Takeaway

A cormorant’s catch in China

Sugato Mukherjee | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

Bird in hand: In Southwest China, this ancient trade survives mostly as a tourist draw   -  SUGATO MUKHERJEE

Fishermen in China’s Yangshuo county still use the water bird to scoop out fish from Li River

* Yangshuo county in Southwest China’s Guanxi province preserves a dying art that dates back more than 1,300 years: Fishing with cormorants

* In Japan, the last practitioners of this fishing technique are on the imperial payroll for bringing freshwater fish to the emperor’s table

* The fishermen tie a loose collar around the throat of the cormorant, which they have trained to catch fish. The noose prevents the bird from swallowing their catch and the fishermen retrieve the fish when they return to the boats

The muddy waters of the Li River churn in the erratic wind that blows in. The weather is unusually inclement for a summer evening; dark clouds hover above the pointed ridges of the karst mountains to our north. Boatman Hwang stops rowing and points downstream towards a bend in the river. A couple of bamboo rafts have suddenly popped into view, bobbing in the water, slowly moving towards us.

I am at Yangshuo for a taste of local life in the smaller towns of China. The small county is hemmed with the serried karst mountains — corrugated limestone cliffs poking into the sky. The place holds options galore for hiking and biking into the verdant countryside dotted with ethnic villages and leisurely cruises along the Li, which threads its way through this beautiful region of Guangxi province.

And this quaint corner of Southwest China also preserves a dying art that dates back more than 1,300 years: Fishing with cormorants.

For hundreds of years, the cormorant fishermen of the Li used their fleets of the water bird to carry on their trade. Now this ancient system of fishing is almost history. Unlike Japan, where the last practitioners of this fishing technique are on the imperial payroll for bringing freshwater fish to the emperor’s table, in Southwest China, this ancient trade survives mostly as a tourist draw.

Hwang explains the technique. “In this traditional system, there are no fishing rods, no nets and no baits. The fishermen tie a loose collar around the throat of the cormorant, which they have trained to catch fish. The noose prevents the bird from swallowing their catch and the fishermen retrieve the fish when they return to the boats.”

The bamboo rafts arrive shortly. The two rowers, wiry middle-aged men sporting conical fishing hats, throw me quick smiles and proceed to light up the boat lanterns. “The flaming lamps will attract the fish below the surface towards the raft. This is why fishing with cormorants is done after sundown,” Hwang informs me. The cormorants, four in all, looking dignified in their black plumage and white crests, sit patiently in the bow of the boats and watch the proceedings in what seems like mild amusement.

The fishermen scoop up the birds and make a strange, piercing sound. On cue, the birds toss themselves into the river, which now looks inky in the gathering darkness. The feathered creatures bob up and down with the gentle tide. The fishermen hit the water with the crude oars and a singsong chant. And the birds are gone, into the depths of the dark waters. As if piloted by an intangible communication, the bamboo rafts follow their trail.

Hwang rapidly rows our boat to keep pace with the watery drama. A few hundred yards into the river, the fishermen stop and, with a sudden swoosh, a couple of birds emerge out of the river. In the darkness, I can make out one of them is struggling with a rather large fish. A boatman throws a net over the birds and hoists them up on the deck. They free the wriggling carp from the beak of a cormorant and whistle softly. The bird stiffens and sputters out two more fish trapped in the gullet. Taking the cue, its partner delivers its catch — a couple of mid-size carps — from its windpipe onto the deck.

Both the birds get small fish as reward, which they gobble up instantly. Hwang asks me to tip the fishermen; a small supplement to the price of the freshly caught large carp I have just purchased. Hwang points to the mark where the bird’s beak struck the flesh. “This makes all the difference in taste,” he says. The cormorant’s razor-sharp beaks kill the fish instantly, which is believed to make the flesh tastier.

With a deep bow, the fishermen steer back their dinghies into the darkness. Two more cormorants are waiting for their masters somewhere in the middle of the river.

At dinner that night, the sprightly chef at the hotel places a bowl of fish before me with the announcement, “This is the carp you bought this evening.” Fried golden-brown in beer batter, the dish is Yangshuo’s culinary highlight and has been my staple for three dinners. The tender meat seasoned with fragrant spices such as black pepper and paprika has always tasted great, but it leaves a sublime trail on my palate that night. Now I know why cormorant-caught fish finds itself at Japan’s imperial table.

Sugato Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Yangshuo is 65 km by road from the city of Guilin. The town is also connected with other major cities by the extensive high-speed railway network of China.
  • Stay
  • An ever-popular backpacker destination, Yangshuo has a fair share of budget accommodations, mainly around West Street, a marble-paved stretch known for traditional architecture, souvenir shops, local savouries, and a vibrant, if a little noisy, nightlife. There are also upscale boutique hotels and riverside retreats.
  • See/ do
  • The villages around Yangshuo offer a glimpse into the life of ethnic minority groups such as Zhuang and Yao of South China. The ancient town of Fuli, 8 km from Yangshuo, is the best place in China for buying painted paper fans.

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Published on October 15, 2020
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