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Fishermen of the Colombian Caribbean

As I travel I pay special attention to the fishing methods of people living along coastal regions and inland lakes. Humans have been fishing since our species first wandered down to the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers of out planet: we have been fishermen from day one. What is interesting to me is how little [...]

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As I travel I pay special attention to the fishing methods of people living along coastal regions and inland lakes. Humans have been fishing since our species first wandered down to the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers of out planet: we have been fishermen from day one.

What is interesting to me is how little the basic fishing methods of our species have changed over the millennia. The rudiments of modern, non-commercial fishing are pretty much the same as they’ve always been: you either bait and hook, net, or trap your pray. The materials with which you do this have changed through the ages but the basic designs of the tools are still very similar.

As I traveled along the Caribbean coast of Colombia I was able to observe various methods of modern fishing, from men using factory made, American style poles and reels to those using just a length of line wrapped around a hand held spool to those who caught their prey with hooks they crafted themselves from fish bone.

Ray fishermen of Palomino

Colombian Fisherman

Alfonso went out in his dugout canoe at 3PM the previous day, fished through the night, and returned at 8AM with a catch of eight rays. By the time I met up with him he already had the flat, white and grey, floppy looking cartilaginous batoideas gutted, piled up, and ready to sell. He was cleaning off his knife and getting ready to conclude a night of work when I began asking him about fishing on this stretch of the Colombian Caribbean.

“How did you catch these rays?” I asked him.

Alfonso then showed me the insides of a bucket which contained a handful of three inch long, thin, spine like, sharp looking fish bones that still had a fair share of blood and guts spread over them. He told me that he baited the bones with some fish meat and used that to catch the rays. I looked at the bones curiously, as they were more straight spines than actually “hooks.” I found it interesting that he could catch anything in the sea with such implements, but the proof was right before me in the stack of recently caught rays sacked up in Alfonso’s boat.

Rays on the Caribbean coast of Colombia

“How much will you sell these for?” I asked him.

Alfonso smiled, “70,000 pesos,” he replied.

This is around $40 — little by city standards, but not a bad price to make for a night of work in this little fishing village on a remote stretch of the Colombian Caribbean.

Fishing boats in Colombia

Fishing in Cartagena

Cartagena is a city by the sea, one of the first settlements on what was once called the Spanish main and what is now known as South America. Beyond its stone walls and along the coast fisherman ply their ancient trade, throwing baited hooks out into the sea in hopes of them being bitten by something big. The fishing here is mostly independent — just single fishermen recreating or trying to catch enough food for their dinner — and the methods used span from the most simple to the occupational standard of the industrialized world.

Hand and spool fishing:

Fisherman in Colombia using a spool and line

I watched a fisherman using a simple system of fishing that I have seen in various other places in my travels. He had a spool of line that had a hook attached to its business end and a plastic cup full of some cut fish bait. I observed how he would go about the act of fishing with this most basic of rigs. Grabbing the line around a foot from the hook and bait with his right hand while holding the spool in his left, he would swing the business end back and forth a couple of times before tossing it out to sea, allowing the spool to spin free releasing the line. He would then jig the line a few times with his right hand, maneuvering it into position, and then, after a few minutes, would re-spool it, bringing the hook and bait back in just to repeat the sequence over and over again.

Spool and line fishing gear

As I watched this fisherman fishing by hand, I remembered my Minnesota fishing tips but I did not observe him catch anything — which is normal for the profession. I soon walked up to him and asked what he was fishing for.

“Anything,” he replied in all seriousness.

After observing and talking with the fishermen of Cartagena, it is my conclusion that the spool and line method is most common — it is certainly the most simple way to fish — and throughout the day dozens of guys can be seen out on the rocky breakwaters throwing baited hooks out to sea, jigging them a few times, and then reeling them back in over and over again. The men using this fishing method seem to be from the poorer classes of the city, and it is my impression that they are out to get food almost as their main intent.

Fishing bait

Modern pole and reel fishing

Often standing side by side fishermen who are fishing with hand held spools are those with modern rods with spinning reels. These men seem to be out fishing more for the sport of it rather than for food. I walked up to a group of men with fishing rods and peered into their bait buckets and tackle boxes. Their set up was very much like the one I use while fishing in the USA.

Fisherman in Colombia with modern gear

“What are you fishing for?” I asked one of them.

“Tarpon,” he replied, using the English word for sabalo — a megalop that can grow up to eight feet in length and weigh over 100lbs. This is mostly a sport fish, as the meat is not really that highly commercially sought after as it is not what is considered a good “eating” fish. I have only observed fishermen going after this fish for food and economic sustenance in the Guatemalan jungle, and the prices they would fetch for selling these massive fish was vastly lower than many other types.

“Have you ever caught a tarpon here?” I asked him.

He replied that he had, but added that it was only a small one a few feet in length.

“What other fish do you catch here?” I asked.

The fisherman went down a list of most of the popular fish types in this region, but then added that they sometimes reel in mojarra up to three feet long. This sounded like a fish story to me.

Fishing on the Colombian Caribbean

Colombians fishing by hand with line wrapped around spools

Fishing is simple in theory, very difficult in practice. The tools of the trade only lend slight advantages, as it is the knowledge and the experience of the fishermen that matters most. I remember going fishing with the Q’eqchi’ Maya on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. These men would go out in dug out canoes and fish for giant tarpon with nothing other than an eel for bait, a hook, and plastic line wound around an empty pop bottle. With this simple rig, they would reel in 100lbs fish. During this time I was also able to observe fishermen from Europe, Australia, and Guatemala City using the most modern and techy of gear in the same locations in hunt for the same fish. In my three months on this river I did not observe a single one of these advanced technology clad fishermen catch a single specimen of the fish they were after, while the Maya would bring them in weekly.

Regardless of their gear or lack of it, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the men still go out in canoes or stand on the beaches or rocky shoals daily, engaged in the prehistoric art of fishing.

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Filed under: Colombia, Fishing, South America

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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