When I was growing up in Kalk Bay one fish species fascinated us youngsters. The fish was known as a harder or mullet. The big challenge was to catch them on light line with tiny hooks. But even more challenging was trying to catch them in the first place because they were shy fish that didn’t often bite.
At one time my father let me moor his small kreef bakkie in Kalk Bay harbour. My friends from the flats above Kalk Bay persuaded me to row the bakkie out in the evening and lie behind the Snow Goose, a small motorised luxury boat, to catch harders. We would throw anchor behind the Snow Goose and wait in the evening and an hour so after dark for the harders to come. It seemed that there was a large shoal of harders that moved around Kalk Bay harbour or came into the harbour at night.
We would use thin nylon line about five kg with a small Mustard hook baited with a tiny piece of white bread rolled into a ball around the hook. We would cast the spider-web like line towards the stern of the bakkie and wait. We would sometimes clip a float onto the line and watch it with Albatross eyes. At the slightest bob or nibble on the line, we would get ready to strike the harder.
One of the books that my father, Brian, had at home was the magnificent “The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa” by J L B Smith. When I caught fish off the rocks at Kalk Bay from the harbour wall or even the jetty in those days when the harbour still had a wooden jetty, I would go to that amazing reference book and try to identify the fish species.
The fish that we were catching, according to Smith, was the common “Harder” of the Southern Cape. As Smith noted, the harder occurs in abundance on the South-West coast, about the Cape and to beyond Agulhas. In the fifth edition of his book Smith said that millions of harders were landed annually. I still remember at Fish Hoek beach how the trek fisherman would post experienced watchers on the mountain side to check out the movements of shoals. They were pulled ashore using drag nets and as Smith says, “sometimes the mass of fishes is so great that the net has to be held fast until the tide falls.” In those days floating gill nets were used on the West Coast to catch harders. Although these harders could obtain a length of about 16 inches (40,64 cm), the ones we caught were only up to about 25 cm in length.
When the shoal of harders moved in at the back of the bakkie, there was great excitement in our little boat. Lines were checked to see that they were correctly baited, especially after one of the three of us on board caught one. You can imagine what a fight it would put up on such thin line. Sometimes in the early stages of using our hand lines we would have to let out line from the small plastic reels on which the nylon was wound. We never caught more than half a dozen harders but it was especially exciting to catch them. I think it was because very few people knew about the harders and the youngsters from the flats in Kalk Bay kept it a well-guarded secret.
On cold evenings when we were hungry on the bakkie, my friends from the flats would bring a loaf of bread, scrape out the centre and fill it with either barbecued corn chips or chilli crisps. This was well enough to keep the hunger down. The wait could be excruciatingly long and while we waited we would eat from the loaf of bread cut into equal parts with a small pocket knife. Like all other fishermen when the fish aren’t biting, we would chat about all sorts of things, what fish we had caught in the past and what we were still hoping to catch.
When I got home with the harders I had caught, my mother would fry them in butter the next morning and simply serve them with salt-and-pepper. My mother, Myra, knew how to cook any kind of fish and do it so well that when you had finished eating your harder, you felt like another. My mother went on to write a seafood cookbook, which at that time was popular in the Southern suburbs of the Cape Peninsula.
As happens in many things, we eventually forgot about harder fishing and moved on to other types of hand line fishing and rock angling. The Snow Goose remained in the harbour for many years. It was covered in fishing nets to prevent the duiker birds from excreting their white guano all over the wooden cabin and decks. But that never really stopped the duikers and the boat looked white from the mess most times of the year.
I never did find out what happened to the Snow Goose, nor the harders that used to come into Kalk Bay harbour and that disappeared but the excitement of being young and catching harders in Kalk Bay will always remain with me.