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A Few Drinks With… John Haenke
  |  First Published: March 2003




I WOULDN’T swap jobs with too many people out there. In fact, at this moment I can think of only one: Mr. John Haenke. As far as fishing goes, this unassuming fellow with movie-star looks and a smooth voice has literally been there and done that. As a professional cameraman, he’s scrutinised almost every fishing spot on the planet, and cast many a fly around the world.

But just like the rest of us, this accomplished angler has to separate his work from his play. Occasionally his assignments allow for a few casts here and there, and some even provide a decent session or two. However, work is work and personal fishing pursuits have to take second place.

Over the years John Haenke has been involved in what is arguably the best fishing footage ever shot in and around Australia. Widely regarded as the best in his field, John was a major force behind the hugely popular SBS series Wildfish. Many fishing videos have been compiled using the talents of John Haenke behind the camera, and these days he’s constantly on the go filming segments for the high-rating series Escape With ET, screened on the Nine Network.

HISTORY

Born and bred in Queensland, John’s earliest fishing memories are of his Dad’s nocturnal angling activities and the fishy results that were laid out in the morning for all to see. Eventually John was to become a part of these outings, and the angling seed was sown.

John’s Dad took him on trips to Sandgate and Redcliffe chasing whiting; the Gold Coast and Northern NSW chasing flathead, tailor and bream; and out at Scarborough Reef looking for a feed of snapper and other reefies. ‘The fishing was very good in those days, but Mr Haenke Senior says that the decline was rapid once the prawn trawlers started up.

In those days they used split cane rods and an Alvey reel, and worms or mullet gut in bran for bait. John would row at night to their favourite fishing spots in a clinker-built rowing boat, bailing as they went, with hands so cold they were numb. Young John also fished regularly in the local freshwater creeks for eel-tailed catfish and spangled perch. One day his dad forgot to put in the rod and reel, so he fished with string and a bent pin! He managed to hook an eel, but unfortunately the pin straightened!

John started fishing with lures when he was 10 years old. The first one he had was a Halco metal slice that got plenty of use chasing tailor. In those days anglers were not so concerned about fish stocks, but always ate the fish they caught so that nothing was ever wasted. John also caught flathead on Halco Wonder Wobblers, and bass in the Upper Nerang and Tweed (before Hinze Dam was built) on the legendary rubber French Floppies, which he still has somewhere.

“I used to walk the banks and cast at snags using an old whiting rod and an Alvey reel,” John recalls. “A far cry from today’s high tech gear.”

As John learned more about the fishing game, and read about the amazing pursuits available in the far north, he thought it might be time to spread his wings a little.

“Vic McCristal’s writings motivated me as a young man in my twenties to move to Darwin to go barra fishing,” John recalls. “I had an old LandCruiser short wheel base that took me into some remote bush on the hunt for barra. In those days nothing stopped me – not even a cracked head on the Cruiser would put me off going bush.

“I can clearly remember catching my first barra off the bank of Scotts Creek, which is a tributary of the Adelaide River. I had a surf rod and an Alvey reel with a Nilsmaster lure. Later I bought a 10’ tinnie, and I fished everywhere in that boat, from Billabongs to offshore.

“At a party I met Alex Julius, who had just arrived in Darwin on a trip around Australia. At that stage he had only caught one barra on a live cherabin in Western Australia. We went fishing the next day at Corroboree Lagoon, and Alex caught quite a few. We have had some memorable trips to Exmouth and the Daly River together. Alex still lives there, and of course he has caught an awful lot of barra since then, and has done a lot for recreational fishing in the Territory, which now leads the rest of Australia in managing its fishing resources.”

FILMING

Fishing and all its supplementary activities, such as four-wheel-driving and camping, were a major part of John Haenke’s life during this period, but he also had a career in the make. His life in the television industry started about 30 years ago at Channel O (now Channel 10) in Brisbane. John was always interested in photography and, after grade 12, was lucky enough to get a job in Channel 0’s film department. From that start he worked at various stations and gained experience in editing and post production, eventually becoming a news cameraman.

Next John chose the path of a freelance cameraman, so it was a natural progression into making his own programmes (as producer, editor and cameraman) on his favourite topic – fishing. Vic McCristal’s writings and Malcolm Florence’s programmes really inspired John in the early days.

Rod Harrison and John got together in the early 80s and produced around 15 programmes, all of which sold very well. Wildfish, with Peter Morse as the presenter, was his next project. The first series of 13 half-hour programmes rated exceptionally well and was very popular, so a second series was produced. After that John was sought out to assist with production of the Andrew Ettingshausen Escape with ET series, and they are just about into their third year of production. “It’s still rating very well,” John reckons, “and I enjoy working with this great team.”

John’s views of 30 years in the television industry are that you never know where your career is headed. Sometimes things come your way unexpectedly, but usually projects require a long-term commitment and a lot of dedication to get up and running. “My love of fishing and photography will always be strong, so I don’t think I’ll stray too far from what I am doing now,” John concedes.

TOP PACKAGE

Every opportunity John Haenke gets, he’s out on the water – fresh, estuary or blue! After many years of different boat and motor packages he has at last found a boat that’s suitable for most of his fishing requirements – the Trailcraft 5m centre console Profish. This versatile vessel is very roomy and stable, has a shallow enough draft for most freshwater fishing applications, and it is seaworthy enough to take out bluewater sportfishing. I’ve had the pleasure of tossing lures with John and his son Mick in this boat, and with three on board there was plenty of room. It would handle four casters with care, and there aren’t many easily trailerable boats around that can boast that. Indeed, when the fishing slowed John and I could wander around the boat without disturbing the (then prostrate) Mick. In addition, I’ve watched John and both his sons cross one of the country’s worst bars in this vessel and remain safe and dry! John’s motor of choice is a Yamaha 80hp four-stroke, which is an incredibly reliable, quiet and economic motor.

MEMORABLE CATCHES

John and his partner Peta live in Tewantin on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, just a stone’s throw from the boat ramp on the beautiful Noosa River. Occasionally you’ll find John bottom bouncing for tablefish, but he prefers live baiting for amberjack, Spaniards, cobia and the like or fly fishing for tuna in Laguna Bay.

“I would like to spend a bit more time fly fishing on the flats around Hervey Bay and the Great Sandy Straits,” John says. “I spend quite a bit of time freshwater fishing with lure and fly in Borumba Dam and the Mary River system for bass and saratoga, and barra are only a short drive away.”

I pressed John for some of those hidden fishing memories that only come out under duress, and this is what he had to say…

‘”One of my most memorable days fishing was with my son Michael, on a glassy calm day off 1770 in a 14’ Top Ender that I owned years ago. We were due to go home the next day, so we had an early start to make the most of the day.

“We caught quality reef fish east of Bustard Head. You could just see the lighthouse in the distance when we saw birds working the tuna schools in the current line. The next thing we saw was the sickle fin of a marlin sunning itself on the surface. We got a good look at it before it swam off.

I only had heavy hand lines and bottom bouncing gear on board, except for one light overhead rod and reel with 8kg line, so I scratched around the boat and tackle box and tied on a 50lb trace from the hand line. I also found one of Malcolm Florence’s Master Blaster bibless lures – the only lure in the tackle box that a marlin might eat!

We trolled down the current line with the rod in my hand. When I felt the marlin hit the lure with his bill, I yelled to Michael: ‘Here we go!’ Sure enough, the next moment the reel screamed and we had a 40kg tail walking marlin behind the tinny!

“And what a fight it was,” John recalls, “with the marlin crashing at one stage into the side of the boat and putting up a tremendous display!

“Papua New Guinea has to be one of the ultimate fishing destinations, and one trip that will always be one of my most memorable was with Rod Harrison and an ABU rep from America. We had a long trip upstream on a clear mountain stream, which was a tributary of the Kikori River, and on the first cast caught a barra and sooties sight fishing.

“Our main aim was to catch a black bass though. The native guides had never seen a lure before, and I don’t think they had even seen a rod and reel. We had some amazing fishing but no black bass until, on the last snag of the day, another large barra hit and locked up the ABU 7000 we were using with 40lb line. The 15–20kg barra was shaking its head right beside the boat with the lure hooked in the side of its cheek when an 8kg black bass shot out from a snag and ripped the lure off the barra, hooking itself in the process! We landed and released the black bass, and that’s another fish I’ll never forget!

“I have so many other images fixed in my mind – a big barra on the Daly; battles with longtail tuna, three in particular, two off the rocks and one 16kg on 8 weight fly rod; a big Spaniard and Snapper off the rocks at Coffs…”

What memories! Undoubtedly there’s plenty more to come.

THE FUTURE OF FISHERIES

With the Queensland Fisheries Service recently delivering new regulations to the public, and other states and territories in a similar frame of mind, I thought John might have some insightful suggestions. I wasn’t wrong!

“At the moment we shoot a fishing segment for the show in a different location nearly every week. There aren’t many places left in Australia where we haven’t witnessed first-hand fishing as it is today, and to be honest it’s not looking good. It all comes down to management, and it’s up to the government to do something about it.

“At present the Northern Territory is leading the way. They realised the value of recreational fishing back in the seventies, largely due to people like Alex Julius. Some of the other states are starting to follow, but sadly they are a long way behind. We need the right people in there advising them, people interested in the welfare of the fisheries with no ulterior motives, and we need them to be heard.

“My partner Peta and I live on the Noosa River. It’s a classic example of a waterway that once was a great fishery, but now your average fisherman would be flat out catching a fish. If something were done about commercial fishing on this river, such as buying back some of the licenses, it would recover quickly. In Queensland the government is toughening up on recreational regulations (which I think is a step in the right direction), but commercial netting is doing a lot of damage in some areas, and this problem needs to be addressed.

“We need to think about the future and be responsible with our catch by observing bag limits and size restrictions, taking only enough for immediate needs and releasing the rest. You don’t need to catch lots of fish or big fish to have a great day out – it’s about enjoying and respecting the environment and taking time out.

“The government needs to make decisions now before it’s too late for some of our fish species to recuperate. Not only do the fisheries need smart management, we need to police our waterways. There’s no point in bringing in regulations if there’s nobody to enforce them,” John explains.

“I’m certainly not trying to put pro fishers out of a job – they have to earn a living just like everyone else – but we have to look at the future, and if things aren’t sustainable we’ll all have to change our ways. If commercial fishing is no longer viable, other openings must be made in fishing-related jobs – enterprises such as aquaculture, policing and implementing policies. “People will always want to eat seafood, and I believe that aquaculture and farming will have to be where our seafood comes from in the future. Research and funding in this area is a good investment. When it’s all boiled down, it’s the government and their advisers who are ultimately responsible for the fisheries, not the recreational or commercial fishermen. It shouldn’t be about rec fishers against the pros – we should all be fighting together for the same cause: a sustainable fishing future.

“In our town alone it’s common knowledge there are a number of fishermen selling fish on the black market. Do you class these people as commercial fishermen (they haven’t got a license) or recreational (hardly)? Just recently a few of the spotty mackerel that made it past the ring netters in Hervey Bay were caught and sold to some of the local restaurants. Mahi mahi, reef fish and even marlin – whatever fish happen to be around at the time, turn up on some of the ‘specials’ blackboards outside the restaurants here. We have overheard these black-marketeers boasting about their illegal catches and sales. Something should be done about it – restaurants fined and licences revoked, and the fisherman’s fishing gear, boat and vehicle confiscated as well as a hefty fine. This is an Australia-wide problem, and the government needs to enforce the regulations,” John insists.

Wow! I hear opinions on a daily basis on this subject and I believe John Haenke to be exceptionally well informed. His thoughts are based on many years of fishing Australia-wide and beyond, and there is no doubt that this guy knows exactly what he’s on about. Hopefully there will be a trend leaning towards these philosophies. I know many caring fishos who live and die by the same fundamental principles.

Most of the fishing personalities I’ve interviewed for this column have been exceptional people, and John Haenke is fits into that category nicely. He has, however, put together a normal life away from his duties as one of the country’s most outstanding outdoor camera operators. His lovely partner Peta travels everywhere with him; she’s an audio technician and is required to be on every shoot. Relaxed, gregarious and convivial to the extreme, this couple work, fish and play together on a full time basis. Jealous yet?

THE ULTIMATE

I asked John to tell me his favourite angling target, his ultimate fishing destination for a week and the crew that he would take along for the ride. His response?

“Barra, by a mile! The places where you find them are always breathtaking, and they’re an exciting fish to catch in any situation – sight casting the flats, the billabongs and floodplains, rocky headlands, big rivers and now the impoundments. I’ve been lucky enough to catch barra in all of these situations, on lure and fly, deep and shallow, and it’s always been a buzz!

“Anywhere for a week? Best of all would be Papua New Guinea, if it could be done safely. I’ve always enjoyed the company of my father when fishing – he was, after all, responsible for my great love of outdoor activities – but these days he’s getting on in years and doesn’t often accompany me. These days there are three people in particular whose company I enjoy most when I am fishing: my partner Peta and my sons Dan and Mick. Of course, I love getting out for a day with my mates as well!”

I’ll leave the last few words to the master cameraman…

“I think that if you can make a living out of something you love, you will be successful – especially if you combine television with an area you know well, such as fishing, and try to find a niche market. Above all, believe in yourself and your abilities, stay focused when the going gets tough (in this industry you can be certain that the going will get very tough at times), and remain committed and determined. “The television industry is very competitive, but can be very rewarding!”

1) Filming a ‘Wildfish’ segment in west Arnhem Land, NT.

2) John with a monster Moreton Bay cobia (34kg on 10kg line). His fishing mate on the day was Dean Butler.

3) A good haul of tailor caught at Caloundra in 1966.

4) John with his complete rig of choice - a diesel 100 Series Toyota LandCruiser towing a Trailcraft 5 Metre centre console Profish.

5) John and Peta during an ‘ET’ shoot. This cold location is Mt Ruahapua near Taupu, N.Z.

6) Above and beyond the call of duty - John filming an underwater segment in a crocodile infested river!

7) John with a nice barra caught at Oenpelli in Arnhem Land, NT.

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