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From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number One, December 1978, New Moon

Sunday, January 30, 2011 8:54 PM




Nowadays Not Like Before
               by Tony Lee

     Danny stretched his massive body along the wooden bench that he often used as a bed. It was a windy night and he covered himself with an old shower curtain, feeling the warm plastic cling to his sweaty arms. He really did not mind the cold weather. The black coffee and the tin roof over his head provided ample warmth and security. What bothered him the most was the windy sound that stirred his imagination, keeping him awake throughout the entire night. He closed his eyes and wondered if the other men had the same problem.
     Suddenly the wind disappeared, as if someone had captured it in a bottle, and the once churning white water lay flat and cold like the palm of a hand. Danny could sense that something was awfully wrong, the way the night birds started heading back to the mountains as if the black clouds that lay along the horizon were scaring them away. The dim glow from the lantern began pulsating like a heart beat, casting distorted figures along the concrete floor of the shack. Slowly the other men were climbing out of their sleeping bags, focusing their eyes on the angry clouds that were now rumbling right above them. Junior suggested that everyone tie all their shower curtains together. That way the eight of them could hide under one large plastic tent. Everyone worked at a frantic pace, collecting their gear together, tying shower curtain to shower curtain, and glancing every so often at the gloomy sky. No one, however, seemed to notice the changing tide – as it slowly rose over the ridge and completely surrounded the entire shack.

     Danny could not recall ever praying so hard in his life, but the waves were hitting them with such a tremendous force he could not think of anything else to do but mumble the Hail Mary over and over again. The shack was close to fifteen feet high, so he could imagine how huge the waves were, the way they kept pounding on the corrugated tin roof. It was like being locked inside of a car trunk while someone with an angry fist kept beating down on him. He was holding on to Junior, fingers grasping three of his belt loops, while both of Junior's arms were hugging one of the wooden beams that ran perpendicular to the roof. Somewhere in the distance the men could hear the booming sound of a cannon – waves hammering the side of the cliffs. Then immediately in front of him, he saw their gear slowly float away. First the lantern then the wooden table, then he closed his eyes and prayed a little harder.
     Throughout the storm Danny could hear Junior's bellowing voice telling everyone to hold on to their positions. Danny himself thought it would be easier to make a run for it, but deep inside a little voice kept reminding him to trust Junior's decision. Over the past thirty years Junior had been caught in a number of sea storms and Danny remembered Junior telling him about the tombstones that lay scattered along the rugged cliffs. So many men had been swept to sea while trying to run away from the awesome waves. There was Gordon Pang in 1945, there was old man Harry in 1953, there was Walter Cobey in 1976 . . . the list seemed endless. All of a sudden the tombstones meant more to Danny than ever before. It was a strange feeling, like being close to someone that he always took for granted. He held on to Junior and tried to hide his fear like the rest of the men, patiently waiting for the sea storm to pass them by.

     In the early 1920's an old Portuguese pig farmer often lent his donkeys to a handful of young Japanese fishermen. The men would back-pack their way across the steep lava sea cliffs on Southeastern Oahu until they reached Halona Point – their favorite fishing ground. The next day they would return to the farmer and provide him with enough fish for a month. This bartering system continued until the coastal road opened in 1931. Soon, fishermen from all over Oahu began casting at Halona, and on a good night a multitude of bamboo fishing poles would line the perimeter of the point, which was given the name "Bamboo Ridge." And even today – some fifty years later – the men at Bamboo Ridge continue to tell the story of the old Portuguese pig farmer and the young Japanese fishermen.

               In 1929 a group of fishermen founded the former Honolulu Japanese
          Casting Club, the forerunner of today's many casting clubs. In spite of their
          caution in fishing off the rocky lava ledges that are found along O`ahu's
          coastline, every year a number of their members and fellow fishermen were
          swept away and lost in heavy surf. In 1935 members of the club began a
          community service project to erect concrete warning markers at dangerous
          spots around the island. Each marker had the Japanese character "abunai,"
          or "danger," carved on two of its sides. The markers were usually placed
          at a spot where a fisherman had lost his life; they can still be seen
          along the coast in Nanakuli and Kaena as well as the Koko Head area.
               In addition to setting up the warning markers, the members of the
          Honolulu Casting Club pooled their money and sent away to Japan for a
          carved statue of O-Jizosan, the guardian god for people at all dangerous
          waterways and coastlines. When the statue arrived it was placed on top
          of Halona Point, overlooking the ridge and cove below. With the
          outbreak of World War II, however, O-Jizosan's head was broken off,
          because he was the god of the "enemy," and eventually his body was
          demolished entirely. The postwar cost of replacing the statue was too
          prohibitive for the club members, so they decided to have his figure
          carved into a large stone. This was done, and today O-Jizosan stands
          again in place, watching over the fishermen and swimmers near Halona.(1)

     Freddy takes his fishing reel from his back-pack and attaches it on to his fiberglass rod. Ricky does the same, mentioning something about the advantages of being first. It is a very hot afternoon: the type of day when none of the clouds in the sky seem to be moving. Normally, no one would be at the ridge as early as one thirty, but both men are construction workers participating in the iron workers' strike. That gives them time to assemble their gear and cast their lines, long before the rest of the men. Freddy and Ricky continue to work silently, stopping every so often to study the movement of the changing tides and the blowing trade winds. Meanwhile an elderly couple wearing straw hats slowly work their way down to the ridge.
     They turn out to be two red-faced tourists. One of them is an old man in Bermuda shorts lugging a Nikon camera strapped around his neck. His wife, dressed in a bright red muu-muu, seems to have a constant habit of giggling for no reason. He picks up one of Freddy's fourteen-foot fishing poles with authority and begins to examine it from butt cap to tip. He lets out a frown and says that back in Canada he does a lot of trout fishing, but never has he seen anything so ridiculous as this. Freddy smiles, then shrugs his shoulder, mumbling something about never having met a person from Canada before. Then the old man walks into the shack and begins to examine all of the fishing gear on the wooden table. He lets out a gasp of air as he picks up an ulua hook as big as his palm. Attached to the hook is a wire leader made from piano wire. Back comes his frown and he asks Ricky if he could keep the hook as a souvenir, so he could show it to his trout-fishing buddies back home. Ricky nods, telling the old man that he and Freddy never tasted trout before. By now the old man is practically shouting his disbelief. He runs outside again and picks up Freddy's rod. He tells his wife that no one could cast a pole as heavy as this. She giggles. Then he examines the ring at the end of the wire leader and demands an explanation. Ricky demonstrates how the ring can be snapped on to someone's line, enabling a baited hook to slide all the way down to the sinker. The old man thinks it's the craziest idea he has ever heard. He takes out his camera and starts clicking away at the ocean, the shack, and especially Freddy and Ricky. He stares at the poles for the last time, then heads back up the trail, shaking his head all the way to his car.

     It's called the slide-bait method and is one of the oldest ways of fishing in Hawaii. And yet even the most experienced fisherman may not be familiar with its technique. You won't find it being used at Honolulu Harbor, or any of the sandy beaches around Oahu. Slide-baiting calls for a rocky cliff and a lot of guts to withstand the angry waves that constantly threaten you.
     When fishing from a ledge, the slide-bait method will ease the physical difficulties that an ulua fisherman encounters. Enormous size baits – such as a whole octopus – make long distance casting with a fourteen foot rod quite difficult. The slide-baiter, however, avoids this problem by casting out a baitless line with only a sinker. Attached to the sinker is a wire hook which catches on to the nearest coral head. This enables the fisherman to keep his line in a taut position. When his line is finally set, he slides down a baited hook with a short leader. This is done by passing the line through a small connector, which is usually a split ring or a pigtail loop. There are several advantages to this type of fishing: a long distance cast may be made; with one cast several baited hooks can be sent down at intervals; the reeling in of the line to see whether the bait is still on is unnecessary; fewer sinkers are lost. And if you are a complete stranger to this type of fishing, like a trout fisherman from Canada, the usual response is that nothing short of a whale can ever be caught.

     The sun is rapidly falling behind the mountains in Hawaii-Kai and Junior realizes that he does not have much time to work with. Standing on the edge of the ridge, he stares at the familiar blue water, patiently waiting for his body to relax. It is like watching a baseball pitcher. He takes a deep breath and waits; something is wrong with his footing and he knows he will lose control the moment he releases his line. He jerks his hip in a circular motion, then repositions his footing along the lava rocks. Once again he gazes at the horizon, timing his breath with the ebb and flow. Slowly he raises his left leg into the air until his entire body is balancing on his right leg. Then he takes a final dip to the right and his fourteen foot pole comes flying around his body in a powerful roundhouse fashion. It is a good cast, maybe eighty or ninety yards. But the rough current makes it difficult for his sinker to anchor itself onto the coral reef and he starts over.
     The rest of the men are gathered around the wooden table, waiting for Junior to finish his casting. David glances at his watch for the second time in ten minutes and then mumbles something about not being able to wait any longer. A rumbling noise vibrates through his stomach but no one takes him seriously. David himself knows that he can really wait, even if Junior takes another hour; time is not important here. Their pot luck dinner has always been a tradition; a time of relaxation and the sharing of home cooked meals: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese style. The table is filled with a number of local delicacies. Junior provides enough Portuguese sausages and shoyu chicken for everyone, Howard brings a bottle of homemade kim-chee, and Allen opens a plastic container filled with fresh bamboo shoots that he picked in Tantalus. Everyone has something to contribute and for the time being the men forget about their daily problems, engrossed in the good food and warm conversation.

     "Eh, David, you went Tamashiro Market? Man, that's what I call scraping the bottom of the barrel." Everyone laughs at Junior's jeering remark but the cardboard container – filled with raw fish – is empty in no time. "Da sashimi was on sale," David replies. "And anyway, you guys all know – nowadays not like before."
     Almost twenty years ago, men like Junior and David could make a few dollars on the side by selling their daily catch to the fish markets around Honolulu. Today, however, they find themselves depending on the fish markets to provide them with their bait. Over the years, they have watched a number of Hawaii's fishing grounds turn fallow. Yet, in spite of all the draw¬ backs of shore casting, they continue to fish, season after season.
     Freddy seems to put everything in a nutshell when he talks about "finding his God at Bamboo Ridge." Like the rest of the men, he realizes that the ulua is "very, very scarce." But through the years he has learned to enjoy the simple things in life, like the sound of the blue ocean and the brown sea birds. "Besides," he adds, "where else can you find a group of guys who can sit down together, every weekend, and still find something interesting to discuss? I mean, I can't even do that with my wife . . . I just run out of things to say to her."

     Allen nibbles on a piece of chicken and tries to visualize David's favorite diving spot off Punaluu. The two men – sitting directly across from each other – exchange questions, then David draws a map with his finger on the wooden table. Allen studies the invisible map for awhile, then suddenly his face lights up with understanding. He nods his approval, then takes another bite from his chicken. At the far side of the table, Ricky holds up his left arm to show Tiny a small gash under his elbow. Tiny lets out a roar of laughter and so do the other men who are familiar with the "peeping Tom" antics of construction workers. Ricky stands on the bench and pantomimes the entire event: how he hides his body behind a slab of dry wall then cuts two holes big enough for his binoculars. Feeling brave enough, he decides to move a little closer "to get a better look," only to trip on a piece of scrap lumber. "A serious injury," he jokes, "but all in a day's work."
     Freddy tells the gang about the conflict he is having with his wife. How she cannot seem to appreciate his constant fishing habit. Allen pats Freddy on the back and stresses the importance of "wife training." Ricky nods his approval, telling everyone that long before he got married he made an agreement with his wife-to-be: if she had any nights off from work he would stay home, other than that, nothing would interfere with his fishing. Ricky remembers getting married during the peak of the ulua season: "I wuz so excited I neva know what to do. So I figga, I get married, but I skip da reception. I went throw all da presents in da back of my jeep, and me and Val went spend our honeymoon right here at da ridge."

     Howard picks up a dog-eared section of the Star Bulletin that someone has tossed on the concrete floor. He mutters something about the rivalry between Ariyoshi and Fasi and before you know it – it's election time at Bamboo Ridge. Surprisingly, everyone seems concerned about Hawaii's political future.
     "Ariyoshi going lose," says Freddy with authority, "I bet you any much."
     "How you know?" asks Danny. "You no like him cuz he Japanese right? Well dat not good enough."
     "I no care what nationality him," Freddy replies, "I just know he not going get as many votes from the Japanese community cuz da obligation is over."
     Freddy explains the obligation the first generation of Japanese (issei) had for John Burns. "And that's how Ariyoshi got in, but the obligation is over, and Ariyoshi is out!"
     The friendly argument continues until Danny throws in his two cents which seems to touch home base with everyone. "I no like vote, because da state always jam up everything at da end. Dey always do dat." Danny mentions the mongoose; how it was brought into the Islands to control the rat population in the cane fields. "Dat ting went eat everything but da bugga, and now we get one problem trying to control da mongoose!"
     "And what about the Talapia and the Ta`ape?" shouts Howard. "That's another mistake. I tell you, those two fish are eating everything in sight." To his understanding, both fishes were brought in as a source of food. "But they're disturbing the natural cycle, especially that Ta`ape. None of the other fishes have a chance to spawn anymore. I tell you, in five years Hawaii will be in big trouble, all because of that stupid fish."
     "And what about over population?" gripes Junior. "It's just not fair to us shore casters." He explains what the Ridge is like during the day. How the water is filled with weekend divers and commercial trappers. "My neighbors, they always ask me why I'm not catching any more ulua and I just shrug my shoulders. But I know why, it's those trappers catching all of the small fish. And when you don't have small fish, none of the bigger fish come around."
     "Dat's right, and more worse, dey like fool around," grumbles David. "Da other day I had one big strike, but when I pick up my pole I no feel nothing fight back, just something real heavy. So I figga I get one big eel and I all happy cuz dat good bait for ulua. But when I pick up my line, I find somebody went tie six beer cans to my hook. And den I see all the divers out there waving to me, like I suppose to wave back and laugh too. I tell you, if I wuz Governor, da first ting I do is make one restriction. Tell all those divers dey gotta stay two hundred yards from the shoreline. I mean, if dey get aqualungs dey get da whole ocean . . . why dey gotta bother us?"

     All night long, the conversation flows as smoothly as the waves. And in many ways it is an ideal society. No social ladder exists: the youngest man holds equal weight with the eldest, and everyone is entitled to his share of compliments as well as criticism. The men realize that the fishing will never be the same, and the future looks as bleak as ever. But still, they continue to fish and wish at Bamboo Ridge.

     (1) John Clark, THE BEACHES OF OAHU, (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1978), p. 28.


* * * * *

Bio: "Tony Lee, who gave this quarterly its name, explains fishing the slide-bait way in his article, "Nowadays Not Like Before." It is also noted that Tony "runs his octopi through the washing machine to make them soft."

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