Danger in disguise
  |  First Published: November 2003

I’VE BEEN traipsing around the estuaries of Central and Southern Queensland for 30 years now and I’ve had my share of scrapes and near misses. Lost boats, men overboard, storms, groundings, amorous dugongs (that’s another story!), breakdowns… I’m sure you can relate to many of these incidents.

Recently, on a trip with Geoff Boneham, his son Fraser and his mate Tom, we received a reminder as to just how dangerous your average estuary can be, and what dangers lurk there.

We should have known this wasn’t going to be a normal trip when we came around the first bend of our little non-descript sandy bottom creek in Colosseum Inlet near Tannum Sands only to be followed in our general upstream direction by a couple of wayward young ‘sand-gropers’ (two young blokes in a small 4WD with Western Australian number plates). The tide was nearly out and done and we were plugging our way upstream pushing more mud than water when these two jokers decided they might see where we were headed.

The inevitable occurred and they became quickly and hopelessly bogged in the bottomless sand capped mud and shell grit. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The two young fellas were going to need a hand if they were to ever retrace their illegal and hazardous route off Wild Cattle Island.

After exchanging a few formalities like ‘Gidday’; ‘doesn’t look good’; ‘what the hell are you doing here anyway’ (all traffic other than residents is banned from Wild Cattle Island because it’s an undeveloped National Park) we went into emergency extraction mode. It was obvious they were continuing to sink and soon would be sitting hard on the sand and mud, after which there was no hope of salvage. No tow vehicle could get to them to save them anyway.

They only had one thing in their favour – us, who had all been bogged many times before and knew the recovery routine. A rising tide around your wheels certainly focuses your efforts!

So – bag the tyres until they’re nearly flat, dig out behind and under the wheels (no shovel on board – can you believe this?), place some timber as a base, don’t spin the wheels, gently does it, and all push like hell. Luckily for them it was only a small 4WD and all six of us were able-bodied men and lads. Their ‘one go’ was successful, and their instruction was to keep going and don’t stop if they got out – this they did. They offered us their last two beers but we refused to take a man’s last beer and we set off further up the creek. The creek’s deep holes beckoned us onwards.

Our first stop was bait and it didn’t take us long to pump some yabbies. Then we got stuck into the ‘pot-holing’, as the Bonehams call it. This simply refers to the nature of the creek at low tide – a series of small holes linked by shallow rapids. In the past we’ve accounted for some good fish by doing this, including cod, big whiting, flathead and black bream.

After Geoff had landed a couple of great black bream, including a 1kg snodger, I decided to have a hunt further downstream; the first of the run-in can often perk up the action to be found against the deep, snag-lined and cut away banks. After a couple of hits and misses I was getting a little dirty so I moved down to the next set of ‘rapids’. My plan was to wade out and throw against the bank opposite, and to use the shallow gravely bank as a platform from which to do this.

The water was around a foot deep, clear and still running out quite strongly. I had had a couple of throws when in front of me, a metre or so, I noticed an unusual shaped rock on what was a fairly uniform gravel bottom. I hadn’t seen a stonefish in the wild before so my brain didn’t want to accept the obvious. I went and found Geoff. We went through a process of “yes, no, maybe” when the ‘brains trust’ decided to give it a poke with the rod-butt. Surprisingly, it was dug in very securely and wasn’t going to get washed out in a hurry, even though there was a strong flow.

Finally it was levered out and now there was no doubt. Its pectoral fins, previously buried and now clearly visible, were large and red. Its next move was interesting. It followed our feet very slowly. Everything it did, it did very slowly. It was looking for the lee (broken current) of our leg and feet to hold up in, because without its massive pectoral fins dug in it had a tough job holding its own in the current.

It eventually held its place in the flow and we jammed a large bucket over it and pinned it to the bottom. Beaudy! But what next? Having trapped it we were probably no closer to catching it. Along came a second bucket and after what must have been a fairly risky procedure we were fairly sure we had it in one of the two buckets – or was it in the slurry stained water at our feet? I don’t think our feet touched the surface of the water as we scarpered onto the high and dry of the yabby flat!

As the contents of the buckets settled, there it was in all its glory, surely the ugliest creature on this earth – even worse than the cane toad, and so dangerous and so nearly trodden on. It was around 30–35cm long and weighed about a kilo. I don’t recommend our capture technique to anyone. Leaving the fish alone is probably best.

Later on the bank we made a closer inspection and pulled back the black skin sheaths around the dorsal spines to reveal evil looking blue spikes. The stonefish stayed alive out of the water for hours (we think it did anyway for it hardly moved much at the best of times). The final chapter was that it went into a plastic container and into the freezer for a home at the local school so the kids can all see what a stonefish looks like in the wild – an ugly, fishy-looking rock. For a better and more scientific description try Grant’s Guide to Fishes which has great information [or visit www.fishbase.net – Ed].

1) The dangerous estuarine stonefish is ever present around us as we poke around our tidal creeks. Check out the dorsal spine exposed from its sheath with the stick. The spine is a vivid blue.

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