Dawn broke with heat in the air, as only those lead up days to summer can. We were already sweaty, a fine coating of dust making our faces browner than usual, and dirt had embedded itself in the creases of our hands. With that hot, dry, dusty morning came warning of something much more sinister: smoke.
Our meagre camp was located smack-bang in the middle of a remnant forest; a survivor of that thick, scrubby, sclerophyll thicket that had once carpeted the eastern coast of Australia and had hung on so valiantly against timber-getters, agricultural development, and prevailing ideologies bent on taming it. We know now, to our shame, that these forests aren’t as tough as was once thought. The other thing we know about the ecosystem is that it burns. And in November 2013, a lot of it did.
Dick and I had known this going in. Fires were glowing on horizons up and down the coast and there was at least one raging near Grafton, the region we’d decided to explore in search of a new target. After scouring maps and satellite images we’d decided on a waterway that just might give us some luck. There was no disputing the fact that it was one of the most remote coastal drainages left in NSW. We’d even managed to get there, and weren’t disappointed with what we found. We’d both been bested by snag-side hooligans coloured up like glowing embers: we’d found Jack.
But that smoke. We had no idea where it had come from, and how close the source was. What we did know was that we had close to two hours to travel through thick bush; much of it on a 4WD goat track (in my 2WD hilux); to get back into open country. Or we could abandon the ute and paddle to the sea. I knew I could drive it (I’d gotten us in) but if something went wrong… We decided to get out while we could. Turning the wheels back onto bitumen some time later, we both started “So when we come back…”
Our Return to the Fray
It turned out that I was finishing up work in time for the Australia Day long weekend. I was living out of my ute and it seemed a simple enough matter to take off after work on the Friday. This, as should have been expected, didn’t go quite to plan. A day spent cleaning out all the stuff accumulated over two and a half years; followed with an early beer o’clock for one last yarn; didn’t help the planned departure deadline. It was, however, totally worth it.
A bit behind schedule, I met Dick at his place and we dashed out to Kurri Kurri to pick up his kayak and camping gear. It was already dark by the time we hit the Pacific Highway near Karuah. Thankfully, Dick had organised all other requirements beforehand, so the esky was full and we drove on into the darkness. And the rain.
Determination was the name of the game while the windscreen wipers rocketed back and forth in an attempt to keep our vision clear. We knew the track that lay ahead of us, and all we could hope was that it would get a chance at drying out before we took it on. We weren’t turning back now. Thankfully the rain died off a little north of Kempsey and the lack of puddles suggested it had been dry for a little while at least. We turned off the highway north of Grafton around 2am.
The road was surprisingly good as we trundled up and over the coastal range before leaving the forest track for the hidden rut mark that was the last few kilometres of our journey. Amazingly, this was in pretty good nick too, apart from a little fancy driving and high momentum tree-dodging required to get through an awkwardly shaped bog hole. Neither of us was saying much until bloodwood gave way to swamp oak. We were nearly there! Of course, that momentary lull in concentration found us bottomed out in a bog.
After some time spent scratching, poking, pushing and looking at the scene it was decided that a beer was in order. At 4.30am that was the best decision we’d made for ages. Sitting back for a second I came to the realisation that all we had to do was jack the ute up, pack out under the tyres and we would be away. But that could wait; dawn was almost upon us!
We were on the water before first light as the rocket frogs went to bed and cicadas took over the chorus. A passing shower followed us for a while as we drifted downstream on an outgoing tide. Apart from a few bream missing my surface lure there was limited action and we headed back for a feed, ute retrieval and camp setup.
We couldn’t be held back for long and mid-afternoon saw us paddling upstream to check a few rock bars. One little flathead aside, the action was still non-existent. That was probably a good thing anyway as I spent who knows how long asleep in the canoe. Waiting for the plastic to sink was all I needed and I repeatedly woke up in a panic, thankful that something big hadn’t actually taken the lure and my rod with it!
At one point I looked up and saw Dick slumped across the front of his kayak, gently drifting nose-first into the bank. The impact did nothing to rouse him and it was a good 10 minutes before I saw him paddling around the bend following me.
The afternoon found us fishless and we turned our tails for home. Dick’s kayak was naturally faster than my canoe and when I caught up with him he was at the landing and in conversation with a bloke I took to be a local. Great! Good old Dick, getting the inside info on a place we knew little about! Soon after beaching my canoe and joining the conversation I realised that I was very, very wrong.
An awkward quarter-hour or so later we were sitting by the beginnings of a fire scratching our heads. We’d managed to duck through a momentary lull in Old Mate’s tirade and beat a hasty retreat back to camp. As the strangers 4WD rolled past us and away into the scrub Dick asked “So do we hide in the bushes for the night?”
“He’s not going to attack us”.
“Ha. Yeah. Ha. Of course. Didn’t he tell us he had a bow?”
“He did. I don’t have mine”.
“Oh. Should we have a beer?”
“I’ve got my pig sticker?”
“Keep it close”.
The next morning we were well rested and decided to push through the entire length of the river from camp to ocean, fishing any likely country we came across. The river kept its secrets and although Dick had something swipe and miss a lure cast in under a mangrove, and I had a solid jerk while hopping a plastic down a log; midday found us pulled out on a sand bar boiling the billy, chasing soldier crabs, and fishless.
A crab proved the undoing of a bream to the mockery of the catcher (me). The river lost its ‘Jacky’ look as we neared the estuary, though the beauty of the place never dwindled. Clear salt water, sand flats and tidal currents played their part in kindling imagination. Ospreys watched us while we watched rays playing about beneath us, and we rested briefly in the scant shade offered by some mangroves in the estuary proper before turning for home in the late afternoon.
When we got back into suitable looking waters we resumed the search for Jack, and I pulled a keeper flathead from a snag. Things were otherwise quiet as the sun sank low and we shifted positions in our crafts looking for comfort after paddling and casting all day. A brahminy kite caught our attention and we pulled alongside each other for a yarn and to enjoy the breezeless conditions on the water.
A subtle ‘V’ on the glassy surface caught my attention as it glided our way. I focussed on it as it took a line between Dick and me and spotted the sleek forms of four or five solid trevally cruising in formation like a skein of geese. My rod was already armed with a surface lure and I quietly took it from its holder. I sent the imitation a couple of metres out in front of the hunters.
An amazing glimpse into predatory behaviour unfolded as the lure touched down. In an instant the pack reacted. Fins flared, eyes lit up, then they all broke away in a fan faster than my eyes could follow. The water appeared empty but I knew how to change that. I jerked the lure.
An assault was launched on the fleeing bait. One, two, three; all in less than a second; bombarded it in a flurry of fins, mouths and spray, and sent the lure flying. I jumped but managed to keep the retrieve going, meeting another strike as the lure came into a rod length of the canoe. This time hooks went home as the fish dove under me. The rod loaded and disappeared after the fish while the locked drag pushed everything to its limit… before the stick sprang back to me flinging the lure, now one treble and split ring lighter, back into the air.
Heart pumping, I looked back at Dick. He was about as wide-eyed as me.
“What the f**k was that?”
We paddled on into the darkness.
And Broken Lures
Daylight found us slipping back downstream to thoroughly fish the best section of the river, which happened to be in the vicinity of the previous evenings encounter. This run was characterised as an extended ‘S’ bend of steep banks, holes and snags and perhaps 200 metres long. We spent the run-out trying a bit of everything, had some tentative misses, and landed an estuary cod and a decent flathead.
We scratched our heads, stared into tackleboxes hoping for answers, and held a discussion of strategy. Deciding to rest up for the afternoon and reinvestigate under the cover of darkness, we paddled back to camp finding a couple of mud crabs in the traps I’d set along the way.
As afternoon heat dissipated into the evening reprieve we cooked a feed and got excited about fish. I beefed up my wounded lure still suffering from Trevor Trauma and felt confident with heavy split rings and a single tail treble designed for pirates to board ships or something.
The half-hour paddle to ‘the spot’ didn’t do much to calm the anticipation and we started testing water while still a ways upstream. I love fishing the surface in the gathering darkness. Everything is just so determined, methodical and rhythmic. Cast into the bank; wait for ripples to disappear; walk-the-dog; repeat. The gentle pull of the tide allows thorough exploration of the waters with little more than an odd dip of the paddle to work a little in or out.
Then something big got involved very quickly. It was all but dark and I never saw it. There was just the lure there one moment then a snap, splash and I was on. The rod curved away as the fish surged off. I remember laughing in my head thinking ‘I’ve got you now!’ as the locked drag set my heavy hook nicely and I held tight to see what would happen next. The rod unloaded and again the lure whizzed past my ear. I stared, dumbfounded, at the vanishing boil that moments before I’d been so confident of. Switching on my head torch I checked for damage. The rear anchor point had been neatly removed, hook, split ring internal bits and all. There wasn’t much to do but laugh.
We worked in the darkness until midnight and the change of the tide. We were heading home in the morning. We were going to take our time with our coffee and watch one of the local goannas stroll into camp, check for tucker and learn the hard way not to poke hot coals. I was going to drop the rear end of the ute into another hole and spend an hour or so digging and manoeuvring back out. But we had all that to look forward to.
Paddling along in the pitch black it was hard to decide whether to watch the brilliant stars or the billowing green clouds of phosphorescent algae that lit up with each paddle stroke and trailed off in little whirlpools in our wake. The only sound was the dip of the paddles.
“Imagine hooking a fish in this” I said as we cut glowing green ‘V’s in the blackness. Just then a big bull mullet spooked at my canoe and sidled over to Dick. This encounter even more of a fright, it high-tailed it out in front of us – a nuclear green mullet shooting through nothingness leaving a powdery trail behind.
We never did find Jack.