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Traditional techniques and tools of fishing and Polvejar in Barra Grande

Polvejar is the verb used by the women to designate the action of catching octopus. However, it is not just the act of catching it, as this to ferrar the octopus, since it is with a long iron with a rounded tip called bicheiro, that they catch the animal.

Polvejar includes everything related to catching octopus, walking around coral reefs, recognizing their holes, poking the hole, ferrar the octopus, or using another octopus at the hole door to lure it out. In this case, there is a whistle which, as they explained to me, is the sound they make among themselves, and which attracts the octopus to come out of their homes.

Marlita - Fisherwoman / Catching octopus

In order to polvejar, you also need to know the moons and tides. As Chica explains it, the new and full moons are the right moons. In these moons, the tide rises and recedes more dramatically, better exposing the coral reefs and their holes. Lia also said that on these moons, the low tide is in the morning, so it's possible to catch the octopus early. On other moons, crescent and waning, the low tide is in the afternoon, and the sun is too hot for walking on arrecifes, as they call them.

Chica - Fisherwoman / Explaining the tide

Within this cycle, octopus is caught only between 4 and 5 days per moon. Third release, between véspera e véspera, moon day (Full or New) and at the most equal tide, are the good days to polvejar, between this period and the next there are 10 days of dead tide, in which octopus is not fished

The breaking tide or dead tide, as Marlita explained, is when the waves are breaking, and it is very difficult to find the octopus and the holes, since, as she demonstrated, you can identify the home of an octopus by the sand and pieces of crabs and shells they leave at the entrance to their holes. We ourselves couldn't identify these holes, but the women had a certain accuracy in the holes they stopped to put the bicheiros in. The ability to identify a hole inhabited by an octopus is knowledge based on extensive observation and experience.

So, on the right days, the women get ready and leave early to polvejar. In general, they go on ATVs and choose from among the more than 10 coral reef fishing grounds that exist along the coast of Barra Grande.

The choice of reef involves the experiences of the last fishing trip, and the comments shared between them on where there was or was not octopus on the last tide.

It is common for them to leave small octopuses in their holes to be hooked on the next tide, so when the previous tide happens that they passed by a reef where they left several small octopuses, on the next tide, they go there to see if they have already grown. In the following days, they share with each other whether the fishing was good on that reef, if so-and-so caught a lot of octopus on another, and so they decide where to go each day.

During the 4 or 5 days of fishing,  they go every day. They leave between 6am and 8am, depending on the time when the tide will be low. They consult the internet to find out the time of the tide and then they go around 1 hour before the tide is lowest and stay there between three and four hours polvejando.

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The octopus’s hole

During these hours, they walk incessantly through the corals, poke at the holes they believe to have octopuses, and as they hook them, they began to accumulate them on a wire.

While they polvejar,  they pointed out many octopus holes, which were either small octopus holes and they would mark the place to return there in one or two tides; or it was a hole where there was an octopus “living”, but which wasn't there at the time and which the next day they would come back to look for it. In that case, they usually pay especially close attention to their surroundings and several times happened to find the octopus nearby, outside the hole, where it was even easier to hook.

Walking in the corals

As Miracy noted, when that happens it's because they're out for a swim or for food. When they can choose, they stick the octopus in one of its rays (tentacles), because when the octopus is ripped, that is, when it is speared in its body, it is stained with ink. However, when the octopus is in the hole, you can't choose where to hook it. Marlita once told said that when you see the hole of the octopus, you have to stick the bicheiro in at once and hook it. If you don't manage to hook it the first time, it hides and sticks to the stones inside the hole and then it is very difficult to capture it.

If that happens, they file the place away in their memory and the next day or at the next tide they return to try to take it by surprise.

When the octopus is hooked, they use first a bicheiro to ferrar it and then another to make a hook and pull it out of the hole. When taken out of the hole, the octopus releases a black ink. In a vain attempt to escape, it struggles and curls up in the hands of the fisherwoman, who puts it on her wire, washes her hands and continues walking in search of another octopus.

The octopus in the basin

A day of good fishing yields around 8 octopus, normal fishing is around 4 to 5, or approximately 1 kg. Each kilo is cleaned and treated and sold to hotels and restaurants in the region for around $60R. As Jacira says:

“We never fail to sell octopus!”

The demand for octopus is much greater than the supply. Local hotels and restaurants must buy the rest bought from other cities such as Camamu, Ilhéus, and Boipeba.

Liacy says that during low tides, you catch better octopus. The deepest areas, which only become accessible when the water is very low, is where the biggest octopus are. However, to catch them you have to dive, and that's where they lose out against divers, always male residents and tourists, who manage to capture the large ones before they reach the coral reefs.

At the same time, there is a shared sense among the women that it is wrong to catch very small octopus. Their explanations vary. Some say that it is not worth it as the small ones are not good to sell or to eat. Others say that it is more about having a respectful relationship with the animal, that it is important to let it live, grow, and reproduce first. The women all express a sense of responsibility around caring for and preserving the environment they live in.

A subtle ritual occurs at the beginning of the fishing trip, whether for octopus or fish caught in the open sea. Chica and Lia say that when they catch the first fish they say in a low voice:

"Praise our Lord Jesus Christ! Forever be praised and our mother Mary most holy!”

Chica - Fisherwoman / Blessing yourself to fish

Chica says that this isn't something she learned from her parents, but from another fisherman, Apriginho, who sometimes accompanied them on fishing trips on the open ocean. As Leah recounts it: “Every time we went fishing, when we caught the first fish, we praised it right away!” Chica adds:  “We also have to praise the Lord, even if we don't catch anything, we have to thank Him. Thank you, Lord, for the fishing!”

Even as it becomes increasingly challenging to catch octopus on account of the competition from the divers, the women continue to maintain their traditional methods of fishing and are not interested in adopting more sophisticated technology or diving themselves. In some ways, it seems that the amount caught does not matter as much as the activity as a whole. To polvejar means being with family, or enjoying solitude in the case of Jacira. It means walking through the coral reefs, looking for octopus, being on an adventure to discover, to observe, and maybe to trap an elusive one. It means to show off the catch and recount the conquest. All of this appears to be worth far more than the kilos counted.

Lia - Fisherwoman/ Cleaning the Octopus

Despite usually going together, the polveiras have a certain behavior in coral reefs.  Small groups of 2 or three go to each group of corals, with the oldest ones usually staying in the closest to the starting place and the youngest walking further.

Thus, they maintain a certain fishing space between them so that each one can catch their own, but never so far that they can’t still help one another if needed.

When the tide begins to recede about 3 hours later, they begin to head towards the parking place. Little by little they regroup, making affectionate joking comments about the fishing of one or the other, and indignant comments about unpleasant situations with other fishermen (generally men), divers or tourists. These complaints are frequent, and show the daily struggle of these women to guarantee their space on the reef.

When they arrive at the ATVs, they pause to drink water, which they carry in their backpack, but which they rarely drink while fishing. They store their octopus in a plastic bag, and prepare to leave, saying goodbye, already making plans for meeting on the bridge in the afternoon.

Fishing on the Bridge

Fishing on the bridge

Unlike octopus fishing, fishing on the bridge does not depend on moons and tides. However, as Lia explained to me, on a full moon day, when the tide is going out, the force of the water is strong. The pull does not allow the chumbada to sink as well, making catching anything more difficult.

On a typical day, the women arrive together in a group around 4 pm, carrying their rods and samburás. The area around the bridge has many restaurants and bars, and for those who are sitting there (usually tourists), the scene seems cinematic. With the sun beginning to sink in the sky, the women are illuminated in the golden light, walking together halfway across the bridge and sitting on the sides putting their hooks in the water.

They arrive talking and laughing, saying hello to passersby and making themselves as comfortable as if they were at home. They sit next to each other so they can continue to talk. Their hooks are  already set, attached to the rod by the line. They quickly attach bait, usually a small piece of shrimp, and lower the line into the water, which is about 1 meter deep. They wait.


Nowadays the women purchase their rods at a store in town, but in the past they produced their own rods, made from the cajueiro do mato tree. Lia recalls:

“Dad always made the rods with cajueiro do mato.  Now that it's easier because they sell it, right?! But before we used to do everything like this.”

In addition to the rod, they carry hooks, which have different sizes depending on the species they wish to fish. In general, a size 4 hook is used for the bridge, which, as Chica explained to me, is used to catch the most common species there, such as the cioba, as well as the chumbada. Larger chumbadas are used for fishing on reefs and in the open sea, where larger fish can be caught at greater depth.

The women usually take extra hooks, weights, and line with them as their hooks often get caught in tires and other rubbish that accumulates in the sea under the bridge.

They carry their bait—shrimp, other fish scraps, or even chicken in a pinch—in a bag inside the samburá, a traditional woven basket where they will also put the fish they catch that day.

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Pescando na ponte

Chica fishing with the samburá

As they fish, they talk among themselves and with the fish, but also with boats that approach, with curious tourists who pass by and are interested, with locals who greet them and often make a joke or another:

"Are you getting anything out there?"

“I want to see that samburá full, you half-baked fisherwomen!”

Some jokes, mainly made by younger male residents, tend to be somewhat prejudiced or disrespectful. But the women don’t seem to be overly concerned. Usually, they respond firmly, continuing on with fishing, secure in the knowledge that they know what they are doing.

The fish in the basin

The pier is a place of competing interests. With the tourists arriving and leaving, fishermen with their nets, and the women protecting the space where they have long fished and laughed together.

Sometimes tourists and more recently arrived residents, both of whom the women refer to as "gringos," also come to fish on the bridge. They use artificial bait, which, as the women say, attract more fish than their natural bait. The women reject the idea of using these more modern conveniences themselves, and say they prefer to fish in the traditional way as they were taught.

Fisherwoman / Teaching how to clean fish

Some of the women we talked to said that while they love to catch octopus, they think fishing on the pier is boring. Maria Inês, for example, told us that with octopus, there is a challenge. For her, the feeling is like a puzzle that she must put together in the middle of the coral.

Bridge fishing demands patience, which for some is enjoyable but for others is characterized as  boring and tedious.

Those who fish on the bridge say it is their therapy. Sitting for a few hours everyday, watching the sun set. Sometimes they are silent but more often than not they are sharing family issues, helping one another with advice, or letting problems go into laughter and poking fun.

Fishing on the bridge

Between the sea and the land, the bridge seems to represent a safe place. A haven. It is in this “non-place”, this between place, this bridge between fishing and other functions of care asked of women, they find comfort and reassurance casting their lines together.

Cleaning and Selling

Fishing doesn't stop with filling one’s basket with fish. Lia and Chica showed us how they clean and store Octopus. Lia turned the head upside down. She used her knife to remove the eyes and the tooth. She explained that the octopus only has one tooth, but it can inflict a painful bite.

Lia’s practice is to bury the parts of the octopus that are not headed for a dish. Chica does the same, and both women explained that this prevents bugs and flies in the garbage, and also fertilizes the land.

Cleaning the octopus is quick. In about 10 minutes Lia has cleaned five octopuses, three of hers and two of Chica's. She shows us how to bag and weigh them. On average, four octopuses weigh about one kg.

Chica then began to clean the fish. She first put them all in a basin, along with her equipment: special scissors to remove the fins, a fish descaler and a knife. She shows us the different types of fish:

“Here there is carapeba, the small guaricema that is chumberga, saramunete…”

And after cutting off all the fins, she began to descale her catch. Lia stood next to her watching and mentioned that nowadays they sell descalers, but that she used to make them out of wood and nails. Her comment recalls the fishing rod, which while she buys a store bought one now from her daughter's shop, her father taught her how to make her own from the cajueiro do mato tree.

Once the scales were removed, Chica used the knife to remove the barbs of the fish. Finally, she made a cut below the gills and removed the giblets, all of which was done interspersed with quick dunks in the water. After all the fish were cleaned, Chica separated the water with giblets and said she would bury them, and washed the fish again under running water from the sink before bagging and weighing them. As she didn't have a full kilo, she explained that on the next fishing trip she would complete that kilo. Then she would have a kilo of mixed fish, which would be fine for anyone in the nativo community who might want to buy it. Not for restaurants, she reminded us. Restaurants only buy large fish of the same species to make fried fish and moquecas.

Lia e Miracy
Loloca Bené e Marisa
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