Fishing Story

MAY DAY WEEKEND – FISHING TRIP
 MAY 1967

 

Thirteen men on a 50 foot boat headed for the Peron Islands, south west of Darwin. The boat was hired for $50 per day, costing $150 all told, so it cost us about $15 - $20 each for the hire, the food and of course the ever present beer.

We were supposed to leave Stokes Hill wharf at 9 o’clock Friday night. On arriving at the wharf we were told that the freezer on the boat wasn’t working and they had tried all over Darwin to buy ice without any luck. Departure time was put back to 4am Saturday. This was when ice could be procured at Koolpinyah iceworks. We spent the night on the wharf having a sing-song around two of the blokes who had guitars, at the same time drinking “stubbies”.

Our gear was aboard, down in the hold. When 4am came we cast off with high expectations and a few blocks of ice.

What a motley crew we were. The boat was seaworthy enough but a real tub to look at. The skipper was dead drunk as we left the wharf and negotiated the channel and reefs. He had done this many times, as his job was to service the lighthouses around the coastline. On long weekends he made a bit of extra money by hiring out the boat. Besides the skipper there was his mate, several blokes of mixed race – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, an old Aborigine, myself an engineer, a draughtsman, a bloke who was formerly a member of “Les Girls” at “The Cross”, an English architect, a clerk and several others. The skipper remained inebriated for the whole weekend and never left the cabin, but somehow he could sense his way. Most of us slept on the deck as the boat chugged at 5 knots through the darkness. Thirteen was just a few too many so some of us only had enough room to stretch out on deck.

Awake at dawn, we see we are following the coastline around. Several of us had a spell at the wheel just to say we’d done it. “Babe” Damaso, an old, white haired aborigine, cooked all the meals which consisted of stew and two slices of bread at breakfast, lunch and tea.

Stubbies were being consumed all the time.

Because we’d lost time there was no good in going to the Perons and besides that, with no freezer and not much ice, the fish would not keep on the long journey back. So we decided on somewhere closer – Bynoe Harbour and Indian Island, where we anchored at about 1 o’clock Saturday afternoon. During the weekend we moved around the area fishing off various bottoms. On the whole, the fishing was disappointing. I caught two grey nurse sharks, each about  3 feet in length. Between us we caught plenty of sharks, several trevally, bream, snapper and “ock-ocks, (so called because of the noise they make). All fish were of good size, some weighing up to about 8lbs, not counting the sharks which were much bigger. But with a dozen lines over the side we should have done much better.

That night we enjoyed fresh fish cooked in oil – beautiful. We ate from old chipped enamel plates. The washing up was done in a bucket of sea water.

If what I am about to describe had not happened, the weekend would have been disappointing. We had a dinghy with us and rowed ashore to look for turtle eggs. We raided several nests and came back with about 300 eggs. But the best part was to come – “The Turtle Hunt”. About 11 o’clock Sunday night, nearly everybody was sprawled on the deck asleep, but five of us set off in the dinghy to row to Quail Island (also known as “Turtle Island”). The boat was anchored only two hundred yards offshore so it wasn’t a long row. In the dark you could see the phosphorus in the water and I remembered reading about it in the “Kon Tiki Expedition”. Small pieces of seaweed flashed as they flowed past. Each time the oars dipped in, they too glowed with the phosphorus. The small bow wave sparkled with dozens of phosphorescent flashes.

After reaching the sandy beach we pulled the dinghy well up on the sand and started walking along the beach. Turtles lay eggs several times a year, usually about 50 eggs each time. They lumber up the sand from the water leaving a track like a tank. Above the high-water mark they dig a hole for the eggs.

As we walked along the beach, we could see by torchlight, tracks leading up from the water, but another set of tracks telling us we were too late.  The turtle had come and gone. Its eggs would be there buried in the sand, but we had enough eggs, we were after a turtle. We crossed many tracks until we came to a set leading up but none going back. There must be a turtle at work up there. We soon found her busy digging a hole. The three went on to look for more turtles while Eddie and I stayed to watch. The turtle seemed unaffected by our presence even though we were crouched in the sand only two feet from her. She must have known we were there, but the instinct to lay those eggs was probably the only thing occupying her mind. She must have weighed 150 – 200 lbs., the shell being about 2-’6” across and 3’-6” long.

The work for her was hard. Using her hind flippers she dug a hole about 1 foot in diameter and 18 inches deep, stopping for a rest occasionally and breathing heavily. We didn’t kill her because we wanted to watch the whole process, something one wouldn’t see often. After digging for about half an hour she rested for a minute, then began laying eggs. In all, she laid 5 dozen, but not one hit the sand. Eddie and I caught the eggs in our hands as she laid them!!

She then filled in the hole with sand and flattened the sand round about. Breathing heavily, she rested for a minute, then turned and began to make her way to the water, but here’s where we stepped in. We quickly turned her over on her back and no matter how much she tried she couldn’t right herself.

At about this time, the other three returned, but they had not found any other turtles. It was near 1am so we slept on the beach that night. Early Monday morning we tied a rope to the turtle’s front flippers and dragged her along the beach back to the dinghy. After getting her aboard the boat, securely tied and still on her back, we had breakfast and headed back for Darwin. It was an event I’ll never forget and it made the weekend worthwhile.

Quail Island is used as a bombing target by the RAAF. Fortunately, they weren’t practising this weekend! The island was dotted with bomb craters and pieces of shrapnel lay everywhere. We spotted several unexploded bombs but stayed clear of them.

The trip back up the coast was uneventful. Everyone was tired and a little disappointed with the fishing so just lay back and read magazines etc. On entering Darwin harbour we spotted a catamaran half submerged with two young blokes clinging to it. We changed course and headed towards them. The “cat” was a home-made job and had overturned, resulting in the hulls cracking open and filling with water. It was 6pm and they had got into difficulties at 11am but had not been spotted by anyone. We pulled the “cat” aboard and lashed it down. We reached the wharf at 7.30pm Monday, so ending a very interesting trip. “Babe” was going to take care of slaughtering the turtle and I hope to get a few turtle steaks from him next weekend.

We also brought back, in a bucket of salt water, about twenty little turtles just out of their eggs that day, and of course 300 eggs in a sugar bag.

Turtle eggs are different from hen eggs. Boil them as long as you like and they won’t harden. They have no shell, just a white skin. When they are cooked you eat them by pinching a small hole in the skin, pouring in a few drops of vinegar and sucking. Sometimes there may be a turtle inside so if you can’t get anything when you suck, “the little fellow inside has got his foot over the hole”, so they reckoned!!! They can be used in cakes, omelettes etc.

 

Michael D Rogers
May 1967

 

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