Fishing

A wallaby stamped its foot and woke me.

We were camped on a high bank on a bend in the Leichhardt River, not far from Burketown. In that time and that climate, for us camping meant a ground sheet and a tarp. Con and I and little Matt and Lizzie had been invited to visit some Finnish fishermen at their camp.

The wallaby was only two metres away from me, staring at me. It stamped its foot again. It was quite unafraid but looked resentful at having its place invaded.

Soon the wallaby hopped away, and the fishermen got a campfire going, with a barbecue grill over it. They filleted one of their fresh barramundi catch and threw it on the plate. I’ve rarely eaten anything that tasted as good as that barbecued barra straight from the river.

Leichhardt River en.wikipedia.org

Their gravlax was good too – raw barra sliced thin, wrapped in little bundles and pickled with lemon juice and onions.

When we moved to Burketown, a local fisherman brought us a barramundi and filleted it for me on the back landing. Barramundi and prawns – that’s one way those locals expressed friendship to a newcomer.

I’m not a fishing person, but fishing was my grandfather’s favourite thing in the world. Living in Nambour, he would drive to Tin Can Bay with friends, put up a tent and go fishing. For bait they’d dig yabbies and eugaries at low tide out of the wet sand, then fish with rods off the surf beach at Inskip Point.

My grandfather (standing) and others digging for bait, 1940

I’ve got the little Box Brownie photos taken when my dad joined them on their 1940 fishing trip. He helpfully put little crosses above himself in the photos.

The angling party, Inskip Point, 1940.

There are ardent fishers all around Australia, on inland rivers and lakes and around the coast. The only things that change around the country are the types of fish and the discomforts involve in catching them: heat, cold, storms, crocodiles.

Our Joe in Far North Queensland sometimes goes fishing himself, but usually buys from a mate, a devoted fisherman out of Mission Beach who catches more than he can eat. He charges Joe a flat rate of $20 a kilogram for filleted fish.

“Rosy job fish,” Joe tells me. “Red emperor, cobia, coral trout, longnose emperor, Spanish mackerel, black nannygai, finger mark, tusker, saddle tailed sea perch.

“We use the Spanish mackerel for curry.

“Best are finger mark and tusker.”

“I was thinking of lashing out on some barramundi for Christmas,” I tell him.

“Don’t do it on our account. We used barra for curry, too.”

Baby Joe with a barramundi, Yarrabah

None of these fish, caught wild, would sell for less than $30-$60 in a Brisbane fish shop.

In 2018, Con and I spent a night at the Commercial Hotel, Tara, on the Western Darling Downs. It was the eve of the local fishing competition, to be held at the Tara Lagoon on the edge of town, and talk in the bar was all about fishing. All native fish caught would be returned to the lagoon; the exotic carp, a major pest, would not. The Tara Fish Re-Stocking Association was running the competition.

Tara Fishing Competition at Tara Lagoon. September 29, 2018 courier-mail.com.au

That reminded me of Hamar Midgley.

Hamar Midgley was a woodworker and furniture maker in Nambour, where my family lived; and he loved fishing. The Midgley house was a timber Queenslander on what is now National Park Road, with a paddock out the back running down to the creek. I remember some magnificent Guy Fawkes parties and bonfires in the paddock.

The Midgleys were good family friends who lived a close-to-the-earth lifestyle and would never be wealthy. Then Hamar was offered the perfect job. I remember him saying with delight to my father one day, “They’re going to pay me to go fishing!”

Hamar Midgley had become, through his own dedication and research, a leading amateur expert on Australian native fish species. Much of Queensland’s fishing is done in freshwater lakes, dams, rivers and creeks, and it was Hamar who made that possible. In the early 1960s he carried out Australia’s first official release of native fish into a waterway, at Borumba Dam, south-west of Gympie. Now, over fifty lakes, dams and waterways in Queensland alone have been stocked with native fish.

“Hamar in his dinghy and bush hat with a long tom, Jabiru, NT” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

For over forty years, Hamar worked as a full-time fisheries consultant for the Queensland Government, travelling out west with Mary to waterways unknown except to locals. In the early 2000s I visited them at their home at Bli Bli, on the Sunshine Coast. Mary told me of their research, camped far from amenities and recording of the dawn chorus of bushland birds. What a glorious life.

“Hamar and Mary at a bush camp sorting the catch-of-the-day” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

In 1994 Hamar was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Science from UQ for his research into Queensland’s fresh water fish species. He died in 2014, but it’s largely thanks to his work that fishing in Queensland’s inland waterways is flourishing.

Not so on some of the wild rivers in the Far North. At the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, we met a group of recreational fishermen heading home. They’d just returned, disappointed, four hundred kilometres down the dirt road from the Mitchell River on western Cape York.

Disappointed fishing party at the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel Motel

“There were no fish,” they told us. “Big fishing concerns are flouting the rules. You’re not allowed to stretch nets right across the river, so they put one most of the way across, then another from the opposite bank a bit further upstream, then another from the same side, making a zigzag of nets across the river.

“For us blokes who head up there for a fishing weekend, there’s not much point anymore.”

How can fishing be regulated in the wild country of Cape York, with its small population and huge distances? There are no fishing clubs keeping an eye on things up there.

Back on the Leichhardt River those Finns also complained about rule breaking fishermen reducing fish stocks.

That barramundi was memorable. Still, the best fish I ever ate was a humble catfish. My uncle pulled it out of the Balonne River, somewhere near Dirranbandi, with a hand-held fishing line. He filleted it, built a fire on the riverbank under the gum trees and fried it on the spot. It was perfect.

Counting Prawns

The bitumen is too narrow for two vehicles. One of them at least will need to go on to the sloping, gravel shoulder.

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The Savannah Way

I’m with Joe, in the front passenger seat of his ageing Commodore, driving from Cairns to Karumba, a distance of over seven hundred and fifty kilometres. We’re driving through a plague of grasshoppers.

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Grasshoppers

West of Mount Surprise the Gulf Development Road narrows to a single strip of bitumen.

Joe has never driven on a road like this.

“When we meet on-coming traffic, what should I do?” he asks.

Joe’s driving has all been on motorways and city streets, and he is expert at changing lanes and reverse parking. Now he needs to learn another skill.

“When you see an oncoming vehicle, put two wheels off the bitumen,” I tell him. “Give them lots of room.”

Out of the mirage ahead of us a Toyota ute appears, heading our way, at speed. At one hundred kilometres an hour, Joe puts two wheels on to the shoulder and we fly along the gravel, past the Toyota, and back on to the bitumen.

“Maybe, next time, you should reduce speed before you do that,” I suggest to Joe.

“Good idea,” he says, drily.

Con and Joe and I going to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family. They’re living in Karumba, a small town on the mud banks of the Norman River, close to where it flows into the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. Russ, a scientific assistant, spends his days sitting in a shed overlooking the river, with a microscope and tweezers, counting juvenile prawns by species: banana, king, tiger.

This is crocodile country, so no one swims in the river or in the Gulf. There are box jellyfish in these waters too. On Google Earth, the Norman River and its tributaries look like twisting tree branches or a beautiful abstract painting. Up close, it looks dangerous.

Karumba exists because of prawning and fishing. Prawns and barramundi come off the trawlers already frozen and go straight into freezer trucks destined for the southern markets.

In the winter months retirees come from the south for the fishing. That’s what Karumba is about. Prawns and fishing.

Con and I last came this way in the 1970s, on the way west to Burketown, driving our old Holden sedan. When we’d passed through Croydon, over five hundred kilometres into the trip, the sun was low and shone directly into our eyes.

The road had once been sealed, but the bitumen had worn away to sharp-edged tracks running through bull-dust. Half-blinded by the sun, Con bogged the car half off the road, and we had to wait with our young children for a tow.

Today this road is part of the Savannah Way, stretching three thousand, seven hundred kilometres from Cairns to Broome, in Western Australia, and although still narrow it is well maintained.

We’re following the line of the Gulflander, the rail motor that connects Croydon and Normanton with a once a week service. Built in the late 1880s to service the Croydon gold rush, now it’s a tourist attraction, a welcome sight to travellers on this lonely road as it goes rocking slowly on its way.

Mid-afternoon we meet the Burke Development Road and turn north towards Normanton. Karumba is seventy kilometres further north again, and just on dusk we pull in at Lizzie’s place, a cabin behind the motel in the shade of a poinciana tree. The front of the car is plastered with dead grasshoppers.

We spend a week in Karumba, visiting the barramundi farm and going up-river with Russ to glimpse the low scrub on the barren river flats, crocodile slides showing clearly in the muddy banks. We collect hermit crabs at low tide with our grandsons, visit the tavern, admire the town brolga and swim in the motel pool before heading back to Cairns.

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Collecting hermit crabs, low tide, Gulf of Carpentaria

Lizzie and her family are enjoying their few months here, but she worries about cyclones. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. “No hill, no safe building. A tidal surge would go right over the town and wipe it out.”

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The Norman River at Karumba

A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Tropical Cyclone Charlotte crosses the coast at Karumba. Only one building is damaged. While Lizzie, Russ and the boys shelter in the bathroom, that poinciana tree falls and crushes their cabin. No one is hurt, so they put it down as just another Gulf Country adventure.

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Before the cyclone: that Karumba poinciana

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