A fishing net can make a grown man weep. Just ask master net weaver Charlie Pereira. He will tell of the devoted fisherman whose wife presented him with one of Pereira’s hand-sewn throw nets as a surprise gift.
“He cried,” Pereira says at the end of the story, pausing to allow reaction time. “Cried!”
It’s Sunday afternoon, and Pereira is at his usual post, a folding chair at the Anahola Farmer’s Market on Kaua‘i, with a bamboo needle in hand and a fistful of fishing line. As usual, he is engaged in equal parts net knitting and talking story. When there’s a lull in conversation, he rattles off anecdotes for his own merriment as much as anyone else’s. Unreeling a string of flashbacks from his 87 years of life, Pereira exudes the ease of a man who has spent the bulk of his days doing the thing that truly makes him thrive.
One of Hawai‘i’s last practitioners of traditional throw net making, Pereira has been weaving nets by hand for three quarters of a century. He was taught by his father, an avid fisherman who was 4 when he moved to Kaua‘i from Portugal in the care of his own father, who had sought employment in the booming sugar plantation industry. Growing up on Kaua‘i’s southern shore, Pereira’s dad learned the art of making throw nets from Hawaiian fishermen. While pre-contact Hawaiians used nets for fishing, throw nets were an import of Asia, brought to Hawai‘i in the late 1800s by Japanese immigrants who were recruited as plantation workers. Locals quickly popularized the practice. When Pereira was 7, his father began teaching him to knit the fishing device by which their family was able to eat.
Pereira still remembers the day he completed his first net. He was 12, and, elated with his creation, he rushed off to test it in the shallows at Nawiliwili. Pereira collected just one fish from the sea that day, but he was happier about it than any of his catches since. It was his first unsupervised nab in his first self-made net.
Before large companies like Matson and Costco globalized the way Hawai‘i eats, fishing was as essential to survival as breathing. More than spears, hooks, or traps, the throw net was the plantation era fisherman’s most promising tool to collect many small- and medium-sized fish in a single grab. But today, the way Hawai‘i feeds itself has been transformed, and the barge—not the net—is now the primary source of sustenance. And in a time when a net can be procured in minutes from any store, there is little incentive to knit one’s own. As such, an ancient skill is disappearing.
From a task that many consider avoidably tedious, Pereira derives a kind of moving meditation that puts him at ease. Measuring 11 feet in diameter, each of Pereira’s throw nets requires four weeks of daily labor. He sells them for $300 apiece, a small price to pay for artistry of this kind. If you want one of Pereira’s nets, you must get your name on his waiting list, of which there are two. And it’s clear which one you want to be on: “If the person’s nice to me, he gets one real fast,” Pereira explains. “Otherwise, he can keep waiting. One guy has been waiting 10 years!”
Pereira guesses his hands have stitched about 80 throw nets, some for hobby and most for income. He’s proud to say that at least one of them is in use on each of the main Hawaiian Islands.
“Everybody wants one of Uncle Charlie’s nets,” Pereira says. As if to signal a warning of his disinterest in modesty, he is fond of wearing a matching T-shirt and trucker hat emblazoned with this slogan: “If things improve with age, I’m getting pretty near perfect.”
Despite this saying, age has made it harder for Pereira to fish in recent years. He is less sturdy on his feet, and he worries a wave might knock him into an impetuous sea. These days, he has all but given up the practice. But his hands, wrinkled like crepe paper and big like shovels, are still amazingly nimble. They pain him every now and again, and when they do, he breaks from the net, taking a few minutes to exercise his storytelling muscle instead. Then he picks up the needle and continues weaving.