An expedition to the interiors of Idukki to learn about fishing offers an interesting experience.
The lake surrounded by hills and mist that attracts visitors from around the world is also a favourite fishing spot for the local tribes. But during many summers, the lake almost dries up.
The local people take a bamboo raft along the shores of the lake to catch fish. Others, too, head to the forest, but to collect honey. Yet another group of residents, belonging to the Mannar tribe, walk about five km into the forest and catch fish with bamboo rafts. However, outsiders are not allowed there. Tribals belonging to Mannar, Paliyan, and Ooral sects have exclusive rights to catch fish in Mullperiyar dam reservoir.
There are 37 varieties of fish in the reservoir. Some have migrated to the Vembanad lake through the Periyar river and from there to canals, paddy fields, and ponds. They include gold fish, ooral, kari, kuyil, kallemutty, and arakan. Catching of kuyil, which is endangered, is banned.
Sale of wild fish
By 6 am, tribal people head to take out the net which that had been set the day before. They normally spend the night in the forest and the task is meant only for the brave.
Paliyan tribe catches fish using a rod and women also join the effort. Mannar tribe utilizes nets. Ooral Adivasis stay on the other side of the lake and employ the same method as the Paliyas.
By 9 am, fishermen return from the forest with their catch. A man from the society that conducts sales would be waiting to collect the fish. The Paliyakudi eco development committee oversees the sales and Rs 180 per kg is charged at present. Customers queue up to buy fresh fish and a single tilapia would weigh a kilogram.
Women to the fore
Paliya women like Chelvi, Neela, Thanka, and Vijayamma walk about a km to the lake through the forest, where they have hidden their bamboo rods. They have specific spots on the lakeside to set the rod. Most of the first catch comprises small varieties of fish.
Outsiders to the place need to take the aid of guides attached to the Tiger Reserve like Vinod, who can detect the scent of elephants which may cross your path. Wild bison, its calves and their hoof marks would be visible on the slushy ground.
A fishing method
Small fish would gather at spots in the lake where food is in plenty. They would be followed by big fish. Aware of this situation, tribal people deposit boiled tapioca in the lake as bait and arrive the next day for their fishing activities. At least two kg of tapioca is purchased by each tribal for the purpose.
Some people drop the covering of the snack ‘bonda’ instead of tapioca. The prize catch is gold fish, which would be attracted by tapioca and would weigh up to three kg. But when earthworms are used as bait, it would be tilapia that bites first.
To catch tiny fish, a cooking vessel in which rice is kept is ideal. Known as 'kurikkoodu,' this is Idukki's own method.
Maniyamma the expert
A woman who catches fish in the lake, Maniyamma uses three bamboo stems as fishing rods at the same time. The first one she holds under her left foot, the second is fixed to its spot with a stone and the third is held in her hand.
She keeps watch all the time. "A gold fish dislodged one rod yesterday. I lost him along with the rod. It was the boat men who recovered the rod," she informs.
Most of the time the lake lacks enough water and the catch is insufficient even to meet the expenses. "Sometimes a single fish would be caught by six women. If it is sold at Rs 150, the amount is shared equally and it would be enough only for the tea. Money for transport has to be found from elsewhere," says Maniyamma.
In olden days, the only fish available in Idukki was 'salted fish' meaning, dried fish. But now the situation is changing a little with the arrival of fresh fish from the reservoir. Even then, all the marketplaces in the district are busy selling dried fish.
Thekken's fish pond
T T Thomas, also known as 'Pepper Thekken' is a farmer respected by all in the countryside. He has developed 'Thekkan,' a high quality variety of pepper that is now grown even in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil. Thekken received four national awards for his effort.
However, the biggest attraction at Thekken's farm is the fish pond, which is located near the entrance. Gourami is the star in the pond. It was Thekken who discovered that Gourami can breed every month, provided the right conditions are arranged. Earlier, it was considered to breed during April-May months.
Implementing the local know-how about higher temperatures facilitating breeding, Thekken reduced the depth of the fish pond to 5 feet to let heat reach up to the bottom. Male and female fish were released in the pond and facilities for depositing eggs were set up.
Now the pond is teeming with varieties like red belly nutter, gold, gift tilapia etc. along with gourami. Gourami tastes better than pearl spot and nutter is served as pomfret in restaurants, says Thekken
Apple, orange and fishing net
This strange combination can be seen at the farm of Saseendra Babu at Parvanam, Anakkara in Kumali. He has planted apples, oranges, pista, butter fruit and cashew. But the swimming pool is full of fish. He has chosen tilapia varieties like gift and nylotica. "They are tasty and have more tolerance. I tried to farm pearl spot brought from my native Kuttanad, but it was not satisfactory and I gave up," says Babu.
"Now my son, an engineering graduate, it trying high-density fish farming utilizing the RAS method," he informs.
Babu's farm is at a scenic spot among the hills and his staff Rajesh and Kaliraj are busy netting the fish.