There are a few things that will make or break a trip. It’s very easy to look at stuff before you leave and think that you will or won’t need it; but a few days into the bush you might find yourself cursing its presence or ready to sell your soul for it. Without motorised transport carrying your gear for you, packing the right stuff becomes all important. Continue reading A Few Tips for Canoe Camping
It’s easy to think that you have to travel great distances and forge paths into the middle of nowhere to find the wild. A lot of my efforts take me to those sorts of places and I find experiences that will last a lifetime; but you don’t always have to go to the ends of the earth. Sometimes wild places are hidden right under our noses, and the search for them is always rewarding. Continue reading An Unseasonably Warm November
Jan and I drifted in close to the cliff. The red markings on the stone told a story. A story of the waters, the animals, and the people that have lived and still live here. An elk appeared from the paint made of red ochre and sturgeon fat; his antlers swept back just as they would have looked when this species still walked these woods. Bull moose were clearly visible. As was a man sitting back smoking a pipe. Red hands covered parts of the cliff face. Interestingly, some instantly recognisable language was also visible on the wall of stone: a date – stating when some Europeans; probably voyageurs; had travelled through this way. All in the same red paint. Continue reading The Scenic Route
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.
The last few months have been pretty hectic. In May I turned up to work at Zup’s Fishing Resort and Canoe Outfitters, located just on the Canadian side of the Ontario/Minnesota border. Situated on Lac La Croix; tucked away on the western edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (USA) and Quetico Provincial Park (Canada); I was starting out as a bare-faced beginner when it came to fishing for the iconic freshwater species that call this part of the world home. I’m only now getting the chance to think about what I’ve learned so far.
One thing that has really hit home with me since being in Canada is the importance of seasonal changes and their effects on fish and fishing. I realise now that I often overlooked the importance of seasonality back home, or at least never paid real attention to the progression of seasons and the fishing patterns these cause. It’s fairly common knowledge that the four arbitrary seasons don’t accurately represent the Australian condition, and definitely mean very little to a fishes calendar. That is the calendar we need to key in on.
Sure, we are all aware of the broad seasonal patterns that are apparent for several species during the year, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m referring here to the constant changes occurring throughout the year and during each ‘season’. How often do we think about environmental variability on a week-to-week basis? By this I mean the regular annual variability; the ‘in the first two weeks of February water conditions are x-y-z…’ and so on. Do we talk about those trends in Australia? I’m guessing that paying attention can only make you a better fisherman.
Back in Canada, early spring on Lac La Croix found us hooking up on everything, all in the same place. The turmoil caused by the thaw had fish everywhere and anywhere. In a single afternoon and in a single bay we were catching smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, whitefish and lake trout on consecutive casts of diving lures and chatterbaits. It was a lucky dip. But before we knew it, the different species began to move off towards their summer haunts, and the summer turn-over (when the uniformly cold lake water warms to the point that it stratifies into an upper layer of warm water separated by a distinct thermocline under which sits much colder water) set the summer pace.
Trout went deep in search of cold water. Big pike all but disappeared, seeking the cold and a reprieve from summer heat stress, while the small ‘hammer handles’ invaded the shallow bays and fed with a vengeance. Smallmouth went shallow to spawn in sandy bays, then began to move deep again when things got warm. Walleye moved back onto the reefs after the spring spawn held in rivers.
For a while there we could pick up decent bass without much of an issue, but as late summer wore on the big ones went even deeper and held on reefs where a jig and live minnow were the most practical way to find them. Lakers turned off (for us at least) in early July and none of us could find them again until the beginning of September when I stumbled upon stacks of them feeding on young perch in 35 feet of water. Now, with water temperatures dropping and the fall definitely upon us, some better than average pike are lurking the edges of weedbeds.
I’ve been chasing my tail all summer trying to get to grips with what the hell goes on in these lake systems. I’ve caught fish for sure, but have had no idea what I was doing most of the time. Now, as things are winding down, I’m starting to fit a few pieces of the puzzle together and realising what I was missing earlier in the season. That’s the fun of it though. What a learning curve!
The point I’m trying to make here is that everything hinges on the progression of the seasons. Smart folk in North America know this and act accordingly. There are some amazing resources available to the freshwater fisherman here, I’ll say that. The work undertaken by such organisations as In-Fisherman (www.in-fisherman.com/) is pretty astounding – after reading through a couple of their classic publications; Walleye Wisdom: An In-Fisherman Handbook of Strategies; and Pike: An In-Fisherman Handbook of Strategies; I was struck by how important seasons are to freshwater fish in North America. To find good fish consistently, you have to be always thinking of what is going on in the fish’s environment. Keeping in touch with annual patterns is one step towards making this process easier.
We all act on the yearly progression of seasons subconsciously as well as accidentally. Think about it. Early season Australian bass, still hanging in brackish water, take advantage of the first runs of school prawns as the weather warms in September, and I’ve capitalised on this using prawn imitations as well as live prawns to pin my first fish for the season. Colder weather sees more big mulloway turning up off the beaches and river mouths, which no doubt has something to do with seasonal movements of prey. I can’t explain the exact details here because I simply haven’t put the effort in to find an explanation yet. But I guarantee that finding out what brings big mulloway to the beaches in June will make me more likely to catch them.
If you’re serious about learning what makes your favourite species tick, it is worth researching the finer points of their seasonal behaviour. While I’m not aware of any one place that contains the wealth of Australian fishing knowledge related to seasonal behaviour and movements of our favourite sportfish, there are a few publications that might be worth looking at for a start. I know I will be picking a few books up when I get back.
Of course, you may be one of those people that have learned the hard way – by fishing for it. Spend enough time on the water and keep notes, and you will be able to start piecing together some information yourself.
For now, I’m going to start thinking about when and where I’ve had success on different species. That will be a good place to start asking questions. The next step will be finding the information that will tell me why I was successful or otherwise. Fishing is definitely a science. Getting the ‘fishing’ side of things down – the cast, the retrieves, the knots – is one thing. Getting the ‘hunting’ aspect of things – the questioning, the understanding, the putting yourself in the right place at the right time – is what sets the good fishermen apart. So what are your fish up to this week?
Happy 2014 Barra Season. I’m currently in the final stages of packing and getting my accomplice organised for a couple of days of driving and a few weeks of chasing northern estuary fish and freshwater fighters. From here on out we will be off the radar and living off some of the finest table fare available to Aussies.
My last article covered the planning phase of preparing for an adventure trip. This, the second instalment, will give a rundown on basic considerations when preparing, packing for and getting to your chosen destination. Obviously, planning and preparation go hand in hand and you will likely have started making a mental image of what you are going to need. Make no mistake; thorough preparation and packing can make the difference between a successful trip and a lousy one, and will definitely make for some easy going in the long run.
The Art of List Making
Santa definitely had the right idea. You really can’t get too trigger-happy when creating lists. Preparation is, after all, all about structure – and you can’t get much more structured and pedantic than by setting out a heap of checklists. There are a couple of considerations here that will help in tailoring task specifics; I might even put them down in some kind of structured way.
- Start Early. When putting together a list of equipment required for a trip, make a first draft a few weeks out. The first pass will always include too much stuff, and you will forget something for sure.
- Check it Twice. Really. Give your first draft a week to settle. This will give you time to think of any other bits and pieces that would be handy. Add them, then, read through with a stingy mind removing anything that seems like a luxury. Check it again closer to the date and preferably after you have put together the equipment already listed. This will give you a chance to see how much gear there is, check whether anything needs repair and/or replacement, and whether anything can’t be sourced.
- Archive. Don’t lose a good list once it is made. I keep a notebook (well, a library of notebooks) that contain all the various jottings from many trips. These can be very handy for future ventures; either to spark the mind or as a straight copy.
- Keep it Running. Don’t stop once you get on the road. Keep notes of things like travel expenses. These are good to provide ballpark figures on the cost of different trips for future reference, and are perfect for moaning about how cheap things were ‘back in the day’.
Once you get set up, you will hopefully have a store of stuff that will always come with you. From here on in you will only need to sporadically check that all things remain in working order and replenish any stores that get used. I keep two toolboxes on my ute: one designated for basic tools, general weaponry and protective equipment (for me and dogs); and the other for camp equipment such as barbie, billy, eating utensils and long lasting food stuffs.
Depending on the type of trips you do most, you may end up with tailored setups. For example, if you do a lot of backpack trekking you may want to organise a small bag that will go with your gear containing emergency equipment and rations. The important thing here is to have your ‘always’ equipment contained so that it is as simple as picking the thing up and putting it with the rest of your gear.
The Right Gear for the Job
Having the right gear for the task at hand will make things a hell of a lot easier, full stop. The balancing act, for the traveller, is to have the right stuff without taking up too much space or weight. Hence making lists early and narrowing down what is really required.
Again, depending on what you’re doing, some items will be no-brainers – fishing gear for a fishing trip and binoculars for a twitch-athon – but there is always the chance to narrow things down to necessities and luxuries. Apart from the relevant task-specific gear you will always want some kind of recovery equipment. This will vary depending on the task at hand and your capabilities.
On the Hoof
Foot travel (and for that matter any travel) will require personal recovery gear. At the most essential level this will be a knife, matches in a waterproof container, a candle, compass and a few bandages. This is by no way a full listing of an essential survival kit but will ensure that you are capable of improvising (knife), repairing (bandages), navigating (compass) and doing all in high spirits (matches). If your tinder is wet light the candle to save matches and dry the tinder to start a fire. Depending on where you are wandering you may want to include a good rope. For a more detailed and time-tested manual of survival kits refer to the SAS Survival Handbook (Wiseman 1986). Also, keep a lookout for Big Dick’s upcoming piece on setting up a survival kit.
The first step to personal recovery is knowing where you are. If you are taking on rough country you should have a topographic map of the area and a good quality compass. There is no excuse for not knowing how to use these items, and no technology fast-track. If you get lost and cark it because you dropped your GPS in a puddle it’s probably fair to leave you where you are.
Once you learn to read a map you can determine where in the landscape you are and pick the best route for movement before physically seeing it. A compass can help guide you there in less than ideal conditions. Please, learn how to use both.
Foot travel is generally the most restrictive in terms of equipment carrying capacity. This is therefore the best method for becoming frugal in your choice of gear to take and is a great way to learn nifty skills like navigation and improvisation. Feel free to push limits but always work to your abilities. Know your way out before you go in.
On the Water
If water travel is your chosen transport you may have a little more space for stuff. My Canadian canoe has stacks of room to put some cooking gear, food and swag or tent. A kayak tends to have less space and is probably best treated the same as foot travel.
The good thing about rivers is that you can’t really get too far off track. Either you go back the way you came or keep going to the next exit point along the waterway. I’m not going to go into sea travel as I know nothing about it, but the principle is the same: thorough preparation leads to more success and less death.
Of key note, recoverywise, is to keep some kind of flotation device at hand. If you feel that you are going to be chucked in unexpectedly, wear a lifejacket. Always have oars in a boat regardless of how reliable the motor is, and keep a spare paddle in a canoe/kayak if possible. Carry spare shear pins with motors, and from experience, a bit of wire and pliers can always come in handy. If you are in saltwater carry enough drinking water to keep you going for a couple of days and make sure you can get out of the sun. This means good clothing and headgear.
Depending on the usefulness of the vehicle you will be able to carry a fair bit of stuff with you. This is always handy and can form a great base camp from which to make other expeditions. Still, there is no point carrying excess baggage and the selection process remains the same.
As for recovery, this depends on your vehicle too. The affordability of four-wheel drive vehicles these days coupled with constant barrages from BCF and the like have pretty much blinded people to the mobility of a two-wheel drive when coupled with a capable operator. So don’t immediately think that you can’t get to far-away places without a Landcruiser. Four-wheel drives obviously have increased capability but patience and determination play major roles in driving.
Whatever vehicle you have at hand, some basic space saving recovery gear is a must. This gear is as follows:
– Chocks (for tyres and to sit jack on if required)
– Shovel (an Australian post hole shovel is by far the most practical type)
– Mechanical hand winch
– Crow bar (if space permits).
The type of jack is important. It needs to be reliable above all else. Hydraulic jacks are pretty solid. Wallaby jacks, while handy if you are bogged to the arse, can be tricky to use if you don’t know what you are doing and are potentially deadly. I know of someone who was knocked clean out when a vehicle slipped, the jack was set free and the handle clipped him on the chin. He was left lying in the paddock for some time until he came to and got himself home. If you are working alone these jacks require great care.
The type of winch is also important. Good quality mechanical (hand operated) winches are without a doubt the go-to for back country travel. An electric winch seems great until you want to pull yourself backwards; the winch being secured to the front of the vehicle; or when you want to pull your flat battery up the slope next to you to get a jump start. Enough said.
As with anything else, the saying ‘more speed less haste’ is paramount. What this equates to is the simple rule: don’t rush. No matter what method of travel you are utilising, the only result of rushing is making a mistake. Depending on what you are doing, the results of a mistake can stem from a minor injury, to getting lost, or having a car crash.
So take your time in travelling and enjoy the scenery. Check maps twice to make sure. Test footing before trusting it. Don’t take a river rapid on if you can portage it. Don’t drive at night if the route is crawling with big animals.
This rule applies just as much following an accident or mishap. The brain works best when it has time to process what is going on, so if it costs a little time to stand and look before acting then so be it. Trust me, a little broad-picture thinking now may make all the difference in the long run.
At the end of the day, equipment is there to help you out and make things a bit more comfortable. The bottom line, however, is you. So know how to use every piece of equipment you take (otherwise what’s the use of it?), know how to maintain everything and most importantly know how to make do with what you have.
Take your time in any endeavour as this will give you plenty of opportunity to realise you are being a clown and let you work out how to do something the right way. This is particularly important during travel as a few extra seconds taken to assess a situation can save hours of digging yourself out of a bog or worse.
The best part about taking your time is that you get to enjoy the landscape you are in. A few nights ago Richard and I were paddling down a remote creek in the middle of nowhere keen for a cuppa and bed after hours of unsuccessfully chasing mangrove jack. All our haste dissipated though when the clouds parted to let the stars through, while our paddles caused clouds of phosphorescent algae to light up the inky black water. A startled mullet was lit up in a ghostly green as is sprinted away before us. Why rush through that?
Wiseman, J. L. 1986. SAS Survival Handbook. HarperCollins Publishers, London.