Out at First Light

Early morning tea arrived to our rooms just before dawn. I took my cup out on the balcony and watched the Indian Ocean surge up from the darkness to drum against the beach.The kaskazi trade wind fingered the fronds of the coconut palms; the air was as warm as bathwater. At first light, we were going deep-sea fishing. My friend, her young son, and I – total fishing novices – were staying at Hemingways Resort, in Watamu, Kenya.

Hemingways is named for the legendary writer and big-game hunter, Ernest Hemingway, who “discovered” deep sea fishing in these waters in 1934. Hemingway’s discovery came at the end of a safari. With two weeks in hand before sailing from Mombasa, Hemingway set out in a semi-derelict boat named Xanadu to try his hand at fishing in the Indian Ocean. The subsequent battle with the weather, boat, skipper, and fighting fish engendered a respect for the sport that never left him.

We had spent our first few days of discovery walking the long, white beach, sunning by the pools, and enjoying the cuisine and the tropical landscape. Late each afternoon we watched – drinks in hand – as the Hemingways fishing fleet returned home.The catches were weighed on the slip; the more impressive specimens – including a 1,000-pound Tiger Shark – were photographed.Would we try it too? Why not. So, at 5:30 this morning, a “fisherman’s breakfast” awaited us under the thatched roof of Hemingways’ restaurant pavilion.

In the lamplight, a chef stood behind a row of chafing dishes.We weren’t hungry for more than coffee and toast at that hour, but when he asked us to assemble our lunches for the cool box on the boat,we optimistically picked out roast beef sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, some little homemade cakes, and bags of crisps. Then, along with the skipper and the three-man crew, we waded out to the dinghy and headed for the boat.

The late February sun had risen quickly and was already glinting on the dark blue sea, promising another day in the 30s.The Ol- Jogi, a pristine 33-foot-long, twin-engine fishing boat, proved to be an extension of the five-star standards of the hotel. We stretched out on foam mattresses under a canvas shade and tried to adjust to the rocking motion as the Ol-Jogi ploughed away from the coast. The skipper told us we’d be motoring through “sail fish alley” where billfish ride the current down toward Zanzibar.We seemed more than ready for them. Nine rods bristled from the cockpit.

 Once we were under way, the three-man crew began a ballet of sorts, switching rods from place to place, attaching lures like brilliant dust mops to the lines, balancing themselves on the rails to set up out rigging devices.We were well clear of the coastal coral reef when the clatter of the ratchet on the rod brought us to attention and off the mattresses. I was given first turn in the revolving “fighting chair.” Bracing against the footrests, I wound the reel mightily for several long minutes. With a lurch and a flap, a plump silver fish about 12 inches long landed at my feet, gave me a surprised look, twitched once, and lay still.

The crewmen pulled in more of them on other lines. They were bonitos, a kind of tuna and my catch was not, in fact, a potential trophy, but live bait for bigger fish to come. The diesel motors hummed on, the sea around us peaked in dark triangles above the inky blue wash.The ratchet squealed again and a rod dipped down. Though the seven-year-old was coping with the onset of seasickness, he willingly left the rail to take his turn in the chair. A crewman gave him a hand, helping him to reel in hard and fast. A dorado, the agile predator of flying fish, came streaking out of the water on the end of the hook, shimmering gold and four feet long. It was brought aboard with grappling hooks and held for a photograph before its iridescence died with it.

As the morning went on, we glimpsed dolphins, barracuda, and the lateen sails of local fishing boats but not the marlins or sailfish for which these waters are famous. Ernest Hemingway’s record catch stands at 23 sailfish, all tagged and released.We brought in a second dorado, a small yellow fin tuna and several more bonito. By noon, the onshore monsoon began to kick up a stomach-churning chop and though the crew moved aft for a few discreet bites of lunch, they were kind enough not to remind us of our provisions in the cool box.

 Back on shore, the fish were weighed and the youngest member of our party posed with the best of our catch before we gave it to the crew. We kept one bonito.The chef turned the silver fish into six platters of rose-pink sushi, garnishing the plates with slices of the pale green Kenyan lemon. It was served to our party that evening at a candle-lit table under a crescent moon. Just beyond the terrace, in the dark, the waves were drumming on the shore.

Fishing at Hemingways runs from August to mid-May. November through March, when the seas are warmer and calmer, are the main months for marlin and sailfish. The 33-foot boats carry an absolute maximum of four clients.

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