The hooting of the owl and the cackle of the hyena were signals that they were in the far forest, off the arena of human presence. In here, nature was at its best, providing a level playing field for all and sundry, and proving the popular axiom of survival of the fittest correct. As if to prove this axiom; a dark shadow silently swooped down from a tree top, it got entangled in a scuffle and the cry of a rabbit rent the air. The giant rodent was lifted off the ground as it struggled to free itself from the iron clad talons of its tormentor.
The rabbit whined desperately, reached out its snout to take a bite at whatever was responsible for its fate; but it failed. It felt piercing pain on its neck and hips, as it lay silent, suffering and tired.
Two men watched this play of death as they made their way through the pitch dark night, and the lead man walked in a shuffling gait as if it was daylight. The trail meandered and bent at numerous turns, its shoulders laden with mighty trees, sky high, their branches reaching on to the heavens above.
Noises abound in the immediate environment. The hooting of the owl, the twitter of night birds, the flutter of wings, the cackle of the hyenas and the cry of birds and mammals unseen.
Small lights peered out from dark crevices to identify night animals fending for themselves in this most dangerous of places on earth. The two men walked through, dominating the way, as people are wont to do.
The dark night presaged the coming of the moon just before daybreak. Thus the two increased their steps so as to make it to the creek side and partake of a feast declared by fishes in the dark forest away from civilization and humanity.
It was early September, precisely, the first week of the month just when the August break had ended. The rains had returned in utter abandon and rendered the whole forest an ocean and wetland preparatory to the flooding of the rivers, lakes, ponds and water bodies in this fresh water haven.
The rains raised the water level, softened the soil, and caused trees to dump their weak and dead branches. The rains caused dead leaves that pile high at root tops to decay, thereby releasing mild heat that keeps the trees warm and alive.
The worms come out of their lairs and make casts above their dungeons as they snacked on decaying leaves, dead tree branches, and carcasses of unfortunate animals. They provide fodder to smaller animals, lizards, and fishes when they swim into bigger waters, as they are swallowed up by hungry predators.
The two, a father and son, laden with hunting gear, sharp machetes, spears, a gun and a bundle of net made it to a spot that had shimmering black water flowing southwards and they stopped. The father beckoned on his son to take a sit atop the root of a tree, whose local name is ala, as he himself sat on one on the opposite side.
Ala is one of the largest trees in the rain forest. It grows higher than nine stories. Its roots buried deep into the soil to provide anchor to its great stem. The roots of ala spread out over a wide radius, as they jut out of the soil, rising to two meters, and providing a resting place for the human buttocks, shelter to animals, and hiding grounds for rodents to make their holes.
Elei sat down and dozed in silence as his son, Joseph, looked around himself, partly afraid. The total darkness render the other senses active, as Joseph could now hear a hiss here, a barking there, and the cutting of squirrels excited at their aggressors.
Then the splashing sound, as of fishes packed into a plastic container without enough water to meet their needs. Bubbles and squishy sounds could be heard from the nearby distance. Joseph could not tell how far it was.
Joseph was petrified, he could not think of a better thing to do, so he stood up abruptly, but he noticed his father walk slowly, silently to the edge of the root he was sitting on, few centimeters away from the shimmering black water, as it flowed on its eternal journey to places unknown. He wanted to talk, as he felt a burning sensation in his stomach, and he felt he could not hold back anymore. But his father waved him into silence, as if reading his mind. Elei curled a finger at Joseph, ordering him to walk over. He saw his father mime silent walking, and he stood up and walked silently over.
At the edge of the shimmering fissure, Elei pointed at the stream towards the northern side.
“Don’t utter a word. And do not move a muscle. The fishes are spawning. They will get here in about five minutes. They are about fifty meters away, swimming against the shimmering stream,” Elei said in a whisper that was so low, Joseph could hardly make out the words.
Sure enough, by five minutes, Joseph saw a baffling sight that he could not believe and would never forget. He stood in utter amazement and wonder, and he was thrilled by the prospects that the sight offers. He turned around, saw his father walk to the edge of the shimmering stream with his machete in hand.
As Joseph stood rooted to the spot in wonder, he could hear his father’s voice.
“The night time fishing is done at a time that fishes are spawning. There will be all kinds of fishes that participate in this annual event. The most predominant are catfish of various species and sizes. There are over fifty species of catfish, but in this particular event there is the clarias gariepinus, clarias anguillaris, heterobranchus, the electric catfish and another four or five other catfish species.
“There is the tilapia of various species and sizes, elephant nose, parachana obscura, chana asiatica and other tropical fishes that one cannot identify now. Many of the fishes do not spawn, but we know that the cat and chana asiatica/parachana do. The others participate in what would be a feeding frenzy, one fish feeding on another or the eggs laid by others in the process. It also looks like, the smaller fishes, for example, the butterfly fish, or humming fish, find the way created by the big catfish, a freeway for them to travel from one water body to the other.
“We go there in darkness only. Every light source is a distraction. They will turn back and race to the nearest large body of water. And all efforts at killing them would have gone in vain.
“We start off in darkness, and as we reach the far forest when it is pitch dark, our eyes adjust, and we can see without lights.
“This solution here is anti-mosquito and insect. Apply it all over your body, including your hair. If you don’t, the sand flies and mosquitoes will eat you alive.
“At the scene maintain total quietness. I will choose the biggest of the catfish; strike at it on its neck, hopefully not on its head so the rest will continue their journey and we can lay a net in their wake.”
“What happens if you strike its head?” he asked intrigued at the potential adventure.
“There will be a loud noise and they will be scared off, run away into the nearby bushes and seek shelter in bigger water bodies.”
Joseph thought about this conversation, as he stood transfixed to the spot and true to what his father had said, there was a massive movement of fishes like he had never seen; only heard of from fishermen who told what appeared to be folk tales. They were in a queue that was twenty meters wide, and of indeterminate length.
Joe could name some of the fishes in his own Ogbogolo language. The English or Latin names escaped him. He promised to search through the internet for the names in future.
There were an innumerable sort of catfish. The most prominent being heterobranchus, clarias gariepinus, clarias aguilleria, electric catfish, heterotis, numerous species of tilapia, butterfly fish and humming flat fish. The sight was unbelievable. They waded through the shimmering stream, on grounds softened by the rains. They moved enmass, in one accord, like a patchwork train, onward to a lake two kilometers from their present position.
He watched his father peer into the water. He lifted up his machete and the fishes sensed the movement and moved away from the left edge where the humans were standing. They veered towards the right hand side and continued their journey.
Elei tiptoed into the shimmering stream and some of the fishes swam unto his feet, nibbled at him, and finding him inedible swam past. They continued on their journey.
Elei returned to the side of the stream, squatted on his hunches and placed his chin on his knife, with its blades buried in the soft soil.
There was a break. Silence, the night birds and animals dosed off and quietness rendered the environment uncomfortable for the humans. Except for the occasional shrill cry of the cricket and the buzzing of insects, it was quiet, the darkness was getting lighter. Out of nowhere, they heard a bubble, the squishy sound started nearby and the burping sound all over again, and the splashing as the fishes started all over again. Joe walked to his father.
“What happened? They stopped.” Joe asked, after pulling himself from the trance of the spawning fishes.
“That was the first set. There could be as many as eight sets. The others may be feeding in the surrounding flood waters or have not started. Watch this,” Elei said. “It is getting lighter, so they will be in a hurry. The sets will be coming in rapid succession.”
The patchwork train reached their location, and the leading heterobranchus were much bigger. They were monsters never caught by fishermen in rivers and lakes. Elei stepped into the stream, he stood rock still, with his knife held on the crook of the elbow of his left hand, as the fishes waddled up to the spot he was rooted at.
A walking catfish wriggled up his legs and took a nipping at his shorts. It returned back into the water. It nibbled at his feet, and lost interest.
Elei did not move until he saw what looked like a beast with whiskers. Its eyes located on the side of its flat head, glittered in the dark. It opened its maw of a mouth, and puffed out water. Wetting the ground as its followers squished, wiggled and waddled on the ground.
Its smooth dark brown body waded through the waters. Its whiskers flailed anxiously at Elei, who stood a half meter away. It lowered its head, turned it this way and that. Saw a meter long clarias gariepinus and went for it at the speed of lightening.
Soon, the clarias was half swallowed head first into the mouth of this destructive and devastating beast. As the tail of the clarias dangled free, the suction of the throat of the beast sucked the clarias in, one centimeter at a time.
Rooted at the spot, Joe watched with interest. He stole a glance at his father. There were other big fishes that swam around his father’s feet, they ignored him, and his father ignored them, his whole attention fixed on the beast struggling to swallow its prey.
Elei stood rooted on the spot and watched, waiting. Just when the tail of the catfish disappeared into the lips of the beast, he sprang into action.
His razor sharp knife struck home on the neck, just below the skull of the beast, a five meter heterobranchus, with a girth the size of drum. The injury should be deadly, but the fish bolted off, causing such a ruckus that the orderly match was disrupted and the rest of them ran off, scared into the nearby bushes.
The wounded heterobranchus took off for the direction of the nearest water body as if guided by a radar. Elei and Joseph went after it, in pursuit.
The fish raced like a possessed devil, but it left a trail of blood that was easy to follow. About five hundred meters from the scene of the attack, the animal bled out. It lay still, turned over, and the white of its belly turned upside.
As they stood over and looked at the success of their hunt, the moon broke free of the clouds, and they sought out a dry spot to sit on.
“Day break is not far off, we are going to wait for it, so that we can make our way to the creek and paddle home to get help,” said Elei with a smile on his face.
“What is so funny, pa?” asked Joseph, excited, at the stories he will tell his friends.
“This is the largest catfish ever caught in the history of our people. And I am the prized fisherman. The best of all time.”
They walked in silence to a silk cotton tree nearby, cleared a spot around a dry ground and sat down, dozing, awaiting day break.