Fishermen — and they are mostly men — can be spotted across Istanbul’s fishing spots. While they spend quality time outdoors, they fish casually and make friends. Some even make money.

Sabri Celik, an old-timer.
Sabri Celik, an old-timer. (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

“I’ve been fishing for 45 years. We were two friends from Bayrampasa, just kids, who snuck away here with money we took from our mothers’ purses and bought a handline. That was the day it all began, and I’ve not stopped since.”

Sabri Celik is a 65-year-old retiree who comes to Galata Bridge to fish every day. While many fishermen have their buckets empty, Celik’s is teeming with the catch of the day. “Of course we catch fish, why wouldn’t we?” he laughs. “Those who can’t should come and see me, I’ll show them for free. I’ve taught at least 50 people how to fish here.”

Cevik calls the Galata Bridge his home, saying he spends more time here than he does at home, catching and selling fish. He’s proud when he mentions his children, saying he saw two get married, and sent his daughter to university, all with the money he earned from fishing.

“The kids did well and moved on, I’m still here, wallowing in misery,” he laughs again. “I love it here. I come at 4 am and go home at 7-8 pm. My wife and I fight every day. I told the kids that if I ever start walking with a cane, they should just bring me here and sit me down so I can watch the fishermen. I don’t have to fish myself. I can just watch.”

Fishing in Istanbul, as the Marmaray [intercontinental commuter rail line] excavations showed us, goes back almost to the Neolithic Era, says Ahmet Faik Ozbilge, an Istanbul-based cultural historian. “It’s only natural that seaside dwellers would fish as well,” he tells TRT World in an email. “In later years, excavations would reveal coins with bonito reliefs on them, signalling to us that one of the symbols of the city is fish.”

The Bosphorus, while separating Asia from Europe, also serves as an important passageway for trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. “The city we call Istanbul today, once named Byzantion, was one of the two ports holding the strait’s Marmara end, the other being Khalkedon,” writes Ozbilge. “Khalkedon was established before Byzantion. Persian general Megabazus called Khalkedonians blind, and their settlement ‘the land of the blind’ for they did not see the advantages of Byzantion’s location, and set up their civilisation on the Asian shore.”

The Bosphorus is a strait that fish migrating between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea have to pass through. Throughout history, Ozbilge says, Istanbul overflowed with the catch from the strait during fish runs, curing the abundant catch with salt or exporting it.

“Unfortunately, there are no longer the bluefish (lufer), bonito (palamut), large bonito (torik) runs that we used to see in our childhood. And the fisheries in Beykoz have all dried up as well.”

Fedayi Bozgul appreciates being out in the open air, and doesn’t sell his catch.
Fedayi Bozgul appreciates being out in the open air, and doesn’t sell his catch. (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

Fedayil Bozgul says he’s an amateur who regularly visits the Galata Bridge: “We catch fish if we can. We pass time if we can’t. We catch what we can, and if we can’t, we make friends. We chat, we’re retired anyway. It’s better to spend time here than to sit around at a coffee house all day.”

Bozgul says he appreciates being out in the open air, and that he doesn’t sell his catch: “If we catch anything, we throw it into the pan. But because we’re amateurs, we can’t catch much anyway,” he smiles. He says there isn’t much fish these days, saying it was better around two months ago when he could fill a bucket with fish, giving away the excess to friends and neighbours. He says he expects sardines to come out next, and that he believes he’ll catch some if it’s kismet.

Istanbul guide Aysegul Sofuoglu tells a tale about the city: “When bonito would swim from the Marmara Sea into the Bosphorus there was a big white rock where the Maiden’s Tower is now [Kiz Kulesi or Leander's Tower is in the middle of the Bosphorus near the Uskudar shore]. This would scare them and they would manoeuvre towards Sarayburnu and then the Golden Horn [rather than the Black Sea]. That’s why Greeks decided to settle near Sarayburnu and the Golden Horn.”

Sofuoglu adds: “They say the fish was so plentiful that people would pick them with their bare hands.” She has a story for the name Golden Horn, too: “The Horn is because of the shape, but the Golden part comes from the sun shining upon the scales of the fish. Fish even affected the naming of a geographical formation.”

According to Sofuoglu, fishing in Istanbul goes back a long time, and has shaped the place, its economy, the settlement and influenced the naming of locations, too. “Fish is so abundant that they invent ways to preserve it. Lakerda, bonito pickled in brine, is one example.”

Most amateur fishermen are in their sixties, but sometimes the younger generation is represented at the Galata Bridge, too, such as Abdullah Konakci.
Most amateur fishermen are in their sixties, but sometimes the younger generation is represented at the Galata Bridge, too, such as Abdullah Konakci. (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

Abdullah Konakci is 17, and he says he learned how to fish from his father. He travels from Sultangazi to the Galata Bridge on his free days from work, and he is also studying via distance learning. “There’s not many fish these days,” he says. “It’s been like that for a while, too. As you know, we don’t take care of the seas as well [as we should.]”

Selahattin Turkmen, 70, did not catch any fish and is planning to visit his grandchild soon.
Selahattin Turkmen, 70, did not catch any fish and is planning to visit his grandchild soon. (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

Selahattin Turkmen is 70, and has been coming to the Galata Bridge for 25-30 years from his home in Alibeykoy. “I come to pass the time,” he says, “and I’ve been unlucky today, no fish.” He confides that there are fishermen who come to this spot on a regular basis, who communicate with each other; saying “there’s fish today, there’s no fish tomorrow.” He laments that he doesn’t have many friends at the bridge at the moment, “so I don’t hear about these things, if I had a friend or an acquaintance, they would tell me to come and I would come. But I came a few days back and there were no fish, and today I’m here with no fish again. I’ll go play with my grandchild soon.”

Huseyin Kara, 51, says his ability to catch fish when others cannot is thanks to
Huseyin Kara, 51, says his ability to catch fish when others cannot is thanks to "different hooks, different lines.” (Melis Alemdar / TRTWorld)

Huseyin Kara, 51, has been fishing at the Galata Bridge for 20 years. “I started out as a hobbyist, then I began coming here every once in a while,” he says. Asked about the plentiful fish in his buckets, he says “catching fish is a matter of luck as well as experience.” He adds: “Let's say different hooks, different lines.”

Kara also sells his catch, horse mackerel (istavrit), for 40 TL a kilogram (approx. $2.70/kg). “When the fish is more abundant, we sell for even less. We are affordable, down there [in the shops] they sell frozen fish for 40-50 TL. We sell fresh line-caught fish for 40 TL.”

According to Ozbilge, most fishermen who fish at the Galata Bridge do it as a hobby. “In fact, some just come to chat with friends with the guise of fishing,” he says. “And some have turned it into a vocation, selling what they catch, earning a few lira here and there.”

The biggest problem is the lines getting tangled up, or sometimes getting caught in small motor boats' propellers, or hitting someone as they get ready to throw the line into the water, Ozbilge says.

Ozbilge also notes that officially, there is a fishing ban between spring and summer, and legally fish would come from the freezer. He adds that horse mackerel can be caught any season, that when he was growing up, they would never have paid for it.

He also explains that catching mendole (izmarit) is great fun, as it checks up on the line by pulling at it gently a couple of times, and swallows the bait if it is convinced. “You have to pull right then, or it will swim away,” Ozbilge says. “It swims to this side and that, and glistens just so, that your heart goes out to it. But if you showed mercy then you wouldn’t catch any fish, either,” he points out. 

Ozbilge recommends eating fish starting from September, when “fish begin to get fattier and tastier.” Bluefish (lufer) is absolutely delicious in November, and in years when bluefish is rare, bonito (palamut) is plentiful, he says. 

Ozbilge says only istavrit is caught off the Galata Bridge these days, and that he has heard kefal (grey mullet) being caught with bread, a fish he does not care for. One thing that surprised him, he says, was when he was walking towards the Eminonu direction of the bridge three years ago one day, and he saw in someone’s bucket a large mercan (sea bream). “I said to myself, I guess it’s still out there,” he notes.

Source: TRT World