Lining up for the barge over to Fraser Island, I had the time to scan the other four wheel drives and their fishing accoutrements, doing a semi-calculation in my head of just how many dollars were tied to the roofs and tucked away in their top-of-the-range fishing tackle boxes.
It made me think back to holidays as a child with my dad, a keen fisherman, who patiently taught me to cast from the jetty at Wooli (in northern NSW) as I sang to the bream to come to my line. It didn’t always work but it only took one to convince me that I had to be with Dad each time to make sure he at least caught something.
He would take us out on the flats at Pialba in Queensland to pump yabbies, and we squealed and chased the poor wee things before they could burrow back to safety.
Dad had a long cane rod for surf fishing that he made himself from a “blank”, carefully wrapping the coloured thread that held the guides in place and varnishing it all to stop it from splitting. It was a far cry from today’s graphite marvels but this rod and his old faithful wooden Alvey reel brought home lots of meals.
A special treat that I loved were the melts (or milts) from bream, dipped in flour and fried up. My husband, a fisherman since boyhood, took great delight in telling me what they actually were.
Fishing gear was stashed in a wicker creel or a knapsack from the army disposal store, with hooks and sinkers kept in tobacco tins or in the shafts of the kids’ handlines. Before swivels were a thing, a matchstick was tied under the sinker to stop it dropping down to the hook. A fishing knife was in a timber scabbard that had inches marked along it.
Lures were made from things as technical as a piece of alfoil on a hook, to beautifully hand-painted wooden numbers, or the ultimate Wonder Wobbler (gotta love that name). Lots of fishermen had their own casts to make sinkers, using roofing lead or the weights from tyres, melting it all in cast iron pots and pouring it into the cast. Enterprising boys would head to the rocky areas or mangroves at low tide and pick up hooks, swivels and sinkers that some poor angler had lost among the snags the night before.
Bait could be a range of tasty items, each with their own particular targets and techniques. Garden worms were pretty basic but easily available. Blood worms were dug with forks wallowing up to your knees on the mud flats, while collecting beach worms was a coveted skill using an onion bag on a string. This bag had old fish frames and was carefully buried for a couple of days in the sand dunes until they were really rank. Swishing them around at the water’s edge, the worms couldn’t resist the aroma and popped their heads up. I have heard that particularly stinky feet will also work. It was a good income for boys, selling their harvest to the fishing shops, which onsold them, wrapped in newspaper with a bit of sand to make them feel at home.
Yabby holes were surveyed and then pumped when the tide went down. Soldier crabs were a source of burley and would be chased across the mud flats in the wee hours of the morning. Long oyster bottles with bread enticingly at one end were placed in the water for small mullet to eagerly swim in for the feast, finding out too late that they couldn’t turn around. The ingenuity of fisherfolk came to the fore when bait wasn’t handy, kneading some crusts of bread and cheese along with cotton wool all tied together with rubber bands and hooks. Of course we must not forget the ultimate bait that lived with you for days – mullet gut or chook gut. It even sounded off but didn’t the bream just love it!
As a bonus, small boy passions for blowing things up could be legitimately used in the fishing game. Three double bungers would have their wicks uncurled and then joined all together. A metal ice-cream container, three-quarters-filled with sand, was held carefully while one person lit the joined wicks and placed them upright in the tin, cautiously but ever so quickly putting the lid on. This was then thrown with precision into the water and the co-conspirators would wait for the explosion, stunning mullet for a three-metre diameter. That left about 20 seconds to grab as many as possible before they wriggled back to life.
The ultimate story, courtesy of fishing husband, was of a worm harvester with a wind-up generator. Four points were put in the sand about two metres apart and then wound really hard, creating an electrical charge between the points that caused the poor worms to not know what was happening and stick their heads up to get away from the current. This was worming on an industrial scale! A friend’s older brother was innocently asked to put one point on his tongue, as they couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. The younger sibling then cranked it up before running down the street as fast as he could!