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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter XXI


Deep-sea fishing in Australia—Schnapper-fishing—Acclimatization making progress—The fishing-grounds—My friend Bob—Rock-fishing—Growing scarcity of fisli—Bait—Lines—Black bream— Best time for fishing—Best localities—Groper and rock cod— Flat-head and Tailor fish—Gar fish—Sting ray-sharks—Fishing incidents—Leather jackets and green eels—Anecdotes.

Apart from the political and economical aspect of the question, the fishing in Australian waters, river, lake, or sea, commends itself to the sportsman, and it is matter of wonder that it is not more generally indulged in by the colonial youths than it is. Indeed, were I asked what kind of sport I considered most easily procurable and most decidedly enjoyable in Australia, I should not be far wrong if I said deep-sea fishing. Schnapper fishing is a never-failing resource of the holiday-maker in New South Wales along the coast, when nothing else in the way of amusement may be procurable. Iii Sydney and Newcastle there are numerous fishing-clubs, and during the season a small steamer puts out every Saturday laden with enthusiastic disciples of the gentle Walton, and sometimes enormous quantities of fish are caught.

With pleasant company, a good sea-boat, and a gentle swell, not sufficient to create too great a disturbance in the epigastric region, such a mode of spending a holiday is truly delightful. When the captain knows the ground, or, rather, the water thoroughly, and pilots his craft to some favourite bottom, and hits on a shoal or school of schnapper, grand exercise for the muscles is a certainty. The sharks are sometimes troublesome, and a heavy swell and drifting current may occasionally spoil the sport. But under favourable circumstances, such as I have often enjoyed, schnapper-fishing is worth travelling far to find.

It is commonly supposed that a fishing-rod is rather a useless encumbrance in Australia, and may be discarded altogether from the list of the sportsman's paraphernalia. Most Australians themselves share this supposition, and yet fly-fishing is no rarity in New South Wales. Thanks, too, to the wise and enlightened liberality of such men as Henry Mostyn, the sporting editor of the Town and Country Journal, better known to colonial readers as the genial "Pegasus," Walter Bradley, Messrs. Lamb, Lee, and others, acclimatization is gaining ground in public estimation, and when we consider the many magnificent waters now almost wholly ten an ties s, and innocent of glittering scale or quivering fin, but admirably adapted for pisciculture, we may hope that the welcome whirr of the musical reel as a stately six-pounder dashes up the stream with the cruel barb in his mouth, may yet be heard in many a leafy solitude where hitherto never foot of man hath trod.

Already in' Tasmania the noble salmon and the silvery trout have become domiciled. In the Moorabod, a Victorian river, fly-fishing is a reality, the finny prey having already graced the boards of the epicures of the Victoria Club, and a whisper has reached me that in the Cox's River, near Sydney, the plash of a falling trout is not altogether an unknown sound.

In this colony, New South Wales, around its 600 miles of coast, studded with numerous bays and inlets of surpassing beauty, there are excellent opportunities for the lovers of fishing. These opportunities are seized by a goodly number of enthusiasts, it is true, but perhaps they have not received that share of popular attention which the undeniable excellence of the sport merits.

With a well-selected party, plentiful supplies of bait and provisions, and the cares and troubles of business left behind with the smoke of the crowded city, one could enjoy a fishing excursion very much indeed, and the finny inhabitants of our coast waters are ever present in such numbers as to make good sport quite a certainty. One need not go far; the well-known fishing-grounds are numerous within easy distance of Sydney. From Brokeu Bay to Terrigal, from Curranulla southwards to Port Hacking and Wattamolle, there are splendid fishing-grounds, and the capture of schnapper, jew-fish, taraglin, king-fish, moor a neanigar, black and red rock cod, morwong, travallay, salmon, and hundreds of other varieties, would give exciting sport of a most enjoyable description. Then, again, in the brackish waters near Lake Macquarie, Toggara, Bud-gewi, Manburra, and others, there are most plentiful supplies of black bream, tar wine, flathead, whiting, river gar-fish, several varieties of mullet,, and vast quanties of schnapper and jew-fish of delicious flavour, and affording capital sport.

In the Monaro 'district, too, in the Shoalhaven and Snowy rivers, with their affluents, in the top waters of the Murrurribidgee, and in such streams as the Gooburragandra, and the rivers about Bombala, Cooma, Queanbeyan, and Tumut, the Scotch burn trout, would, we think, be found to thrive well. Perch might be introduced into Lake George, and the lovers of the gentle art might cast their lines in these waters; and, with all the accessories" of magnificent scenery, a fine bracing atmosphere, and a glorious climate, enjoy their favourite sport in perfection.

Indeed a splendid chapter on the Fish food supplies of New South Wales might be written had I more space at my disposal. What we want is a set of active hardy fishermen. Our supply of these is limited. A few Wick fisher-boats, manned by hardy crews, who would not shrink from putting to sea because a capful of wind was blowing, might realize a fortune in a very short time. Sydney is miserably supplied with fresh fish. The demand is intermittent. We want a small steamer, with a deep well in which to keep the fish alive and bring them fresh to market. Fish-curing establishments would be found remunerative undertakings. Millions of herrings teem along our coasts. Our capitalists are apathetic. Our artisans would dearly relish a fish diet, which is about the rarest luxury they are able to procure. Here is an opening for a few plucky pioneers, in which fortunes might be made. I append a few of the more common of our valuable fishes. Hundreds of others might be named. First and foremost comes our king of sea fishes, the schnapper; I can't find the derivation of this name.

Schnapper ( Pagrus itnicolor). There are many species.
Gar-Fish (Hemirhamphus intermedia).
Whiting (Silugo maculata). Delicious fish, very plentiful
Black Bream (Chrysopterys, Sp.).
Jew-Fish (hlacate nigra).
Salt-water Herring (Elops saimts). Very plentiful.
Soles and Flounders (Pseudoglomphns, Soiia, and Pardachirus).
Flat-Heads (Platycephalus). Four species of these, all good eating.
Bock Cod (Julis, Labrus), and many other species.
Leather Jackets (Monacantlms). Many species of those.
Sand Eel (Ophysthis, serpens, Muscena). Many species. &c. &c.

Should they perchance be of that unhappy sort who care not to. face the dangers of the deep, then let them try the equally delightful, and often as successful scene, " Out on the rocks," and they will find exercise enough for their biceps in dragging the finny inhabitants, whose hunger prompts them to swallow the bait, forth from their cool grots and coral cells.

I was happy in Newcastle in possessing an angling friend, with whom I had many a long yarn, exchanging experiences and recollections. After an unusually unsuccessful afternoon off the point of the breakwater beyond the beetling lonely cone of Nobbys, my trusty crony delivered himself of much wisdom and quaint lore, anent fish and fishing generally. "Thus spoke the ancient fisherman:"—

"Hock-fishing about Newcastle, when I first made acquaintance with it, 1859 to 1864, was very good, but at the present time it has degenerated greatly. Then we could always depend on catching several fine schnapper, besides other fish, if we tried for them; now the fisherman may try time after time and catch nought but sting-rays and'sharks. Really good sport now is the exception. The blue-groper still affords pretty fair winter sport. This growing scarcity of fish about the rocks may, I think, be accounted for by the fact that the grounds are being so constantly fished. The great diminution of bait about the rocks may also be a reason. For instance, crabs are the best bait for groper. At one time the fisher could get them anywhere and everywhere about the rocks; now he has to hunt diligently for them, and when found in some deep crack, capture them by means of a fork or straightened hook tied to a long thin stick. The same may be said of the octopus, or star-fish, as it is generally called here, and which, when roasted partially, is regarded as first-rate bait for schnapper and other sea fish.' For rock and harbour fishing your lines should belong and strong, colonial made, of hemp or machine thread, and as light as can be used with safety; they should be at least 100 or 120 yards long, both to enable you to throw out well and to play a big fish when you get one on. They should be light, so. as not to frighten, the fish, should they'be shy, and also to afford Opportunity to play the fish and give real sport, for after all the play a fish gives is the chief element of pleasure in fishing."

"That, I dare say, Bob," I rejoin, "may be one of the chief charms in all sport, the excitement and the necessity for the display of skill and dexterity; yet surely among the charms of fishing you would not forget the rare delights of the free open air and the beauties of scenery, which no one more truly appreciates than your veteran angler."

To this my friend gives his willing adhesion, but he is still sore on the subject of thick lines.

"It's all very well," he says, "when the fish are voracious, and there are 'woppers' about, the thick line then comes in handy enough; but surely the man who fishes for sport would prefer the lesser bag, in which every fish represented a certain amount of patient tact and skilful play, to the larger wallet, filled by means of a young clothes' line and main force?"

I can't help agreeing with my friend in such a proposition. Of course, you must have rather a strong line for schnapper, for the strain of 'a tugging eight-pounder—and even ten-pounders are not at all uncommon—is no joke, as many a cut and bleeding finger can testify. For bream and other smaller fish a common trout line is amply sufficient. The black bream is a magnificent fish, rare eating, and a gallant fighting fish. The best time to catch these is at night, at least I have oftenerbeen successful then. You should also have, however, a very fine line with gut and small hooks for the capture of tiny fry, as these very often come in as a welcome addition to a scanty supply of bait.

The choice of fish off the rocks is by no means limited. Both deep-sea fish and those who more affect the vicinity of the rocks as their ordinary habitat, will afford the fisherman varied and exciting sport. The best bait for the deep-sea fish includes tailor-fish, mullet, salmon, shark, and roasted octopus. Failing these, the small fish caught with the gut line come in handy.

The rock fish, such as groper, rock cod, black perch, bream, &c., prefer crab bait, and any of the various shell fish, which may be large enough to put on the hooks. A favourite bait is known as Congreboys, which is a peculiar animal-vegetable or vegetable-animal, found growing in clusters on the rocks ; these can generally be procured in great quantities. Many of the rock fish will also take fish bait, that is, the flesh of other fish. My friend says he has not known the groper so to do, although these have been caught weighing over one hundredweight. I have heard of their being caught with a bait of a peculiar bright green sea-weed, broad, thick, and flat.

The fish on the Australian coast are not, as a rule, very particular as to the time of'their biting. In rock fishing I have noticed they always bite better on the flood than at ebb tide, and the early morning and evening will generally afford more successful sport than mid-day.

Amongst the rocks may be observed flats of some extent, pretty clear of loose stones or boulders, but protected by the circling reefs from any great rush of the breakers. In from one to three feet of water in such places, with a fair current running through them as the waves come and go, capital bream and whiting may sometimes be caught with shell fish, limpet, or crab bait. In some instances I have watched the whiting dash past the bait as if surveying it, return almost instantaneously and swoop down on it at full speed as it repassed.

When out rock fishing, one should always endeavour to select a spot as free as possible from rocks and weeds. A favourable place may generally be chosen without much trouble or difficulty, as on a calm day the bottom can be clearly seen, with every shell and pebble on the sandy bars.

If it is impossible to find clear ground, and it should be necessary to fish on a foul bottom, it is a good plan to fasten hooks and sinker on to snooding, slightly weaker than your fishing-line, so that in the, event of your getting foul, you may at least save the line, although the snooding may remain at the bottom of the sea.

Gropers and rock cod, when hooked, always make for the shelter of the rocks, within the ledges, cracks, crannies, and holes innumerable of which they find a ready refuge and a safe retreat. When you hook either of these varieties, then, you should allow as little law as possible. Once they reach the friendly rocks, it is next to impossible to dislodge them. Pulling will not do it, you are almost certain to smash your hook or break your line, but they may sometimes be lured out, by allowing them plenty of slack. They do not seem to feel the hook very much. I have caught bream, on one occasion, with a large schnapper hook sticking in the roof of its mouth. Its advent there must have beem of very recent date, perhaps the day pr^ vious, but it seemed but little to incommode the hungry rover.

Continuing his reminiscences, Bob says,— "The fish in Newcastle Harbour generally bite best at from half ebb to half flood, the best baits are the same as for rock fishing,, adding thereto prawns raw and boiled. About 1859 to 1864 shoals of a small fish known here as anchovies, used to visit Newcastle periodically, pursued by all sorts of larger fish. They afforded splendid bait, and when boat fishing, we used to get them by making the larger fish, principally the flat-head, disgorge the anchovies they had swallowed. We could thus procure from three to eight anchovies from each flat-head, although their digestive apparatus seems to work with amazing rapidity. The anchovies were so numerous that thousands of them used to be driven ashore in their efforts to escape, and people fishing from the old stone wharf used to get more than sufficient bait among the stones near the water's edge.

People fishing from boats would often be splashed by large fish when after their prey. Once, when fishing off Scott's Point, on such an occasion, one of our party pulled in a large flat-head with the tail of a smaller one sticking several inches out of its mouth; when pulled out, we found all the head quite digested, whilst the shoulders were reduced to a semi-liquid greyish mass. One of us stuck the fragment on his hook, threw out, and as soon as the bait touched water hooked and pulled into the boat another flat-head, nearly as big as the first. He afterwards caught a large salmon with the same bait. From the beach below Nobbys the anchovies could be gathered in bucketfuls. The fishing in the harbour has materially altered of late years, the most numerous fish now being the jew-fish, which, in those days, was rather a scarce fish in the harbour, being met more frequently some miles up the river. I have had very good sport among the flat-head and tailor-fish, by fly-fishing for them with a bit of mother-o'-pearl fastened to the hook and shaped a little like a fish; they used to take it with a most gallant rush, and so entirely that they often carried away everything, the sharp teeth cutting the line instantly above the hook. To any one trying this I would recommend to tie their hook on to wire gimp. I feel certain that some of these fish could be caught with an artificial fly—say a white one with a bright body, and drawn a little below the surface. The gard-fish, which is the best saltwater fish for the table, may be caught with the hook, although they are usually netted. Using beef or fish bait, I have caught them in good quantities, both in the Hunter, near Hexham, and in Lake Macquarie. "When fishing for them I have noticed they were invariably hooked in the long jaw, the lower one. I have no doubt they could be caught with the fly, as I observed that they took the bait most readily when it was moving, and left it whenever it sank a few inches below the surface. The best fly to take them with should, I think, be red or white, and very small. • As in rock so in harbour fishing, the lines should be light and long, and the sport will be better should the sharks be about and you desire sport with them; a good length of signal halyards, with shark hook and chain, such as can be purchased at any tackle shop, makes a first-rate line. You should never give your shark time to gorge the bait, but strike directly he bites, otherwise he may swallow both hook and chain and cut the line above them. Opinions as to hooks differ considerably, but it is best to be supplied plentifully with various sizes, from that known as the schnapper hooks downwards. Some men prefer the 'Kirby' hook, others the 'Limerick,' the latter is I think the most favoured. I have also found the gravitation cod hook a very good one; it holds the fish well; and owing to its greater length of shank saves the line in a measure from being cut by the sharp teeth possessed by most of the sea fish.

"There are great diversities of opinion as to the table virtues of the sea fish. Schnapper, bream, .whiting, gard-fish, flounders, flat-heads, &c., each have their advocates. I have met a few bold spirits who have tried shark, and who say that the wings of the stingray are very good eating, tasting more like chicken than fish. This I am quite content to take on trust, and would prefer the chicken. Many of the sea fish, however, though poor for the table, afford capital sport. Than a sting-ray it is not possible to have a gallanter fighting fish; he battles to the last; he dashes straight out, tears off sideways, swims round the boat, breaches out of the water, and when getting tired out presents his whole wide front to the water, or dives straight to the bottom and anchors himself by the suction power of his great width of under surface. In the latter case, as an attempt to haul him off by force might endanger the line,—a good plan, if he won't yield, is to slack off : when fancying himself free he will soon be off again, but with diminished power. So bravely do they fight that I have seen a sting-ray still fighting with the hook torn through his jaw and half-way down his belly. The salmon, jew-fish, and almost all the others, afford good sport in ratio to their size and the lightness of the line. The salmon so called is not, I believe, in any way similar to the true salmon, except, perhaps, as regards his mode of procedure when hooked. He travels about in a most eccentric fashion and is very often more out of the water somersaulting than in it.

"Sharks afford good sport when they are not too big and too numerous, in either of which cases they usually have all the fun to themselves, and are not to be driven away. A grey nurse shark once kept two of us employed nearly all day supplying him with hooks and sinkers. He was about eight or nine feet long, and first got on my line; he graciously permitted me to pull him close up to the rock I was standing on, when he bit the hook off, and swam slowly past my rock and back again, not ten feet from me, with a Wont-you-come-into-my-parlour sort of an expression in his eye. After that he made matters very lively for us, sometimes taking both hooks from a line, sometimes the sinker only, which was fastened on below the hooks. "We once had him on a large line with chain tackle, and got him half on the rock; but a wave slewed him round, and the line either got across his jaw or cut on the rocks, and off he went. That episode, however, by no means satisfied him, for he soon returned and renewed his attentions, carrying off with him more large hooks, and two lots of about eighteen inches of brass wire. He regularly beat us, and when we left for home he was still to the fore. In spite of his awkward attentions we got several fine schnapper, one weighing 14J lbs. As a set-off to this, we afterwards caught a shark in Newcastle harbour, eight feet six inches long, and six feet in girth, which towed us about two miles about the harbour before we caught it.

"Sharks are all savage, and will, when being caught, rush at their captor if he gives them a chance. The hammerheads are especially vicious, and t^re seen a small one, about eighteen inches or two feet long, after being pulled into the boat and knifed, snapping savagely, and making vicious attempts to get at the occupants of the frail craft. The Wabbegong or tiger-shark is a sulky monster. An acquaintance was on one occasion preparing to land on one of the islands in Port Stephens. The water was shallow, and he could not get his boat up to the shore. As he was preparing to wade he caught sight of a Wabbegong close to the boat. Knowing the nature of the beast, he tried to drive him away with the sprit, but the 4 tiger 5 only worried it savagely. A large lump of lead ballast thrown at him was treated similarly, and he only left when very roughly treated.

"Two well-known miners here (they are nearly all fishermen) were once observed standing on a rock facing a deep hole, known as the 'Lobster Hole,' and just out of water. A. was dipping his naked foot in and out of the water, whilst every now and then a large wabbegong would rise up sluggishly, open-mouthed, after the foot, and B. would endeavour to spear him with the butt-end of a spotted-gum sapling he had been using as a fishing-rod, A. occasionally remarking, 4 Look out, Tom, we'll have the thief this time.' Unfortunately neither party got the other. The same fellow who was thus angling for the shark with his naked foot, had, on a former occasion, caught a wabbegong not far from the same spot. After carefully killing the fish, and extracting his hook, he proceeded, after the manner of many conquerors, to insult his fallen foe. He kicked it on the nose, and jeered at it; but whilst so doing the jaws unclosed just in time to admit his foot, and closed again on it, and he bears the marks, and will bear them to his death. His mates can always track him along the beaches by his distorted track.

"Perhaps though, the greatest nuisances to the rock fisher are the leather-jackets and green eels. The former is a fish of many and brilliant colours, chiefly blue and yellow, a sharky skin, a moveable spine on top of his head, and large square-cutting teeth in his jaws, with which, on ordinary occasions, he calmly and deliberately worries off the bait from the hook. He is not easily caught, and when caught is about worthless, although I've heard of epicures who say that a dish of leather-jackets' livers is, of all fish dishes, the best. The green or rock eel, is a fiend, with long jaws full of sharp teeth; his fashion is to swallow the hook very quietly, sneak under a rock, and weave himself and the line into a maze worse than that of the web of the Lady of Shalot. I once got served thus : the eel got on a line I had neglected for a few minutes; when I pulled in my friend, I had to cut his head off before I could free my line, about five feet. of which he had tangled so tightly round himself, and in and out of his jaws, that he was fairly caught in a mesh of his own weaving, for he had bitten the line through in at least two places. They are great savages, and I have seen two, after being caught and banged on' the rocks to quiet them a little, so as to render safe the operation of removing the hook, lock their jaws together, tie themselves into a knot, and fight like a couple of bull-dogs. They may be often found camping in the shallow holes in the rocks ; and I know of an instance where one took hold of the fingers of a friend who was feeling in the holes for sea eggs (echinus). My friend got his finger away, but only because the teeth were too sharp to hold, and split it clean down. I have seen one, whilst being hauled up, make a furious snap at the line, and cut a great gash in his own body; and I heard of an instance where a boy wisely put his finger into the gaping jaws of a newly decapitated head; the said jaws instantly closed, and the wretched larrikin ran howling up and down the rocks with the 'dead head' hanging fast. The fisherman quickly went to his assistance, but the only way in which he could release the finger was by splitting the jaws completely down, and removing them one at a time.

"The sharks sometimes prove a great source of annoyance to the fisherman by taking his hooked fish as he is pulling them up. He hooks a fine schnapper— he knows it is a schnapper by the determined way in which his captive tugs and jags at his line. He hauls away at him, with pleasant visions floating before his mind's eye, of a beautiful boil, with sauce to match, when away goes his line at railway speed for ten or twenty yards, cutting his fingers, and filling his heart with dire forebodings. Suddenly all strain relaxes, and he pulls into the boat, easily and sadly, the head only of the fish that had but just filled his heart with joyful expectations, and excited his salivary glands to excretion. In a case of this sort you may occasionally be permitted to land a whole fish, but generally the only plan is to be away to fresh woods and pastures new; and often that, too, is useless, as friend shark, finding any one good-natured enough to catch his fish for him, will abide with him as long as he continues to do so, and often, not content with conveying to himself your fish, will also take a fancy to your baits, no matter how small and insignificant they may be; and to pull up an eight or nine feet shark on an ordinary schnapper or bream line would be a labour beyond both the strength and wisdom of Hercules.

"I have known a good-sized shark take the bait, consisting of a small prawn on a bream line, and, having bitten off the hook, follow up the line, and take the sinker; and I have seen a shark travelling off across the stream with two lines from different boats fishing near to each other.

"There now," said Bob, "I think I have about exhausted my recollections and experiences; bui there's one piece of advice I would give .ye, if you do not already know it."

"What's that?"

"Well, it's just the opposite of what Cromwell used to tell his Roundheads. Whenever fishing where you are likely to hook big fish Iceep your poivder, i.e. your line wet, or- you may find it the nearest approach, without being the exact thing, to hanging on to a red-hot wire. The trying to hold a dry line when fizzing at the rate of sixty miles an hour through your hands, and burning, rather than cutting into them, is not exactly a thing of joy. Lastly, when returned from fishing, always remove your hooks, and spread out your lines to dry. Hardly anything rots a line sooner than does rust, and but a slight touch of it on your line may lead to the loss of half of it, and, worse still, of a fine fish lost through carelessness. A line carefully dried, and properly attended to, will last more than twice as long as one rolled up wet, and allowed to sweat itself dry. A line dried in the latter fashion goes rotten all through, and can never be depended on."


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