There once lived a man who loved to fish. He loved the salty air by the ocean. He loved the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on his skin. He loved the anticipation, the excitement at feeling that tug-tug-tug on the end of the line. The strike, the whizz of the reel, the bending rod, the battle between hunter and hunted.
But mostly, it was a good excuse to get away from the hustle and look into the eyes of the ocean. At the sleek shoulders of the horizon. That line that separates the known from the unknown. He liked to soak up the negative ions and contemplate the mystery of the sea. And to imagine the fish that lived within it.
Now, the man hadn’t always been a man. Of course, he used to be a boy. As a young boy he used to blunder into the fish and chip shop and head straight for that big poster on the wall showing all the species. He’d stare in wonder at all those delicious fish and try to memorise them all.
When he was seven his older brother took him fishing off the Overseas Terminal. There was always a cohort of Māoris and Asians trying their luck from the height of that gigantic wharf in the heart of the city. You’d usually catch something off the OT. Well, back in the ’80s you would anyway. At least a spotty or a rock cod – maybe a mackerel, or a blue cod if you were lucky, or if you weren’t so lucky, you’d wind up with a stargazer on the end of your line. Stargazers are freaky ugly things. God help you if you’re snorkelling along and you see one of them poking its freaky face out of the sand. You’d probably choke on your snorkel.
As a young teenager, the boy used to don his mask and dive down to the bottom of the deep pools in the river and find trout hiding there. He’d chase them up through the rapids and pretend he was a trout himself.
The years passed, and the boy became a man. He lived by the southern sea, mostly. He fished here and there, made music, and fell in love with a hard-headed woman. You know like that Cat Stevens song. They made a baby. They moved north, to the warm climes of the rainbow region.
Before their first son was born, the fisherman explored the new coastline. The warm water harboured species foreign to him. He learned of jewfish, and Spanish mackerel. Of flathead and giant trevally.
At low tide one summer afternoon he ventured to the coast to try his luck. He clambered out among the rocks as far out as he could to cast his lure. His fiancé and friend were watching from the beach. He was surprised when he got a strike. He wasn’t expecting it. The battle was on and he landed a sweet tailor. As he knelt down to gut the fish, the onlookers saw a great marlin jump out at sea, precisely over the spot where he knelt. Like a rainbow it flew over him. The sea was happy that day. And so was he.
Life was good. With his son he caught dart and whiting in the surf.
A few years later, their second son was born. They caught bream and tarwhine from the river.
His father came to stay. They snorkelled at the local marine reserve while great schools of jewfish surrounded them. They saw wobbegong and sea turtles. He walked the coastline with his wife and sons, admiring the pods of dolphins and great big grey-blue humpback whales as they migrated to Alaska.
Then, one year, hard times hit. People were forced from their jobs. Fresh fish became dear. He decided he needed to catch some real fillets. He splashed out on a new rod and some big-game tackle.
He fished the south wall for pelagics. He had seen a local Asian fisherman catch a giant trevally of the south wall. GT are epic. A real prize fish. Just look at their power and prowess. They’ve nothing to fear but sharks. There are stories about GTs dragging people out into the deep sea. There really are. It was somewhere in Fiji, I think. A geezer was fishing with a hand reel and somehow got the line wrapped around his arm when a GT took the bait and took him for a swim. Or so the legend goes.
But the fisherman’s luck was waning. He couldn’t seem to land anything at all.
Things really started going south when, one afternoon at the river mouth, he managed to hook up a loggerhead turtle. That was a bad scene. There were quite a few people around too, watching. ‘What am I going to do?’ he thought as he let the line slack and watched as the poor thing swam around with a hook in its mouth. After about 15 minutes, it managed to get off and he pulled the line in hook and sinker still attached, thank bejesus. What a relief that was. He packed up and left and didn’t go fishing again for quite some time. He was
just happy that turtle managed to spit out the hook somehow. That was a miracle, that was. A sheer miracle.
One crisp autumn sunset he was back at the river mouth with his two young sons and they saw an angler pulling in mackerel and tailor on the incoming tide. Next day he went out and bought three nice new lures and that evening he was back at the river mouth, casting his heart out thinking, ‘Surely, surely, they’re there again tonight.’ He cast and cast until the sun set and returned home empty-handed to his family. He thought to himself, ‘Perhaps I have been given my fair share, oh Tangaroa?’ He decided he would give it a break for a while again.
It was the spring of 2021 when he fell back off the wagon. Several families were going on a camping trip, down the coast. The spot was epic. The perfect setup. A big headland jutting out into the ocean with cliffs and deep water. The perfect casting spot into wild, unspoilt ocean. The fisherman was primed and ready to go.
He ventured out around the headland and found a good spot to cast from. After a few minutes, something took the lure. His luck was back! It wasn’t huge, but it was decent. Probably a tailor, he thought. But then there was the big haul in out of the water up the side of the cliff. Sure enough, halfway up the fish got off. But it didn’t fall back into the ocean. It landed on a little ledge of rock about four metres below the edge. There it lay, dangerously silver and beautiful. The prize to take back to show the kids.
He didn’t hesitate. He dropped the rod and scaled the cliff down to the ledge. Ten seconds later the fish was in his grip. Scaling back up he heard a surge and suddenly felt the cold pressure of water on his body. He lost his grip, and was sucked off the rock face back down into the surging water. It was swirling around like it was mixing a potion. He duck dove. The white-water was beautiful, there, under the surface. The sun rays beamed and bounced and glittered.
Then, in the deep blue waters below him, something stirred. A giant, graceful, flying shape was moving. He watched in awe as a huge manta ray cruised up and beheld him. Time stood still in that moment. A magical moment of communion between the intelligence of land and sea…
Then, the waves swirled, and buckled again.
His lungs were strong. He punched through, and he swam. He made it around the point. With the aid of the current, he swam all the way back to the beach. Exhausted and cold, he crawled back to his hungry family waiting at the campfire and ate some sausages.
[Actually, that last part of the story isn’t true. I made that bit up to try to make the story reflect the title better. The truth is he actually managed to scramble back up the cliff face with the fish in his grip and went back to the campsite with a big grin on his face and a story to tell.]
About a year later, he had been surfing at Boulder Beach and had been surrounded by a bait ball – and something rounding it up from below … Later that month his son and fiancé were at the same spot looking for cowrie shells. They accounted the story of their seeing incandescent schools of what looked like Spanish mackerel off the point, and a shark smashing them from below.
He couldn’t help himself. It was high tide and there was a big swell. He made his way out over the shoreline platform to the closest dry spot. Big waves were smashing over the rocks. He devised a method of darting forward, casting out, and then darting back to safety to wind in. First cast he snagged and lost his prime lure. He replaced that and kept on trying. Half an hour later, still no action. It was getting dark. He decided to switch to bait. He threw a couple of limpets onto a snapper rig and hurled it out. But a big wave came and pushed the line onto the barnacles, where it lodged. He tugged furiously to free it. He could feel a fish on the end of the line! Something decent. But the line was still stuck on the barnacles. There was nothing to do but wind in and hope it freed itself. He ventured forwards into the wet zone. Focused on the line, he wasn’t watching the surf. He tugged furiously to free the line and land his prize, just as a huge wave hit the basalt and sent a surge of water splashing over him, drenching him from head to toe. The line snapped. The fish was gone. He drove home all fishless and wet and salty, cursing and vowing to get himself a boat and a spear gun.
There’s no doubt about it, fishing can be fickle. It’s not a pursuit for the faint of heart. You’ve gotta be prepared to get stinky squid bait hands and stab an animal in the head and rip the guts out of it. One time I was catching kahawai in the harbour – with kahawai you gotta bleed them and then you gut them and all – so I was doing that, and somehow I managed to cut the fish’s heart out and it fell on to the ground in front of me. I picked it up and there in my palm was a tiny fish heart, still beating away. I watched as the beating slowed, and stopped. That was a trip-out. I felt kind of bad for that fish then. Maybe fish do have feelings. Life is a precious and miraculous thing. You’re probably already well aware of that, though.
And so, my friends, that’s about as lucky and unlucky as that fisherman has got. When it comes to fish, anyways. I mean, luck is a strange concept, really. Perhaps it’s something that comes to you when you’re in tune with yourself and the universe. Perhaps it is more like chaos theory – random and unpredictable, yet governed by deterministic laws. Perhaps the fisherman had lost his way.
One thing’s for sure, you need a fair whack of luck when it comes to fishing. I suggest you take up taekwondo or wingsuit flying, myself.
Unless, like me, you love delicious Kai Moana, that is.
About the Author: Mac Wilder
Mac Wilder is an expat from the Land of the Long White Cloud who now lives on the north coast of NSW with his wonderful wife, two wildlings (kids), and their beloved Staffy called Gypsy.
His interests include fractals, sacred geometry, cymatics, flying, and of course, fishing. If you ask him what his spirit animal is he’ll say it’s a black cat.