DECEMBER is with us again. The period of the year between December and February is normally associated with lousy weather in Sarawak. Everything is damp, including the human spirits.
We call this period musim landas – intermittent but persistent showers, rough seas and fast-flowing rivers.
The Iban use the term bulan begantung senduk (literally means of the dry spoons) to refer to this period of scarcity. For the rural dwellers, especially those in the jungle, rain means all farm work has to be halted for a while; at home, it’s time to make new baskets or do minor repairs around the house.
Rivers overflow their banks and the surrounding jungle is inundated for weeks.
In the past, when the only means of transport was by the chug-chug coastal boats, Kuching was cut off from the rest of the country. District bazaars ran out of rice, sugar, salt, tobacco, and kerosene. People had little money; they could not tap rubber because of the rain. Fishermen could not go out to the sea. A lean time for many people indeed.
This is also the time when there’s no school, no homework, no teachers. Ironically, to the school boys and girls this is a blessing in disguise.
Years ago, boys in my village always looked forward to this time and would make the best of it by fishing in the jungle.
In the early 1950s, no one in that village possessed a radio set. What was happening in the rest of the world was not our problem. We were in a world of our own, the steamy jungle of Borneo. So no songs or music to listen to. No soccer or badminton to play, no books to read (the textbooks were kept by the teachers). The girls stayed at home to help their mothers make mats or baskets and the boys went fishing, hunting, or boat-building.
There are any number of fishing methods depending on where you are in the world. In our village, we used a number of methods: Tajur, Bubu, Belat, Binti’, Jala, Tuba, Selambau, Pukat, Empang, Peluntang, and Tehegis.
In the 1946-47 period, the flooded jungle around the village was our fishing ground. Essential for tajur fishing: a small dug- out canoe meant for two; knives, safety matches, torchlight, and salt. A cage tied to a side of the boat is essential for live fish caught (mostly keli – catfish).
Water? From the river. Never boiled, no cases of severe tummy problems reported.
For the lure, earthworms make excellent bait. These are dug out from the riverbanks. A tough cotton string, with a metal hook and worms, securely attached, is tied around a wooden stake of seven or eight feet long. This pole, with the hook and bait submerged, is pushed into the soft ground of the inundated jungle during late afternoon.
A regular check of the tajur is carried out throughout the night. There could be as many as 50 such stakes all over the jungle – the more the merrier, for better chances of a good catch. For me, it was not the best of hobbies but one that had to be done nonetheless for the success of the joint venture.
The jungle is dark any time of the day; at night it is pitch black. I was scared but kept a brave front. Morris Mancha and I learnt, however, to cope with darkness fast after the initial fear of the unknown – snakes, other crawlies such as the scorpions or the centipedes. And the prime nuisance – blood thirsty mosquitoes – the jungle is their territorial domain!
While najuring is done in flooded jungle, small-scale, tuba fishing is done in the big river, involving many people in many boats. For the village, it was a kind of party, expensive, with no guarantee of success. Roots of Derris were pounded in the bottom of a boat. The resulting mash is poured into the section of the river where the tuba fishing is to be held. Wait for the first fish to appear. No one is allowed to take this first one; it is to thrown away into the jungle for the gods. Normally that’s the weakest fish, so no big deal – that’s for the spirits of the jungle.
Once I joined this tuba fishing party in the Batang Kayan in Lundu in 1948. Our family group (uncles and cousins) got a miserable return to investment of the 10 Straits Dollars (big money those Colonial days).
It was fun but in real terms it was a waste of valuable time and fish; it was found out that a lot of dead fish were found three days later far down river. By then, they were already rotten and of no use to either the humans or the spirits. Tuba fishing is now banned.
Another form of fishing is the use of palm fronds for catching small shrimps (sepunuk). This is done at night during low tide. A palm frond is attached to the side of the boat. The boat is paddled slowly as close to the shoreline as possible. Small prawns feeding there are disturbed, so they jump onto the boat.
It was fun. Once my brother-in-law, Sapin, took me to nehegis. A fish called Belanak jumped onto our boat. We caught a lot of sepenuk that night; the fish was a bonus.
On another occasion, a crocodile was sliding from the mud bank a few yards in front of us! I had the fright of my life but considering myself a man, I couldn’t show it!
A large net is stretched across a V-shaped structure supported by strong stakes and put up over the narrowest part of a stream. From time to time, it is raised to check if there is any fish in there.
My dad was very fond of this method. I came along for his company but I slept most of the time. If they’d had the sense to invent the smart phone a little earlier, I would have taken pictures for my WhatsApp group. Mainly for fish-bragging!
The use of the peluntang for catching Patin or Labang fish has become obsolete. An armada of small floats made of soft wood is floated down river. Each is attached to a string, and a hook baited with pedada fruit.
It is fun to see one of the floats being dragged away by the fish. Paddle hard to the float that is bobbling up and down in the water and the prize is worth the patience.
The fisherman is equipped with a spear to pierce any fish trying to break loose from the hook; the Labang is a big strong fish, weighing a few kilograms. A delicious catfish indeed.
Besides having fun with fishing as such, the boys in the village helped find food for the family during the landas.
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