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Gotta catch them niggers

A brilliant ocean morning, and the foam floats dazzling white like cream on a bowl of blueberries. The day will be hot and bright, but nocturnal coolness is still rising from the sand and the daylight-saving sun is low enough yet to deepen and texture the colours of the shore: salt-frosted water-stained sandstone, gleaming calcareous greys-whites-blacks of barnacles/limpets/winkles. The wash slips up weed-darkened runnels twining jealous merrow fingers into the land, and here and there the cunjie spurts its little silvery fonts. Plash go the handfuls of sand and weed into the water at his feet, plash plash plash.

"Morning". He looks up with a wary squint, hand frozen in the act of dumping more berley, sees no fishing rod and turns and throws.

"G’day".

"Anything around?"

"Dunno yet".

"What are you after?"

"Niggers".

"Sorry?"

"Blackfish, luderick… Niggers".

"Oh… I don’t know much about fishing. Mind if I watch?" A shrug for a reply.

He squats over his tackle bag, his legs are skinny mottled-tan and on his feet a pair of Dunlop Volleys with steel-spiked plates strapped to the soles. He removes a packet of small hooks, sinkers, split shot and a float, and the rigging ritual begins. Cut a short piece of line and tie it in a grinner over the main line, run it up to the rod tip. Thread on a pink plastic bead and the float - a long slender quill - then two double-0 sinkers and run them to the sliding stopper knot. Tie the hook - number 8 French - with a double locked blood; a tiny piece of shot gets crimped above the eye with the pliers from his waistband. Three hand-spans above goes a match with a clove hitch and two more bits of shot above it. Peer at the water, gauge the depth, then pull the grinner down to about five feet above the hook. He creaks to his feet and rubs his back:

"Struth she’s rough on old bones" he says looking to the water. Plash plash go another two handfuls of berley. From a moist Hessian bag he withdraws the precious green weed, he takes a strip an inch or so long and braids it over the hook from the eye down, leaving plenty of point. The sun is getting higher now and the sweat is forming on his brow and he mops it with the back of a hand. He extends the rod and feels the weight flex through tip to butt, feels good.

"Watch yourself". He extends the rod back over his head and flicks it out, the ten feet of tapered tubular glass is light and whippy and it launches the rig a good few yards while the centrepin reel fizzes and spins. Plop it lands in the cloud of berley and quickly sinks until only the orange tip of the float is visible – experience dictates how much lead is needed to get it perfectly trimmed.

"Look! The float’s gone already!"

"It’s there. Just the tip, see?"

"Oh… I thought it was supposed to poke up so you could see the fish bite".

"Nah. It’s there to hold the bait at the right depth. If it floats too much they feel it and piss off".

"Right…"

Silent minutes passed and the float remained still, while at intervals he threw more berley into the water.

"Huh", he grunted and reeled in. He gripped the stopper knot between thumb and forefinger and pulled it another foot higher. He checked the bait and cast out again. A minute or so passed and then he tensed.

"Hang on, here we go…" The orange float tip was moving gently down and then it was glimmering below the crystal surface. He waited, breath held, and then the float was rising slowly again.

"You little prick". He waited thirty seconds or so then reeled in. The weed was untidy and mauled so he stripped it off and rebaited.

"Look out", and he cast again. This time only a few seconds went by before the float began to move, and it went down steadily and was still going deeper when he leaned back and set the hook. The rod tip bucked and bobbed, the fish was fighting hard and took line from the reel while the float jigged about under the clear water. But after a half a minute or so he began to recover line, and the float came closer and then it was bobbing on the surface while something bronze flashed bright beneath. He unhooked the landing net from his belt with one hand and, crouching, guided the fish to its mouth with the rod held high. He scooped and lifted and a beautiful blackfish was flapping green and gold, and even though there were glossy vertical black bars down its side there was nothing that compellingly black about it.

"Bout a pound and a half" he said aloud to himself, and taking his keeper net from his bag carried the prize over to a large rock pool. He slipped the fish into the net and submerged them both, then came back to his station at the water’s edge, smiling now, and gave a friendly nod.

"That’s a very fine fish".

"Yeah, they look nice when you first catch ‘em. Colours fade pretty quick but".

"It looks complicated fishing for them".

"Yair, I s’pose. Some blokes make a real science out of it. I dunno, I just fish the way me dad taught me. Gear hasn’t changed much in fifty years."

"Are they hard to catch? They seem very strong".

"Hard part’s hookin’ the buggers", he grunted as he tossed in another handful of berley. "It makes it kind of addictive. Sometimes they’re real fussy, you gotta get the bait to the right depth, make it so’s they can’t feel the float. And good luck findin’ the right weed. You gotta work for it. But when they’re on you can catch ‘em one after another".

"Really? What’s the most you’ve caught?"

"In a day? Dunno, maybe sixty or seventy".

"Gosh… That must’ve feed the family for weeks!"

"Nah, it’s just me and the missus. I mostly give ‘em away. The Vietnamese bloke over the road, he loves ‘em."

The float bobbed again, and another struggling fish was brought ashore. Plash went the berley, plop went the float, again and again, and in twenty minutes half a dozen beautiful fish were languishing in the net in the rock pool.

"Goodness, that’s an impressive haul… there’s no bag limit?"

"Ah I s’pose there is, but nobody ever bothers me. They just go for the Maoris and the reffos." He checked himself and added, almost apologetically "I dunno, I just like catchin’ niggers; nothin’ much else to do these days. Got laid off at the railways, see? Been there man and boy for almost fifty years. You try finding a fitter’s job at my age. At least I got a package: these days I can spoil meself with some nice gear" and he gestured fondly around him.

"You don’t fish for anything else?"

"Nah. What for? When the niggers are on you can catch ‘em at midday. Don’t know any other fish like that. I’m too old for the late nights or getting up at sparrow fart. Mate, I’m retired: it’s office hours only for me.

"Speaking of which, I’ll have to be off. Well, that was certainly fascinating. I wouldn’t mind trying myself sometime. There’s certainly nothing like fresh fish. Well, one of these days… See you then."

"Oi, hang on" he called as the other was walking away, "you can take a couple if you like." It was as if he sought complicity in this killing of fish. "Plenty more where they came from," and he nodded back over his shoulder at the blue expanse at his feet.

"Oh, really? Well, yes. That’s very kind… Only, I’ve never tried them before. How do I cook them?"

"Well first you gotta kill ‘em right, cut their throats and let ‘em bleed." The float bobbed and then popped up: "Ah, bugger’s done me. Here, come on I’ll show ya." They walked to the pool and he took two nice fish, and severed their throats with his knife. He dropped them into a smaller pool and they fluttered as the water turned crimson around them. "Now what you gotta do, is fillet ‘em and skin ‘em. After that, up to you: most people like ’em crumbed and fried."

"How do you do them yourself?"

"Me? Can’t stand the bloody things… Had too much of ’em when I was a boy. Taste sorta weedy, so make sure you give ‘em plenty of lemon. I’ll take chops or the missus’ steak Diane any day. Anyhow, got a pretty good bite on, so I’ll get back to it. You know how to gut ‘em don’t ya?"

"I haven’t cleaned a fish for years, but I’m sure I’ll remember."

"Good-o. Just remember: fillet ’em and skin ’em if you can, that’s the best."

Hours pass and the sun climbs, the air shimmers and bare skin tingles. Up on the headland elderly couples are lunching at the shaded picnic tables and in the car park tradesmen sit chewing sandwiches with their feet up on the dash. Out on the point, a lone figure is crouched over a rock pool, back turned to the myriad mirror facets of sea. Just hands working, cutting, throwing; and around him, a gathering crowd of gulls.

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Cronulla August 2003

© V. Stevenson

info@ogoino.com

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