SI Vault
Jack Olsen
November 08, 1965
Isolated from Portugal by eight miles of rough seas, the 400-year-old fortress (left), built to protect shipping from pirates, is now protecting anglers from the sanity of the mainland
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 08, 1965

An Island Asylum For Mad Fishermen

Isolated from Portugal by eight miles of rough seas, the 400-year-old fortress (left), built to protect shipping from pirates, is now protecting anglers from the sanity of the mainland

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

"American fish are not Portuguese fish."

"Hmph!" I said cleverly.

Apparently Parreira brooded over my superior attitude toward his superior attitude, because he never wasted a chance after that to try to prove to me that he was the consummate angler. Once he nonchalantly dumped out a box of some six dozen medals and ribbons: prizes he had won in Portuguese fishing contests. I said they were beautiful. Another time he announced that he had caught about 125,000 fish in his life. "The fish must hate you," Photographer Cooke told him in French.

"Oui!" said Parreira. "Je suis Dillinger!" He explained to me, the ignorant nonlinguist, that he was Public Enemy No. 1 to the fish and "their FBI," which he pronounced "eff bay ee."

Nevertheless, I learned to like Sr. Parreira as the days wore on. He is a handsome man in his mid-50s, with a reddish-brown complexion, black wavy hair and perpetually sleepy eyes (because, I found out later, he is perpetually sleepy). He is a man who tends to see life solely in terms of fishing (a definite plus on his record). One day he explained to me that the Americans and the Russians were crazy for wanting to go to the moon. "I could understand it," he said, "if there were fish in the Sea of Tranquility." He is something of a student of women, because he frequently finds himself teaching them to fish in the troubled waters around Berlenga, and he feels that he has come to understand the women of all countries except England. "What puzzles me," he explained, "is that some of the English movies have very beautiful women in them, but the Englishwomen who come here to fish don't look like the movies. I have come to the conclusion that England must have special girls for export."

Years of dealing with foreigners have taught Parreira to speak with his hands. His most frequent comment is hands flat, palms upraised and pushing upwards, accompanied by lifting eyebrows and a slightly tilting head. Anyone who has had experience with gestures will recognize instantly that this means: "Who knows?" which proved to be a very useful set of gestures, because at the Pousada de S�o Jo�o Baptista nobody knows when meals are served, when boats are leaving or arriving, when the generator is going to cut out and dump the whole place into darkness, or even what day of the week it is. And after one taste of Portuguese fishing at Berlenga nobody much cares.

In the waters surrounding Berlenga Island there are so many fish of so many sizes and shapes that the only problem confronting the angler is fatigue. There are excellent food fish like gray bass, Allison tuna, pollack and blues; ferocious fish like the Atlantic cutlass, conger eel, dusky shark and moray; and fish with odd names like the wrasse, gurnard and St. Peter's fish. There are so many fish that the inmates of Pousada de Sao Joao Baptista disdain the use of bait. The customary terminal tackle consists of a heavy metal plug called the zagaia and, a few feet up the line, a plastic worm. One casts this rig from a drifting dory, lets it sink 100 to 300 feet to the bottom, then retrieves it in jerks. If the fish are running, one hauls up "doubles"—one fish on each hook—almost invariably. Singles are left in the water until they become doubles. Now and then a school of Atlantic cutlass fish comes through and terrifies the women—and some of the men—on board; the other men just get annoyed, because the cutlass wrecks so much tackle. He is a ferocious-looking devil who lives only in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean—which is a good thing, because if he lived in U.S. waters Atlantic City would be a ghost town.

At first glance the cutlass fish (poissonsabre in French, espada in Portuguese) looks like a flattened eel. He is about one and a half inches thick, four or five inches high and six or seven feet long, with a translucent fin about an inch wide down his back. His skin is exactly the color of chromium and flashes accordingly. His head is triangular and his teeth are shaped like needles, and his disposition is vintage Rogers Hornsby. If an Atlantic cutlass fish manages to throw a lure, he will not skulk off to safety like a largemouth bass or a tarpon; he will come right back to smack that lure again and again. Battling in water discolored by his own blood, the cutlass does not quit until he is caught or the lure is snapped off the line. Experienced fishermen like Parreira believe that the locally designed zagaia plug is the best lure for the cutlass, but when a school of them moves in they will hit anything. As a French fishing editor wrote: "One has the impression that a collar button, a mustard-pot lid or the metatarsal of a cavalryman would produce the same result: an immediate and brutal attack."

Perhaps the best way to describe the profusion of cutlass and other fish in Berlenga waters is to recount three hours in the life of Senhor Parreira several years ago. As an experiment, he decided to find out how many fish one man could catch if he were freed from time-consuming tasks like taking fish off the hook and changing lures. So out he sailed with two extra rods and two assistants to handle the menial chores, and started hauling in fish as fast as was humanly possible. At the end of an exhausting three hours, using the zagaia and plastic worm, Parreira had landed 75 sea bass, 24 sea bream, 16 pollack, 92 mackerel and 36 cutlass fish for a grand total of 243 fish weighing 1,289 pounds. He could not go on with the experiment because he could no longer raise his arms.

After that feat Parreira became famous all over Europe, but especially in France, through the medium of fishing journals like Toute la P�che and Plaisirs de la P�che, which not only told of his fishing skill but also how to get to the pousada and how inexpensive it was. As a final blandishment the articles stressed that Parreira spoke excellent French, and the invasion was on. Nowadays the Pousada de Sao Joao Baptista has been so thoroughly Gallicized that it is practically indistinguishable from any old garden-variety castle in Brittany—which is both good and bad. The appearance of wholesale numbers of Frenchmen means that the food must be better than average, that the beds must be reasonably comfortable and that there must be an adequate wine list. But it also means that you will eat with dogs. This is a new hobby in France: gussying up your dog and taking him to dinner with you. Cooke and I were halfway through our first soup course when a French party arrived: two men, a woman, a wire-haired dachshund and a boxer. The boxer crawled under the table and the dachshund climbed onto a pillow (placed lovingly on the chair by his master) and began studying the house, including me and my soup, neither of which seemed to smell good to him. Cooke smiled politely at the dog and asked the master,-'What is his name?"

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7