The absence of salt in the water shouldn’t change too much, surely. If you can fish on the coast, you can fish in the outback, right? Casting with a rod shouldn’t be too different to an archaic hand reel. Until a few months ago these were the steadfast rules of fishing. The assumption was more wrong than a person pretending they need a wheelchair to use the disabled toilets. I might as well have walked onto a football field and pretended I could catch.
My childhood was a tangle of fishing lines, stabby hooks and fresh catch that my dad would fry up over the campfire while I trotted off to fetch my favourite part of the meal – hot chips. My dad and I spent hours in the boat. Actually that was his chance to corner me to have the sex talk. Nothing to hide behind with water lapping at every oarlock. Of course we caught our fair share of slippery creatures. I know all about holding the rod up high when you’ve hooked a bass, I’m an expert on hook knots and still believe that crashing around the boat making more noise than a mechanicanically-challenged airplane is a recipe for fish of the line. Admittedly the landing net was never my strength and plenty of beauties have clocked up a second chance at my fumbly hands.
Despite this rich history it’s a different story in the Bulloo river, the only river in Australia that doesn’t flow to the ocean and also, interestingly, the only water system out here that is free of carp. The first hiccup was the casting. My fishing companion demonstrated casting a hand reel with an ease that would have put the great Rex Hunt to shame. The line swung neatly in a double arc and plopped half way out the river. My first attempt hit the dirt behind me and was met with a healthy dose of mirth. The second slapped the water, but it was so close my jeans needed to sit in the sun for an hour to dry. After a few more lessons my cast touched the middle of the river. It was a satisfaction akin to a dinner when the guests return for thirds.
Even after these in-depth tutorials my casting is still as unpredictable as a jar of jalapenos. On Monday I took out a healthy eucalypt branch about ten feet above the river. Apparently I let go too late that time.
Then there is pulling in the bloody line. Apart from the saga of ensuring you don’t tangle the line around enthusiastic ankles – either mine or the dog’s – there is the difficulty getting the necessary pull so that the bloody fish doesn’t jump off the line and find some less dangerous prey. A few weeks ago we made a spontaneous Sunday arvo trip to a new fishing hole. On a mission to impress the new folk I met at this hole I decided to catch the biggest fish of the day. Nothing was left to lady luck with the crafty slow-pull-in technique I mastered that day. My fishing line was treated with the same respect you’d show an antique violin.
Sure enough, the fish of the day jumped on my line and with a measured excitement I asked someone to please hold my bottle of wine. It was on, more excitement than a kid with a toffee apple as that behemoth was dragged closer and closer to the shore. With one final pull I jagged that monster a few millimetres onto the sandy bank. But the crafty bugger had other ideas. He spat that hook as if it had no barbs and attempted a backflip back into his territory. He didn’t see Bernie coming. The great southwest hunter rushed into the fray, sacrificing his rum can and dry clothes. A big call when it was the last rum can and a mild winter’s afternoon. That yellow belly was a goner. Bernie rolled that fish up the bank as if he had been a rug salesman in a prior life. Of course, I still took credit for the freshwater beast and took a lesson home about getting those sneaky fish up onto the bank.
I never thought the fishing could be so different. This was confirmed a few days ago on another expedition with a fellow coasty who had her fair share of fishing expertise. I garnered a glimmer of understanding of how frustrated my boyfriend must get at my feeble attempts at outback fishing. We ran through how to hold the reel and the slick casting action. My mate stood on the bank with her purple hand reel and declared, “This is going to be a cracker. Just you wait.” Her yabbie was spinning at rollercoaster speeds as she deftly aimed towards the expanse of murky water. It let out an almighty smack as it crashed into the shore at her feet. Ironically the yabbie was a cracker – it cracked into pieces and spilled across the bank like a bag of marbles. It evoked the sort of laughter that’s usually reserved for watching people slip over on their own litter. A brilliant moment in my fishing life.
Regardless of these nuances I reckon spending time on a riverbank or in a boat with a line in the water is one of the most tranquil ways to spend an afternoon. That is, unless you’ve got rogue yabbies, amateur casting techniques and multiple hook-ups. Even then it’s a brilliant excuse to sit around a fire and have a beer with your mates. All in the name of catching a bloody slimy animal that’s difficult to fillet.