You Never Know

Jess McGlothlin explores Samoa with Jonathan Jones

I take a deep breath as I step off the plane onto a broken concrete runway. The air is hot, heavy… it smells like the sea, jet fuel, and maybe more than a hint of anticipation. I’ve travelled halfway around the world to the small island of Upolu in Samoa to meet up with Australian angler Jonathan Jones. We’ve planned a week to explore the fishery surrounding Samoa; both of us have fished and worked in the South Pacific but never before in Samoa. It’s new turf, new water, and a new culture — we’re eager to see what awaits in the turquoise waters that surround Upolu and its neighbouring island, Savai’i. What’s here? What’s hiding in those waters? Jonathan had arrived a few days earlier, exploring a few flats on the north side of the island. Somewhere along the way, he’d inadvertently met that man who would become the third member of our little band — hailing from Papua New Guinea, Aidi was working as a cook at a small local resort, and was quick to smile, easy to laugh, and an all-round morale booster. Within hours of stepping off the plane I’ve met the boys at the airport and we find our way to what locals simply call ‘the trench.’ Guidebooks reference the 30-metre-deep swimming hole by its proper name, To Sua Ocean Trench. After more than thirty-five hours of airline travel, taking the plunge somehow seems like the proper thing to do. After the sun sets, we purchase a dinner of local barbecue from a roadside stand, park along a lagoon-side road and eat off the car roof in the dark, listening to the quiet rush of the water. Tomorrow promises our first day of angling on the south side of the island, and we are bright with anticipation. The next day, we walk. A long stretch of sweeping beach separates the dense jungle from the sea, and we march under tropical sun and the occasional line of palm trees, eyes glued to the water. At one point we cross a freshwater stream, flowing from the undergrowth into the salt water, and pause for a break, crouching down in the mercifully cool water. Coming from a Western U.S. winter, the 30°C+ and crushing humidity proves to be a challenge unto itself. The sun crosses the sky, the day passes, and other than a few errant bonefish, we see nothing worth casting at. Tomorrow will be better, we think. Tomorrow we’ll explore new water, and find the fish. Though we won’t admit it, we’re both unsettled by the unproductive day; a little edgy with the apparent lack of fish. The next day, we don’t fare much better. After another unsuccessful day on the flats, we find an expat with a fishing charter and head out for a taste of offshore fishing; reasoning that at this point, there’s really not much to lose. Aidi joins us, adding quips and laughter now and again, a refreshing presence in our little gang. As it turns out, a largely unsuccessful day brings in only one wahoo, and that night finds us back at the local barbecue hut, gazing listlessly into our mystery meat and rice. Tomorrow, we say, with somewhat less confidence than we’d felt three days ago. Tomorrow will be better. Fast forward several days later, and we’re realizing the answer to that earlier question of “What’s here?” is “Not much.” It’s been a frustrating week, filled with many kilometres on foot on the island, and even more offshore. The odd fish here or there helps, but we’d come to Samoa hoping for GTs, tuna, bonefish… the list went on and on. As it turns out, we found very little. Sometimes it happens, but you never know until you arrive at a location and get the lines wet. You make the most of it, and keep trying until you’re about ready to board the plane back home. As all too often seems to be the case, our most productive day is the final day; dodging thunderstorms and chasing mahi-mahi offshore with Fatu, the son of a local chieftain. We’d met Fatu the night before at his son’s birthday party. Upolu may function as a larger island, but at its heart it’s still a small community. Aidi works at a lodge run by Fatu and his wife; through a series of connections Jonathan and I end up taking a day to visit the lodge and participate in the birthday celebrations. It evolves into a night of traditional fire dances for the lodge guests and then a small band of us drinking beers at the waterside. All in all, not a bad taste of Samoa, I think as I watch faint lights from small boats bob along in the darkness. The next day in Fatu’s small boat, we have another fine mahi-mahi close to hand, one of several, and I once more slide into the water to photograph the fish. We’ve moved into the channel between Samoa’s two islands — Upolu and Savai’i — and different water than we’d been fishing earlier in the day. After photographing the fish, I swim back to the boat, eyes flicking to the lingering thunderstorm we’d outrun earlier. I look up to see Fatu watching me worriedly, a small filleting knife in his hand as he surveys the water. As I hold onto the side of the boat, camera in one hand, he holds up the knife and looks seriously at me. “Many sharks here. Ready to help,” he notes. I’d already had an unwitting interaction with a shark earlier in the week, and make it back into the boat in near record time. It’s an oddly fitting end to a somewhat rough week. Though, as is often the case, the images turn out to be worth the shark-heavy waters. Sometimes it doesn’t come together. Trips go wrong. We have travel delays… it took Jonathan an extra day to leave Samoa due to cancelled flights. We get sick… I returned to the States with a lovely run of giardia and a mild case of dengue. The fishing doesn’t come together… sometimes the fish simply aren’t present. And that’s okay; that’s part of it. As they say, you never know until you go.

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