Vilufushi-born Mohamed Ibrahim first went game fishing with his father when he was a young boy, back when the practice was common, and long before the methodology was lost to the descent of urbanization and economic alternatives. Armed with the vast knowledge passed down from his father as well as his own expertise, Mohamed re-entered the fishing scene after slipping into his thirties, having retired from a period of sea-faring.
Now, at 53 years old, with over 20 years of experience under his belt, Mohamed is a master at his craft of a little-known, especially unique type of fishing locally known as ‘Heymas Keythun’. Specializing in catching Sailfish and Wahoo, he exercises a traditional game fishing style that proves to be as risky as it is rewarding.
The two fish caught by this method are both quite large in size, fast, with sharp beaks and are considered to be highly prized game fish, all over the globe. Sailfish and Wahoo are the fastest and third fastest fish in the world, boasting average speeds of 68 mph and 4 mph respectively.
Usually found in tropical and subtropical areas, the Wahoo is coveted for its high-quality flesh, white to grey, delicate to dense, and considered a delicacy by many gourmets.
Sailfish are most easily distinguished by the dorsal fin shaped like a sail, stretching down the entire length of its back. Sailfish are a less common catch, but also an expensive catch like the Wahoo. Both fish pose quite a challenge during the hunt, which adds to the excitement and the satisfaction of successfully hooking one of these swift pelagic predators.
Mohamed sets out for fishing in the early hours of morning right after Fajr prayers, with a fishing partner, as at least two people are required to carry out the procedure flawlessly. The method requires minimal apparatus and can be done in a small boat or dinghy.
In the olden times, ‘Bokkuraa’ (traditional dingy) and ‘Riyaa Dhoni’ (sail boats) were vessel of choice for this type of fishing, but more feasible options overtook this notion to yield better results.
Fishing takes place outside of the atoll, right past the reef slope where the sea transitions to open ocean. Mohamed says that the best period for fishing is when the moon is bright and visible.
“They don’t come out during the pitch dark period where the moon can’t be observed”, he noted.
The only apparatus required for this particular type of game fishing is a pole and a strong hook attached to a line. A piece of carved wood, shaped to resemble a small fish, is attached to the end of another pole and oscillated along the surface of the water, to lure the Wahoo and Sailfish close to the boat.
“They come to chase the shadows cast by the piece of wood.”
Predators will pursue and stalk the bait for a while before deciding to attack. The fish must be hooked before it bolts towards the bait. It is crucial for the fisherman to be alert and have good reflexes when this occurs, as the timing must be immaculate, to hook the fish properly as it darts close.
When the fish is hooked, it separates the line from the pole in an attempt to swim frantically away from the boat, while the fisherman reels it in with both hands.
On average, Mohamed catches up to eight fish per day, his all time highest record standing at 26 in a single trip.
While using a piece of floating wood as a lure has been common practice since olden times, t Mohamed Ibrahim refined this traditional technique by replacing the wood with ‘Fulhangi’ known around the world as Flying Fish.
Mohamed narrated how a deliberate cut is made in the gut before the flying fish is stuffed with salt to preserve its flesh.
“The flying fish has a smell and the wahoo comes for it greedily.”
A flying fish treated this way can last nearly two to three fishing days if the Wahoo or Sailfish can be hooked and pulled onto the boat before biting off a huge chunk of the lure - and in the case they do, the game fish resume pursuit with even more vigour, increasing chances for the fisherman to make their catch despite having failed at the initial attempt.
Another substitute that can be used as bait is Mackerel Scad. However, these fish cannot be preserved for long, putting them at a disadvantage. The flesh of Mackerel Scads rupture easily when it is shaken in the water to attract predators, which also makes it a comparatively less sustainable bait fish option.
According to Mohamed, plastic lures can also be used as bait. The downside to using such lures, however, is that once realizing it is not edible, neither the Wahoo or Sailfish will carry out an attack on the bait a second time.
This technique of game fishing is decidedly more complex than shooting fish in a barrel. Since Wahoo and Sailfish both have extremely sharp beaks and teeth, the fisherman is exposed to the risk of fatal injuries if his techniques are not reformed.
The fish jump out of the water, especially if the hook scrapes against their operculums without being speared through, and can lunge right at the fisherman who would be in close proximity.
“People have died!” Mohamed Ibrahim exclaimed, showing off a large wound inflicted on his hand by a Wahoo that barely scraped against his palms during one of his fishing trips.
According to Mohamed, the skills, reflexes and quick thinking required for ‘Heymas Keythun’ can only be learned with time and experience.
Since Wahoo and Sailfish are both big game fishes of high value, they rack up quite a good amount of money in the market. Wahoo especially, is quite popular in the resort scene, coveted for its mild-sweet tasting flesh and firm texture.
“Prices can go up to MVR 120 per kg”, Mohamed revealed. Resort suppliers pay MVR 2000 for a good sized wahoo, while the pricing for sailfish stands around MVR 1200.
Game fishing has sustained Mohamed’s life since he returned from seafaring activities in his thirties -- in fact, it gave him enough financial security to settle comfortably into his lifestyle without pursuing another career, despite the three to five hour fishing trip each day leaving him with plenty of leisure time to hold a regular job.
However, he stated that he never felt the need to pursue additional work, as he was quite content with the way his day currently panned out.
“I never go fishing in Ramadan”, he said. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, is the when Mohamed takes a holiday off for himself, having saved up more than enough in the earlier months.
With pride, Mohamed noted that game fishing not only funded his day-to-day needs and his children’s education, but also provided enough for him to build two fibre ‘dhoni’s.
All across the country, these traditional methods of catching specific types of predatory fish are gradually being lost to the times. As Mohamed was growing up, he noted that due to the lack of presence from younger generations, the practice had nearly gone completely extinct.
With a distinct note of joy Mohamed stated that he had recently observed a few youngsters taking a keen interest in the sport. The renowned fisherman was particularly excited about the idea of teaching interested individuals what he had learned over the years of practicing ‘Heymas Keythun’ and passing along the refinery techniques he had introduced to the traditional methods.
This barely practiced traditional method of game fishing has substantial room to potentially expand as a business, and as proven by Mohamed, can provide adequate livelihoods for those wishing to take it up as a career path, or those wishing to simply practice it as a hobby.
Perhaps, in this age of reviving lost arts, time is apt for the adrenaline-fuelling ‘Heymas Keythun’ to make its own comeback, catering to the preservation of the Maldivian culture and heritage, while contributing to the economy as well.