After the bad weather the South Easter would drop in the night and we’d go out early in the morning to catch snoek off Buffels Bay near Cape Point. On the first day when the wind had blown itself out in False Bay the fish came on the bite.
Running up to Cape Point from the Millar’s Point slipway before sun rise, arriving at the fishing grounds, I still marvel how my old man had this uncanny sixth sense to put the boat right on top of the fish. He’d grown up fishing the lagoon in East London, fished for big-game tuna and marlin off Mozambique in the early 1960s and later pioneered ski boat fishing in False Bay, bagging record giant bluefin tuna in the bay off his small open boat with two 40 horse-power Johnson outboards.
We’d throw our bait lines out and work our leads, pulling in a silvery piece of metal as long and thick as a medium-sized carrot with a short red rubber skirt and 10/0 Mustard hook. We’d pull the lure with a motion that resembled a small fish the size of a pilchard struggling away from a bigger fish … the size of a snoek.
As we sat there on my old man’s ski boat with the sun coming up over the Cape Hangklip mountains, nothing would happen for a while. But we would keep on trying until at last one of us would go “vas” (strike) with a fish. This would signal that his “mombak” (unlucky curse) had been taken off.
Another fisherman on the boat would hook a snoek and soon we’d all be pulling in fish like crazy, breaking their necks, holding them tight under our arms or between our legs, pulling their jaws forward until we heard their necks crack. They were too frisky alive and their big teeth would cut severely leaving your flesh festering for days.
When we caught snoek for about an hour and the fish hold was almost full up with long dark and silvery bodies, we called this being in the “dik” (in the thick) or catching a boatload. Then it was time to up anchor and rush to market.
We’d take the 25 nautical mile run from Cape Point to Kalk Bay and arrive before the trusty old wooden commercial fishing boats (called tok tokkies because of the knocking sound of their inboard motors) would arrive, chugging in with their Cummings diesel engines groaning, seagulls screeching like mad as they flew with the boat overhead, sharp-eyed for scraps of bait.
The “langaners” (fish dealers), taking quick hard drags on their smokes under dark grey hats with a feather on the side of their hat bands, chatting among themselves from the corner of their mouths, would be waiting for us to buy our snoek.
When a snoek run was on in the summer months the fish auctioneers (who bid to the assembled fish dealers) could only get as a price of about a fifth of the normal rate.
For all the effort put into catching the snoek, the money we made hardly seemed worth it, except for the excitement of catching the snoek.
If you go back into the history of fishing at Kalk Bay, you’ll find that the boat owners tried to form their own fishery there in the very early 1900s. But that didn’t work.
They hadn’t heard about the concept of Prisoner’s Dilemma (so named by Albert Tucker but developed by mathematician John Nash [played by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind“] into the Nash Equilibrium) where without cooperation in business (and other human enterprises) it becomes a zero sum game. We’re not talking anti-competitive behaviour here but the concept of collectives.
In a co-operative someone is always bound to defect – as did the fishermen in those early 1900s, selling on the side outside of the co-operative.
Even recently I heard that sheep farmers in Namibia are trying to form a collective to sell their outside the merciless open market.
If only one member of any collective defects, the others have no protection against low prices. The fisherman, the farmer, the harvester, the miner is always at the mercy of the market – prices not being determined on the boat, the farm gate or mine.
It’s a telling lesson for small business – differentiate, find your USP (unique selling proposition) or be a price-taker under the shackle of the bazaar.
In the evening after the day’s fishing with a snoek on the braai (barbeque) and crisp Cape white wine in hand, my old man never spoke about the betrayal by the fish mongers.
Instead, he had his ear to my mother who was gently encouraging him to get the 100-fish smoker in the back going again … and to take the Land Rover and spend a day sawing a load of “rooikrans” logs.
Just a bit of extra work, heat and hot smoke would raise the price of those same snoek tenfold.