Ever since mankind emerged from the depths of the ocean we continue to pay homage to our aquatic ancestors by going down to the sea and catching our great uncle (a billion times removed) and eating him.
Millions of people across the world eke out a living catching fish, while millions of others merely angle for pleasure. I heartily agree with the bumper sticker: ‘Old fishermen never die, they just smell that way’.
We are supposed to be the greatest intelligence on the planet, yet recreational anglers still fish with implements first developed sometime in the Bronze Age.
Fishing seems eminently suited to masochists and their ilk. Surely ‘frustration’ must be the one word that adequately describes angling. Locate a suitable fishing spot, arm the hooks with bait, cast out and- if you don’t get snagged in the first 30 seconds- lose the aforementioned bait to some underwater creature which has probably been living in the same place for centuries. This lurking denizen of the deep has never had to go in search of food. Instead, the great food supermarket comes to it- like a free home delivery service- with monotonous regularity, rain, hail or shine.
In my experience, fish seem to possess the advantage, choosing the high ground (or in this case the deep water) and dictating the time of battle. The human is a mere p(r)awn in the ebb and flow of the fish world.
Fish ‘play’ with anglers, rather than the reverse. Otherwise, why would so many of this hapless breed possess countless anecdotes about ‘the one that got away.’
The fish that are snared are probably the aged and infirm, clinically suicidal, or youngsters not yet properly schooled in the art of stealing bait and as such, their youthful greed leads them to the frying pan. They are mere bagatelles, sacrifices to keep the intrepid angler coming back for more.
When it comes to casting the rod and reel I am a failure, and an abject one at that. Yet it was not always so.
The Great Shelley Beach Massacre
As a young boy I shared- with my younger sister- in an incredibly successful fishing foray.
I grew up in the warm environs of Sydney, Australia; specifically in a seaside suburb called Manly.
One afternoon my sister and I made our way to a place called Shelley Beach armed only with cheap and primitive fishing lines: a length of green nylon wire with a tiny sinker- and an even tinier hook- wrapped tenuously around a cork that had probably started life in a bottle of cheap Chardonnay. The fishing lines cost all of about 10 cents in those days.
A favourite spot with local anglers was the end of a narrow, termite-ridden, ancient jetty located halfway around the rocks on the headland that offers protection to Shelley Beach from the raging seas.
With our rudimentary fishing lines, a small knife and container of bait, we perched ourselves at the end of the jetty and cast into the briny.
Success was almost instantaneous. Our little lines seemed to attract fish like magnets and we began hauling them in. Unfortunately, being well-educated, well-clothed and well-fed children of a modern industrialised society, rather than loin-clothed Amazonian hunter-gatherers, we didn’t know when to stop.
When we finally called a halt to the carnage, we counted no less than 24 leatherjackets, a fish with a kind of spike on the point of its head; a sort of punk rocker of the sea.
Since our parents were also card-carrying members of this modern society we knew we couldn’t take our massive haul home. There was no way our refined English-born and bred mother was going to scale, gut and freeze 24 stone-eyed fish.
If either of us possessed the entrepreneurial skills of a 1980s corporate raider we might well have managed to dispose of them for a reasonable remuneration.
Sadly, we were neither environmentally conscious, nor entrepreneurs. We took one of our victims home to show off and merely hurled the remaining 23 slimy cadavers back into the salty water.
Fishing took no further part in my life for some 13 years. The fact I was blissfully deprived of the joy of fishing did not seem to have any adverse effect upon my social standing within the community. It remained precisely where it had always been: rock bottom.
Then, towards the end of 1985 my then girlfriend and I trekked north to Cairns, perched (there’s that word again) on the Great Barrier Reef. We had come to visit her father and brothers, all keen fishermen.
In the interests of harmony- and personal safety- I disguised my lack of fishing expertise and trotted out the ‘Great Shelley Beach Leatherjacket Massacre of 1972’ story. They seemed impressed.
Her brother owned a boat and one glorious sunny day we joined him, his wife and a friend and headed out to view the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.
“Anyone can catch fish out here,” I was confidently informed. Implicit in the remark was that if you couldn’t catch a fish on one of the great natural wonders of the world then you were clearly some kind of retard.
Looking into the clear blue waters I discerned a veritable multitude of marine life, and they seemed to be just hanging around waiting to be caught. This assumption proved to be true, but not caught by me.
My girlfriend and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the deck and cast our lines into the calm waters. The others did likewise.
In what seemed like the blinking of an eye, my girlfriend had hauled in four or five reef fish of varying shapes, sizes and hues. The others did much the same while I remained not just fish-less, but bait-less.
Taking pity on my pathetic performance, my girlfriend and I swapped positions in an effort to change my luck. We cast out yet again. I lost my bait. She caught another fish.
Moby Fish, the battling barramundi
The day after this personal debacle, I witnessed a truly great feat in the annals of fishing. Whenever I recount this story to persons of the angling persuasion I assure you the world becomes my oyster.
My girlfriend’s father, youngest brother and I travelled to the Barron River and took to it in a ‘tinny’. That’s Aussie fisherman talk for an aluminium runabout. We travelled downstream to the mouth of the river, but fished without success. Going further upstream we cast our lines into the murky depths, not far from where we had originally entered the water. Still nothing. My girlfriend’s father and brother were starting to give me the sort of ‘look’ I’d only seen in movies like Deliverance.
Then, from not more than 50 metres away, came a commotion that fortunately diverted their attention. A man of Asian appearance, rowing a boat the size of a cardboard box, was in the throes of completing a remarkable catch. He was being aided in this endeavour by two part-Aboriginals, ensconced in a rubber dinghy that bore a remarkable resemblance to an inflated condom.
We putt-putted over to the scene of battle. A huge Barramundi, probably known to its family and friends as Moby Fish, had been snared by this Asian person using a tiny cork nylon fishing line, similar to that which my sister and I used to wreak havoc at Shelley Beach.
As there was no room for the rapidly ailing monster in either the cardboard box or the condom, my girlfriend’s father offered the use of our tinny.
The great hunter spoke only broken English and seemed delighted to have Moby Fish placed aboard. We then towed the conquering hero in triumph back to shore.
It transpired his wife had been fishing with the cork line from the shore, while he had taken the cardboard box into centre stream for more serious angling.
Moby Fish had come cruising imperiously past and the hook, no bigger than a man’s fingernail became embedded in its gills.
It swam on and the line played out until there was none left, whereupon Mrs Asian fisherperson (they turned out to be on holiday from Japan) dropped the line into the water rather than attempt to reel in this heavyweight of the Barramundi world.
Her husband, alerted by his wife, rowed after the bobbing cork, retrieved it and attempted to bring in the fish. He then followed the same routine as his wife. When the line played out, he dropped it, rowed after it and retrieved it yet again.
He did this for nearly two hours while Moby Fish slowly drowned as the hook forced open his gills. It was a real life The Old Man and the Sea contest.
When we reached the shore, I was entrusted with the job of hauling the corpse out of the boat. The giant weighed almost 32-kilograms (69 pounds in the old money).
Someone recalled that one of the major angling places in Cairns was running a contest for the biggest Barramundi caught with the smallest rod. They knew this feat was an absolute certainty to win and promptly informed the Japanese gentleman of his good fortune.
The first prize was a brand new aluminium dinghy, complete with outboard motor. Both he and his good wife would be able to fit into the new boat and together they could conquer the seven seas. Well, they could at least start with the Barron River and work up.
So, after our hero took his cardboard box out of the water and put it in the back of his station wagon we travelled to the aforementioned shop. Moby Fish was weighed, measured and carved up into manageable and edible pieces while we informed a sceptical and bemused audience a story that even Herman Melville wouldn’t have dared write.
Nevertheless, our Japanese friends won first prize in the competition, had their picture in the local paper and are probably legends up in far North Queensland.
Me. I still haven’t managed to catch even a yellowtail since 1972.