Cormorant-fishing

This strange method of fishing is mentioned in a poem found in the Kojiki, a work compiled in A.D. 712, while the poem itself probably dates from a far earlier age. The custom is kept up at the present day in various districts of Japan, notably on the River Nagara, near Gifu, in the province of Owari.

First catch your cormorant. "This," we are told by Mr. G. E. Gregory, in Vol. X. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions,"-"this the people do by placing wooden images of the birds in spots frequented by them, and covering the surrounding branches and twigs with bird-lime, on settling upon which they stick fast. After having in this manner caught one cormorant, they place it among the bushes, instead of the image, and thus catch more." Mr. Gregory further says that the fishermen take such care of the birds that they provide them with mosquito-nets during the summer, in order to minister to their comfort! We cannot personally vouch for such an extreme of solicitude, having seen (and alas! smelt) the birds only during the cool off-season, which they idle away in baskets in the fishermen's houses. Cormorant-fishing always takes place at night and by torch-light. The method pursued is thus described by the late Major-General Palmer, R. E., in a letter to the Times, dated 17th July, 1889:-"There are, to begin with, four men in each of the seven boats, one of whom, at the stern, has no duty but that of managing his craft. In the bow stands the master, distinguished by the peculiar hat of his rank, and handling no fewer than twelve trained birds with the surpassing skill and coolness that have earned for the sportsmen of Gifu their unrivalled pre-eminence. Amidships is another fisher, of the second grade, who handles four birds only. Between them is the fourth man, called kako, from the bamboo striking instrument of that name, with which he makes the clatter necessary for keeping the birds up to their work; he also encourages them by shouts and cries, looks after spare apparatus, etc., and is ready to give aid if required. Each cormorant wears at the base of its neck a metal ring, drawn tight enough to prevent marketable fish from passing below it, but at the same time loose enough-for it is never removed -to admit the smaller prey, which serves as food. Round the body is a cord, having attached to it at the middle of the back a short strip of stiffish whalebone, by which the great awkward bird may be conveniently lowered into the water or lifted out when at work; and to this whalebone is looped a thin rein of spruce fibre, twelve feet long, and so far wanting in pliancy as to minimize the chance of entanglement. When the fishing ground is reached, the master lowers his twelve birds one by one into the stream and gathers their reins into his left hand, manipulating the latter thereafter with his right as occasion requires. No. 2 does the same with his four birds; the kako starts in with his volleys of noise; and forthwith the cormorants set to at their work in the heartiest and jolliest way, diving and ducking with wonderful swiftness as the astonished fish come flocking towards the blaze of light. The master is now the busiest of men. He must handle his twelve strings so deftly that, let the birds dash hither and thither as they will, there shall be no impediment or fouling. He must have his eyes everywhere and his hands following his eyes. Specially must he watch for the moment when any of his flock is gorged,-a fact generally made known by the bird itself, which then swims about in a foolish, helpless way, with its head and swollen neck erect. Thereupon the master, shortening in on that bird, lifts it aboard, forces its bill open with his left hand, which still holds the rest of the lines, squeezes out the fish with his right, and starts the creature off on a fresh foray,-all this with such admirable dexterity and quickness that the eleven birds still bustling about have scarce time to get things into a tangle, and in another moment the whole team is again perfectly in hand.

"As for the cormorants, they are trained when quite young, being caught in winter with bird-lime on the coasts of the neighbouring Owari Gulf, at their first emigration southward from the summer haunts of the species on the northern seaboard of Japan. Once trained, they work well up to fifteen, often up to nineteen or twenty, years of age; and, though their keep in winter bears hardly on the masters, they are very precious and profitable hunters during the five months' season, and well deserve the great care that is lavished upon them. From four to eight good-sized fish for example, is the fair result of a single excursion for one bird, which corresponds with an average of about one hundred and fifty fish per cormorant per hour, or four hundred and fifty for the three hours occupied in drifting down the whole course. Every bird in a flock has and knows its number; and one of the funniest things about them is the quick-witted jealousy with which they invariably insist, by all that cormorant language and pantomimic protest can do, on due observance of the recoonized rights belonging to their individual numbers. No. 1. or 'Ichi,' is the doyen of the corps, the senior in years as well as rank. His colleagues, according to their age, come after him in numerical order. Ichi is the last to be put into the water and the first to be taken out, the first to be fed, and the last to enter the baskets in which, when work is over, the birds are carried from the boats to their domicile. Ichi, when aboard, has the post of honour at the eyes of the boat. He is a solemn, grizzled old fellow, with a pompous, noli me tangere air that is almost worthy of a Lord Mayor. The rest have places after him, in succession of rank, alternately on either side of the gunwale. If haply, the lawful order of precedence be at any time violated-if, for instance, No. 5 be put into the water before No. 6, or No. 4 be placed above No. 2-the rumpus that forthwith arises in that family is a sight to see and a sound to hear.

"But all this while we have been drifting down, with the boats about us, to the lower end of the course, and are again abreast of Gifu, where the whole squadron is beached. As each cormorant is now taken out of the water, the master can tell by its weight whether it has secured enough supper while engaged in the hunt; failing which, he makes the deficiency good by feeding it with the inferior fish of the catch. At length all are ranged in their due order, facing outwards, on the gunwale of each boat. And the sight of that array of great ungainly sea-birds-shaking themselves, flapping their wings, gawing, making their toilets, clearing their throats, looking about them with a stare of stupid solemnity, and now and then indulging in old-maidish tiffs with their neighbours-is quite the strangest of its little class I have ever seen, except perhaps the wonderful penguinry of the Falkland Islands, whereat a certain French philosopher is said to have even wept. Finally, the cormorants are sent off to bed, and we ourselves follow suit."