Sporting lungis and white sleeveless shirts, they looked like soldiers in uniform. Soldiers indeed they were, or, to be more precise, hilsha warriors, because of the hunt that would soon take the form of a battle against an elusive underwater prey.
The boatman ordered: "Cast."
In military-like unison and surprising swiftness, his team of fishermen started unfurling the enormously long net that seemed never-ending.
We were half a kilometer off the bank of Char Bhairab, a small slumbering fishermen's village, 10 kilometers south of Chandpur.
I asked the boatman how he had determined the perfect place to cast the net on.
He nonchalantly answered that, in his expert eyes, he could see the bottom of the river and therefore figure out where the fish were. It was obviously an exaggeration.
Manik Dewan, the owner of the 43-feet-long wooden boat we were on, was leading a team of 12 fishermen into the vast expanse of the Meghna river.
They were on a hunt for a particular fish that is highly sought-after in the Indian Subcontinent – the hilsha. It was just prior to the catching season and we were floating in the middle of a region famous for its hilsha hunts.
The fishermen knew that beneath the surface of the muddy water, hordes of silver-grey hilshas were swimming upstream.
"They move at a speed of at least 3 kilometres per hour," renowned hilsha expert Dr Anisur Rahman had told me a day ago.
In his office room at Fisheries Research Institute, Chandpur, he had said: "The fish move 72 kilometres a day. They come up for breeding."
The breeding season was very close and the fish had started going crazy.
The movement in reverse
When the fish start their upstream journey from the estuary, the fishermen embark on an opposite downstream foray.
Usually they live somewhere north of Chandpur, some live in the char areas, as far as Madaripur and Shariatpur.
For three months of hilsha season, these people get on a boat and become hilsha hunters. For the rest of the year, some are busy farming, while others find manual jobs like pulling rikshaws, selling vegetables, construction, etc.
When I got into a fishing boat on September 5, at Char Bhairab, I was greeted by 12 fishermen of varying ages ranging from 22 to 50 years.
Sporting lungis and white sleeveless shirts (locally known as sando genji) they looked like soldiers in uniform. Soldiers indeed they were, or, to be more precise, hilsha warriors, because of the hunt that would soon take the form of a battle against an elusive underwater prey.
Waiting for the ebb
When the boat set sail at 9am, the sky was slate-grey with stormy clouds. It was drizzling on and off.
The tidal surge was still in force. A little off the shore, the boat waited for an hour, engines turned off, for the reverse pull of the ebb – movement of the tide out to sea. Around 30 more boats around us waited in the same manner.
"We fish only during the ebb, once in the morning and again in the evening," said Mohammad Khalil, a 50-year-old fisherman from Shariatpur.
When not fishing, Mohammad Khalil works at his own farm.
At 10 am, when the ebb started, the boat started its diesel engine. We moved a mile upstream.
The boatman was looking for the perfect spot to cast his net.
Casting the net
The net was specially made for catching hilsha – a 4,000-feet-long two-part net, about 60 feet deep with small earthen beads attached on one end, that pull the net to the bottom of the river bed.
The upper part of the net sends the fish down to the small pockets in the main net beneath.
When boatman Manik ordered to cast the net, the fishermen jumped into a huddle to roll it out, winded into the belly of the boat.
It was quite a scene: an almost one-kilometre-long net being sent to the river manually from the moving boat. It was an exceptional feat of teamwork.
Some fishermen were unfurling the upper part of the net, others moving the lower part in synchronization. A small break in the rhythm would leave the net tangled.
Once the net was cast, it formed a crescent shape, with one end tied to a flag standing atop a floating plastic buoy, and the other end tied to the boat.
The engine stopped again so that fishermen could lay their backs on the wooden planks of the boat, smoke cheap cigarettes and stare blankly at the vast expanse of the Meghna.
The youngest of the fishermen, Sajib, started cooking rice on a stove inside a hood made of bamboo cane.
A radio played local songs. As I enquired, I was surprised to find out that it was being played from a bluetooth speaker paired to a mobile phone. The speaker belonged to Sulaiman, one of the fishermen who had a taste for music.
Atop the boat hood, I sat beside the boatman, the leader of the band of warriors. Following his gaze, I stared at the submerged net, presently invisible.
I tried to imagine hilsha fish moving in pairs against the strong currents of Meghna, which rush towards the sea, bearing huge volumes of water carried down by three giant rivers.
I began remembering what Dr Abdul Wahab, a hilsha researcher from WorldFish had told me three days ago.
The currents and the shiver
"The strong river-currents send shivers down the spines of the fish – both male and female," Dr Abdul Wahab, had told me. "It stimulates them sexually and they swim upstream, faster and faster."
Hilsha, like many other anadromous fish, do not perform sexual intercourse. The male fish release the sperm in the water like foams and the female fish release the eggs on that foam-like broth, fertilizing them.
Hilsha or as it is popularly known in Bengali, "Ilish", is not exclusive to the Meghna basin only.
"Starting from the Mekong delta in the east, the fish has its presence as far west as the Persian Gulf," said Dr Wahab. Even in the Euphrates river, one can find a hilsha.
"But nowhere in the earth do these fish rush in such large numbers as it does in the rivers of Meghna basin," said Dr Wahab, who heads the EcoFish project of WorldFish.
His dramatic way of describing things kept coming back to me on the boat.
"We wait, till we are convinced that enough fish is trapped," said the boatman, breaking my reverie.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Expert eyes," smiled the boatman.
The deal between the boatman and the fishermen are crystal-clear: They divide the money earned from the sale of the catch into two equal halves. The boatman takes one half, the 12 fishermen take the other.
I remembered a scene a day ago at the main fish landing station in Chandpur. The sprawling fish market was oozing with hilsha fishes, most of them big.
Recent observations of Fish Research Institute and WorldFish suggests that the average weight of hilsha has increased by 350 grams in three years. In 2016 three percent of the total catch weighed over one kilogram. In 2018 it increased to five percent. This year the catch till the month of August shows 10 percent of the fish weigh over one kilogram.
The Average size of the fish has also grown from 510 grams in 2014 to 880 gram in 2018.
This year, there is a huge surge in hilsha catch already evident from the start of the season. Last year, it made a record of 5 lakh 17 thousand ton catch, which will again be overshadowed this year, officials and researches hope.
"But all these catches are from the estuary, from Bhola area, where the mouth of the sea is. We call it 'nama ilish'," said Meraj Ahmed, a fish trader pointing towards the huge pile of fishes on the floor.
Here in the river, the boatman still waited in silence for the net to be filled with fishes. It took three long hours for the boatman to order dragging the net out of the water.
Meanwhile, the siesta did not go uneventful. There were other boats frequently stepping in the area covered by the net of our boat.
During these trespasses, men of the boat waved their towels frantically in a forbidding gesture. They do not shout. In a sea-like open expanse of river, shouting is useless. The towel-waving worked and other boats veered away.
The catch and the gloomy faces
The boat had to shuttle between the two ends of the net during the long wait. It was not easy since the tidal surge was imminent and the waves were getting bigger.
The net was dragged along several miles downstream. Then began the dragging up of the net.
It was a team effort again. Unlike the fishing net in the trawlers which has a giant wheel to drag the net, the whole task here is performed manually.
The long net was gradually returning to its place in the belly of the boat. In the lower part of the net the pockets were holding hilsha fish, most of them still alive and wriggling their bodies.
I expected to see big fish and the faces of the fishermen lightening up. Instead, I found gloomy faces as the saw most of the pockets empty. Whenever there was a fish in the pocket, it was not that much big – barely half a kilogram in weight.
I stared at the boatman, but could not read anything from his eyes. He was looking at the basket that was slowly getting filled with fish. In half an hour the whole net was lifted from the water. The catch that was gathered barely made a basketful.
It was not a good day for fishing. But it had not been so the day before, either. A week was left to go for the hilsha to come up the rivers.
"The catch will barely meet our expenses. If you consider the fuel consumed, we will have little profit," said Manik.
"But things will change pretty soon," said Sulaiman, the music loving fisherman.
Preparing for the night
The boat took to the shore of Char Bhairab. It was anchored near an old retail market which remains busy selling fish caught from the river.
Manik Dewan sold the basket of fish at Tk5,300.
Not a bad deal for the boatman who will get Tk2,000. But calculation suggests that each of the fishermen would barely get Tk166 each.
I bade goodbye to the fishermen. They waved as I was leaving.
My phone rang while I was in an auto-rickshaw. It was from Manik Dewan, the boatman.
"You have left your notebook on the boat."
I went back to the boat, anchored in the bank the same way I had found it in the morning. The 12 fishermen were busy preparing for the next foray. The tidal surge would begin in two hours.
I looked at them again.
They were boosting themselves up for another battle. Their eyes revealed an obstinate determination: They would keep chasing the hilshas, no matter how long it took.