Posted by: 1000fish | June 24, 2017

The Melbourne Ultimatum

Dateline: January 25, 2017 – Hastings, Australia

On my last trip to Hastings, I didn’t do as badly as King Harold, but it was close.

King Harold gets the point. Look it up – it turns out the English are more French than they would like.

You might point out that this is a different Hastings, but I am pretty sure it was named after the town in England that became famous in 1066. (1066, as you know, is significant because the English won the World Cup exactly 900 years later, which would have been a more appropriate ending for the Bayeux Tapestry*.) In any case, that trip to Hastings, Australia in May of 2015 (“I’m Here For the Gummy“) sounds nice until we consider two factors –

  • It was winter in Australia.
  • The weather in Melbourne is always bad.

I could tell that the area had loads of opportunities, but despite the efforts of top-notch guide Shaun Furtiere, the wind was miserable and we didn’t get a lot of what would normally be there. It was heartbreaking, because we knew if we could only have gotten to certain spots, we would have scored a lot more species and possibly records, but this is one of the risks of fishing. (Perspective from Marta – Steve wasn’t nearly this philosophical at the time. As a matter of fact, he is NEVER philsophical.)

The vagaries of business travel being what they are, I found myself back in Australia in January of this year. I would need to consider two factors –

  • It was summer in Australia.
  • The weather in Melbourne is always bad.

Still, this was my chance. This is a very long way from home, so I told myself I needed to get a lot of of the missing species or I couldn’t come back – the Melbourne Ultimatum. (To Marta’s disappointment, Matt Damon was not involved.) This time around, Shaun kindly picked me up and drove me down the peninsula. It was clear and breezy, but he was confident that at least the next couple of days would have good water conditions. He dropped me off at the Harborview Inn on the edge of town, and I took some time to set up all my gear. Shaun had volunteered to take me out eel fishing that night, so I passed the afternoon back at Hastings pier, the spot that had produced the amazing ornate cowfish for me the year before. It produced more cowfish, which were just as ornate the second time out, and close to 50 puffers, which was not so astonishing. The smooth puffer had been the dominant pest on my last visit, and it looked like they were out for blood again.

The ornate cowfish. I will not show a picture of the puffers – this would only encourage them.

But since you asked, here’s a picture of Shaun with a puffer.

The eel adventure was unsuccessful, but how many guides would spend an evening doing this? Australians are wonderful people, with the exception of one guy in my office, but this was really above the call of duty.

The first morning, we were joined by Shaun’s friend Warren. Warren is a local tournament fisherman, and although he will poo-pooh me on this, he is something of a local legend. Having him along was like having a second guide. Shaun is quite the expert on the game species in the area – snapper, whiting, and gummy shark – and Warren added some great knowledge on some of the lesser-known critters I would be after.

On our way to the harbor, we had an amazing wildlife encounter. We saw something waddling across the road, and a closer look revealed it was an echidna – sort of an Australian porcupine. I walked up to it, and it made no effort to run away. It simply dug into the ground and raised its spines – an intimidating sight. At my request, Warren dug it out, which was quite a chore, and I actually got to see one more up close and personally than it probably liked. (This creature is somewhat sacred in our household – Marta has a stuffed echidna named Spike, and Spike hates me.) So first, the video of the echidna we saw, and then a photo of Spike.

 

This is Spike. He takes Marta’s side in everything.

We launched on a sunny and windless morning, which is what I felt the Fish Gods owed me after the debacle 19 months ago. We were able to get outside of the coastal islands and head for the open water, and a gorgeous ride later, we were fishing.

Oh, what I would have given for weather like this in May of 2015.

Warren immediately showed that local experience was important. He caught a couple of King George whiting immediately – and we were fishing the same rig in the same place. But after a respectful wait, I had a hard strike and a battle all the way up, and I landed my whiting.

This is the largest of the whiting species, reportedly attaining some eight pounds.

We pounded the reefs the rest of the afternoon, and this is when the Fish Gods reminded me that they owe me nothing. I was here, it was summer, and there was decent weather. But all those species I had seen in the books, like Elephantfish, were not jumping on the hook. We got dozens of fish – blue throated wrasses, senator wrasses, and the occasional snapper, but nothing new for a couple of hours. Then I got a very dark wrasse, which turned out to be a purple wrasse, so we had two in the books. It was then followed by a brownspotted wrasse, so I was up to three.

The purple wrasse.

The Brownspotted. Dr. Jeff Johnson figured this one out, or it would still be in the mystery file. There are 27 fish on this unfortunate list, most destined to stay there forever.

Toward evening, we got a blue-throated wrasse that easily beat my existing record, so there was one on that scoreboard as well.

The first world record of the year. Marta loved my hat with the point and the seagull.

And on our last stop, a shallow bank near the harbor, I landed one of the species that I had admired in books for years – the blue weed whiting.

It actually isn’t a whiting, it wasn’t in the weeds, and it’s not even blue.  Australians do some bizarre things with common names. For example, they call threadfin “salmon” and groupers “cod” and beer “a food group.”

That evening, Warren took me out for a pizza in Hastings. It was awesome.

The next day was similar to the first – perfect weather. We headed out into the open ocean and down the coast. Anchoring up on some shallow reefs, we got steady action on wrasses and leatherjackets. Among perhaps three dozen fish, I got two new ones – the Sea Sweep and horseshoe leatherjacket.

The sea sweep. Closely related to the silver sweep I have caught so often in Sydney.

Note the horseshoe pattern on the fish. That’s Warren on the right.

I also managed to break two of my own records – the bluethroated wrasse and sixspine leatherjacket. At two and a half pounds, the bluethroat was a beast. Speaking of beasts, I had the educational pleasure of watching Warren fight a 10 pound-ish yellowtail to boatside on six pound line.

The beastly bluethroat.

This is why they are called bluethroats. Cousin Chuck, call me. I’ll explain.

My first record on a six spine was with Scotty Lyons in 2009.

As the day went on, we moved back into the bay to do some ray fishing – I had lost a huge Melbourne skate here last May and I intended to make up for it. We didn’t get a ray bite, although we got a few sharks, my biggest pink snapper ever, and a surprise new species. When I went to swing the fish over the rail, Shaun and Warren both dove for cover. It was a common gurnard perch, and it’s all kinds of venomous. I of course knew this and was able to handle it without harming anyone, but they didn’t know that at the time.

Do NOT put this in your pants.

My personal best pink snapper. Yes, I know this isn’t one of Shaun’s bump-headed monstrosities, but it’s going in the right direction.

We closed up for the day ahead seven total species and three records for the trip.

Sunset at Rocky Point.

The next morning, Shaun had planned a new location – north of the peninsula and onto the main bay, where we could look for some odd species and also take a shot at some big snapper. It was glorious when we launched, but Shaun warned me that some nasty weather was brewing up for later. I put that out of mind and just fished, and we ended up with three great new species –

Little Weed Whiting – it is indeed little, but still not a whiting.

Shaun gets selfie-ambushed.

The Bridled Leatherjacket.

Southern Garfish – this brought Shaun back to his childhood. He spent an appreciable amount of his younger years fishing for these on a float rig.

We fished on the wreck of the HMS Chunder, a 19th century relic.

We cut it off mid-afternoon, and after some sort of fast-food adventure, we launched again out of Rocky Point for an evening of ray fishing. Toward dark, one of the rods had a screaming run, reminiscent of our Tomales Bay bat rays. I set the hook and began a battle with what was unmistakably a Myliobatis species – long, powerful runs, then circling the boat, then running some more. About 15 minutes into the fight, just as I was getting the fish toward the boat, the hook pulled. This NEVER happens on rays. But it did. I said bad words.

I couldn’t be too upset – I figured we had plenty of time ahead of us, and I was sure that if one ray would bite, we would have several more chances. We had plenty of baits out, a large bag of gas-station snacks, and the tide looked perfect. It was at this exact moment the wind came up. This was not a subtle process – it went from almost perfectly still to 30+ instantly. Shaun saw it first, bearing down on us, and said “Ahhhh #%$&.” We were done for the evening. And while this gave me a chance to have yet another delicious pizza, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to catch an eagle ray. I was still up to ten species for the trip, exceeding last years total with two days still to fish, but guess what was on my mind all night?

I passed a fitful evening, as it was obvious that the wind wasn’t laying down – it sounded like the roof was going to come off. Shaun had planned for this as well, and he came up with a shore-based option. We headed over to Mornington harbor, which involved quite a scenic drive through the local wine country.  The harbor was perfect – one side of it was completely protected from the wind. I broke out the sabikis and set to seeing what was there. In between dozens of leatherjackets and wrasses, and fishing next to a bunch of kids with equally short attention spans, I managed three new species. Two of them were run-of-the-mill harbor micros – the southern hulafish and the yelloweye mullet.

The Southern Hulafish.

The Yelloweye Mullet. I had my doubts, but Shaun called this one right.

But the final one was a surprise that made the whole day worth it. A caught a zebrafish, which is a strikingly-colored relative of the opaleye. Shaun was amused at my excitement, and to be fair, my dance of joy across the wharf may have been a bit overboard. Australians aren’t used to seeing people act that oddly before happy hour.

They’re supposed to be vegetarian, but nobody told this one.

We gave the eels another try that night, and struck out again. How is it that we can catch as many eels as we want to if we are trying for something else, but as soon as we target them, they are as rare as objective journalism?

That left us one more day to get a ray. I had pretty much accepted that we weren’t got to get all of the available species on this trip, but I wanted at least one ray – there are several really amazing species down here. We got a bright and early start out of Rocky Point, and anchored up in one of the channels. After a couple of less-definitive bites, one of the rods went off with the screaming run I was hoping for. I picked it up, reeled into the circle hook, and started a lengthy battle that was made more dramatic by the self-doubt created by the hook that pulled out two days before. The fight went on for perhaps 30 minutes, and the most self-doubt happened when the leader appeared. Shaun was calm the entire time, and he netted the fish on the first opportunity. I had my eagle ray, the 14th and final species of an excellent trip.

They look like a bat ray with a better paint job.

At long last, a ray in Melbourne.

Shaun was kind enough to drive me back up to Melbourne airport. I had gotten many of the creatures left on the table from the previous trip, but there were quite a few still out there. This is the nature of the species hunting game, and another trip here didn’t sound like such a bad idea – especially for an Elephantfish. In the meantime, I had a plane to catch and some rigging to do. I would be spending the next 48 hours fishing down memory lane, with two old friends in Sydney.

Steve

* I have always wanted to open a Spanish appetizer restaurant in Normandy. I would call it “The Bayeux Tapas.” The Norman conquest has always held a special fascination for me, as some of our common linguistic expressions trace back to this event. For example, King Harold was the first person to say “Fire at Will!” We also got the first definitive example of what happens to deposed English monarchs – they get throne away.

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  1. […] trip. I gave it little more thought, as I then went to Melbourne for a week. (Featured in “The Melbourne Ultimatum.”) But you’ve already read about that, unless you’re my sister, who is terribly […]


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