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An afternoon fishing the beach

In a sceneworthy of Defoe, an uninterrupted ribbon of white sand beckoned as my mate Scott Levi, his dad Vic and I shuffled to our fishing spot, laden with buckets, bait and rods. Scott’s old man voiced concern about the flatness of the water but we assured him that the action had been so hot of late that he should gang his pilchard with his back to the sea.

So with my trusty metre-long rod holder drilled into the sand, my pilchard suddenly with multiple piercings, I threw the rod over the shoulder and fished. I’m quite fussy about rigs. I use chemically sharpened gangs that I assemble myself at home. I buy barrel swivels and crimp the eyes of the hooks over them. If you don’t use a swivel for the top hook use a straight hook rather than one that’s offset. This way you avoid the rig fraying in the surf.

We had thrown in for all of five minutes when another fisherman arrived, camping on top of us. A mile of empty beach and this pelican fishes in our lap! It wasn’t long before I was tangled with our interloper. You can always feel a tangle. It’s a kind of tapping in the line. I’m sure in Morse it reads: Idiot calling. I was not a happy camper and a few choice words sprung to mind. So even though he was bigger than me, I went up to him and said, “Listen pal, why don’t you find another fishing spot. The beach is deserted, fool!” but it came out something like, “Oh, no worries, mate. I’ll untangle it for you.”In consolation, ‘Tangles’ offered a smile that would melt chocolate so I felt a little more philanthropic after emancipating my bait.

Two serious looking beach fishos suddenly appeared, sporting gum-nut-coloured fishing vests, waders (inappropriately named Hornes) and a thousand giant, cloud-snagging rods. (How they could man them all I do not know.) I use a medium-sized rod because like most authors, who’ve perched at a keyboard for years, my back is cactus. I find with a wispy, medium-sized rod, a little cunning, and a cooked breakfast, I can usually cast as far as the big stuff. Although, I did notice our man in the waders virtually toss a pilchard to New Zealand. I too have a pair of Hornes. I remember first trying them on in Freddie’s Fishing World at Erina and asking the salesman, “Do these make my bum look big?”

On the far side of Tangles, two smartly dressed partygoers staggered down from one of the squillion-dollar beach cottages. Armed with a ten-buck rod, a designer beer and a gourmet snag in a slice of bead, BBQ Man put on his pilchard upside down, threw out ten feet in front of him, then tossed a ball to his toddler. His companion looked on, fetching stray balls. The two pros to our right, sniggered with hubris. Two minutes later, BBQ Man was holding on for dear life as a big sambo had kindly snatched his inverted pilchard and was making for Tasmania. With a terrified expression on his face, his snag sanger wedged firmly in his mouth, and two manicured hands anchored to his kiddie rod, he wound like a man possessed, and I must say, deftly guided the fat sambo to the sand. Fellow partygoers rushed to shore. Women in big hats, kids in Oshkosh clothing, men in silky ties. Cameras were flashing and BBQ Man was the hero of the hour, holding his oily trophy aloft, sauce dribbling from a beaming smile. (Gotta love fishing!) Tangles sulked. The Pros shook their heads. How dare someone catch a salmon in Armani loafers!

Our Pros burlied with new resolve as wheeling gulls picked off almost all of it. They shook their fists at the wily seabirds. In the blink of an eye, the beach was a forest of tall rods. Soon all and sundry were hurling salmon onto the beach. Kids, old men, mums in sagging trackies. Everyone but our Pros. As the school moved on, the beach was soon restored to its thalassic silence. In his wonderful fishing memoir, A River Runs through It, Norman McLean writes about ‘eternity being compressed into a moment’. In the stillness of the afternoon, and with no other sound but the whistling of the sea, I understood what the author meant.

The growl of Old Man Levi’s reel finally broke this quietude, snaring a laggard. If there is a sweeter sound on this earth I do not know of it. Vic’s wispy estuary rod kowtowed to the massive sambo. As the old boy coiled line, Scott pleaded with him to give the fish its head. I’ve noticed it is unwise to tell your father how to fish but Scott persisted. To his folly. It turned out the old man had returned from a recent jew-fishing trip and had spooled thirty-pound line to his reel. He could have landed the Queen Mary with a crew of fat people. As the old man hauled the leviathan through the surf—that was swelling as fast as the sun was sinking—it wasn’t long before a salmon of Melvillian proportions lay panting at our feet. We gaped at it. It gaped at us. With its great speckled tail drooping over the long bucket, the old man quickly ganged a fresh pilchard that flashed lavender in the shrinking sunlight.I prefer smaller pilchards. You get more hook-ups, especially with tailor. The eponymous tailor attacks its prey by tailing the fish (i.e. biting its backside off). Therefore, with a three-ganged-hook, the last hook is smack bang in the tail of the smaller pilchard. These pilchards are worth hunting down. Like other certain aspects of life, ‘size matters’.

As colour leached from the sky, Scott and I mused that our tailor would be visiting soon. We weren’t disappointed. Scott spotted gulls dive-bombing a ball of whitebait. And it wasn’t long before I heard the croon of my drag. It must have bumped loose with Tangles. By the time I’d reset it, the fish was sitting down with his family and my pilchard, telling yarns like this one to wide-eyed underlings and doubting neighbours. Like most fishermen who miss the prize, I asked my companions if they had heard my drag. After about the eighteenth time of asking, I gleaned that they had indeed heard my drag, and that in fact, I was becoming one.

As stars pricked open the night sky, Scott and his Dad landed one greenback after another. In the moonlight, the creeping surf became an overflowing Guinness. The evening highlight however, was the fact that the pros, with their grove of rods, caught absolutely zip. BBQ Man rejoined the party and Tangles caught a dart and sulked all night. I finally hooked another whopping sambo. Cocky, I started singing, “Salmon chanted evening…” Until the fish exacted its revenge by shredding the gears in my eggbeater. I had lost another fish.

As we packed up, Scotty kept one or two fish for the smoker. He has a knack for smoking fish where he fillets the catch, rubs sea-salt, brown sugar and Chinese allspice into the flesh and smokes them. They certainly come up a treat. So for the first time in a fabulous Indian Summer I returned with the gut of my creel empty. But if fishing were only about catching fish, who on earth would bother? Fishing is so much more.