Posted by: 1000fish | July 11, 2017

Life After the Big Green Boat

Dateline: January 27, 2017 – Port Hacking, Australia

Seventeen years is a long time in guide years, which are much, much longer than dog years, and in general, the food’s worse. A lot can happen in that much time, especially when we’re so busy living life that we forget to stop and appreciate how much has happened.

I met Scotty Lyons seventeen years ago. This makes me feel old, so imagine how it makes him feel. I met him before I met Roger Barnes. Before I met Jean-Francois Helias. Before I met Marta. The day I met Scotty, I had caught 119 species in five countries and had exactly zero world records. In the time since, I’ve added over 1500 species, and about 100 of those are courtesy of the man with the big green boat.

Yes, it’s a horrible photo, but I swiped it from Scotty’s website, so blame him.

I arrived in Sydney on a beautiful summer Saturday. I would have normally fished with Scotty, but he was on vacation. (The nerve of him.) I had figured I could wait for a week, but when I saw how gorgeous it was, I knew I had to get on the water. (Although I felt a bit unfaithful going with another guide.) A quick web search later, I found a suitable boat – Deep Blue Charters. They normally take big groups bottom bashing off the coast for snapper, so it was a bit of an adjustment for them to host one angler who wanted to catch anything but snapper. They were good guys, although deeply bewildered at the idea of dropping #18 hooks down onto the reefs outside Sydney head.

It was a glorious day. I needed to go fishing or I would be struck by lightning.

It wasn’t all microfishing – I dropped plenty of bigger baits, and my very first fish of 2017 was a solid morwong.

Blue morwong. I got my first one on October 28, 2007 with Scotty. I remember these things.

There were also two noteworthy catches later in the afternoon. The first was a straightforward new species – the streaky lizardfish. (Identified by Dr. Jeff Johnson – which saved it from a trip to the mystery file, because this species isn’t in any of my books.)

The streaky lizardfish and a bemused crewman.

The other fish resulted in a new species, but only after significant introspection and a humiliating public confession, which you are about to read. You see, I caught a whiting that looked new.

The whiting that looked new. So far, so good.

I dug into the books, and it turned out I had caught an Eastern School Whiting. I was thrilled, albeit briefly, to get two new species in an unplanned 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 behind on the blog. Oh, the shame.

So when I proudly showed the photo to Scotty, he said something completely unexpected – “We’ve caught that one before. The day we got all the big leatherjackets.” He was talking about a day nine years ago … and he was right. I, who can remember nearly all the lines from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” by heart, I, who can remember the Detroit Tigers lineup from 1972, I, who can tell you the line score from hockey games I played in 1978, had just flat out missed one. But this blog is about two days with Scotty, not about my failing middle-aged memory, so let’s move on.

September 20, 2008. Botany Bay. Scotty took this picture and remembered the species instantly nine years later. And I’m the one who prides himself on his memory.

I was looking forward to fishing on the Big Green Boat – Scotty’s “Bullfrog II.” (I am one of the few living people who has also fished on the original “Bullfrog,” which was also an awful bright green.) For many years, I had thought I had caught everything in Botany Bay, but even on my May 2015 trip, (see “The Hook and the Cook“) we managed to squeeze out a few newbies. Either way, it was a chance to fish with a great friend, and certainly a good shot a some records, but my expectations on species were very low.

The morning of our first day didn’t do much to change this. It was overcast, a bit blustery, and a barometer settling downward. We moved around some comfortably familiar places – the floating drums, the north head, the oil pier. We got a few of the usual suspects – small banjo sharks, snappers, tarwine, breams – but nothing new. We smiled, knowing we had a very difficult task in front of us, but glad to be on the water. We stuck at it, just as we have for 17 years.

The conversation went in many directions – fishing plans for the next hour, fishing plans for tomorrow, and of course to families and life. Both of Scott’s sons are out on their own, and Trudy is still speaking to him, which is a major triumph after all these years. (In which she has seemingly never aged.) He has worked his tail off as a guide, kept up some work as a carpenter, and redone his house into something of an Architectural Digest showplace. Two years ago, his best friend Paul “cashed out” of the insane Sydney housing market and moved to Queensland, where a decent sized piece of property can actually be afforded, and where living expenses have stayed reasonable, and I got the feeling Scotty would like to do this someday as well. We were actually talking about life after the Big Green Boat. When did I get so darn old?

NOTE TO THE WORLDWIDE ANGLING COMMUNITY: SCOTTY IS NOT RETIRING ANY TIME SOON. DO NOT DESPAIR. KEEP YOUR BOOKINGS WITH HIM.

Around noon, we moved to the container wall – my favorite structure on the entire bay. I dropped a couple of slab baits to the bottom, and started casting a sabiki toward the pilings, expecting a mado or some other familiar creature. But as they have so many times in this location, the Fish Gods smiled on me. I caught a ladder-finned pomfret, a creature I had just seen in Sea Fishes of Southern Australia the night before. We celebrated like we had just won a war against France. (Since this is an international blog, I figured most cultures could relate to that.)

The power of positive thinking.

The pressure was off. We could just have fun, and Scotty now had a chance to get home before dark. We pulled anchor and moved down the wall, to a heretofore secret flat spot Scotty had hidden from me all these years. I put down a rod for a moray, just in case, and started casting small baits into the structure. Moments later, I pulled up a goatfish. Only it wasn’t the normal bright red goatfish I have gotten here. It was something new.

The blackspot goatfish. Now we had two species. That’s twice as good as one.

As we pulled the anchor, I reeled up the eel rod, and after I dragged it out of a snag, it was suspiciously heavy. I warned Scotty to have the net ready, and as my leader surfaced, I indeed – finally – had my yellow moray. I have tried for this species on almost every trip for the past 17 years, and I had been the only fisherman in the area who had never caught one. I am, however, perhaps the first person to catch one deliberately.

My 20th moray species. 

The obligatory “Put that thing down, you idiot” photo. Scotty would be drummed out of the guide community if anyone saw this.

Then things just got stupid good. We moved on to some sand flats most of the way back to the dock – a place where Scotty had once caught a “cobbler” sea catfish and therefore became a place we tried fruitlessly for this species over the years. While the catfish remained elusive, I pulled up not one, but two new species in the next 20 minutes.

A somewhat lost stout whiting. Scotty had never seen one either.

 

I would call this a mojarra. They would call it a silverbiddy. But no matter what it’s called, it was species five of the day.

I made my way back to Sydney for a night of low-key celebrating.

I personally believe five new species deserves fireworks, but it was also Australia Day. You be the judge.

Nighttime view from Circular Quay. If you look carefully, there are more fireworks.

I have been waiting years to put this photo in a blog.

The next morning, I got to feel even older, because we got to go fishing with someone I have known even longer than Scotty. Indeed, Steve Baty introduced me to Scotty. Steve and I worked together in the mid-90’s, (he was the smart one) and it was he who introduced me to Australian fishing. (Which has resulted in 208 of my 1653 species to date.) Steve is a passionate fishermen, but is rather busy running a successful company and being married and  raising what seems like a dozen children, so he doesn’t get out quite as often as I do. Still, every time we go, we pick up like we had just gone yesterday.

Steve and Steve on the original Bullfrog, May 2000.

Steve and Steve, April 2009, best hair day ever.

20 years on, we hit the water again. That’s a smallscale bullsye, my first fish of the day, and yes, it was a new species. 

Our venue was Port Hacking, one of the most beautiful locations in the Sydney area. It can be a tricky place, but on the good days, there are some amazing fish here. Moments after we stopped, I got a new species. This was a good omen.

After loading up on live squid for bait, we motored outside the bay and anchored up on one of the nearshore reefs. These areas are loaded with fish – snappers, wrasses, mackerel, and dozens of others. But I was there to settle a score with the Port Jackson shark. This member of the horn shark family is one of those scavengers that seems to get caught by everyone who doesn’t want one, and it was an open record that had avoided me for years. This had to be my day. But the first thing to eat the scad fillet wasn’t a fish at all – it was a positively huge cephalapod. (For those of you who have seen “Arrival,” no, this is something different.)

The biggest cuttlefish I have ever seen. This was strangely pleasing, and yes, it was safely released.

I put another big bait on the bottom and waited. While I did that, I passed some time dropping some smaller hooks and catching an assortment of reef creatures. It was great fun until I got snagged up. So I broke off and re-rigged. Then I got snagged again. I tried all the tricks to get it loose, but finally resorted to yanking up on the rod a few times. Scotty looked at my quizzically. “Mate, I think that’s a fish.” he said. “Bull@#&%” I replied. Steve weighed in – “Yeah, we’ve drifted about 30 feet and it’s still straight under us. “Bull@#&%” I replied. I was just about ready to break the line when the fish took off, peeling out 10-pound braid powerfully but slowly. I was pretty sure I had my Port Jackson shark. But I didn’t – about 15 minutes later, Scotty reached down and netted a big Fiddler Ray – at 16.5 pounds, it would break the existing world record of 14.75. I was stunned, and lucky that all my mishandling hadn’t pulled the hook out.

The snag that turned into a record.

I want to take a moment and pay tribute to the man whose record I broke. Marcel Vandergoot set this record in South Australia 27 years ago – and he did it on FOUR POUND TEST. (He also probably knew he had a fish on the whole time.

 

Marcel Vandergoot and his record fiddler ray. Our collective hats are off to you, Marcel.

So we kept at it, with both Steve and I catching dozens of assorted reef creatures. A while later, the slab rod started bouncing. I picked it up and set into something that wasn’t quite as big as the Port Jackson shark I wanted. When Scotty netted it, though, he was again stunned. It was a beastly Sergeant Baker – a type of lizardfish that locals regard as something of a pest. At three and a half pounds, it handily beat my previous record. This was becoming quite a day.

The vicious and inedible Sergeant Baker.

Still, I wanted that Port Jackson shark badly, which is not a sentence you often hear in Australian fishing circles. Noon passed, and while we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant (or productive) day, I couldn’t believe that my main target wouldn’t cooperate. Scotty finally made his own custom slab rig on one of his kingfish rods, as he has always been suspicious of my hand-tied California bat ray leaders. Needless to say, we got a bite immediately. I set into the fish. It was big, which encouraged me, and somewhat more sluggish than the average tuna, which also encouraged me. I held my breath when Scotty picked up the net, but a moment later, a big Port Jackson finally hit the deck. I had my third record of the day.

Steve and Steve with the beast. It came in at 17.5 pounds.

Another thing not to put in your pants.

With this triumph, we headed back into the bay, to weight the fish on dry land and get a well-deserved beer. I looked around at the scenery – it was a perfect, sunny afternoon, just like it had been on my first day there years and years ago when business travel was still fun and no one was talking about retirement.

Port Hacking. Every one of those dark, weedy patches holds flathead.

Fishing for those flathead, circa 2001. This is the first known photo of me taken with a digital camera. I didn’t think digital cameras would catch on.

Moments before that photo above was taken, I had nearly stepped on a small stingray, and that species would become our final target for the day. We anchored up on a mud flat in the back of the bay and fanned out some big cut baits – Steve Baty provided us with more mackerel than we could use in a week. It was glorious out there – perfect weather, a bit of tide going past us to keep the fish biting, and two great mates giving me a hard time because I was so excited over local bycatch.

Before I could even start in with the Arostegui “ugly fish” defense, my Pfalzer jigging rod doubled over and the Calcutta 400 started paying line out fast. I had a ray – but could I keep it on? The battle went for some 10 minutes, in and out of the anchor rope, but we got it. An estuary stingray, it was not only a new species, but a world record at 13 pounds. This was a day for the ages.

I love how the green on the boat matches with … nothing.

That was a fitting end to what had become one of my best days ever on Port Hacking, But we weren’t quite done. Scotty had a wan smile on his face as we tied up the dock. “Aren’t you going to try for a stripey?” He asked. I sighed. The stripey, you see, is a creature that is often the first fish caught by young Sydney anglers. It lives in large groups under any dock as long as I am not there, and I expected to see none of them here, even though the local kids reported catching them earlier in the day. This has been a running joke with us for many years, and don’t think it didn’t bug the heck out of me.

A stripey. They have hated me for years.

I donned sunglasses and peered into the water. There were hundreds of stripeys just sitting there under the dock, mocking me. I tossed in a few bait scraps – not sure what they were, as they weren’t mine, but the fish reacted to them. So I grabbed my sabiki rod and dropped it down, expecting whatever bream or tailor was going to jump in and ruin my stripey fantasy. But they didn’t, and the stripeys went into a feeding frenzy, which was more savage than it probably sounds. I caught at least 10 while Scotty was hosing down the boat, improbably running the trip species total to eight.

The stripey finally joins the list. Next up, the old wife. Yes, there really is a fish called that, and Scotty is likely already asking around for hot spots.

This was a fitting end to one of my best fishing trips ever. I knew to be humble when the Fish Gods take the day off, and it was enough for me to have fished with two great friends I don’t see all that much, but the eight species and four records were a definite plus. I’m sure it will be a few months at least until I come back, so take heart, Scotty – you have a bit of time to find that old wife, or a teraglin, or a cobbler, or a John Dory, or a green razorfish, or a pink basslet … they’re out there someplace.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE – THE HENG CONTINUES

We have now scientifically confirmed that Jimmy, rather than Dave, is the source of the Singapore species Heng. Nonetheless, Dave has tremendous trophy Heng. On my brief trip through the country in February, I only had one day to fish, and Jimmy was not available. But Dave kindly still arranged for he and I to go out on a different charter boat and try some of the Southern Islands. (An area immortalized in such blog posts as “Angry White Man.”) While there were not any new species to report – unsurprising considering I have been fishing this area solidly for almost 20 years – we still managed one rather noteworthy catch – a fingermark snapper right at 10 pounds, which is about nine pounds bigger than my previous best. So Dave definitely has the trophy Heng. And Alex has good Heng finding dresses on sale.

Remember the rule “big bait, big fish.” Dave is holding what’s left of the live trevally we used.

 

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Responses

  1. That fiddler ray is awesome.

  2. Can the shark ever win?


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