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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Time and tide…. and a grassy knoll

My sisters were all wise enough to marry good men. Fine men, in fact, and they are brothers in every sense of the word. Forget the ‘–in-law’ bit. ‘Brothers’ is what I mean.
   Ken Stockwell was the first brother I acquired, thanks to Jan’s good judgment. (And his, I might add!) I can’t recall exactly the first time we met. If I thought about it enough I might pin down the year, but Jan will put me right on that one for sure. He brought new things into the life of our whole family, being savvy about many of the things we country bumpkins were not used to doing or having, such as specialised electrical equipment – tools, record players – stuff like that. He could make top quality beautifully balanced cane fishing rods, one of which he gave me and I used for many years – and he taught me how to make them. He bought a car – a grey Vanguard, if I remember correctly, so when he came out (a-courtin’!) we had increased mobility.
   There was one special gift he gave to my father. Ken was, and still is, a great fisherman, whether beach, estuary or river, or even ‘outside’, as we were on the end of the Barrier Reef at Gladstone. My father could also fish, on the rare occasions we went to Tannum Sands – beach fishing that was – but what Ken did was to take him and me to the Calliope River, to a spot about ten km upstream of the estuary, and teach us how to fish that spot. 
   This was a specialised art though it came naturally to Ken, who’d fished round Gladstone all his life. We graduated from handline fishing on coke bottles to sidecast reels and rods built or chosen by Ken when synthetic (fibreglass in this case) materials replaced cane.
   My father had few opportunities to relax but, in learning to fish that part of the river with Ken, he had access to one simple pleasure not more than 15 minutes away from the farm that he probably never would have discovered for himself. 
   Ken taught us these things about fishing a tidal river. To succeed, what you had to do was optimise the conditions as far as possible – the variables. These were
  • Time of day
  • Time of tide
  • Height of tide
  • Fishing tackle
  • Bait
  • Weather
What was required was to optimise these – they didn’t all have to be perfect, but the better they were, the more fish you caught.
   So, we’d always have a tide chart and an eye on the phases of the moon – which told us when to head down to the river, and that was magic time for Dad and me. Often we would make a point of getting the milking over as quickly as we could, to catch a combination of a good high tide with dusk, and fish there above the old Calliope Bridge for an hour or two.

Where we'd fish after milking - above the bridge

Dad, ready for fishing expedition, round 1959
(Those shorts were never in danger of falling down, Dad!)
   Sometimes we got nothing, but we were much more likely than not to come home with dinner of fresh bream and flathead. Thanks to Ken’s guidance, both of us became very good at reading the river and catching fish, and that certainly helped when years later I fished the Nambucca River estuary, just two hours from here.
   But the best times of all fishing the River were when we would all go in bright sunshine after a morning milking when there was a king tide, and sit on the grassy green knoll below the bridge and throw in a line there. 
Below the bridge. The tide here is just on the turn. The grassy knoll is out of sight to the right of this view, this side of the river
A king tide meant that ocean water would flood up the river, sometimes two metres higher than its normal level, foaming through the channels in the bridge. You could sense the excitement of the fish themselves, as it meant they could venture into territory not usually under water, where there was new and different food for them to winkle out – sometimes amongst the green grass now covered by a metre or so of water, until the tide turned, and the water level in the river fell to its normal height. About twelve hours later, it would all happen again, depending on the phase of the moon as to the height of the tide.
   At that time, you could see so many varieties of fish in the clear water with the grass at the bottom, shoals of mullet of all sizes, sometimes a giant barramundi chopping through them. Barra were the prize catches of the time, and I saw ones caught up to 70 pounds – about 30 kg. I never caught one of those, and our rigs for fish of about 2 kg wouldn’t have troubled a large barra in the least. Ken had caught monster jewfish (mulloway) of that size with the right tackle, but not there. I did see him catch a quite large shark there on the grassy knoll though. With king tides, anything could happen.
Mangrove Jack
   Right at the turn of the tide, it was magic. The river became almost completely still for some minutes before the water started to flow back downstream. That was the time when you had to be there. In those few minutes, large red mangrove jacks would flash out from their hidey holes to see what was on offer, and if you were ever going to catch one, that would be the time. We often did. Bream, whiting and trevally would go crazy and large trumpeter would snap at anything moving.
   How often I have returned to that place in my dreams, standing on the grassy bank, looking down into the clear water, fish everywhere. Not actually catching fish, just being there, at that time, seeing the River come to life again before my eyes.
   I haven’t fished for years. It has lost some of its attractions for me even before it became impossible for me to hold a fishing rod, but the Calliope River will always be there as a uniquely special memory. Thanks, Ken. That wouldn’t have happened without you.


  1. I love this post. That vision of the ocean river, clear, with the fish visible beneath, is so evocative for me I could weep.(with love, and gratitude that my childhood knew such natural wonder). No wonder it comes to you in dreams, as the ocean does to me. How good it was that Ken appeared to give you and your dad (and Jan!) such added pleasure.

  2. Ken and Jan live just across from Tallebudgera Creek, and have for 30? years - so he still has his natural environment within 100 metres!

  3. What a lovely post. It is so important to have some 'special memories' like these...the funny thing is you don't realise at the time that what you are doing is going to become such a precious memory....

  4. One of the first times I saw Ken (circa 1970) was when he & Terry (and a neighbour?) had just returned to shore with a catch of Jew Fish so enormous it was a wonder it didn't sink the boat. They were almost as long as a man and caught on a line which I am sure could have towed a car.

  5. Possibly a neighbour, but Terry, Lyn's husband, also went on one of those expeditions with Ken. The Jewfish, or Mulloway, when filleted was excellent no matter how big, and none of these fish were wasted. We all believed in the principle that fish caught were not just for sport but to eat.

  6. Sorry, John - I didn't read your posting carefully enough! No matter....


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