THIRTY years ago this month, my wife Denise and I embarked on the sort of adventure every Aussie should undertake at least once – the round Australia trip. Taking unpaid leave for six months from my (then) job in a Brisbane medical laboratory, I planned to sample as much of the fishing in the northern half of our great country as was possible in that dry season timeframe.
I kept a daily diary of the trip and re-reading it now, after all this time, the memories are as clear as yesterday. Perhaps the most interesting observation concerns that classic angler’s affliction – the embellishment of former fishing experiences over time. In other words, the fishing described in the diary was not quite up to the standard that I have clearly recalled, many times since!
However, when taken in context, the fishing in 1973 was comparatively easy compared to the present. The exception to that rule is clearly the current situation in the Northern Territory, where there is no doubt that the fishing is actually BETTER! Our best barra fishing in ’73 was on the Normanby River in Lakefield National Park – and we’d only ever caught two barra between us up to that point, which is not what you’d call experience.
My fishing expertise in 1973 revolved around bream fishing at the ‘Pin and beach fishing on Fraser Island, but I’d just become interested in offshore trolling for Spaniards and reef fishing for snapper and pearlies. Our barra gear consisted of spinning reels on 2m bream-type rods. I was an Alvey graduate – baitcast reels were for Martians and Mexicans – so eggbeaters were about as far up the ‘expert’ scale as I could imagine myself going at that stage.
After a late afternoon getaway from Ipswich on day one, we eventually stopped in the wee hours at the (now old) Calliope River crossing. I was up at first light casting into a lovely looking pool on the south eastern side of the river and hooked up almost immediately in what turned out to be a hot bite of small giant trevally – a perfect start to our fishing odyssey!
Before the trip, I’d corresponded with a number of ANSA members in my role as secretary of the fledgling Brisbane Sportfishing Club. Our travels provided the opportunity to meet face to face with those of like fishing persuasion, and to get invited to fish their local area.
That morning we called in to see Vic McCristal, who informed us that we were his eighth ‘party’ of visitors that morning, all of the others unannounced! He was receiving up to 40 callers per day in his role as ‘unofficial’ fishing expert of north Queensland and must have provided this voluntary service to thousands of hopefuls over decades. The fishing industry owes a great debt of gratitude to Vic who sometimes had to lock himself away and ignore the incessant knocking on his door to get his writing work completed.
Yes, Vic did take us fishing, and furthermore, we were armed with a handful of Eric Moller originals that were given to us by the master himself. I still have one of those lures and I cherish it as a reminder of those heady days that heralded the ‘beginning’ of the northern fishing revolution, a juggernaut that eventually resulted in my earning my living as a full-time guide.
My first barra came from the Daintree River on my very first attempt to entice the northern icon on a lure (a Moller Tiger, of course). These days the health of our northern rivers is hotly debated so this entry made in my diary is interesting: “…the Daintree was very silted, in fact the worst case of silting I have seen”. Maybe the environmental problems of the wet tropic rivers are not just a recent occurrence!
The trip to the Normanby River at Kalpowar Crossing was the result of some local advice given during a visit to Bransford’s Tackle Shop and meeting Jack Erskine, Bill Fitch and the late Malcolm Florence (Malcolm was visiting from Townsville). Even with our minimal experience fishing from the bank, Denise and I landed a stack of barra averaging 8–12lb, with one rat only 6lb. We lost some big ones, Denise having her lure thrown high in the air by an absolute horse that couldn’t get its huge bulk entirely out of the water.
In hindsight, I don’t think we caught a barra on the entire trip that would have been undersized using today’s legal lengths, as the average size was above 70cm. The black and white prints that I developed myself, and sent off regularly to the Australian Angler, certainly bear out this observation, as do the diary entries.
We hardly saw another person in the Lakefield area during our three days there, and had the Kalpowar Crossing entirely to ourselves – something that would never happen these days. Back in Cairns, I headed down to the North Johnstone River as a guest of Gary Wright well before his days as a pro guide.
My diary recalls: “…the water was slightly milky and Gary was apologetic that ‘the river’ was not fishing its best”. Yet, we experienced a sweetwater day the likes of which I have still to better. Gary landed a (then) new ANSA record sooty grunter of 3lb12oz on 4lb plug casting tackle on that outing, and lost the largest jungle perch I’ve ever seen at the boat – a fish that must have been close to 5lb. The sooties and JPs pulled hard and were no problem, but repeated smash-ups featured during my first real introduction to ‘red bream’ or mangrove jack – all in water that you could safely drink.
It’s an interesting look back at what used to be, and what may be again. More from the 1973 diary next month.
1) The author with a lure-caught trevally during a day out with Vic McCristal at Cardwell, back in 1973. Not the spin outfit – baitcasters were too sophisticated for those barely out of Alveys.Reads: 966