Fishing for monsters (by beginners)

Queensland. Some call it the Texas of Australia. Some call it ‘the place so humid, no one actually lives there’. Some call it the Sunshine State, and our Dragon, well, he calls it home. With a plethora of backpacker-catnip along the East Coast, you’d be forgiven for bypassing unassuming and confusingly named Townsville. Yep, it’s the place you get the bus to, to get the ferry to Magnetic Island, where you really wanna be going. It’s the place where the Powerpuff girls live. It’s also the place that has three major events on the annual calendar (if you go by what the locals say): the first is any Cowboys Rugby League game, the second is the V8 Supercars convention, and the third is the opening of Barramundi season.


As a city girl, it’s never even occurred to me (Rat) to go fishing. As a Townsville guy, it’s never even occurred to our Dragon to not go fishing. So after a month solid of 10 hour editing days powerhousing two series of 7 films each and another 2 projects from scratch, we were waiting for feedback and took an afternoon to explore the local delight that is the hunt for barra.


3pm, we’re at a friend’s loading up his boat with rods, fishing line, hand reels, cooking utensils, sausages and beer. In Queensland, I am told, you can have a beer without fishing, but don’t go fishing without a beer. We head off past idyllic beach fronts, through lush green jungle canopies, past a Mac Donalds and along a dual carriage way. A sharp turn brings the ute (pickup truck and pride & joy of any self-respecting Townsvillleite) careering down a steep gravel path to a small car park and the well-camouflaged boat ramp. We crack the soft drinks. Beer is only allowed after catching the first fish, but seeing as JD & Coke in a can counts as a soft drink, reversing the boat down the ramp and into the river goes like a well oiled dream. A dream involving a 15 part turn.


Our captain Jimbo opens the throttle and we speed down the river with the wind in our hair and the smell of wet dog in out nostrils. We zoom past more lush greenery towards what appears to be a huge concrete H blighting the otherwise idyllic scenery. We come to a standstill right underneath a motorway bridge and strap our boat to one of the pylons. Really? Is my first thought. All this beautiful fauna around and we’re heading straight for the eyesore? “This is the best fishing spot in Queensland”, pipes up Jimbo, and with that launches into a 7 hour on off conversation about how he’s caught the biggest fish and the best fish out of everyone he knows, right here at this secret spot. Not that he seemed to have been many other places, but why fix something that’s not broken?


Dear reader, now comes the squeamish part. If you are vegetarian on moral grounds, or a member of PETA, or watch Sea Shepherd, or believe that anyone who doesn’t leave animals be in their ‘natural’ habitat is evil, please stop reading now and skip one of our other blog posts. Here’s a good one on fun you can have with road kill. Maybe not that one. Please also stop buying suede belts from Topshop, check your new yoga trainers for white-brushed leather, stop using plastic and chuck out all your cosmetics containing palm oil.


For you bloodthirsty adventurers, this is where is gets interesting, and there are different types of fishing. You can throw big cast net into the water using a spiralling action to maximise the surface area, and you pull in anything that gets caught. You can spear your fish with a bamboo spear from a rock outside the water, you can wade and spear or get yourself a spear gun and snorkel/dive and pretend to be James Bond.


The most commonly known way to get dinner is probably with a rod and a hooked worm, and again this is only one way to do it. Fly-fishing is an art form within itself and involves complex feathered and knotted fake insects and special techniques to coax the fish to the hook at the end of your line. Lure-fishing allows you to try out an enormous array of different multi coloured plastic or metal fish that simulate a swimming dinner for a bigger fish, right up to attracting Marlin in deep sea areas. Apparently it’s not how tasty the lures look, but how pretty they seem to the fish, which encourages our aquatic friends to give them a bite. For the real Bear Grills types, there is bait fishing. You can use little hand reels, i.e. a plastic circle with fishing line wound round it and dead bait attached to the hook at the end – chopped up liver works a treat, so do grubs, pieces of fish, squid and prawns you can buy deep frozen from a fishing shop. And this is how you catch live bait, which is exactly what we were up to under out motorway bridge.


Sitting there with music blaring, all four of us chatted away about fishing exploits and nothing else. I didn’t have much to say, this being the second time in my life I was at the other end of a hooked line (the first time I was 6 in a trout farm in Austria, and I think I got quite a bit of help). As the afternoon progresses the narrative fish get bigger and more ferocious. The circumstances harder, the bravery peaks in a story of catching a mythically large barramundi in what sounds like a cyclone. Graham sharply pulls at his little blue circle of fishing line and yanks a little stripy fish about the size of my palm out of the water. First bait is caught, deposited in a special compartment at the rear of the boat that lets in fresh river water to keep the little ‘Barra Mars Bars’ alive and the first beer is cranked. The second yank is mine, another little unsuspecting nibble turns out to be a hell of a journey for a spiky little black and yellow striped bait fish. I have to carefully smooth down his dorsal spikes so I don’t get jabbed as I pull the hook out of his lip and get him to the wet box as quickly as possible, before he wriggles around enough to scare me into letting him go. K-SHHHHHHHH I’ve earned my beer.


As it gets darker, we catch more, 15 in total, and Graham who is by far the best hooks a turtle. Don’t confuse them with uber cool dude Crush from Finding Nemo, these river turtles are ugly and they stink to high heaven. We unhook him and are glad when he disappears off to where he came from. During the spectacular sunset we move the boat out from under the bridge for the ultimate showdown of the day – using our live bait to catch what will hopefully turn out to be a monster barramundi. Quick reminder that this is my first proper time fishing. I have no childhood memories or familiar fondness to connect to what we’re doing. To me, the fishing shops we visited earlier during the day may just as well have been huge warehouses filled with millions of different coloured key rings and a wetsuit or two. But as the sky turns blood red and purple, and we set up for the hunt, I find myself feeling quite excited.


First, we need some decent tunes. Rage against the machine takes over from N’Sync. The little camping stove is fired up for dinner. We’re hardly in the open roaring ocean but after 5 hours under the bridge seeing the sky makes me feel a little bit like we’re in open water. We take it in turns to scoop a bait fish out of the wet box, hold it so it can’t squirm out of our hands or spike us, and hook it onto our bigger barra hooks. This is probably the ickiest part, but at the same time the hook is best placed where it harms the fish the least, so it can happily swim around the longest to attract a barra munch. Different people do different things, some hook through the back above the spine, some through the lip, we hook ours into the mouth and out through the forehead. This has several advantages, first it misses all vital organs and blood supply keeping the fish alive and wriggling temptingly. Secondly, when you drag the fish back in when it’s wondered too far, you are dragging it in the direction it would usually swim, not against the grain, as a back hooking would.


We let our little fishies swim for it. Put our rods that were unknown to our bait and target still firmly attached in the rod holders around the side of the boat and watched the line as it wandered around the boat following the fish exploring. Chatting away about – you guessed it – fishing, we sat, sipped our beers and watched the sausages sizzle. A couple of times, when the lines looked like they would tangle due to our fishies wondering, we reeled them in again, and let them run in a different direction. I felt a little bit like I was taking 4 small fish on leads for a walk around the park.


The sausages were cooking away nicely and I was just reeling in my little dude who was chilling under the boat too close to the anchor line when BOOOM – something massive tugged at the line. Within lightning speed, the half cooked sausages and gas stove where stored away and everyone’s lines were brought in. Instructions were given from all sides, but no one touched me or my rod, I had to do this on my own. I had never realised that fish are caught in sport on lines that only hold a certain amount of strain, measured in kilos. The thrill comes from letting a hooked fish run, then slowly reeling it in, then letting it run again if it does, then slowly reeling it in, all without breaking the line. The lower strain the line can take makes the bigger the fish you caught even sweeter. Suddenly the prestige of “I caught a 10kg tilapia on a 5kg line” made total sense. The extreme case of the chase can lead whole boats following a fish on the other end of one guy’s line, to avoid breaking it before the fish tires out. This can take hours and hours, with no guarantee that he will get away last minute. Cue more cyclone/shark infested water/”it was bigger than my auntie” stories from the crew.


And so I carefully reeled, waited, lost line, gained line and brought the fish closer and closer to the boat, without seeing what it was. Suddenly it jumped out of the water 2 meters from the boat, to my delight (it wasn’t an eel!) and the other’s horror (this is when fish are most likely to get unhooked). I got lucky though and reeled him in again, and again until he flopped into a net. In the boat, everyone cheered. It was a big one. The minimum size you can keep is 58cm length, this means that there are enough baby fish to keep the species alive and kicking (or swimming). The mythical size everyone wants to catch is over 1m. The biggest fish the boat had ever caught was 89cm. This one was 75cm long. Despite my previous indifference, some primeval funny bone had been tickled deep inside my Neanderthal brain matter. Seeing the fish I had just single-handedly caught was awesome, and thanks to barra season officially open, it also tasted awesome the following day.


Many sports fishing enthusiasts will unhook the fish, possibly tag it, and then let it go. Cue forehead slaps and confused looks from our Indonesian and Laosian friends. But I wanted the full experience, and you learn something new each day, if you try new things. Whilst I don’t think I’ll be swapping an opportunity for a great discussion on some lofty subject amongst good friends with sitting under a bridge with a line and raw liver all over my hands, I can now say I have an idea how to survive on a desert island. And that’s quite a skill to have acquired.