Back in the early 1990s I used to tell a joke that poked fun at Queensland for never having won the Sheffield Shield (for younger readers, that was the real name of the interstate domestic cricket competition). I always felt a bit hypocritical when telling it though, because I was in a similarly frustrating situation in a fishing sense.
Anyone who has read this magazine religiously over the past decade would know that every winter, I write about the big knobby snapper in Keppel Bay in Central Queensland. They might also recall that despite telling everyone how to catch these sought-after fish, I had never actually snared one myself. I've always been too damn honest for my own good!
Anyway, when Queensland finally won its first Sheffield Shield, I was convinced that this win heralded the turning point in my quest for the fishing Holy Grail too. Surely it would only be a matter of time before I achieved my lifelong goal of catching a big snapper.
It would have made a great story, but sadly the fairytale didn't come true. So did I give up? No way!
Every winter when the land breezes blow in the morning and die out after lunch, I go out there in search of my elusive quarry. I fish into the darkness until frustration and hunger get the better of me, admit defeat yet again, then head home with my fishing rod between my legs.
You wouldn’t believe how close I’ve come over the years. On two separate occasions my deckie has triumphantly landed snapper around 6-8kg, while I've looked on jealously, muttering obscenities through my teeth.
This year saw me back out there again, watching the sun sink below the western horizon with baits soaking at my secret spot out from Man and Wife Rocks. But still, no Sheffield Shield. 10kg gold spot cod – yes, but no Holy Grail. Things weren’t looking promising and it appeared as though another year was gone without a notch on the tree.
Now, as a member of Captag, a tagging club based in Central Queensland, I take part in a few organised club outings each year. We are not into competitive fishing and our outings are just as much social occasions as they are serious fishing events. The club had arranged an overnight trip to Pumpkin Island for early July and amazingly, the weather on the Saturday morning was mirror calm. Seven crews participated in the outing, with the plan to meet at the cabins on the island after a day’s fishing.
This was just a relaxing weekend away for me, so I didn't even get over to the island until about 10am. I unloaded the gear and messed around with a crab pot that I'd decided to deploy in search of 3-spot crabs. Because of this, I didn’t actually get around to wetting a line until midday.
The chance of catching anything decent at that time of day was pretty remote, so I figured I'd try to tag a few small reefies. The conditions were absolutely flat calm, with little current and not much showing on the sounder. However, we dropped a line over for the hell of it anyway. Other boats in the area were obviously catching nothing judging by the lack of interest being shown by their occupants.
There was the odd nibble and we managed to hook a couple of undersized Venus tuskfish and a triggerfish to keep us entertained. I enticed a 41cm red emperor to taste my herring and the little emperor now sports a yellow plastic tag for his trouble. I also dropped what was probably another smallish emperor halfway to the boat.
Just as I was starting to think about lunch back on shore, the rod buckled unexpectedly. Whatever it was began taking line off my fairly tight drag.
Mentally you run through the options of what it might be – shark, ray, cod? You don't allow yourself to wonder if it is anything else, especially something worthwhile or exciting. So I pumped and wound against the rushes from whatever it was down below.
The water was extremely clear and I saw a flash of colour at about 10m. At that stage I called it for an old cod, as for some reason they've been following me around all year. They often look quite light in colour coming out of deeper water, especially if you get a glimpse of belly. I wasn't too excited or overly enthusiastic at this point.
Then as it came up further, I could see it wasn't a cod, but a flatter fish. It was quite pale in colour and I changed my guess to a flaming big moke (slatey bream, blackall, grey sweetlip and so on, depending on where you live). Although not unheard of, it is a bit unusual to get a big moke in the middle of the day because they tend to hunt around dusk.
However, as the fish came closer, I could see it didn't look like a moke and was quite silver in colour. For the first time, I dared to consider it might just possibly be a ‘you know what’.
At about 5m things really started to gel. This fish had a large V-shaped tail and despite my red/green colour blindness, I imagined I could see a tinge of pink. There was no containing my excitement now. I blurted out something along the lines of “I've done it!” plus a jumble of words including “big knobby”, “amazing” and “you're not going to believe this”.
I'm sure I was literally bouncing around by this time and my wife Sue, who was fishing on the other side of the boat up towards the bow, must have wondered what I was on. I recall Sue asking if I wanted the gaff, but I was way ahead of that. I didn't even consider the possibility of losing the fish at the side of the boat for some reason – this was a done deal folks.
I reached over the side and slipped my fingers into the gills of a magnificent hump-headed snapper and hoisted it aboard. I really felt like Indiana Jones (or a member of the Queensland Bulls) right at that point!
As you can imagine, the camera worked overtime and the occupants of a nearby tinnie trolled by and congratulated me on the catch. Interestingly, the fish had a set of two ganged, size 5/0 hooks stuck firmly in its lower lip with about 500mm of heavy nylon leader trailing. These weren’t my hooks, as I was using a single wide gap which was in the fish’s top lip. The ganged hooks looked very recent and I suspect someone who was fishing earlier that morning has a story about the one that got away.
I lost interest in fishing once the fish was photographed, so we pulled up the pick and headed back to the cabins for lunch.
It was a very social night onshore and I’m sure I told the story of the snapper more than once to anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. A southerly of more than 30 knots hit us at 4am and we had a rather uncomfortable trip back to the mainland around lunchtime, but for some reason, it didn't bother me at all!Reads: 902