Dateline: June 1, 2015 – Port Hacking, Australia
This episode starts a long time ago – it goes back 15 years, 79 countries, 123 world records, 1360 species, and one Marta, to be exact.
It was May 2, 2000, during what Marta likes to call “The Dark Time” (i.e. before I met her.) My species count was at 119, I wouldn’t set my first IGFA world record for another five years, and I had caught fish in seven countries. (It has been a busy 15 years.)
I was in Sydney on business, my second trip there ever. I was in awe at seeing things, like the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, that I seen in encyclopedias as a kid and never imagined I would visit in person. Truthfully, I’m still in awe every time I see something like that.
Sydney Harbour Bridge – they actually have tours where you can walk along the top. I’ll pass, thanks.
I had met Steve Baty a few years before, and he had become a great friend – and hairstyle inspiration. During that May of 2000 visit, Steve set us up to fish on Botany Bay with a guide buddy of his.
Steve Baty on an especially spectacular hair day.
I got four new species that day – silver trevally, yellowfin leatherjacket, bluelined goatfish, and dusky flathead. (Five if you count the local yellowtail a.k.a. “kingfish” as separate from the Southern California version.)
Steve and Steve, May 2000. I still have that shirt, but it fits differently now.
The guide was named Scotty Lyons, and in the 15 years since that autumn (yes, autumn) day, he and I have fished dozens of days together and put 89 species and four world records on my tally.
Scotty and Steve, circa a long time ago. The “Squidgies” shirt was a gift from him, and I still believe it is one of the coolest pieces of clothing I own.
This May, I found myself in Sydney again. It had been six years since I had been to Australia, and that, you are likely thrilled to learn, was before the 1000fish blog came into existence. This means there are no previous episodes to refer to, which is a shame, at least to me, because Scotty Lyons is one of the best guides I have ever fished with. Some of our adventures together, such as a week on a houseboat in crocodile-infested northern Queensland with six men and one bar of soap, are, depending on your level of maturity, either eminently bloggable or best left in the mists of history.
(Interestingly, or not, Scotty and family have met the Hamamotos – click HERE for details.)
With a few days in Sydney on my way home from Melbourne, I connected with Scotty, and we planned out our first trip in years. Sydney is a magnificent town – great restaurants, friendly people, as scenic as anywhere on the globe. It was great to be back and wander around some of the old, familiar tourist spots.
The Opera House lit up during the “Vivid Sydney” festival.
I was unaware that the”Vivid Sydney” festival was happening – imagine my surprise when I showed up to find the streets near my favorite hotel jammed with tens of thousands of inebriated revelers, which is pretty much like any other night in Sydney, except there was a light show.
Downtown Sydney completely lit up, just like most of the visitors.
Morning came quickly. I took the very familiar cab ride out toward the airport, then around the edge of Botany Bay to the Sans Souci bridge, where the big green boat was waiting, just as it had been for dozens of mornings over the years. I thought about some of the many species Scotty and I had gotten together, some unexpected, like the rock cale, some struggled for over dozens of trips, like the mulloway.
In planning the trip, we first had to acknowledge that this was not going to be a species bonanza. Scotty and I have picked this place over for years, searching out even the most obscure piscine residents. We have fished Botany in every season, day and night, rain and shine, wind and calm, headed miles up estuary creeks to search out brackish beasts, and driven well offshore to pursue species rumored to be there.
This trip was about trying to put some world records together – I knew there were a bunch here – and also to just get out onto some of my favorite water with one of my greatest fishing buddies, or mates, as they are known in Australia. I wonder how Australian Facebook works, and rather than “friend” someone, if you “mate” them, which makes the place sound a bit racy for my tastes.
Our first day would be in Scotty’s normal stomping ground – Botany Bay. I had figured out at least four of the regular catches there – silver trevally, Maori wrasse, Port Jackson shark, and the oddly named Sergeant Baker – were open world records. So we set out to catch normal-sized examples of stuff Scotty catches almost every time out. It sounded like a can’t-miss proposition, but this, of course, is just begging the Fish Gods to do something humbling.
The day was perfect – a bit overcast, and dead calm inside and outside the bay. There were so many familiar spots, and I flashed back to some of the wonderful species I had gotten with Scott over the years. We drove over the channel where, years before, I had gotten one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught – the bluefin gurnard.
Imagine my surprise when it opened its pectoral fins.
Our first target for the day was a Port Jackson shark – a type of horn shark common inside the bays. We set up some mackerel slabs, and I also cast a smaller rod with a prawn just for fun, knowing there weren’t any species but there was still plenty of fun to be had. Naturally, that very first prawn I tossed out into Botany Bay returned with a new species attached. I couldn’t believe it, Scotty couldn’t believe it, and we didn’t ask the fish, but I’m sure it was incredulous as well.
A very surprised Australian Bartail Flathead. Go figure.
Stunned though we were, the Fish Gods had apparently noticed that I assumed the records would be easy and decided to punish me. While Port Jackson sharks normally show up uninvited in droves, they wouldn’t bite today. I sulked.
But as I sulked, the small rod went down again, and my short attention span was diverted elsewhere. This time, I landed a silver trevally, and at one pound, it was a record. One down, but let’s face it, hoping for three more felt a bit optimistic.
The Australian silver trevally – Caranx georgianus, for those of you playing along at home.
Scotty moved us outside the bay, and we began searching the reefs that run anywhere from 15 to 100 feet deep as you move offshore. We got into a bunch of Maori wrasses, and after 10 or so, one reached the magic one pound mark. Two down. We turned our attention next to the Sergeant Baker, a large type of lizardfish. I thought this would be easy, because I had caught these every time I hadn’t wanted to.
Maori wrasse. These have a faintly obscene local nickname, but this is a family blog, folks.
We drifted for another hour or two, catching all kinds of interesting stuff, but no Sergeant Baker. From my previous experience, going an hour on these reefs without catching a Sergeant Baker was impossible. We got a bunch of eastern red scorpionfish, but these were not the target.
Do not put this in your pants.
Disgusted with the Sergeant Baker, and noting that it was an extremely flat day outside the bay, we decided to “swing for the fences” and take a shot at a black drummer. Black drummer are a chub species that live in the wash right up against coastal rocks, so it takes a perfect day to back the boat into the surf and cast baits to them. I had caught only one in my life, in 2002, and it was a spectacularly small example.
A spectacularly small black drummer. How about the cool Akubra hat? (You might recognize it from The Cottonwood Death March.)
I didn’t have much faith as Scotty eased the boat under the cliffs – we had spent hours trying to get a decent-sized drummer, and I just never seemed to get the right day. I began tossing a peeled prawn at likely-looking washes. On my second cast, the line sank for a moment, then shot off to the left. I set the hook, and the fish took off hard for the rocks. My rig was roughly eight pound class, and I just held on for dear life as the fish pulled for the rocks. It chipped up against the bottom a couple of times, but I thumbed down the spool and took my chances. My knots held, and slowly, I got him up out of the structure and into midwater, where he made a few more runs. After about 10 minutes, it surfaced. It was a positively huge black drummer – over five pounds – and this too was an open world record. Three for the day, and now my Australian friends wouldn’t make fun of my black drummer.
One of the toughest light-tackle battles I’ll ever have.
As the afternoon wound down, we stayed out on some of the deeper reefs and fished some larger baits. Scotty figured we might find a Port Jackson shark or something else bizarre, and as it was starting to get dark, I had one big hit, followed by a heavy but not especially enthusiastic fight. I think we both silently guessed Sergeant Baker, but did not want to hex anything by speaking out loud. Moments later, Scotty netted the largest Sergeant Baker I have ever seen, and record number four was on the books. I was officially in the IGFA running. I smiled at the thought of another plaque in the house.
I called Marta immediately, and she answered “It’s going in the garage.”
Our next day was set up to visit another venue I have come to love – Port Hacking. Lesser-known than Botany, but an amazing fishery nonetheless, Port Hacking is pretty much Scotty’s back yard, and it has produced numerous species for me over the years, including some truly memorable catches like the tassled wobbegong.
I still can’t believe that anyone swims here.
Port Hacking scenery is some of the nicest in the area, and that’s a lot of choices.
Steve wades Port Hacking in search of flathead, circa 2004. Moments after this picture was taken, I almost stepped on a local stingray. I was more upset that I didn’t catch it than I was at the close call.
I would also finally get to meet Paul Brehany. One of Scotty’s best mates, Paul is a well-known Sydney chef and restaurateur. For several years, Scotty and Paul have produced a webcast called “The Hook and the Cook,” where Paul makes amazing meals out of the amazing fish Scotty catches. (TheHookAndTheCook.com) For our day out, we would be filming an episode, presuming I could catch something edible.
Scott, Paul, and a big snapper. They clean up nicely.
We had one main target for the day – a record on the Eastern Blue Groper. That is not a typo. The Australians, with their penchant for creating misleading or downright bizarre common names, decided that they just had to call this large wrasse a “groper.” I imagine this makes sense after a gallon of Fosters, but I remain perplexed.
Eastern blue groper – August 2002. Sure, it’s blue, but how do you grope anything if you don’t have hands?
Our plan was to motor outside of Hacking to the south, but the Fish Gods paid us back for the previous day’s calm conditions, and the wind picked up unexpectedly. We were limited to some protected areas of the coast, but Scotty was still confident we could find a groper. In the meantime, I put down some small baits and, stunningly, pulled up a new species. That’s two in two days, which I had thought impossible.
The yellowstriped leatherjacket. I had never even heard of them.
We then set to groper fishing. This involves finding a likely reef, and drifting an unweighted crab on very heavy tackle – these fish hit hard and run for the structure, so it’s a quick but violent fight. A couple of crabs later, I got a crushing strike and leaned back as hard as I could on the heavy bottom rod I was using. The fish got into the rocks twice, but I managed to lift it out, and a moment later, we had our record – number five for the trip.
This is the female – only the males are bright blue. Look closely at the eye.
After appropriate high-fives, we fished for about 30 more minutes on the outside reefs before the wind got to be too much. There was one more surprise waiting for me. After I had pulled in about a dozen of the normal reef inhabitants – scarlet parrotfish, sweeps, and mado – I swung a white and black wrasse over the rail. Scotty saw it first and his eyes almost popped out of his head. “It’s that comb wrasse you’ve been chasing forever, mate!”
ANOTHER new species. I am guessing Marta made a special appeal to the Fish Gods, because I couldn’t have dreamed of getting three new ones here in two days, and I have some pretty optimistic dreams. For example, I still believe the Tigers will win the World Series next year.
It was a comb wrasse, a rather rare local resident that I only ever seen once – when it fell off my hook in midair in 2008. This was truly satisfying. We headed into Port Hacking to get out of the wind and to try to find something edible so we could film an episode of “The Hook and the Cook.”
I must have one of these shirts. Marta knows I need more shirts.
It didn’t take long. We found a nice batch of bluefish – “tailor” in the local parlance, and Paul was able to whip up a beautiful ceviche as we continued a pleasant afternoon inside the bay.
Paul and my lunch, the subject of an episode of “The Hook and the Cook” – click HERE for the sordid details.
In the few minutes we fished after the meal, the species hunt went from weird to downright bizarre. I was casting a light rod with a prawn bait, expecting to catch the small pink snappers that are stacked in the bay, when I got a decidedly bigger small fish. Flipping it up onto the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes – or my luck. It was a small Maori grouper, a generally more northerly fish that had gotten quite lost, but it was the third new species of the day and one I had never even considered could be here.
A Maori grouper – third species of the day and fourth of the trip. “Unlikely” can’t begin to describe this one.
We headed back to the dock in the late afternoon, and while Scotty pulled the boat out, I had a moment to reflect. It had been great to meet Paul, even better to have been fed by Paul, marvelous to have added a record, ridiculous to have put three more species on the board, but best of all to have spent another day with one of my greatest fishing friends. I smiled to myself and appreciated what had been not just one, but a string of golden moments – we only get so many of these in a lifetime.
If you’re anywhere near Sydney, look up Scotty.