Dateline: January 1, 2015 – Pacific Harbour, Fiji
“Bula” can mean many things in Fijian. It can mean “Hello,” “Welcome,” “Good afternoon,” and apparently “Please don’t cook my shrimp.” It is a friendly word in a friendly country, and I don’t think I ever got it wrong, unlike my linguistic disaster in Morocco (Details HERE.)
This vacation was planned in the waning seconds of the last possible minute. We had been toying with the idea of just staying home in our new house for the week after Christmas like normal people. But one quiet evening, after watching “Scrooge” for the fourth time, we got talking. We got looking online. And the next thing we knew, we had booked a week in Fiji.
It seemed like a great idea – Fiji is one of the five countries I had visited without fishing, on a 68 minute layover en route from Honolulu to Auckland back in 1998. I had just enough time to buy a “Fiji” t-shirt, which I looked at wistfully for years, wondering when I would return and go fishing. Ironically, that exact same period – 68 minutes – would have unfortunate consequences for me later in this trip, but you’ll have to wait for Part II for that.
It’s a long way to Fiji, but of course I am never difficult to deal with when I am hungry and sleep-deprived. We did finally get there, and as I remember it, I was the picture of easygoing cheerfulness. (Perspective from Marta: Oh no he wasn’t. He wanted to fish in the airport fountain, and when he found out that the resort was two hours away, his head nearly exploded.)
I missed one minor planning detail – we had arrived in the rainy season. (As it turned out, we did have some sunny days, but I was happy I brought the Gore-tex.) The Pearl Resort was gorgeous, and the staff greeted us with a hearty “Bula!”, but by the time we got unpacked, it was raining at a Biblical level. Marta encouraged me to enjoy the spa and wait until the weather broke, but I was inconsolable. (Perspective from Marta – this is a self-serving understatement. He was ready to LEAVE.) We went for what I hoped would be a quick lunch at the hotel cafe, a lovely place overlooking manicured grounds and the beach.
The rain let up – sort of – after lunch. I talked the waitress into selling me the shrimp appetizer uncooked – the first of dozens of times I would get my bait in a pricey if convenient way. We headed over to the rock jetty on the edge of the hotel grounds. Part of it was shielded from the wind and rain by the restaurant and I could therefore fish in relative comfort, not that this matters to me.
The jetty where I would spend much of the next week. Although it was windy and rained a good bit, the weather was pleasantly warm the entire trip.
Moments later, I got a small snapper, and Fiji became the 83rd country where I had caught a fish.
The blacktail snapper. Ironically, Jaime Hamamoto holds the world record for this species.
Now there was work to do. Getting to 2000 species might be impossible, but of course they (well, mostly my family) said the same thing about 1000. If it was going to happen, I knew that this region – the western Pacific – was going to have to produce a bunch of fish for me. I had a week in a new spot, fishing possibilities every day, and an inexhaustible if expensive supply of shrimp. Although I didn’t say it out loud for fear of the Fish Gods, I was hoping to get at least 20 new species. Ambitious? Yes – but doable.
Moments later, the difficulty started. I made the mistake of putting bait on Marta’s hook, and she got the first new species of the trip – a reef-flat cardinalfish. I had never caught one, and I don’t like playing catchup, not that I am competitive. The rain started coming down harder, and Marta, feeling her work there was done, went to the spa and worked out. I stayed out in the deluge and luckily caught the same cardinalfish about two hours later. I had dodged a big bullet – if she had started the trip with something I couldn’t catch, it would have been a disaster.
The cardinalfish that started a difficult week. Because Marta deliberately caught it first, I was cheated out of the triumphant rush of new species joy – all I got was a nauseated “Oh thank goodness” wave of relief.
I got one more new critter – a striped ponyfish, which put me at two for the trip. I had three days of charter boats ahead of me, so things looked pretty good.
The striped ponyfish. I only saw one all week, and luckily, Marta didn’t catch it.
Early the next day, I boarded a small skiff with a local guide named Sam, who greeted me with a friendly “Bula!” A retired gardener with a ready smile, Sam had fished the area his entire life. Once he figured out – and could get over – the idea that I wanted to catch all the small, strange stuff, he stopped worrying about going for gamefish and set to catching me all kinds of stuff.
Sam the guide. Unflappable, cheerful, kind, great local knowledge. We would become fast friends over the next week, and he shared my pain when Marta caught species I had not. Sam and the other charters were set up through Callan at Xstreem Fishing – +679-363-2188 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The wind was blowing hard, but inside the reef, the sea conditions allowed me to retain breakfast. One by one, I started getting new creatures.
The latticed sand perch, diminutive but savage.
The yellowlined sand perch, a close relative.
The variegated emperor. The place was thick with emperors – many thanks to Dr. Jeff Johnson and Dr. Alfredo Carvalho for sorting out the IDs on these.
The blackblotch emperor. Possibly my largest fish of the day. And no, my head is not misshapen.
Leopard Hind – a type of especially small grouper.
Back to the emperors – an orangestripe in this case. And that’s the sun hood caught up in my hat. My head is perfectly normal. Really.
The last of my four new emperors of the day – the orangefin.
The wolf cardinalfish – the bully of the cardinalfish family.
The speckled snapper – a thrilling close to the day. Mind you, my standard of “thrilling” might be different than yours.
I raced back to the room to find a note from Marta – “In Spa.” She walked in just as I finished with the ID book – I had gotten nine new species in a single day, bringing me to 11 for the trip.
Stunningly, we did not go fishing (much) on the 31st. We spent our time touring the island, visiting Fiji’s capital, Suva, and several museums and points of interest nearby.
Breakfast on the way out. Marta makes friends quickly.
The presidential palace. Marta got the guard to smile.
A typical house in the inland hills. This is not a wealthy country, but the people are amazingly friendly and warm. Almost everyone we met invited us into their home for a meal.
A land crab Marta photographed. She kept me from snatching it for bait.
These statues look like Jaime Hamamoto after she catches a lagoon triggerfish.
The Pearl Resort in sunshine. Great place.
Marta has a Zen moment.
That evening, we celebrated our 11th New Year’s Eve together.
Sunset on New Year’s Eve as we head to dinner by the water. There were jacks splashing around in the estuary, just crying out for a popper, but Marta heartlessly insisted that we keep our dinner reservation.
Some of our New Year’s Eves have been quiet – like staying at home or sleeping through fireworks in Panama – but some of them have been a bit wilder than we had hoped. (We recommend against spending NYE in Amsterdam, for example, especially if you have an early flight on the first. The locals save up all year to buy industrial-grade fireworks, some of which could bring down a B-52, and then set them all off in a drunken, unregulated street fracas. The Dutch are somehow OK with this, but the French wouldn’t be. Every time there are that many explosions in Paris, they surrender.)
This particular night fell on the quiet side, which was fine with us.
We slept in on New Year’s day, but after a brunch that closed with my by-now requisite uncooked shrimp appetizer, we headed to the jetty. The clouds had broken up, and we had a beautiful day to start 2015.
We finally learned that there were islands offshore.
We headed to the very end of the rocks – the only day on our trip when it was fishable, and Marta promptly did something rotten. She caught a Pacific dart – an inshore pompano relative that I had never even seen in person. She smiled.
She’s like Jaime but taller.
Then, just for fun, Marta caught a blackspot emperor much bigger than mine.
We gave it to a couple of local guys who had it for lunch.
It was early in the day, and I figured if the darts were here, I should get one. I cast and cast, and one by one, I added a few other species, but not the dart. I got a seven-bar sergeant, then one of my best fish of the trip, a yellowmargin triggerfish. But no darts.
The seven-bar sergeant. The first bar is on the forehead if you’re counting along at home.
The yellowmargin triggerfish – the largest thing I caught all week.
Later in the afternoon, as the tide came up, I got a gorgeous vagabond butterflyfish – the 5th member of this tropical family I have put on my species list. But it wasn’t a dart. I needed a dart.
Marta selfishly pursues new species and leave me to take selfies with the butterflyfish.
The vagabond butterflyfish.
An hour later, I was casting a jig from the windy side of the jetty and got smashed. (To be clear, the jig got smashed, not me. It was early in the day and this is not Hungary.) After a 15-minute fight, I landed a brassy trevally – another new species, but not a dart.
These things pull hard.
Marta went back to the spa, but I stayed out several more hours, hoping against hope that I would get a dart. I did not want to spend an evening with this as our main topic of conversation. But it was getting late, I was out of Red Bull and potato chips, and I finally gave up.
On the long walk back, I saw some baitfish in the shallows and cast a sabiki to them. Predictably, something surprisingly big hammered the teensy hook. I babied it for about 10 minutes, expecting a breakoff at any moment, but as I finally landed the fish, I saw, to my great delight, it was a dart. (My 16th species of the trip.)
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I could finally acknowledge it had been a great opening to the new year. But this was not the triumph I would expect from a new species – it was the adrenaline-filled, sweaty moment you get when you look the wrong way, step into the street, and a bus just misses you.
Justice. Of course, Marta saw the photo and said “How do we know that’s you?”
I called Marta with this joyous news, and she responded with something snide like “Oh, I’ve already caught one of those. I’ve been getting a massage for two hours.”
Marta, a.k.a. Miss Snotty Pants, awaits me at the spa.
Snotty though this may have been, she was right – I had dodged two bullets, and I quietly wondered how long I could keep this up. In less than 18 hours, my luck would run out.