Dateline: May 30, 2015 – Sorrento, Australia
If there’s one thing worse than a healthy dose of perspective, it’s getting it from a five year-old.
This is a picture of a five year-old taking me down a few notches. It should be noted that he did not do this on purpose, like Jaime would have. Even at age five, Jaime was already evil.
More on that in a moment, but first, we need to talk about weather. My job is guaranteed to take me to some exotic places, but it is not guaranteed to take me to those places when the weather is good.
So when I was called to Melbourne, Australia in May, I was thrilled – and concerned. Thrilled because I have been to Australia dozens of times, but never south of Sydney. Victoria has a completely different batch of fish than Sydney, and the whole south of the country, from Melbourne west to Perth, is a key area for me to hit if I am ever to reach 2000 species. There are also loads of potential world records in the region, and if I was going to make a run at the 2015 IGFA Men’s Saltwater trophy, that run was going to start here. If I could find a calm few days, I could easily add 20 species and five or more records over a weekend. (Spoiler alert – the Fish Gods routinely punish this sort of optimism.)
I was also concerned – about the weather. I can read a calendar and understand the whole Austral winter thing. Indeed, even finding a guide was harder than I expected, as most local skippers pack up for the season and go tuna fishing up the coast, and the first few folks I called acted like I had lost my mind. “It’s WINTER.” they would say. But after a few days of searching, I found Shaun Furtiere and Think Big Charters. Shaun immediately got what I wanted to do – we were quickly talking about all the weird species he catches while fishing for snapper or gummy shark. I knew I had found my man.
Shaun Furtiere and a positively huge snapper – his website is FULL of pinkies this size. http://www.thinkbigcharters.com.au/
I was in the Melbourne office for a few days before my weekend on the water, and early in these meetings, I got a huge dose of perspective through a co-worker named David. (As someone who revels in catching fish the size of my pinkie finger, I find perspective to be generally unwelcome.)
I had just met David. We were talking in the office, and another co-worker who I’ve known for a while stopped by to talk fishing. “Oh, Wozniak’s quite the fisherman. Something like a thousand species.” (“1435” I quietly corrected, but who’s counting?) David considered this for a moment, pulled out his phone, and said “Ever caught one of these?” It was a picture of his five year-old son, Jackson, with a spangled perch. I have never caught a spangled perch. Seriously? This is how we’re going to start the trip?
Jackson and his spangled perch. He’s ten now, and he has probably caught even bigger ones since this photo was taken. This hurts me, because our society frowns on being openly competitive with children, so I have to pretend that I’m not. This is all Jaime Hamamoto’s fault.
After work on my last day in central Melbourne, I took a taxi south to Hastings, one of the vacation towns on the lower perimeter of Melbourne Bay. Shaun met me for dinner – it was a great steak, but both of our food got cold while we rooted through Fishes of Australia and he let me know what they catch here – in good weather. There were dozens of possible species, some rather exotic-looking, like the elephant fish. (Look it up – awesome.) He was concerned about the forecast, but with all the islands and bays in the area, he was confident we would find some shelter and at least be able to wet a line.
We got to the dock just at dawn. It was a beautiful place, and the day was clear, but the wind was blowing hard. I knew this would limit our available spots, but we were heading out.
Shaun launches the boat.
Hastings at dawn.
The day started well enough. On my very first cast in Victorian waters, I hooked a small flathead, which turned out to be a Southern sand flathead, and I had a new species. I was elated until I remembered that it wasn’t a spangled perch. (To be fair, spangled perch are a freshwater fish, so it was rather unlikely I was going to see one, and this bothered me. A lot.)
These things are so darn cool, especially the big dusky flatheads in Sydney that crush six-inch swimbaits.
I turned my attention to the other main target for the day – the gummy shark, a local dogfish that can grow well over 50 pounds.
Not to be confused with the popular candy.
This is when it got slow. Shaun did the best he could to adjust spots and try different rigs and baits, but the wind kept picking up and seemed to follow us around. I caught loads of flathead and Australian salmon, and got broken off by sevengill sharks a few heartstopping times, but I have already caught big sevengills – an hour from my house. I was here for the gummy.
We pounded it all afternoon, and well past when Shaun would normally have called it a day, I hooked up something that felt bigger than a salmon, but more hopeful than a sevengill. Moments later, Shaun netted a small gummy for me – I was equal parts thrilled and relieved. We headed for the dock soon afterward.
A rather modest gummy shark – species # 1437.
This was it? A bumpy day at sea and just two species? No world records? I whined to the Fish Gods – “But I’m in southern Australia!” They did not favor me with a response, and the weather for the next day looked a lot worse. So I did what I always do – started fishing on the boat ramp the minute we landed. In just a few minutes, I got a batch of Australian smooth puffers – another species. Things were looking up again.
That’s a smooth puffer. Not to be confused with the awkward puffer.
Shaun had some family things to attend to in the evening, so I was on my own in Hastings. There were a couple of hours of daylight left, and there was a pier about 300 yards from my hotel. The outcome should be obvious.
It was a lovely pier, and while it stayed windy, it was still a clear evening and a beautiful spot. The puffers had followed me over from the boat ramp, and I pulled up half a dozen or so from the pilings on a sabiki. My seventh fish didn’t fight quite as hard, and when I flipped it up into my hand, my jaw dropped. It looked as if I had snagged a Christmas ornament.
I love Christmas ornaments. But I never expected to catch one.
It was a male ornate cowfish, in all his glory. I had seen these in books previously, and I hadn’t even considered that they might be here at this dock on a blustery Victoria evening. This alone made the trip worth it. I caught a few more, including the beautiful but less-gaudy female ornate cowfish.
The female ornate cowfish. Ornate, but not as ornate as the male.
As darkness set in, I was off for a well-deserved pizza. For a small town, Hastings had some very nice food, although I couldn’t find mention of King Harold anywhere.
I just felt like posting one more picture of this thing. I still can’t believe I caught it.
The next day’s forecast looked miserable. The wind was supposed to get worse, and the rain that had missed us on day one looked like it was going to arrive in force. I gamely donned my Goretex before Shaun picked me up, and we drove to Sorrento, a summer vacation town about 30 minutes south.
Sorrento is a charming place, even though no spangled perch live there. The rain didn’t materialize, but the wind was gusting to 40. Shaun cancelled his afternoon charter, but he knew I didn’t get there very often and launched the boat.
Sorrento at dawn. This was the most sheltered spot, before the wind really got going.
He did, however, promise that we were going to get quite a beating, and he was right. It was a three on the “Oh my goodness/Oh my lunch/Oh my cojones” scale the entire day, but I knew there were species to be had, and I was going for it.
We set up a few medium bottom rigs and then fished smaller stuff to pass the time. My first catch was modest but promising – a silverbelly, which looks a lot like a mojarra with a nose job.
Not a mojarra. This surprises me.
We moved around, trying in vain to find a bit of shelter from the wind, and on the second spot, one of the bottom rigs bounced. I set the hook into something that was clearly decent-sized, but put up less-than-enthusiastic fight. When Shaun netted it, I was thrilled to see it was an Australian Swellshark, an unusual species that can blow up with air or water like a puffer.
I had caught related species in Southern California. For details on this and to see some amazing hairstyles, click HERE.
This fish was also an open world record, so there was hope. I needed to knock off a few more, but the first one is always the hardest, because there cannot be a second one without a first one.
There was plenty of action on the light rods. We caught dozens of Australian salmon – which are not actually salmon. Australians do some confusing things with their common names, calling groupers “cod” and “trout” and calling threadfin “salmon” also even though they are not related to the Australian salmon or any other salmon. We also got barracouta, (not related to barracuda of course,) a odd cold-water species I have captured as far afield as Chile, Namibia, and New Zealand.
A barracouta. Why couldn’t they have named it something less confusing?
We stuck at it, and while the fishing was only a shadow of what it could obviously be in good weather, we added a few more to the tally before we had to call it a day. I was glad to have gotten out at all.
Shaun and Steve with a bluethroated wrasse, the third species of the day. Shaun is an outstanding guide – if you’re in the Melbourne area, look him up at http://www.thinkbigcharters.com.au/. No, his head is not that big – he’s just a lot closer to the camera.
Moments after adding the bluethroat, I got a much bigger one. A quick check of the record book I bring for just such occasions indicated that this too was an open world record, and that was two for the day, and ten for the season. I was in the running, and while I know I could have gotten more if the weather had just been right, I was fortunate to have gotten the ones I did. Shaun did a fantastic job.
The record bluethroat. These things fight hard.
I had an afternoon flight to Sydney, so we headed in around 11. I almost always take the time to cast a sabiki around docks whenever I finish a day, and in this case, I got one more small reward, a common weedfish – the eighth and final species for the adventure. (Although, I noted with some deflation, none of them were spangled perch.)
You never know what might show up in the rocks while the skipper is putting the boat on the trailer.
Shaun had been awesome, helping me turn a weekend most fishermen would have spent in front of the TV into a great trip. I knew I had eight species, and I knew I had two records, but I also knew I had only scratched the surface. I was already making plans to come back, but in the meantime, I was heading to Sydney, where the weather was calm and an old friend had the boat warmed up and ready.