Fishing is a mix of magic and methodology
Fishing and superstition don’t just rhyme. The three Rs of rodding and reeling have always been rituals, rites and reading the ti leaves.
As long as fishermen have challenged the sea to snatch at its mysteries, they’ve mixed magic with methodology. Look at a trolling lure, and tell me it isn’t just a sophisticated voodoo doll complete with head, eyes, skirts and sharp points. You don’t even have to peer back through the mists of time to see examples of the mystical in action. Look around you today, and here’s what you’ll see.
Throughout Polynesia, this same mystical power is imbued in ti leaves. Hawaiians use these long, broad, green leaves to sprinkle water in baptisms, bless weddings, dignify funerals and bring luck to fishing trips.
The early Polynesians discovered the ti leaf effect accidentally as they fished for tuna from outrigger canoes. They perfected a method known variously as dropping or throwing stones. After selecting a beach stone of suitable size (the size of a brick and the shape of a potato), they placed a baited hook and some chopped chum on the rock. They bound both in place by wrapping line in turns, then they placed a ti leaf on the rock, added more chum and then more wraps. One more leaf covered the chum to keep it from washing away prematurely, and then more turns of line held by a slipknot.
The package was dropped overboard and allowed to fall a predetermined distance until it reached the tuna school. Then the line was jerked to release the slipknot, scatter the chum and present the baited hook. With many types of leaves to choose from (banana, breadfruit and taro, for example), the Polynesians discovered the power of the ti leaf.
Fishermen have always called on spirits for help – the spirits of their ancestors and the spirits brewed in fermented beverages. At times, both can be summoned simultaneously with remarkable results.
Invoking the spirits or other parts of departed fishermen can be carried to bizarre extremes. In ancient Polynesian societies, hooks were made from shell and bone – the only hard materials that could be carved into strong circles and worked into sharp points.
The bones of the largest local land mammal, man, were the most highly sought-after, and bald men topped that list.
Bald men were rare, and their bones were considered to have magical powers. There was no “Hair Care” club to protect Uncle Kahuna.
You stuck a coconut on your bald dome and stayed away from the king, who could have you killed instantly just for letting your shadow fall across his fishing gear (not unless you wanted to become his fishing gear).
Ironically, a Hawaiian fisherman of today who returns from a fishing trip empty-handed will usually pat the top of his head and pronounce that he was “bolo head” (pidgin English for “bald”). In the days of metal hooks, this is now safe to admit.