We fell, naturally. Back at Stikkisholmur that night all we could do was pray for the wind to drop. And it had to drop at once for it was now explained to us that our vessel would only be available for one more day since it could earn $2,500 a week dredging scallops. But we got the concession that we could put to sea two hours earlier the next morning.
It was a better day, but not by much. The wind came round to the southeast, still hard, but with more shelter from the land the drift was slower. All through the morning we worked our baits, though the skipper was still pessimistic. "They are moving too fast still," he said. But at 12:45 a.m., just as we were ready to go below for another break, my rod stuttered, then curved over.
I stood and clobbered whatever was down there as hard as I could. A huge resistance, then nothing. When I reeled up I found that my herring, hooked through the eyes, had been filleted. There was just a head and a backbone. Up in the command module the skipper was shrieking in Icelandic, a difficult language to follow. "He says you are pulling your line too soon. He says that this was a big fish, more than 200 pounds." I didn't think that was all he was saying. "This halibut," continued Mr. Snorrason, "you must give him much time." That must have been why I had lost the Stavanger fish, I thought. I felt sick and sorry.
"I'd have done the same," said Tom Hutchinson, fishing alongside me. But the encounter had done us good. From fishing like frozen automata, without hope, we began to work hard and at five p.m. the second chance came, to Peter Collins. "Let him take it right back!" I yelled. Peter spooled line back and then struck. The fish was on and all of us were shouting and dancing and cheering on deck.
Collins worked that fish for 20 minutes before the hookhold gave. Two hard-won opportunities and two disasters. It was too much. When the Icelanders dragged out the big basket around which the longline was coiled, nobody objected. There was only an hour or so of fishing left anyway. We went below for sad inquests while they shot the line, and we sat around liquorless in the warm cabin until they yelled from the deck that they were ready to haul.
The empty hooks came in, one after the other. There were 60 of them altogether, and we must have been about three-quarters of the way through when the skipper gave a yell and started to throw coils of line back into the sea. "Now the halibut is there!" shouted Snorrason. "He is letting him eat the herring!" The old Icelander bent over the line, then started to haul positively. Then we were all helping him haul and deep in the water a great moonshape of pearly white showed. Two gaffs went in a moment later and, shouting and cursing, we dragged our halibut over the gunwale. It thundered on the deck with its mighty tail until one of the Icelanders slid his knife in under the pectoral fin. "To bleed it," said Mr. Sigurdsson. "To make the flesh white for the market."
We looked at the great brown fish with reverence. It was just over 120 pounds. The hook had fallen out as soon as it was on board and I could see now why Peter had lost his fish and quite probably why I had lost mine. The jaws were like an old-fashioned bellows camera, the extensible membrane that joined them paper thin. We were lucky to get this one. It explained all the insistence on giving the fish plenty of time.
And that seemed to be that. The end of the Expedition. An ill-fated Expedition. But that would not be quite accurate. Wound licking was the next, obvious move, and I suggested to the others that many wound-licking facilities existed at the Saga Hotel. My information was certainly secondhand, it having come from certain Fleet Street acquaintances who were covering the Cod War from there. And I think I might actually have gotten to the hotel but for the fact that the only hot dog stand in Reykjavik is run by a Mr. Kristmundur, a devoted saltwater angler. Since he has no competition in the hot dog trade, Mr. Kristmundur has made a lot of money, enough to buy a fancy sport-fishing boat.
On the afternoon of our return from Stikkisholmur we met Kristmundur slapping the mustard on his hot dogs since, with a population of only 210,000, there is a labor shortage in Iceland. Reykjavik is a small town and Mr. Kristmundur had already heard of our tribulations. He might, he thought, be able to help. He was leaving for Copenhagen on the weekend. By the time he returned winter would have set in so that this would be the last opportunity for a project he had in mind, which was to fill his Deepfreeze with halibut. Perhaps we would like to help him do this.
Heavy-handed joshing is permissible sometimes. At others it can be sadistic, and I was ready to call Mr. Kristmundur to order for a moment. But then I realized that he was entirely sincere. "Give me half an hour," he said, "and I'll close down the stand. I'll see you at the quay. Look for the Jan Sulimsson." He wrote the name down carefully on a piece of greaseproof paper.