Fishing In Greece

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

PLATO on Fishing ("Laws"):

"My friends, may you never acquire a taste, much less a passion, for sea-fishing or angling; or indeed for the pursuit of aquatic creatures in any way whatsoever; or, lastly, for that most idle form of fishing in which the pots do the work for you, whether you are awake or asleep."

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Fishing has always been a traditional way to make a living in Greece; from time immemorial the Greeks have loved, feared and fished the sea, praying first to the god Poseidon and then later to St. Nicholas, patron of seafarers.

The typical Greek fisherman draws his livelihood from the sea using many of the methods his ancestors used before him, and since the best of his catch is mostly sold to tavernas and hotels, visitors to Greece can usually count on being able to feast on a delicious variety of fresh-caught seafood.

Those wishing to catch their own supper, though, will face a tougher, but not insurmountable, challenge. The Aegean does not have the exotic underwater life of the Pacific or Caribbean. No volcanic cliffs, no schools of flashing, twisting bait fish, no kelp beds, no gaudy displays of color. The Greek seascape is pleasant, subdued--and relatively barren. However, there is an ambiance about it which more than makes up for the lack of exoticism. There are few days, even in winter, when the sun does not shine. Wreathed in light, the Aegean turns clear and blue as the sky itself, offering excellent visibility. The sun-lit texture of the sea is like gossamer shimmering with tinsel and spangles of gold. Even if you don't catch anything, you'll still be able to enjoy your time at sea.

There are no sport-fishing boats in Greece, if only because there aren't enough fish to support such ventures. Anyone wishing to reconnoiter in Greek waters is advised to hook up with a local fisherman, if only because he knows where the best hunting grounds are. A small payment or an offer to share your catch is de riguer.

Failing that, you could rent your own boat for the day--or try fishing from the shore. Another possibility is to pay for a berth on one of the ubiquitous day-trip boats that deliver tourists to distant coves and beaches. You could troll for fish en route or toss a line over the side while the boat is anchored for the day.

The Greeks call fishing with a line kathiti. Using minnows or shrimp for bait, they catch red mullet, perch and other kinds of small fish this way. To catch bigger game such as grouper and sea bass they head out into deeper waters and use a chunk of octopus or squid for bait. A large hook, called a tzonga in Greek, is a necessity.

Few Greek fisherman own a rod and reel; they prefer to play line out and haul it up hand over laborious hand. "You have a better feel for things this way," is how one native put it.

Affluence has brought about a significant change in the way fish are taken in Greece. When I first went to live on the island of Rhodes in 1961, few villagers could afford to buy nets, not in sizable quantities anyway. Today, however, just about every fisherman I meet owns mounds of yellow nylon nets (dichtia), usually of the smallest mesh possible. These nets ensnare just about every kind of fish imaginable, even tiny, just-born ones. Greece is presently fighting a battle with the European Union over the use of such ecologically incorrect equipment.

In the pre-net days, "throwing the paragathia" was the most popular way of fishing. It involved baiting a long fishing line with hundreds of hooks. Depending on the kind of fish being hunted, the line was either weighted and dropped to the sea-bottom or rigged with floats enabling it to dangle just beneath the surface. The work was done at night and the line collected in the morning, along with its assorted catch--everything from bream to garfish to gurnard.

Fishing with kiertous--different kinds of wire baskets--is another Greek specialty. To take shrimp, a small basket with a tight mesh is used. The shrimp are used mostly for bait, but they also make a delicious mezze when fried in olive oil spiced with a dollop of soy sauce.

The larger kiertous have wider mouths to give entry to such fish as grouper and bass. The bait is either a smelly mixture of flour, anchovies and sardines or a clump of wild greens picked from the nearby hillsides.

The baskets are lowered on a line and left overnight near a reef or a bunch of rocks--in short, where the big fellows live. At dawn the fisherman hauls the basket back up to the surface, hoping beyond hope that it will contain something.

Syrti is the Greek name for trolling. The technique is employed in the early Fall when large schools of tuna and bonito migrate across the Aegean. Catching them is a tricky business: you must power your small boat at a brisk speed, all the while keeping a hand on the trailing line, which has a swirl of hooks, lures and spinners attached. If a fish should bite, you must simultaneously cut speed and start yanking in the line, swiftly but deftly, praying that it won't snarl or break.

My favorite way of fishing in Greece is called pyrofani--"fishing with fire." It happens at night, with a pump-up kerosene lantern the key piece of equipment. You row your boat into the shallows and let it float. Then, standing in the prow with a long-handled harpoon in your hands, you stare down into the garishly-lit sea for foraging lobster and octopus. To catch one you must wield the 12-foot-long harpoon with the speed and accuracy of an Olympic fencer.

Fishermen use a variation of Pyrofani to catch squid out in the deeper waters. Into the sea they lower a slab of wood fitted out on its underside with a mirror and hooks. Attracted by the light, the inkfish swim close for a better look. Seeing themselves reflected in the mirror, they then lunge and bite. Talk about the cat being killed by curiosity!

Some four hundred species of fish can be found in Greece. The species vary from island to island. Fish that are caught in the Dodecanese, for example, are rarely to be found in the Cyclades and Sporades. And vice versa.

Rhodian fishermen use nets and baskets to take a spineless lobster called caravida. Elsewhere in the Aegean, though, the lobsters have antennas and claws, and are called astakos--langouste.

Greece has a small commercial fishing industry. There are numerous fleets of trawlers which head out to sea every night and put down mile-long nets and sieves which snare such big-game as swordfish and mackerel. These products usually end up the next day in the central fish markets of Athens and Thessaloniki.

Village fishermen rarely venture far from home. They poke around in familiar waters and sell most of their takings to local tavernas and hotels. To hook up with one of them, knowing a few words of Greek would be helpful, plus a genuine interest in his work and family.

Without a local fisherman aiding you, it would be hard--but not impossible--to enjoy fishing in Greece. But since fishermen around the world have something in common--and since Greeks by nature are friendly and gregarious--chances are you'll find someone to show you where the action is.

As the saying goes in Greece--kala psarema! Good fishing!