In the summer afternoons I would take my reel of nylon line, penknife and a sardine from my father’s bait deep-freeze and run from our home in Kalk Bay down to the harbour.
The mackerel were biting in the harbour. Huge shoals of mackerel, maasbunkers and chokka (squid) would move into False Bay during the summer months. From October right through to March you could catch bait fish in the harbour.
At the quayside a whole crowd of boys would be sitting with their legs dangling over the edge or the taller boys with their feet touching the big black tractor and truck tyres used as fendors around the concrete harbour walls.
Jonny, Desmond, Larry, Ahbat, Ta Boy – all of the guys were there pulling in mackerel the length of a loaf of bread. I’d find an empty spot between them, measure off my line, bait my hook and throw my baited line into the water.
A mackerel would take my bait, I’d give a little jerk to set the book and start pulling my fish in. This was fun. The mackerel were big enough to give a good fight and felt bigger than they were with the 12 lb (3 kg) line we were using. I’d pull up my mackerel, hold it in one hand, slit its throat with my red-tartan penknife and place it next to me.
Catching these mackerel, and later maasbunkers, harders and chokka from the outside harbour wall gave me the early trade-skill of knowing what bait to use and how to strike fish. I was joining a long history of fishing at Kalk Bay harbour that went back to the first Filipino fishermen who escaped from Simon’s Town under Dutch rule and settled in Kalk Bay. What I learned would help me later when I caught game fish in False Bay and off Cape Point. Yellowtail, snoek, katonkel, longfin tunny and yellowfin tuna.
I fished for mackerel and maasbunkers right up to my teens until the giant shoals of bait fish began to disappear. The large commercial trawlers had entered False Bay with their deadly purse seine nets, vacuuming up the shoals. Foreign fishing fleets were allowed to climb in and plunder the local fish stocks. The traditional fishermen with their “tok tokkie” wooden boats were reduced to catching “doppies” (reef fish) from the limited number of reefs in False Bay and selling them in bunches. They had always caught bunch fish but now they were relying on the reefs for a living. Slowly the reefs were stripped bare.
I witnessed the devastation of the False Bay fishery within two decades growing up. Had I lived before this time or after I would have different memories of Kalk Bay harbour. Walking along the harbour wall that runs out into the sea all that matters now is the turn of the tide, the gulls screeching overhead and the ocean pushing against harbour wall in the late afternoon sun. A young couple, holding hands, may stroll along the same wall one day in the future, take in the stunning scenery and wonder what it must have been like in the hey days when Kalk Bay was a fishermen’s harbour.