monofilament. They slip chunks of mackerel into the water and drift a whole mackerel down so it follows the berley in the current.

Then, when a fish strikes, they battle it by hand, wrapping the line around a bent knee to take the weight and stop the fish. If it is too powerful they simply straighten the leg and the coils slip over the side. Scarred thighs and legs seared by line cuts are testament to reactions which were a tad slow.

And they catch fish. Tuna average about 10kg but a yellowfin of 47kg was weighed not long ago. And a wahoo of 47.8kg was weighed last week in the Niue International Wahoo Tournament.

It was caught by a vaka fisherman and easily eclipsed the 36.8kg specimen that topped the catches brought in by the 10 charter boats in the four days of fishing.

"I have landed six billfish in this vaka," said Taumafai. Talking quietly in island fashion, there was no hint of boasting. Just a fact.

Sitting with the line in hand and the water only centimetres away it is hard to imagine battling a marlin or a large tiger shark like the one hooked by a vaka fishermen here last year. What they do is exhaust the fish before bringing it alongside, then dispatch it with a billy club, lash it to the canoe and paddle back to shore.

Taumafai told how young men once would paddle to Tonga, 1000km and four days away, as a sort of traditional rite of passage.

"I might do it one day, even though I'm getting older," he mused.

They certainly earn their fish, these vaka fishermen of Niue.

- Herald on Sunday

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