When not writing or playing the piano Dorian spends his time at the beach with a long-neck and a beach rod
Salmon chanted evening
or how I learned to stop worrying and love the reel
Fishing World Article Nov. 2004
If they only had five-step programs for fools like me, addicted to beach fishing. I can’t recall a winter when I’ve fished so much. To my wife’s chagrin, it really has been an Indian Summer. Add to this piscatorial affliction that The Central Coast is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to beach-fishing spots.
I never fish off the rocks. Someone like me can’t fish off rocks. You have to be there on the rocks. You can’t be in fifteenth century Florence or ancient Athens when you fish off the rocks. You’ll die. So I stick to the relative sanctuary of the sands, gazing into the sea, dreaming.
This reverie has been interrupted of late. I have been fishing with new chum, Scott Levi, ABC broadcaster for the recently arrived FM version of 702 on the Coast.
Scott is a gun trout fisherman who moved up from the Riverina to man Auntie’s new station and be closer to his aging father, Vic. I’d heard much about Vic so when Scotty called with tide info and the usual angling palaver, he asked if he could drag his old man along.
I liked old Vic as soon as he stepped out of the car. Anyone wearing a ‘flano’ and thongs is all right. (The flannalette shirt/thong ensemble being the unofficial uniform of the Central Coast.) I discovered that Vic ran the two daily newspapers in Newcastle before the gradual dismantling of the city’s soul under the pretense of economic rationalization.
In a scene worthy of Defoe, an uninterrupted ribbon of white sand beckoned as we shuffled to our 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.
If you haven’t fished the beach, consider some handy accoutrements. A rod holder is important. Beach rods are heavier than other rods and there will be times when you’ll want to place it somewhere and assemble a rig, un-hook a fish, or simply scratch your ass. Unless it’s an Alvey reel (virtually bulletproof), you’ll need a rod holder. Sand and reels are poor bedfellows.
Like most fishos, I’m too cheap to buy a fancy rod holder. So trot down to your local hardware store and find yourself a piece of PVC pipe. Ask the sales person to cut it a meter long. This way you can use a lighter, shorter rod and elevate it in order to avoid beach joggers decapitating themselves on your line and looking at you like you are Osama Bin Laden in a floppy hat. When the sales person is cutting the pipe, trail them to the band saw, flash a smile and show a little thong and blackened toenail, and ask them to cut one end and an acute angle. This makes it easier to drive it into compacted sand.
So with my trusty ‘BBC Rod Holder’ drilled into the sand, my pilchard suddenly with multiple piercings, I threw the rod over the shoulder and fished. I prepare rigs at home because like most, I sneak a couple of fishing hours here and there during the week. I don’t want to be on the beach stuffing around with line and sinker when I can do it at home whilst hiding in my garage under a blanket from my children when they are screaming at each other or hitting each other with sticks.
I’m quite fussy about rigs. I use chemically sharpened gangs that I assemble myself whilst listening to the footy in the aforementioned ‘safehouse’. I buy barrel swivels and crimp the eyes of the hooks over them. If you don’t use a swivel for the top hook be sure to use a straight hook rather than one that’s offset. This way you avoid the rig fraying in the surf. I find this rig very forgiving, making it easy to gang bait when you are fishing in the dark because you’ve forgotten your bloody torch for the umpteenth time.
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! There are two types of people in this world: those who find a fishing spot at a polite distance away from their fellow anglers. And those who do not. The latter group are the same people who take up two car spaces outside the cinema, eat all of the king prawns at the smorgasbord and bring crap beer to a party but drink yours all night.
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; monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon ones. 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 bloody 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, pudgy 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 costly 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?” Vital for the trout stream, I find waders clumsy at the beach. I prefer trackies and tall gum boots. This way when I sit down and suck on a long-neck, I’m not wearing a rubber swimming pool attached to clown shoes.
On the far side of Tangles, two smartly dressed partygoers staggered down from one of the squillion-dollar beach cottages that you and I will never own. Armed with a ten-buck K-mart 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. Now, if it were you or me, we would have been busted off. However, 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. For most, a pocket brim at the pier is as big as it gets. This monster of the deep soon had cameras 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 Alvey 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. We watched it vault from the sea like Nureyev. 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. Then we caught a familiar sent. You can’t imagine a fish to have its own perfume but a salmon does. It’s a queer, ammonia sort of smell.
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’.
Scott nodded to the sky. Two black swans cut across the horizon, their long necks stretching before them. Winged pencils.
Fishing is nature in ringside seats. It’s only by standing at the beach, or at the end of a pier for hours on end, that you see the wonders of nature that elude you in the white-noise of everyday life. So one of the pleasures of fishing with Scott is that years of Polaroiding for trout have made him rather observant. He’s always pointing out something in the sky or the sea or the stars.
As colour leached from the sky, Scott and I mused that our tailor would be visiting soon. We weren’t disappointed. As we waited for our catch, somebody along the beach lit a campfire. The smell of burning wood reminded me of Dad and my Uncle Jim. Two-thirds into a slab, they’ll often light a fire in the backyard and simply start burning stuff. Cardboard boxes, loose fence palings, old toys. It’s a worry when they start eyeing the patio furniture and saying things like, “I never did like that Banana Lounge”. There’s nothing more Australian than burning stuff at random after a few cans.
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.
Had I been using an Alvey, as my grandfather had always chided me to use (the only thing he left me when he died), I wouldn’t have lost the fish. But I grew tired of the inevitable ‘bird’s nests’ that you seem to get with Alveys. Scott’s old man had two that very afternoon. Some say that if you put the swivel above the sinker you’ll avoid twist. I even emailed the editor of this mag about it. Jim stopped using Alveys for the same reason. But it’s with an increasing sense of guilt that I use my spurious ‘eggbeater’. With each cast, I imagine old Pop rolling in his grave, accompanied by a slow ratchet sound.
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. I dropped my head and instantly thought of Pop. I declared there and then that it was simply un-Australian to fish the beach with anything but an Alvey. Scott and his father nodded sagely.
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.