Your Own Pet Cormorants

Ever since I learned about the practice of cormorant fishing from BBC's Wild China documentary series over a decade ago, I wanted to photograph the event.

Imagine my ecstasy when I was fortunate to find a couple of fishermen on Li river, near Xingping, going about their "regular" business. I followed them around for a while, and my endurance paid off in the end. With twilight approaching, I quickly set up my photography gear and drone camera. It was a memorable sunset, nature at its best, and I still wish I had stayed for another day. The experience was unique: a lone fisherman preparing treats for his assistants, the cormorants.

To find the best way to photograph the wise old fisherman and his flock of fawning cormorants, you’d do yourself a favor if you hired a local guide. Usually, English-speaking guides are hard to get, and it becomes even more problematic if you’re looking for an English-speaking guide who can double as your personal chauffeur. So imagine my ecstasy when I could arrange for the latter option without too much hassle. Not only did my guide provide for some great sightseeing tips, he even tipped the fisherman to pose for some candid shots. In the end, I ended up shooting simultaneously with my drone as well as my handheld camera. The landscape I saw rivaled the documentary that catapulted me towards this mission. So, if this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had to make sure I had all my vantage points covered.

From Yangshuo, the fishermen’s village was a solid two-hour drive downstream, so I had to leave enough time to arrive there while there was still daylight. Experience and a little sense of direction told me that the absolutely splendid Karst mountain ranges should be a spellbinding backdrop with the setting sun, so I had to be quick. As I began assembling my camera gear on the pebbled beach I noticed two fishermen, each on his boat, crisscrossing the breadth of the shallow Li river, seemingly aimlessly. One of them looked particularly interesting (from my photographic standpoint), so armed with my translator-guide, I approached to chitchat with him. Thus began my evening of discovery into China’s once-upon-a-time past.

Eventually, the old fisherman of Yangshuo invited me on his boat. Knee-deep in water, I got on to his slippery boat, and notwithstanding the continuous pecking from one of his five cormorants (the "evil" one), I considered myself lucky to capture those moments from up close. What's undeniable about this unique experience is that it's one of those few exotic things that you can actually do with your family, and since it's both accessible and enjoyable for children, this is one of those activities that is highly recommended by us.

  • A COVETED PHOTO SPOT

    Finding a fisherman with his own cormorants might not be as easy as you'd think. First off, it's difficult to know beforehand whether they'll be around when you get to the spot. It might be necessary to find a guide or ask around. Unless you're short on time, my advice would be to hire a car and drive to the spot early on. The drive was about an hour upstream from Yangshuo. 

  • THE WAITING GAME

    On the banks of Li river, there are quite a few shops that line up the street corner. These would be good to hang out in, and although language might always be an issue in China, you could keep an eye open for any beach activity while you enjoy the local food.

  • BARGAINING TIME

    This is where a Chinese word book might come in handy, or perhaps a Google translator if you've remembered to download the app for offline use. By late afternoon, you should be able to spot at least a couple of them loading up their fish food, ropes, net, and lamp on to their narrow wooden boats. Don't waste time, since in the Guilin area the clouds come rolling in by the evening, and I'm sure you would like nothing more than not to mar this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's time for some action!

  • THE PATH TO FAME

    Go ahead and let the fishermen know of your intention to film him during his nightly fishing activity. Chances are that he will ask for a small fee to have you take his pictures as he poses for you. Try not to bargain. Set up your tripod in the shallow water as you see the master cormorants scoop up the fish. Then, go ahead and shoot away! With some luck, you might even find a blogging website that would love to feature you on one of their future issues. Indeed, this could very well be your secret path to fame.

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