Different worlds, side by side: banks, luxury hotels, and rooftop advertising that lights up the night surround Geneva's harbour and hallmark Water Jet. From this five-star universe, the lakeside huts of the fishermen go unnoticed.
"I can give you the names of professional fishermen," the lady at the cantonal office for fishing matters told me. "but why don't you just go down to the docks early in the morning?"
She indicates the city's Eaux-Vives section on the Left Bank, not far from the 'Jet d'Eau' that gushes water 140 m skywards, I've been there too many times to count. All I've ever noticed are moored pleasure craft, the water taxi called a 'mouette' (gull) ferrying between the Left and Right Banks, and the snack-stand dotted walk way that is a favourite of rollerbladers. And that's still all I see one early autumn morning around 8am. "Walk down to the wooden lean-tos," says the helpful officer at the lake police outpost.
Enter Another World
A cluster of low huts with fishing traps sitting on corrugated metal roofs. Drying nets. Flowering plants growing lustily in recycled metal containers, On this soft and clement day, the scene looks as if it's been lifted straight out of a tiny fishing village somewhere in southern Europe. The only thing missing is the strong smell of sea salt.
Two men pull up in an outboard motorboat with a couple of pails and aqua green nets full of fish. Wearing rubber boots and windbreakers, both have craggy, weatherworn faces. Friendly introductions as Gerald Caillat ties up the boat and gets off with the pails and his assistant. Michel Schopfer, slips on rubber gloves and starts untangling fish from the fine netting.
Today's catch is entirely perch with its characteristic brown stripes across the back and two spiky dorsal fins. Caillat begins scaling, putting the fish in a boatside machine that whirls them around and around and sends water and nacreous scales out onto the pier where they leave a slippery film and create little rainbows in the light.
Caillat's fillet cutter has by now arrived and is putting on her apron and rubber gloves. Announcing that she does not care for the press and prefers to remain anonymous, she sets up at a big table in the adjacent hut, with a wooden work board and sharp knife. She turns the radio on for company and places her cell phone within arm's reach. A roll of paper towel hangs just over her head, suspended by ropes.
Caillat unlodges recalcitrant scales with a hard brush before weighing the fish he has removed from the scaling machine. He then consigns the batch to the lady whose swift, deft cutting work begins. The fish are about six inches long and yield slim fillets about four inches in length and half as wide. There is a fish smell but it is sweet and quite pleasant, not at all like the heavy fishiness flora saltwater fish.
The hut pays homage to clutter. Slickers, rain hats, and aprons hang from pegs on the walls. Lanterns, pails, nets, and anchors sway from the ceiling Boots, gas canister. and other paraphernalia are strewn on the tile floor. There's a TV atop one of the fridges, a freezer, a couple of chairs. No windows: only the daylight that comes in from the open door In here, the TV, the radio, the cell phone suddenly seem not like routine accoutrements of contemporary life but like bridges to it.
I position myself on the pier between Schopfer and Caillat to ask them about the fishing life. The day's work is done by noon, they say. Nets are posed one and a half hours before sun-up--which means about 5am in summer and as late as 8am in winter. They are collected at sun-up.
"Some days we bring in five kilos," Schopfer says. "Some days between 20 and 30 kilos." They don't fish on bad days--in the heavy rain or the cold or when there's a bad 'bise' (north wind) blowing.
"Perch is the most sought-after fish. Trout comes second. Whitefish has its takers. Char is a very refined fish mostly bought by fancy restaurants. But few people want pike. It has a lot of bones, so if you don't want a mouthful you need to tweeze them out of the fillets before cooking, Too much work. We're legally required to throw the small ones back, and the big ones are difficult to sell. So we throw them back too. But pike are predators: they eat perch. They ate a problem," says Caillat.
I watch moving cars and buses streaming past the facades of high-rent real estate not far away but all I can hear from here, besides the men talking and the slice of the filleting knife, is the water lapping up against the pier, the clank-clank of masts from sailboats bobbing in the water, the quacking of ducks. and the cries of circling gulls. Slick DJ talk coming out of the radio and a faint traffic rumble behind us are the only encroachments of the 'real' world.
Caillat and Schopfer evoke other catches: carp, tench, a type of sardine, even eels. "Occasionally barbel from the Rhone makes its way up," says Caillat, referring to the fact that the waters of the Rhone river and the lake are joined. Schopfer says there are shrimp to be had, too, however "they aren't worth it--you'd need about 100 per person to make a course out of them, they're that small. But the perch like them."
Facts and Figures
The fishing season begins around mid-January. Within the season there are closed periods that vary with the fish: perch fishing, for example, is closed from May 1 to 25. Perch is usually abundant from mid-August through mid-November but depending on factors like the weather these "periods of abundance" may vary. "Where the fish gather, and their number, changes continually," says Schopfer.
Like the 20 other professional fishermen (and women) in the canton of Geneva, Caillat and Schopfer ate only allowed to fish the Geneva water of Lac Leman. which is to say until Versoix on the Right Bank and Hermance on the Left Bank.
Besides nets they use traps called 'nasses'. "But the past few years, 'nasses' haven't worked well," says Schopfer. So the traps sit on the pier and on the roofs of the huts, where sparrows peck away at remnants of dried fish dinging to them.
The son of a professional fisherman, Caillat started pro fishing in 1960. To qualify "you need to take the 'examin de pecheur'--a theory test administered by the cantonal authority--and complete an apprenticeship of one season. Then there's the license to acquire if one is available; that's free of charge, but permit renewal costs a little over CHF 1000 a year." Renting the land from the city, it was up to Caillat and his colleagues at this location to build their huts themselves. Other fishermen have similar constructs in communities along the lake. Schopfer estimates that CHF 50,000 investment would be needed to start up in the business.
Back To 'Reality'
By this time, all the fish are out of the nets and have been scaled and weighed. Enough fillets have been cut and packed to fill the large bag of a restaurant cook who has turned up to buy them. Restaurants are priority customers: the savvy private customers who buy directly from Caillat be accommodated only if the catch is large enough. Not the case today. Schopfer is folding nets and chaining the boat to the pier, "Another day," he says. "All ready for tomorrow."
Soon the hut will be closed up tight as a drum, the little area deserted. Caillat and Schopfer and the lady who doesn't like the press will leave, and blend in with passers-by on the streets outside privy to a world few of them suspect, much less just a few feet away.