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Calliope whiting on the chew
  |  First Published: June 2003



FOLLOWING the Easter weather wipe-out, my son and I were keen for the ANZAC weekend weather to be more gentle. Unfortunately, the Easter woes continued with strong south-easters.

It was a toss-up between fishing Toolooa Bends and the Calliope River. Given the small tides, we opted for some low tide deep hole drifting for grunter and salmon in the Calliope. We simply waited for the maddening crowd to return to the boat ramp with the run-out tide and had the place to ourselves – all the nice, deep corner holes up past Devils Elbow, and just below Diamantina Island.

Why didn’t we choose Toolooa Bends? Well, the tides were ‘neapish’ and I prefer a decent run and a stir down there for grunter.

There’s a reason why not many boats remain up the Calliope at low tide – there’s hardly any water and plenty of rocks. If you can put up with this, however, you’ll often find the fish congregating in the few places on the bends where there are low tide gutters or holes.

On this occasion, as we drove down to the ramp past Armstrong’s Boat Hire and Tackle shop, our hearts sank as we were greeted by a mile of boats and trailers. This ramp is just about the main ramp in Gladstone as far as volume of boats and trailers goes (even if the majority are small craft). This is because, especially in windy weather, people flock to the Calliope en masse and smaller boats venturing to Graham’s Creek and the Narrows can avoid the nasty bit of water in front of the Clinton wharfs by setting off north from here.

This ramp is a shocker. It has only two lanes, which are effectively reduced to one by the siltation on either side. When the authorities widened it a few years ago, they really should have upgraded it to a four-lane (or wider) ramp. At the moment there’s nowhere to put your boat while waiting your turn to pull the boat out. Foot-cutting rocks threaten on one side, and the worst mud you’ve ever encountered lurks on the other.

I know this ramp is being assessed at the moment. Come on guys – think of the future!

UP THE CALLIOPE

After a relatively hassle-free launch, despite the clown who decided to park his rig at the top of the ramp, we headed upstream. Once through the railway bridges and past Clyde Creek, this trip is idyllic. Tall, wooded hills come right down to the mangrove line, and the mountain backdrop to Devils Elbow is spectacular. Remnant scrub country still fills the gullies in places here.

A 20-minute trip from the ramp saw us arrive at the small overhead powerline that marks the start of our target area [see map]. A decent four-metre hole exists here at low tide, and in the past we have bagged some good grunter at this spot.

As the tide was falling, everything was starting to show. Logs washed down by the recent big flood were now on the gravel bank in the middle – a place where we had caught some excellent salmon on the drift during the run-in on previous trips. The debris many metres above the high tide mark attested to the first decent rain for many years in this area. Our first venture was to fish the slack water of the low tide (some two hours after Gladstone tide times up here) in the hole on the next bend, part of the gravel bar [see map].

We had some fresh herring and gar, and everything looked perfect… except that there were no fish. So we packed up and poked back to the powerline spot and repeated the procedure. Again, everything felt good – the tide was just slowly on the move, aiding our gentle upstream drift. Alas, still nothing.

I let our drift keep going up onto the shallows of the red sand banks that lie to one side of the gravel bar. Some time ago I had caught good bream and grunter here in virtually no water – just enough to float the dingy. A 3kg grunter at first light screaming back and forth in only 30cm of water isn’t easy to forget, so we thought we’d give it a try. I’m sure the extra boat traffic on a day like this drives the good fish down deep, but we had numerous bites that we couldn’t hook all through this drift. It was frustrating, but it kept our hopes up a bit.

Finally, right at the end of the red sand drift Carl hooked a fish. After a lively little fight a 27cm whiting came into view, caught on a 3/0 suicide hook and a slab of gar. So this was what the bites were!

Ten years ago Smithy and I caught a dozen such fish here at a spot at the start of this drift, on prawn pieces. But flesh slabs were all Carl and I had, so we cut the remaining gar fillets into ‘worms’ and threaded them onto size 1 long-shank hooks. Off we went to restart the red sand drift.

This time we got immediate action and our hook-up rate went through the roof! In no time we boated four nice whiting, which I called for winter whiting. Several more drifts, this time with herring ‘worms’ for bait, produced three and four fish a run. These ‘winter’ whiting, as I have always declared them to be, seemed to love fish flesh – in contrast to their sandy cousins who hardly touch the stuff.

We soon had a decent feed of 15 to 20 fish between 25cm and 30cm long. That was enough for us, so we left them biting and headed back to the ramp.

A surprise

We were cruising down the river when, down at the railway bridges, we saw that an ambush had been laid. These guys were pulling up all who came and went through these ‘gates’ – and why not? Half of Gladstone’s boaties had to run the gauntlet there that day, and it was our turn to be ‘frisked’, as they say.

It was the usual ‘hard man, soft man’ routine. Had a good day… caught any fish… crabs… got any crabs… no pots… many other boats up the river… can I check your fish…

We said, yeah, we’d caught some whiting, all 23cm-plus. All the while the quiet guy noted details, rego etc. Very professionally and unobtrusively done, I thought.

But then came the surprise. The friendly fisho told us, somewhat excitedly, that they were not winter whiting but ‘northern whiting’.

Oh crap, I thought. I hope they don’t have to be 40cm long or something to be legal or I’m stuffed.

Sceptically, I asked what a ‘northern whiting’ looked like in comparison to other species. This officer knew his stuff and gave me a quick biology lesson – head like this, fins like that, etc. I was convinced, but still anxious. Just how long did these bloody things have to be?

“Oh, by the way,” he said, “there’s no legal limit on this species of whiting, but good to see they are all 23cm-plus.” He then told us that this was the southern extremity of northern whiting distribution, and he was surprised we had caught them way down here. He was even more interested to learn that we had been catching them here for years.

Meanwhile, his mate just wanted to know if we had any crabs on board!

I couldn’t wait to get home to check with my Grant’s Guide to Fishes about this ‘northern whiting’. There was no picture but, as you’d expect from Grant’s, there was a detailed description of this little character on the ‘sand whiting’ page.

Later that evening I found they were still a pain to fillet, bone and skin – just like their more popular southern cousins – and also just as nice to eat. Sometimes it’s amazing where a day takes you, given the most ordinary of starts!

1) Northern whiting look similar to winter whiting, but the tail is smaller and straight.

2) The notorious Calliope boat ramp is under-funded, under-maintained and overused for its design. Here’s hoping the authorities upgrade it soon.

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