I’m just back from the fishing trip of a lifetime. Tired and jet lagged to be sure but still buzzing with the memories of screaming reels and bucking rods and the images of huge yellowtail Kingfish – probably the hardest fighting species on the planet – emerging from the reef to chase a lure or engulf a live bait. And, after a battle of epic proportions, finally rolling over in the cobalt blue Australian waters beside the boat.
I’ve written before about the thrill of the take and that perhaps it’s this aspect that is the most golden moment of our sport and the reason we keep coming back to repeat the experience but surely it’s also the memories? At my age we talk about ticking off a list of fishy ambitions from a seemingly never ending bucket list but I would contend that the passion that drives us cannot be reduced to mere lists and numbers. For that is to diminish something that for all serious anglers is more akin to a religion than an accounting exercise. I guess that nowadays I’ve been around the world enough to qualify as an ‘adventure angler’ but regardless of the fantastic fish from far off places that it has been my good fortune to catch, for me it’s about the memories. A lifetime of fishing builds a second lifetime of memories in a bank full of images burnished inside my head, but also in a burgeoning photo library, that sustain me through darker moments and duller days.
And you know what? The biggest or the most is not necessary the best and the older you become the more you realise that it takes a special mix of ingredients to make the memories that constitute the highlights of an angling life. Although well over 50 years have passed I still remember as if it were yesterday the time I finally managed to make a float travel down the stream with sufficient control and delicacy to outwit some decent fish. My rod was six foot of solid fibre glass, the reel the most basic of centrepins and the float was the type of red topped crowquill that hasn’t graced the shelves of most tackle shops since England last won the World Cup. Those three chub and a beautiful roach, probably weighing less than five pounds between them, taken from a tiny Thames tributary that has now now been reduced to a mere trickle thanks to the expansion of London and remorseless water abstraction, look as fabulous to me now as they did half a century ago. It remains the most precious of memories, the day it all came together, the day that I became a lifelong angler.
For sure it’s about the take, that moment of excitement and connection with an unseen force and a sought after quarry. And for some size does matter as does the length of the fight or the thrill of the battle. For many more it’s about the place, the shared moments, the friendships and the satisfaction of a plan that finally comes together. But overarching all of these special feelings are the memories we create as we pursue our passion for angling. This is surely why we fish?
My latest Australian fishing adventure actually began on an escapade to the other side of the world a few months previously. I had just concluded the session I was doing at the World Recreational Fishing Conference in Vancouver and was thinking more about the next few days when I would be pursuing the giant white sturgeon of Canada’s mighty Fraser River than any saltwater trip, when I was offered an opportunity to return to my old haunts Down Under, as the guest speaker for the Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation at their annual conference in Darwin. Now Australia is too far away and I’ve too many good mates and fond memories for it to be anything but very rude to restrict my visit to just a few days. Luckily my wife was able to come out at the same time and so plans were made for me to spend a week at the Top End fishing for a few days in the Northern Territory, once conference duties were done and dusted, before joining Natalie in Sydney where she was staying with friends and hopefully reacquainting myself with brutality and beauty of the New South Wales Kingfish.
The three days fishing out of Darwin were good fun but uncharacteristically quiet. Half a days trolling in pursuit of sailfish saw no takes save for a bit of frenetic spinning action when we came across fast moving schools of northern bluefin tuna. We drifted a while and jigged up a few species including a couple of nice trevally and I even managed to land my first shark on a soft plastic lure, hooked firmly in the corner of its mouth, but it was not what we were hoping for. However, we were guests of Josh Ker, the owner of the Big Fish shirt company and not only did he take us out on his fabulous, newly acquired game boat but he generously provided us with some brightly coloured tropical fishing shirts, the most garish of which soon found it’s way onto my person. Perhaps the barramundi, our target for the next couple of days aboard Pete Zeroni’s boat Barraddiction, were shy of our bright new clothing for we found them in a decidedly dour mood. I was lucky enough to land one good specimen of 83 cms which was the only decent fish to take a fancy to our lures. My fishing buddies, Jim Harnwell and Phil Bolton from New South Wales Fisheries, may not have had so much luck with the barramundi but at least they avoided getting nasty stings from the highly poisonous Box Jellyfish that greeted myself and fellow sufferer Cam Westerway as we disembarked from the boat and nervously paddled ashore looking around for crocodiles and other local wildlife with a taste for human flesh.
And so to Sydney, my happy home for 18 months after I retired from British politics and enjoyed a fish filled sabbatical in the Australian sun. I had fixed up three boat trips with Aussie mates but still had time for some land based action in various spots around the harbour that I had come to know over the years. A favourite north Sydney ferry wharf got me in the mood when I spotted a school of huge Kingfish drifting by just a couple of feet below the surface. Without big game tackle these creatures are virtually impossible to land anyway near the array of pontoons, anchor chains and pilings that littered the water in this location. Luckily for me they ignored the two casts I was able to get in with a soft plastic lure on my wholly inadequate 30lbs outfit before drifting back into the depths. However, just as I was about to pack up the water erupted over by some moored boats as a ravenous school of altogether more modest kingies tore into a pack of unfortunate baitfish. My first cast into the maelstrom saw the lure chased but not taken, the second gave me a brief hook up before coming adrift and the third had the rod bent and the reel screaming after an explosive take. Although the ‘rat kingie’ was barely four pounds it fought with power of a fish three times its size and was a great way to get off the mark.
Some of my fondest memories of Sydney have been catching hard fighting fish in sight of both the harbour bridge and Opera House. And a trip out with Fishing World editor Scott Thomas certainly came up with goods as we were lucky enough to find several packs of surface busting predators attacking bait schools just a few yards from these two most iconic national landmarks. Although there were certainly a few Kingfish sitting underneath the action, as evidenced by the occasional hooked fish that was followed to the boat, all of our hits came from tailor, bonito and the Australian Salmon (although I prefer the Kiwi word for them – Kahawai). Casting 30 and 40 gram metals and retrieving fast through the schools was seeing us hook up almost every other cast. I even introduced Scotty to the delights of the Fiiish Minnow since it seemed to better imitate the the pale whitebait fish that were being chomped in front of us with gay abandon. Sure enough it produced the goods as effectively as it does for bass and pollack back home and very soon he was playing the biggest salmon of the morning. Unfortunately, a few casts later, it’s soft body proved no match for the sharp teeth of the tailor and very soon we were back on the more robust Halco metals.
By way of a change from chasing predators I arranged to meet up with Sydney Harbour blackfish specialist and fellow Fishing World writer John Newbery. John and I became good friends and have a shared interest in politics, the environment and fishing – all of which got a good airing as we targeted the weed munching luderick or blackfish from a favourite jetty. The fishing was slow but the banter was good and a few fish came our way until the local kids decided to jump in front of us and put the shoal off their lunch. It mattered not as float fishing the clear waters of the harbour in full view of the entrance cliffs on a sunny day in good company is really no hardship.
If there’s one place in the world I will never tire of visiting it’s Sydney. For the city itself and the friends I have made and for the fabulous variety of fishing that can be experienced.
And then there were was that final day to remember, fishing a spot down the coast a couple of hours from the city, when the conditions were perfect and everything went to plan. It was a day I will never forget.
Its worth explaining for those who have yet to experience the thrill of fishing for big kingies that a metre plus specimen is a fish of a lifetime. And whilst my fishing partners Phil Bolton and Ian Osterloh had captured a few over the magic size our skipper Jim Harnwell had yet to score a ’metrey’ in many years of fishing all over Australia. That’s how special these fish are and how lucky we were to bring no less than seven of these monsters, from 1.05 to 1.20 metres, to the boat in a single session. All three Aussies agreed that this had been their best kingie day ever and what was the chances of me being there on a random trip, from the other side of the world, at the right time and in the right place?
The fish were holding a few miles offshore, over a patch of reef some 18 metres down, and had been coming up earlier in the week for stick baits and surface lures but shying off from actually taking. However, on this day the East Australian current had pushed a patch of warm water southwards and my friends were hopeful that these conditions might just fire up the big Kings. We were soon punching out to sea with livebaits in the tank and the water looking perfect. We were the only boat out there – perhaps it was really was going to kick off for us today?
As we rigged up the livebaits and dropped them down ten metres on the downrigger Phil had a couple of speculative casts with a big stick bait. This suddenly turned the water yellow as a pack of smaller kingies rose up in the water to investigate. The first two drifts saw our livebaits smashed off the hooks by the ‘rats’ but very soon the bigger fish fired up and what followed was one of the most dramatic few hours fishing of my life.
It was obvious we were now on a substantial pack of big hungry fish so the second rod was put away as we sent a single livebaits down over the next seven drifts across the mark. Large red arrows on the sounder confirmed that those livies were unlikely to remain unmolested for long and so it proved to be the case. With the reef only a few metres away from where the fish were hitting the only chance of landing these brutes was to fish heavy and gun the boat away from the danger zone the moment the rod crashes over. Now for someone like me who is more used to gently playing in my fish on three pound line it’s quite a shock to find myself holding onto to a bucking rod whilst 30lbs of fish charges one way and the boat belts off at 30 knots in the other direction. The net result of this adrenaline fuelled frenzy is that the although reel spool becomes too hot to touch after 300 yards of 100 lbs braid is dragged from a tightly set clutch, the fish is hopefully planed up in the water and away from danger. There then follows a tough battle to recover enough line to get this most powerful of all predators to the boat. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and the memory of those big, beautiful kingies rolling on the leader before being hoisted aboard for a quick tagging and photo session will stay with me forever.
Enjoy the photos for they capture the moment better than my words ever can.
As Jim commented as he ran us back to the boat ramp: “It doesn’t get much better boys – real champagne fishing!” It is for days like this, and for the memories they bring, that I still go fishing with the same enthusiasm that gripped me some 50 years ago.