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On A Tidal River by Louis Becke


The English visitor to the Eastern Colonies of Australia who is in search of sport with either rod or hand line can always obtain excellent fishing in the summer months even in such traffic-disturbed harbours as Sydney, Newcastle, and other ports; but on the tidal rivers of the eastern and southern seaboard he can, every day, catch more fish than he can carry during seven months of the year. In the true winter months deep sea fishing is not much favoured, except during the prevalence of westerly winds, when, for days at a time, the Pacific is as smooth as a lake; but in the rivers, from Mallacoota Inlet, which is a few miles over the Victorian boundary, to the Tweed River on the north of New South Wales, the stranger may fairly revel not only in the delights of splendid fishing but in the charms of beautiful scenery. He needs no guide, will be put to but little expense, for the country hotel accommodation is good and cheap; and, should he visit some of the northern rivers where the towns, or rather small settlements, are few and far between, he will find the settlers the embodiment of British hospitality.

Some three years ago the writer formed one of the crew of a little steamer of fifty tons named the Jenny Lind , which was sent out along the coast in the endeavour to revive the coast whaling industry. Through stress of weather we had frequently to make a dash for shelter, towing our sole whaleboat, to one of the many tidal rivers on the coast between Sydney and Gabo Island. Here we would remain until the weather broke, and our crew would literally cover the deck with an extraordinary variety of fish in the course of a few hours. Then, at low tide, we could always fill a couple of cornsacks with excellent oysters, and get bucketfuls of large prawns by means of a scoop net improvised from a piece of mosquito netting; game, too, was very plentiful on the lagoons. The settlers were generally glad to see us, and gave us so freely of milk, butter, pumpkins, &c., that, despite the rough handling we always got at sea from the weather, we grew quite fat. But as the greater part of my fishing experience was gained on the northern rivers of the colony of N.S. Wales it is of them I shall write.

Eighteen hours' run by steamer from Sydney is the Hastings River, on the southern bank of which, a mile from the bar, is the old-time town of Port Macquarie, a quaint, sleepy little place of six hundred inhabitants, who spend their days in fishing and sleeping and waiting for better times. There are two or three fairly good hotels, very pretty scenery along the coast and up the river, and a stranger can pass a month without suffering from ennui— that is, of course, if he be fond of fishing and shooting; if he is not he should avoid going there, for it is the dullest coast town in New South Wales. The southern shore, from the steamer wharf to opposite the bar, is lined with a hard beach, on which at high tide, or slack water at low tide, one may sit down in comfort and have great sport with bream, whiting, and flathead. As soon as the tide turns, however, and is well on the ebb or flow, further fishing is impossible, for the river rushes out to sea with great velocity, and the incoming tide is almost as swift. On the other side of the harbour is a long, sandy point, called the North Shore, about a mile in length. This, at the north end, is met by a somewhat dense scrub, which lines the right bank of the river for a couple of miles, and affords a splendid shade to any one fishing on the river bank. The outer or ocean beach is but a few minutes' walk from the river, and a magnificent beach it is, trending in one great unbroken curve to Point Plomer, seven miles from the township.

Before ascending the river on a fishing trip one has to provide one's self with a plentiful supply of cockles, or "pippies," as they are called locally. These can only be obtained on the northern ocean beach, and not the least enjoyable part of a day's sport consists in getting them. They are triangular in shape, with smooth shells of every imaginable colour, though a rich purple is commonest. As the back wash leaves the sands bare these bivalves may be seen in thick but irregular patches protruding from the sand. Some times, if the tide is not low enough, one may get rolled over by the surf if he happen to have his back turned seaward. Generally I was accompanied by two boys, known as "Condon's Twins." They were my landlord's sons, and certainly two of the smartest young sportsmen—although only twelve years old—ever met with. Both were very small for their age, and I was always in doubt as to which was which. They were always delighted to come with me, and did not mind being soused by a roller now and then when filling my "pippy" bag. Pippies are the best bait one can have for whiting (except prawns) in Australia, for, unlike the English whiting, it will not touch fish bait of any sort, although, when very hungry, it will sometimes take to octopus flesh. Bream (whether black or silvery), flathead, trevally, jew-fish, and, indeed, all other fish obtained in Australia, are not so dainty, for, although they like "pippies" and prawns best, they will take raw meat, fish, or octopus bait with readiness. Certain species of sea and river mullet are like them in this respect, and good sport may be had from them with a rod in the hot months, as Dick and Fred, the twins aforesaid, well knew, for often would their irate father wrathfully ask them why they wasted their time catching "them worthless mullet."

But let me give an idea of one of many days' fishing on the Hastings, spent with the "Twins." Having filled a sugar bag with "pippies" on the ocean beach, we put on our boots and make our way through the belt of scrub to where our boat is lying, tied to the protruding roots of a tree. Each of us is armed with a green stick, and we pick our way pretty carefully, for black snakes are plentiful, and to tread on one may mean death. The density of the foliage overhead is such that but little sunlight can pierce through it, and the ground is soft to our feet with the thick carpet of fallen leaves beneath. No sound but the murmuring of the sea and the hoarse notes of countless gulls breaks the silence, for this side of the river is uninhabited, and its solitude disturbed only by some settler who has ridden down the coast to look for straying cattle, or by a fishing party from the town. Our boat, which we had hauled up and then tied to the tree, is now afloat, for the tide has risen, and the long stretches of yellow sandbanks which line the channel on the farther side are covered now with a foot of water. As we drift up the river, eating our lunch, and letting the boat take care of herself, a huge, misshapen thing comes round a low point, emitting horrid groanings and wheezings. It is a steam stern-wheel punt, loaded with mighty logs of black-butt and tallow wood, from fifty feet to seventy feet in length, cut far up the Hastings and the Maria and Wilson Rivers, and destined for the sawmill at Port Macquarie.

In another hour we are at our landing-place, a selector's abandoned homestead, built of rough slabs, and standing about fifty yards back from the river and the narrow line of brown, winding beach. The roof had long since fallen in, and the fences and outbuildings lay low, covered with vines and creepers. The intense solitude of the place, the motionless forest of lofty grey-boled swamp gums that encompassed it on all sides but one, and the wide stretch of river before it were calculated to inspire melancholy in any one but an ardent fisherman. Scarcely have we hauled our boat up on the sand, and deposited our provisions and water in the roofless house, when we hear a commotion in the river—a swarm of fish called "tailer" are making havoc among a "school" of small mullet, many of which fling themselves out upon the sand. Presently all is quiet again, and we get our lines ready.

For whiting and silvery bream rather fine lines are used, but we each have a heavy line for flathead, for these fish are caught in the tidal rivers on a sandy bottom up to three feet and four feet in length. They are in colour, both on back and belly, much like a sole, of great width across the shoulders, and then taper away to a very fine tail. The head is perfectly flat, very thin, and armed on each side with very sharp bones pointing tailward; a wound from one of these causes intense inflammation. The fins are small—so small as to appear almost rudimentary—yet the fish swims, or rather darts, along the bottom with amazing rapidity. They love to lie along the banks a few feet from the shore, where, concealed in the sand, they can dart out upon and seize their prey in their enormous "gripsack" mouths. The approach of a boat or a person walking along the sand will cause them to at once speed like lightning into deep water, leaving behind them a wake of sand and mud which is washed off their backs in their flight. Still, although not a pleasing fish to look at, the flathead is of a delicious and delicate flavour. There are some variations in their shades of colour, from a pale, delicate grey to a very dark brown, according to their habitat, and, although most frequent in very shallow water, they are often caught in great quantities off the coast in from ten to fifteen fathoms of water. Gut or wire snoodings are indispensable when fishing for flathead, else the fish invariably severs the line with his fine needle-pointed teeth, which are set very closely together. Nothing comes amiss to them as food, but they have a great love for small mullet or whiting, or a piece of octopus tentacle.

Baiting our heavy lines with mullet—two hooks with brass-wire snoods to each line—we throw out about thirty yards, then, leaving two or three fathoms loose upon the shore, we each thrust a stick firmly into the sand, and take a turn of the line round it. As the largest flathead invariably dart upon the bait, and then make a bolt with it, this plan is a good one to follow, unless, of course, they are biting freely; in that case the smaller lines for bream and whiting, &c., are hauled in, for there is more real sport in landing an 8-lb. flathead than there is in catching smaller fish, for he is very game, and fights fiercely for his life.

Having disposed our big lines, we bait the smaller ones with "pippies," and not two minutes at the outside elapse after the sinkers have touched bottom when we know we are to have a good time, for each of us has hooked a fish, and three whiting are kicking on the sand before five minutes have expired. Then for another hour we throw out and haul in again as quickly as possible, landing whiting from 6 oz. to nearly 2 lbs. in weight. One of the "Twins" has three hooks on his line, and occasionally lands three fish together, and now and again we get small bream and an occasional "tailer" of 2 lbs. or 3 lbs. As the sun mounts higher the breeze dies away, the heat becomes very great, and we have frequent recourse to our water jar—in one case mixing it with whisky. Then the whiting cease to bite as suddenly as they have begun, and move off into deeper water. Just as we are debating as to whether we shall take the boat out into mid-stream, Twin Dick gives a yell as his stick is suddenly whipped out of the sand, and the loose line lying beside it rushes away into the water. But Dick is an old hand, and lets his fish have his first bolt, and then turns him. "By Jingo! sir, he's a big fellow," he cries, as he hauls in, the line now as taut as a telegraph wire, and then the other twin comes to his aid, and in a few minutes the outline of the fish is seen, coming in straight ahead as quick as they can pull him. When he is within ten feet of the beach the boys run up the bank and land him safely, as he turns his body into a circle in his attempts to shake out the hook. Being called upon to estimate his weight, I give it as 11 lbs., much to the twins' sorrow—they think it 15 lbs.

Half an hour passes, and we catch but half a dozen silvery bream and some small baby whiting, for now the sun is beating down upon our heads, and our naked feet begin to burn and sting, so we adjourn to the old house and rest awhile, leaving our big lines securely tied. But, though the breeze for which we wait comes along by two o'clock, the fish do not, and so, after disinterring our takes from the wet sand wherein we had buried them as caught to prevent them being spoilt by the sun, we get aboard again and pull across to the opposite bank of the river. Here, in much deeper water, about fifteen feet right under the clayey bank, we can see hundreds of fine bream, and now and then some small jew-fish. Taking off our sinkers, we have as good and more exciting sport among the bream than we had with the whiting, catching between four and five dozen by six o'clock. Then, after boiling the billy and eating some fearfully tough corned meat, we get into the boat again, hoist our sail, and land at the little township just after dark.

Such was one of many similar day's sport on the Hastings, which, with the Bellinger, the Nambucca, the Macleay, and the Clarence, affords good fishing practically all the year round. Then, besides these tidal rivers, there are at frequent intervals along the coast tidal lagoons and "blind" creeks where fish congregate in really incredible quantities. Such places as Lake Illawarra and Lake Macquarie are fishing resorts well known to the tourist; but along the northern coast, where the population is scantier, and access by rail or steamer more difficult, there is an absolutely new field open to the sportsman—in fact, these places are seldom visited for either fishing or shooting by people from Sydney. During November and December the bars of these rivers are literally black with incredible numbers of coarse sea-salmon—a fish much like the English sea-bass—which, making their way over the bars, swim up the rivers and remain there for about a week. Although these fish, which weigh from 6 lbs. to 10 lbs., do not take a bait and are rather too coarse to eat, their roes are very good, especially when smoked. They are captured with the greatest of ease, either by spearing or by the hand; for sometimes they are in such dense masses that they are unable to manoeuvre in small bays; and the urchins of coastal towns hail their yearly advent with delight. They usually make their first appearance about the second week in November, and are always followed by a great number of very large sharks and saw-fish, which commit dreadful havoc in their serried and helpless ranks. Following the sea-salmon, the rivers are next visited in January by shoals of very large sea-mullet—blue-black backs, silvery bellies and sides, and yellow fins and tails. These, too, will not take a bait, but are caught in nets, and, if a steamer happens to be on the eve of leaving for Sydney, many hundreds of baskets are sent away; but they barely pay the cost of freight and commission, I believe. There are several varieties of sea-mullet, one or two of which will take the hook freely, and I have often caught them off the rocky coast of New South Wales with a rod when the sea has been smooth. The arrival of the big sea-mullet denotes that the season for jew-fish is at its height; and if the stranger to Australian waters wants exciting sport let him try jew-fishing at night. In deep water off the coast these great fish are occasionally caught during daylight, but a dull, cloudy night is best, when they may be caught from the beach or river bank in shallow water. Very stout lines and heavy hooks are used, for a 90-lb. or l00-lb. jew-fish is very common. Baiting with a whole mullet or whiting, or one of the tentacles of an octopus, the most amateurish fisherman cannot fail to hook two or three jew-fish in a night. (Even in Sydney harbour I have seen some very large ones caught by people fishing from ferry wharves.) They are very powerful, and also very game, and when they rise to the surface make a terrific splashing. At one place on the Hastings River, called Blackman's Point, a party of four of us took thirteen fish, the heaviest of which was 42 lbs. and the lightest 9 lbs. Next morning, however, the Blackman's Point ferryman, who always set a line from his punt when he turned in, showed us one of over 70 lbs. When they grow to such a size as this they are not eaten locally, as the flesh is very often full of thin, thread-like worms. The young fish, however, are very palatable.

The saw-fish, to which I have before alluded as harrying the swarms of sea-salmon, also make havoc with the jew-fish, and very often are caught on jew-fish lines. They are terrible customers to get foul of (I do not confound them with the sword-fish) when fishing from a small boat. Their huge bone bill, set on both sides with its terrible sharp spikes, their great length, and enormous strength, render it impossible to even get them alongside, and there is no help for it but either to cut the line or pull up anchor and land the creature on the shore. Even then the task of despatching one of these fish is no child's play on a dark night, for they lash their long tails about with such fury that a broken leg might be the result of coming too close. In the rivers of Northern Queensland the saw-fish attain an enormous size, and the Chinese fishermen about Cooktown and Townsville often have their nets destroyed by a saw-fish enfolding himself in them. Alligators, by the way, do the same thing there, and are sometimes captured, perfectly helpless, in the folds of the nets, in which they have rolled themselves over and over again, tearing it beyond repair with their feet, but eventually yielding to their fate.

The schnapper, the best of all Australian fish, is too well known to English visitors to describe in detail. Most town-bred Australians generally regard it as a purely ocean-loving fish, or at least only frequenting very deep waters in deep harbours, such as Sydney, Jervis Bay, and Twofold Bay. This is quite a mistake, for in many of the rivers, twenty or more miles up from the sea, the writer and many other people have not only caught these beautiful fish, but seen fishermen haul in their nets filled with them. But they seldom remain long, preferring the blue depths of ocean to the muddy bottoms of tidal rivers, for they are rock-haunting and surf-loving.

Of late years the northern bar harbours and rivers of New South Wales have been visited by a fish that in my boyhood's days was unknown even to the oldest fisherman—the bonito. Although in shape and size they exactly resemble the ocean bonito of tropic seas, these new arrivals are lighter in colour, with bands of marbled grey along the sides and belly. They bite freely at a running bait— i.e., when a line is towed astern, and are very good when eaten quite fresh, but, like all of the mackerel tribe, rapidly deteriorate in a few hours after being caught. The majority of the coast settlers will not eat them, being under the idea that, as they are all but scaleless, they are "poisonous." This silly impression also prevails with regard to many other scaleless fish on the Australian coast, some of which, such as the trevally, are among the best and most delicate in flavour. The black and white rock cod is also regarded with aversion by the untutored settlers of the small coast settlements, yet these fish are sold in Sydney, like the schnapper, at prohibitive prices.

In conclusion, let me advise any one who is contemplating a visit to Australia, and means to devote any of his time to either river or sea fishing, to take his rods with him; all the rest of his tackle he can buy as cheap in the colonies as he can in England. Rods are but little used in salt-water fishing in Australia, and are rather expensive. Those who do use a rod are usually satisfied with a bamboo—a very good rod it makes, too, although inconvenient to carry when travelling—but the generality of people use hand lines. And the visitor must not be persuaded that he can always get good fishing without going some distance from Sydney or Melbourne. That there is some excellent sport to be obtained in Port Jackson in summer is true, but it is lacking in a very essential thing—the quietude that is dear to the heart of every true fisherman.