A fishing trip to Pathanamthitta district is a rewarding experience in many ways. While coming close to the dense forest in the eastern part of the Kerala and rivers winding down, it earns a good catch too. The expedition starts from Gavi on the banks of Pamba river in Pathanamthitta district, and concludes at Arattupuzha, farther down on the west coast in Alappuzha district.
The first destination is Kakki, an evergreen forest which is home to the largest population of wild elephants in Kerala. Members of Mannan tribe carry out fishing activities in the reservoir of Kakki dam on wooden rafts. Permission has to be obtained from the Forest Department’s Goodrickal range office at Angamoozhy to enter the forest. The path is along a narrow tarred road overhanging with thick vegetation, which sunlight does not penetrate even during noon.
The guide is Aby Kurien Panangad, who has been issued a ‘Green passport’ by the forest department recognising his conservation efforts. The green passport enables its holder entry to the Kakki forest, which includes the forest ranges of Kochu Koyikkal, Plappally and Pachakkanam.
The route to Gavi
According to visitors, experiencing the sights and sounds along the road to Gavi is more thrilling than the destination itself. The road is so narrow that a mini bus of the KSRTC can hardly pass. The place shown as Gavi in the film 'Ordinary' is not the real place. A real ‘ordinary’ KSRTC bus can in no way ply along this road.
Another interesting sight is three huge penstocks, large pipes, taking water to the Sabarigiri hydroelectric project. A brook flows down the rocks. The water has the sweet taste of ramacham (vetiver). In fact, the brook is rightly called ‘Ramachathodu’. Local people say that it originates in the ramacham forests up in the hills.
After 40 km, hemispherical hills covered with red soil come into view. The tarred road ends here and the way ahead can be covered only in jeeps that contractors collecting fish bring to go deep into the forest. Soon, the jeep path too peters out. Travellers have to proceed on foot to the dam. Dense undergrowth covers the path.
A little further, the scenery changes. A visitor feels as if he has entered an abandoned battlefield. There are big trees lying uprooted. The skull of a bison is seen near a fallen dead Indian cedar tree. Two tents have been fixed close to the reservoir. A man can barely sit inside them. They have been fixed close to the grounds to keep the winds away.
Netting in reservoir
Raman, Thenmony and Ravindran are tribal fishermen in the reservoir. They use a raft made of bamboo. Six wild bamboo stems of 22 feet in length are tied together to make the rafts. Each fisherman carries around 20 nets. The fishermen leave for various spots in the reservoir on 11 rafts by 4 pm every day. They cover about 34 km before fixing the nets by 7 pm. The nets are detached around 4 am the next day. Catla, mushi, kuyil, rohu and bens are some of the common varieties caught from Kakki.
The fishermen spend the night on the banks of reservoir in tents. Wild animals often visit the tents during the dark hours, but cause no harm. The fishermen return with their catch, which fetches Rs 100 a kg. The fish is bought by the Kerala Tribal Development Society. The contractors who collect the fish get a margin of Rs 100, of which Rs 25 is paid to the society.
Raman, 50, started fishing at age 12. On an average, he says his catch is around 4 kg. But many of his fish weigh 3 kg each.
When visitors arrive at the dam, Raman prepares a dish for them. He cleans the fish, applies chilli powder, turmeric powder and salt. Alongside, he boils tapioca. The fish is fried in coconut oil, which is often in a frozen state due to the cold weather.
No visitor can resist the taste of tapioca and fish. When asked about the secret of the taste, Raman replies, “it is chilli, turmeric and salt. What else is available here?”
The anglers on Pamba River
Sivaprasad of Malayalapuzha, near Pathanamthitta town, is an expert angler who has a habit of clicking selfies with the fish he caught. A catering worker, he angles in Achankovil River and Pamba River. The rivers are teeming with fish which weigh several kilos, he says. Sivaprasad’s biggest catch was a 6 kg puli vaaha (snakehead fish). Other common fish include mayil vaaha, manal vaaha, neela vaaha, Krishna vaaha and kari vaaha. They are easily caught when the water level in the rivers falls.
A wide expanse of sand can be seen on the western side on the Kozhencheri Bridge. It is the venue of the Maramon convention. On the eastern side are Nedumbrayar banks. Sonu Sunny, who has completed his plus-two, is also an expert fisherman. People like him use artificial baits which look like frogs, small fish and shrimps. These are very effective, say the anglers. Rajan K Babu is another fishing expert, who has started a shop selling fishing gear after returning from a Gulf country.
Vigil at night
The next destination is Arattupuzha, where the palliyodam, a large snake boat used for religious purposes, rests. It is taken out as part of the Aranmula Vallasadhya, a traditional feast. Among the expert fishermen in the area are Abraham Baby, Joy Ayikkara and Saji Thomas. Saji was earlier the captain of the palliyodam.
Big shoals can be seen from the Arattupuzha-Koyippuram Bridge. The experienced fishermen know the path of the shoals and fix their nets accordingly. Petromax lamps are used to catch fish at night.
How to catch rocket fish
According to Saji, among the tastiest fish in the Pamba River is the rocket fish, which loves to feed on the leaves of bamboo. This makes the job of anglers easy. They attach bamboo leaves to the fishing hook, and rocket fish are attracted. During the last rains, up to two tons of fish were caught a day at Arattupuzha. They include catla, rohu, kuyil and tuli. Catla and rohu were released as fishlings by the fisheries department.
Pazhakulam Subhash, who was a Malayalam faculty member at Cherthala NSS College, and his wife Jaya teacher, provide the recipe for tasty vaala dishes. For fry, the big pieces are marinated with pepper and chilli powders along with salt. It is kept for 10 minutes before frying in coconut oil.
Fish eggs (roe) are separated and boiled along with salt and turmeric powder, smashing them. Next, coconut oil is heated and scraped coconut, finely cut shallots, green chillis and garlic sautéed in it. The roe is added to this mixture and stirred well. Curry leaves also go in for extra taste.
For vaala curry, an earthen pan is used. Pepper and coconut oil provide the taste. Keep it overnight, and the taste is heavenly.
The recipe of ‘Vaala pepper curry’ is given below
Vaala fish: 2 kg
Pepper: Two bunches
Green chillis: 4
Ginger: One piece
Garlic: 5 pods
Fenugreek: One pinch
Chilli powder: One big spoon
Fish masala: One big spoon
Pot tamarind (kudam puli): 2 pieces
Coconut oil: 200 mg
Curry leaves: One bunch
Heat coconut oil in earthen pan and sauté crushed pepper, along with finely cut shallots, garlic, ginger, green chillis, fenugreek and curry leaves in it. Add fish masala and chilli powder; heat. Add one cup water along with pot tamarind and bring to boil. Next, add fish pieces. When the gravy turns thick, add virgin coconut oil and remove from flame.