“Bake and catfish, better than a Subway! Fry bake and catfish, sweeter than shark!”
Rishi repeated this song all the way up the river to the sheltered spots along the banks where the fishing lines had to be set. Mangrove roots and clumps of bamboo along the edges provided shade for large species of fish such as the catfish, locally known as the cabezon, to spawn and feed.
The lines were tied to branches overhanging the river then weighed down as the cabezon is a bottom feeder. Chicken heads were used as bait for catching the cabezon, and these were attached to several large hooks along the length of line and left overnight to attract the giants of the river.
The following morning, Captain Ravi took us up the river to participate in the harvesting of the cabezon. Nearing the first spot where the boys had set out the line, excitement grew as we observed the line being pulled taut.
The Ortoire River was a beautiful crop-green now and the strong current of the rainy season was gone. The boys had waited out the rainy season when the strong currents of the brown river would have been a bit risky to face with the boat.
The line took some strength to pull up as the obviously large catch pulled and tugged. Rolnado and Roberto whistled as a large cabezon was pulled out of the water and quickly guided into a waiting bucket. Caution was the key word here because the spiny bone in their dorsal and pectoral fins can cause serious injury.
The boys quickly clipped away the danger, released the hook and uneaten bait from the mouth, and reset the line. The giant fish made grunts like those of a wild hog as it floundered in the bucket.
More such catches, one of which was an 18-pounder, made up the quota for the morning. We narrowly missed one as apparently he was just coming to investigate the bait when the boat approached. The water became highly agitated as he made his escape up the river. The boys promised to return later in the afternoon when the tide (salt water) came up.
Phag, grouper, mullet, salmon and grand ecaille are also harvested in the Ortoire, but the cabezon generates more demand. It is the largest catfish in Trinidad’s coastal waters, both salt and sweet, and is recognised by its barbels that somewhat resemble whiskers.
Residents of Mafeking, Mayaro, like Ravi, Rishi, Rolnado and Roberto, were born into the fishing industry and river fishing, especially for the cabezon. It represents the opportunity for them to enjoy the camaraderie and sharing that is an integral part of rural life.
Back in camp, the boys prepped, took out the middle bone, filleted, limed, soaked, washed and seasoned the fish, some for roasting, some for frying, all to make the famous bake and catfish that Mafeking is popular for. The head was prepared for currying with dumplings.
In Chaguanas, Central Trinidad, the catfish sells for $25 a pound.
Meanwhile, in the community of Poole, men throw their lines at the back of their houses and gardens, with the hope of catching sizeable fish. This is all that is left of the days when fishing for the cabezon as a community was a fun thing.
Most elders have since passed on, boys and girls have become men and women, and the river channel has changed as a result of dredging.
Still, residents remember and pass on the stories of a day of trapping the cabezon.
Back then, the boys were the first to gather along the river bank early o’clock. The tradition of families enjoying a day of fishing for the cabezon was an important day for the community of Poole.
A pond of about six metres deep had to be pumped out before the real action started. Later, the noise of the pump and the arrival of more residents armed with buckets, pots and provision for a cookout filled the air.
With pots a-bubbling amid the latest village gossip and picong making the rounds, a shout from the now low level of water was the signal for the day’s climax. Everyone wanted to catch the cabezon that was now visibly thrashing around in the water. No one minded the soft mud.
Children screamed with excitement each time their parents managed to bucket a cabezon. It was unbelievable that one spot in the river could yield fish to fill so many buckets.
Looking at the shrunken river now, one could only remember the aroma of the roasting cabezon wafting around the gathering of people just waiting to enhance their plates with it.
Fishing rods have taken the place of this original mode of fishing.
Unlike the almost year-round tradition of our crew at Mafeking, residents of Poole wait for the rainy season when there is enough water to support the presence of big fish like the cabezon.