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The mean, green fishing machine

by Len Jones

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From the early years of the twentieth century, South African anglers were fighting and landing huge sharks on rod and line. Not from boats which could follow the fish wherever it went, and playing as much a part in subduing it as the angler did, but from the rocks and piers and beaches where it was a contest of strength and guile between the fish and the angler with no outside help other than gaffing and roping once the trace was within reach of other anglers onshore. Many epic battles were fought between the protagonists and although some magnificent feats of angling resulted in sharks of excess of 500 lb (227 kgs) being taken by shore based anglers, it was not until the Durban shark anglers worked out a specialized method of fighting these fish that sharks of double, and in one case treble the weight were taken. **

The reasons that shark angling was to reach its zenith at Durban was firstly due to the whaling station situated on the Bluff just south of the harbour mouth, and secondly to the South and North Piers either side of the harbour entrance, which gave anglers access to deep water. Whalers towed their catches of humpback, sei, right, fin and sperm whales often within 50 metres of the piers, leaving a blood spoor that attracted sharks, sometimes in their dozens, within range of the waiting anglers. Very often these shark packs would follow the bleeding carcasses right up as far as the whale slipway situated just inside the harbour, a kilometre from the end of the South Pier. Prior to World War ll, many sharks were caught at this spot. Then, after the war, when the harbour area was once again opened to angling, one of the four concrete caissons which had been constructed during 1942, and used for supporting the anti submarine nets, and a large buoy were positioned within 60 metres of the slipway and it was seldom that anything bigger than 120 kilos was taken there due to the line being cut on these obstructions. Fishing from the slipway was banned after a crew member of a whaler, on leaping on to the jetty to secure the lines, slipped on some whale skin (left there by a angler fishing for grunter), and broke his leg. I believe that a 100 kg Zambezi shark which I caught there in 1953 was the last shark taken from the whale slipway.

Despite the obstructions that made shark fishing at the whale slip so difficult because any shark that was hooked had to be stopped within 60 metres, this very problem spawned a method of fighting a shark on rod and line that made it possible to stop the smaller specimens taken at the whale slip before they reached the buoy. This same method used on the South Pier stopped many larger fish from stripping every centimetre of line from the Scarborough reels that held between six and seven hundred metres. Instead of fighting the shark in a standing position the angler sat down on the pier as shown in the illustration. From this position, the angler, using a chrome-leather pad covering his right hand as a brake on the reel, could reinforce the pressure with the upper part of his right leg on the back of his hand, making it possible to exert amazing force on the reel. So much so, that his buttocks would be lifted from the concrete, sometimes for minutes at a time as a huge shark stripped hundreds of metres of line from the reel. Once the fish had been stopped, was when the hard work began. Heaving himself upwards into a half crouch by straightening the right leg, the angler would let the tip of the rod drop, allowing two or three turns of the line to be rewound on to the reel. Then, as the angler’s body weight returned the rod to its original position, the process was repeated again and again. The angler’s right leg acting as the fulcrum, pulling the shark closer and closer to the pier until the shark decided to make another run which could be from ten to many hundreds of metres, and only when it stopped, could the angler resume his winching, metre after painful metre. Some sharks would take hours to subdue as the line was gained, lost and recovered again. A process that would exhaust anyone not fit and experienced enough to stay the pace

Apart from this method of fighting the shark once it had been hooked, another huge stride was made by Lefty Schmidt, an extremely skilful, not to mention physically powerful shark angler, who believed that if the size of the whale meat bait could be increased substantially, then more and bigger specimens would be landed. He then devised a method of getting these giant baits out to deeper water. Instead of casting it directly from the rod, he would tie a bait of between 2.5 and 3 kilos to his hook, then lay out about fifty metres of line on the pier and by means of a handgrip of electrical tape bound over a link of dog chain, 2.5 metres up his steel trace, he would swing the bait around his head five or six times until he had built up enough momentum so that, upon release, it would sail through the air and hit the water far out in the channel, close to where the whalers were returning to port with the bodies of their victims dragging alongside, sailed past the pier. It was these two innovations, the casting of the bait, much as an athlete throwing the hammer, and the sit-brake and-winch style of playing a shark, that revolutionized the sport. Before these methods came in to being, the biggest sharks landed were about 200 plus kgs in weight. Afterwards, many fish in excess of 500 kgs were taken; the heaviest being a great white of 753 kgs. However, these advances were not, as many may imagine, the greatest leap forward in the sport of shark fishing. That was to come during September of 1954 with the advent of the mean, green fishing machine, from of all places . . . the Transvaal.

Apart from the usual early flurry of shad just after dawn one sunny Sunday morning, by eight o’clock things had become very quiet. It was a perfect spring day, with a low swell, blue water and a zephyr of a breeze blowing from the north east but, as all fishermen know, what we regard as perfect conditions, are not always understood as such by our finny friends, and since 8.30 not a fish had come out of the water. Even the six or seven shark baits that had been cast out just after first light, remained untouched except for the occasional  ‘peckers’ that announced their presence by a heavy shark rod’s tip trembling every so often. Whale meat was scarce that day, as only two sperm had been brought into the harbour on the Friday night and nothing on the Saturday. Those shark anglers who still had a few kilos squirreled away among the blocks of the pier kept a wary eye on it, for if a shark pack came past the pier every piece of whale meat would be worth its weight in gold.

Locals fishing from South Pier.
Original drawing by Len Jones.

Click image to view enlargement.

The morning dragged by, and with every passing hour the sun began to make the day uncomfortably warm, especially for that time of the year. Just before midday, Harold Rosevear who had landed a 230 kg tiger shark on the day before decided that he could still make it home to be in time for Sunday lunch and he began packing his gear. Knowing that he still had a nice piece of sperm meat, I approached him and was successful in inheriting a 2 kg lump of the somewhat smelly stuff, due to the fact that it was now three days since it had been a working part of a whale. Harold had not been gone for more than ten minutes, when I noticed two people walking along the pier. They were still about two hundred metres from me, but I could see that they were carrying something which looked like a stretcher with a box on top of it. Hawkers, I thought, as they often made forays up the pier to sell cold drinks, sugar buns, pies and chilli bites, though these were more often loaded on to a wheelbarrow than a stretcher.  With this thought I realised how much I needed a cold drink and something to eat, and as they drew nearer I began to fantasize about the contents of the box that they were carrying. A cold Coca Cola and a meat pie would fit the bill nicely. But no such luck. As they were now clearly recognizable, I could see that they were a pair of up-country holiday makers. There was no mistaking those Texan style cowboy hats, dark sunglasses and those legs, which obviously hadn’t seen the light of day for a very long time – if at all – but were now exposed by their owners, resplendent in shorts a few inches above the knees, exposing their lardy whiteness touched with a hint of cherry red – a sure sign of ‘up country’. As they set the stretcher down near the end of the pier, their appearance faded into total insignificance as our curiosity was transferred to the contraption that they were carrying. At first it had seemed to be a stretcher made of wood with a box and a seat behind it – all painted a brilliant green. The box had two 4 to 5 cms holes on either side, and a smaller one of about 2cm diameter facing forward. A small group of fishermen gathered around the pair who were now preparing whatever it was, for whatever they intended doing, with this mysterious contraption.

The fighting machine arrives.
Original drawing by Len Jones.

Click image to view enlargement.

Opening a narrow neatly hinged hatch-lid on the top of the box they withdrew what appeared to be two bicycle cranks complete with pedals, which they then proceeded to fit into the holes either side of the side of the box. Taking a spanner from the fishing bag that one was carrying, the other guy put his hands into the hatch and tightened these in place. When done, he replaced the spanner in the fishing bag, and once again his hands disappeared into the hatch and after a lot of fiddling about, a 8 mm thick rope was pushed through the hole in the front of box. The second guy took hold of it and began to pull. He kept on pulling until there was about thirty metres of rope coiled around his feet. Then, as he held out his hand, his friend once again delved in to the fishing bag and retrieved a long steel trace sporting a large shark hook with a 10 cms gape which he handed over. The whole procedure had been conducted without a word being exchanged between the two. Obviously it had been very well rehearsed - these two showmen were about to demonstrate to us how things should be done, and from the size of the hook, it was going to be catching a shark - Transvaal style. The next thing that was produced from the fishing bag was a large mullet of about 2 kgs. At this point it became obvious that the mean, green fishing machine and its two operators held the recipe for a potentially extremely interesting afternoon and suddenly all six of the shark anglers present unanimously volunteered their services to ensure the Transvaal twosome had every chance of connecting with a shark. The consequences of this promised to be absolutely memorable. Someone produced a link of dog chain which he explained would, after being attached to the wire trace two and a half metres from the hook and bound with insulation tape, give the optimum grip for a hammer throw to send the bait arcing out into the channel. Another shark fisherman, not wanting to be cheated of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness this charade being played out to its end, shouted out. ‘Wait. I’ve got a better bait than that.’ and ran off to his hidden stash, returning with a ripe piece of sperm meat which he presented to them. They looked at it doubtfully; were these fishermen pulling their leg? A chorus of assurances from the onlookers convinced them however, and the ever helpful donor proceeded to tie it on in the correct manner. It was now all systems go.

The two main players lifted the contraption and placed it near the edge of the pier facing the channel; meanwhile ‘helpful’ hands laid out the cord in the correct position for the hammer throw. When this was done an ever obliging volunteer, Tinkle Leadingham, stepped forward, saying he would throw the bait for them. At this, the twosome took up their positions: one on the seat, his feet firmly planted on the pedals, and the other behind him on the rear of the stretcher immediately behind the seat, his hands resting on his friend’s shoulders as if expecting the bait to be taken the moment it hit the water. Tinkle swung the bait six or seven times around his head before releasing it and sending it out a good thirty metres beyond the last blocks of the channel corner of the pier which, considering the thickness of the line, was an excellent throw. Thereupon, the chap with his feet on the pedals, slowly, wound the slack in until the line was taught. Once this was accomplished he sat back expectantly, waiting for a shark to strike. The crowd, knowing what the score was, in that it was seldom that the bait was taken immediately it hit the water, dispersed and carried on with their fishing, but kept an ever watchful eye on the tense twosome whose eyes were riveted on the line.

A denizen of the deep checks out the bait.
Original drawing by Len Jones.

Click image to view enlargement.

Their tension eased as the minutes ticked by, the one standing at the back wandered off to his fishing bag and withdrew a large flask, from which he filled a cup with hot tea or coffee. After downing this, he refilled the cup and headed back to his friend sitting astride the fishing machine, his head lolling forward on his chest with his hat pulled down over his eyes, His friend shook his shoulder, then handed him the cup and they began to talk. After a minute or so, the machine operator (after taking a few sips) placed the cup on his lap and held it there to cool. His friend had once again wandered off towards where his fishing bag lay.  Halfway to his objective he was brought to an abrupt halt as his friend let out a startled cry. The event which everyone on the pier had been waiting for had begun to unfold!

The cry of alarm had been brought about by the cup of hot liquid being overturned on his lap as the pedals began to turn, gathering momentum as they did so. The operator appeared to be pedalling backwards at an ever increasing rate and then his legs disappeared into a blur as whatever was applying the ever-increasing force on the other end of the line went into top gear – unable to match the speed of this motion, his feet slipped off the whirling pedals which hit his toes, insteps and shins with resounding thwacks. Howls of pain resounded across the pier in accompaniment to the clackety clack of the whirling pedals as they connected with various parts of his lower legs. His companion bounded back across the pier and leapt on to the rear of the fishing machine and wrapped his arms about his friend’s shoulders. As he did so, either the shark had taken out all of the rope contained in the box or it had become entangled within.

"..began to slide inexorably...".
Original drawing by Len Jones.

Click image to view enlargement.

No one will ever know, for at that moment the whole contraption and its two passengers began to slide inexorably towards the edge of the pier, as, to a cacophony of shrieks and curses, both machine and operators launched into space. Number two, summing up the situation in the speed of light, decided discretion was the better part of valour and baled off the back as it left the pier and became air borne, leaving his friend to his fate as the machine left the pier and became the mean, green flying machine whose inaugural flight lasted all of  three seconds before being intercepted by the corner of a six ton pier block protruding slightly above the surface. The impact sent the operator flying headfirst into the water as the mean, green machine was shattered into a thousand pieces on impact, This was followed by a feat of athleticism seldom witnessed, as the ‘pilot’ sprouted wings and literally flew out of the water and twinkle toed across the blocks with the agility of a rock rabbit and clawed his way back on to the pier in the space of a few seconds before anyone could make a move to assist him. Those close to the action, say that for a few moments a large drum was seen spinning on the surface before being drawn down in a vortex of bubbles and disappearing into the depths of the channel. The only evidence that we had that the foregoing had actually occurred were a few pieces of brilliant green wood bobbing among the blocks in the channel. Having regained the pier, the operator whose shins weren’t a pretty sight, and who walked with a pronounced hobble due to this and the scalding that his nether parts had suffered. He brushed past everyone with remarkable aplomb, not showing any sign of the pain he must have been experiencing. He and his friend gathered up their fishing bag and left the pier, the scene of their ignominious introduction to shark fishing; unaware at the time, that this feat would go down in the annals of South Pier legends.

**See Encounters With Sharks, Dolphin and Big Fish.

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