Existential crises have the worst timing. Mine showed up a decade ago, over feni at Britto’s, one of Goa’s most crowded seaside haunts. Baga had always been my beach of choice but something was changing. As I looked out at leering tourists sneaking pictures of sunbathing women and shack attendants hawking sunbeds and massages, I wondered what I was doing at a place where I could get run over by a jet ski. I knew that my time in north Goa had passed.
Early the next morning, our group headed out to Palolem, a village in the far south of Goa, which we were assured hadn’t been taken over by half-clad, fully drunk hordes. Two hours later, we arrived to gaze at sparkling blue waters with hardly anyone in them, and a white beach with not a sunbed in sight. I knew then that this was where I’d come to find nirvana. What I didn’t realise was just how enriching this decision would be both for my body and soul.
A few months later, I was lounging at a shack in Palolem when Bobby, the owner-turned-buddy asked if I wanted to try something different. He recommended crab fishing in the river. That afternoon, I returned happy with the catch, but not with the loutish boys who had helped me haul it in. I asked Bobby to recommend another fisherman, and he introduced me to Gokuldas, a man who I would later discover was made from the waves themselves.
The first time Kaka (as I came to call Gokuldas) took me out on the river, I saw it anew. The care with which he set his boat in the water, the pride that shone in his eyes as he told me he’d never had her hull caulked, the deliberation with which he lowered each net into the water—all drove home how important it was to love what you do as well as where you do it. As we floated along, I discovered that this man, who was just a few months younger than my father, had spent a decade as a captain of a fishing boat, educated his sons so that they wouldn’t need to follow in his footsteps, and his daughter too, even though her classmates were dropping out to get married and have babies. Unlettered he might have been, but unaware he certainly wasn’t.
Every time we set sail, he unwittingly taught me something new. For instance, the lesson on the perils of tardiness. Unlike most other forms of fishing, catching crabs depends entirely on tidal timings. Mud crabs are scavengers and the incoming tide brings a smorgasbord of dead delights that entice them out of their rocky shelters. This is why the crab net has a bait ball made up of the smelliest offal, tied in old fishing net. The prospect of a catch is limited to a two-hour window, which is how long it takes for the tide to run out. That morning, we were due to set off at eight, but thanks to a night of over-indulgence, I only got there past nine. Kaka was waiting, looking a little forlorn. I presumed it was on account of the wait. It was actually because he was sure we’d have slim pickings that day. He was right. I never made him wait again and took this lesson back to my meetings in Mumbai.
One year, I landed up a couple of days before Holi and called Kaka. He came over, but without the customary crab nets. I asked him if all was well. He assured me it was, but that he was observing Shigmo, a spring festival during which Hindu fishermen don’t fish. Looking at my crestfallen face, he said it would end on Holi morning. If I skipped celebrating the festival, he’d ensure I had an experience I’d never forget.
After fretting for two days, I set off early on Holi on an expedition that remains my most amazing fishing experience yet. Since the river hadn’t been fished in for a few days, the crabs were almost jumping into our nets. Our catch was so bountiful, we only kept the crabs that would have cost a claw and a leg in any restaurant. Crunching through a colourful plate of crabs at lunch, I learned how listening to your elders can pay off. I haven’t missed Holi in Palolem since.
A few years later, I was trying to float away from a broken heart. From my long face, Kaka guessed I was single again. Without my having said a word, he said, “Don’t worry, you will find love again.” I asked him why he thought so. He smiled and replied, “Because I know that one day, my son will take your son fishing.” I looked away, knowing that I’d eventually get over the pain.
Kaka showed me the different faces of Goa that stay hidden from most tourists. Very early one morning, I was walking along the beach to meet him at the river when I saw something few visitors do—fishing boats hauling in the morning’s catch. Even more remarkable was the sight of my bartender from the night before at the helm of a boat. That day, I learned how many Goans manage to strike a balance between the demands of new trades and old tradition
As our friendship strengthened over the decade, Kaka let me into the secret waterways of his experience. I went to special spots on the river where the biggest crabs lurk. I learned which tree a pair of Brahminy kites nested in. I discovered how much wildlife thrives in the noisy shadow of nightlife. I watched sleepy Palolem, where only the most intrepid backpackers would come, transform into a busy tourist hub. I recognised the similarities between Konkani and Marathi, and though I still can’t speak the language fluently, my understanding of Konkani has improved after Kaka pointed out the overlaps in syntax and vocabulary. I observed that a God-fearing teetotaller had no conflict about me quaffing beer on his boat, because he judged me by the content of my heart, not my bottle.
But most of all, I learned that the best teacher always remains a willing pupil. Once, we were bringing up only juvenile crabs and to his chagrin, I kept throwing them back in. Finally, he asked me why I wasn’t keeping them. I explained that I believed in sustainable fishing and that if we ate all the juvenile crabs today, how would there be any adults to breed tomorrow? He ruminated for a few minutes and said, “You have turned 50 years of fishing experience on its head. Thank you for this lesson.”
It’s been over ten years since our first fishing trip. In that time, Kaka has retired from fishing and handed over the oars to his eldest son. But he always makes an exception when I visit. I bask in the knowledge that within a few hours of settling in at Bobby’s, my phone will ring and a wise man at the other end will tell me at what time I should be ready to haul up some nirvana in my net. And a few crabs too, if I’m lucky.
In Goa, you can fish for crabs on rivers at Palolem, Baga, Chapora, and Mobor, as well as at various points along the Mandovi and the Zuari Rivers. Any village by a creek will also have fishermen eager to make some money.
Crab fishing is, thankfully, not commercialised. This means that you will have to scout for a fisherman to guide you, but also that the trip will be an authentic local experience. Fishing is conducted in the estuaries of rivers. If you see a stretch of mangroves, look around for people in small boats. Ask them if they are crab fishermen or know anybody who is one. If you aren’t near a river, ask the hotel or local restaurants for leads.
A fair price to pay for a two-hour trip can vary depending on the location and the competition. Bargaining is almost expected. Tip if you’ve had a good time. It isn’t a practice but it is polite.
Since crab fishing is dependent on the tides, it occurs all year around. Still, sitting out in the sweltering sun or the rampant rain isn’t for everyone. The best months to be out on the water are between October and April.
This is a clean, but basic experience. Fishermen will put function before comfort, so don’t expect pillows and thermoses. The boats are like large canoes, which can hold a maximum of three or four people. On some rivers, the boats have sun shades like the shikaras in Kashmir. You could opt for one of these in the summer season. Handling a crab net is not for everyone. The first few times I tried to empty the nets into the bucket, I accidently let the crabs loose in the boat. So don’t be upset if your fisherman insists on handling the nets initially. After a few trips, you’ll gather the confidence to handle the crabs yourself.
• Never, ever set out late. The window for a successful trip is very short and shuts quickly.
• River waters are flat and placid, so you won’t feel seasick. Still, it’s best to limit yourself to a small snack before you head out.
• Use the loo before your trip. Crab-fishing boats are basic and don’t have attached bathrooms.
• You will probably have to wade through water while getting in and out of your boat, so dress appropriately. Shorts and beach footwear are ideal.
• Be responsible. Don’t throw any kind of trash in the river.
• Do throw back small, juvenile crabs.
• A camera with an adequately charged battery and ample memory cards is essential. Backwaters are impossibly beautiful and always cause the trigger finger to itch.
• Pack sun block. You will be sitting in the harsh sun for more than two hours.
• Take water and refreshments. There are no stores around and you will not be able to buy anything.
• If you must, you can carry beer or a picnic basket with refreshing drinks. In addition to keeping you cool and hydrated, they will be most useful for toasting a successful catch and celebrating when you land a big one.
• Try to take some friendliness and curiosity along. You will find the few hours on the fisherman’s boat pass rather quickly. Keep an open mind and you might come back with a bucket filled with memorable lessons too.
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “Catching Claws”.