Basically the next week saw me and Steve venture out, but it was just too rough and we’d come chugging back again. This frustrated Steve, for he was born to catch mackerel, but not only that, he had to fill his 3-ton freezer with fillets to cash up. The coffees got stronger, the unspoken silences got longer, and the ecosystem at the back of the boat waited patiently. This was the life of a fisherman, an honest, simple life. In between near-death experiences, you drank coffee, read Playboy, and waited.
Then Steve sat out on the bow one day in the tartan deck chair and must have cracked the right frequency because the wind dropped. It didn’t drop much, but enough to give us a go at it. Next morning, after a cuppa that made me hair spike straight up like the quills of an Echidna, me and Steve headed out and took up the challenge!
The sea was still rough and life-threatening and terrifying and stuff like that, but not quite as bad as it had previously been. This time we made it out a bit further and there were plenty of mackerel around, also plenty of sharks, hammerheads, tigers, you name it. They were comin’ in from everywhere. They’d obviously worked out it was easier to grab the mackerel once I’d already hooked them, because with every fish I caught, it was a battle.
The sharks chompin’ relentlessly at the mackerel. Quite often I just pulled in a head minus the body and it wasn’t uncommon to see a mackerel launch itself out of the water with a shark totally airborne, right up its backside. It was an awesome display. I even had sharks attacking the outboard on the dory, but as time goes on, you get quicker and I started to beat the sharks a bit, not all the time… but a bit.
Every now and again I’d get a glimpse of Steve shooting along the horizon, one with the dory, Clancy of the Overflow, wheeling the lead of a mob of brumby mackerel. Born and bred to the sea, Steve was great to watch. He’d club them, cut their throat and with a flick of the wrist have the lure back in the water ready to go again.
So the routine thus evolved: catch fish, go back to the boat, fillet, clean, rest, coffee, catch, go back to the boat, fillet, etc.
There was plenty of mack action, shark action… and ‘bowel’ action.
A month had nearly gone by. My nervous system was like shredded bits of cabbage, but I managed to still function. Steve never said too much but we were putting a few fillets away, and that was the main thing.
One morning after downing possibly the strongest coffee known to mankind, which, by the way, would have made the balls drop on a jack donkey, me and Steve set out into the black jungle of roaring swell at the pre-dawn. As usual Steve disappeared straight off and I threw me two lines out praying to God to let me survive another day. After singing livin’ and workin’ on the land I noticed the wind had picked up even more and it was lookin’ serious again.
As first light shared itself with us ocean dwellers, I could see I’d accidentally drifted in a bit close to a fairly shallow reef area. Steve had warned me several times not to get anywhere near this area as the swell sucks right up there due to the reef and then just dumps, so virtually the water would go from under the dory and you’d be smashed by the overfalls. I was still a ways off but it was something to watch.
Then Bang! Me line went off… some huge mackerel no doubt and it jerked my dory around. As I went to pull it in, it took off and the last thing I wanted to happen… happened. The line got tangled around the prop and stalled me motor. It all happened pretty quick, the mackerel was going crazy on the end of the line, which was wrapped good and proper around me propeller. I didn’t react for a minute, then I looked around and I could see the white water from Steve’s killer reef was looming and the current was taking me straight for it, and fast. I couldn’t believe it, but that’s the sea for you.
Things happen quick and if you’re not sharp enough, it’s the food chain, no questions asked.
Steve appeared out of nowhere like a torpedo and yelled ‘get out your anchor or you’re dead’ and then disappeared into a wave. I dived for the hatch that held the anchor… it had no less than fourteen wing nuts holding it shut.
Nothing like trying to undo fourteen wing nuts with about 45 seconds left on the clock before you get smashed on a reef … and then torn apart by sharks.
Steve shot past again, but I didn’t hear what he yelled. I was too focused on the wing nuts… just trying to be nimble. With about one second up me sleeve I got the anchor out and it pulled me up just short of the overfalls crashing down on the reef. And it was fair dinkum, one of the closest calls I’d ever had.
For a moment there, I thought my time on the planet had run out.
Steve was in the horrors, yelling out all sorts of instructions, roaring up and down in his dory, the poor bloke. He knew the dangers only too well. I think if something had happened to me, I figured I was definitely replaceable, but no way could Steve afford a new dory.
With a nervous system now totally fragmented, I cut the line free from the outboard, pulled up the anchor and got out of there.
But that was it for me, I’d run me race.
That little episode shook me up… I was hangin’ up the handline!
In these conditions I was on borrowed time, I was thinkin’. So when we fought the swell and got back to the boat, I laid my cards on the table. I told Steve straight out, That’s it. I’m not goin’ out there again… wild horses couldn’t drag me.
I expected a blast of don’t be so weak….this is what fishing is all about … So I braced myself ready for Steve’s verbal spray. Anyway, I couldn’t hack it, so I deserved it, I’m thinkin’. But Steve reckons ‘yeah, mate, fair enough. If you’re not goin’ out there, I’m not either’, he reckons. ‘Been shittin’ meself the whole time’, he reckons… ‘Never worked in anything this bad before’… he also reckons.
Well, once again, you could have knocked me over with a piece of paper bark. I’ll be buggered. One whole month of thinking I was gunna die at least twice a day in conditions that I thought were the norm for fishing.
Well, anyway, we sat out on the bow, had a laugh and a coffee Steve had whipped up, strong enough to blow the sock off a world war 2 war veteran, with a wooden leg… and we chewed the fat.
Steve had taken chances because of his financial situation; otherwise he wouldn’t have left the yacht club bar, in this weather. I’m thinkin’… I wished we’d had this conversation a month ago.
So Steve made enough out of the fish we’d caught to get himself going again, and I headed bush, vowing never to go anywhere near the sea ever again, not even a fish and chip shop.
This last month couldn’t really be technically described as an adventure that got me absolutely nowhere because I’d learnt quite a bit from Old Steve, and it was good to see a bloke like him in action. He was a real master mariner, no doubt about it.
Later that same year Steve nearly came unstuck himself. Fishing back up the Wessells, a shark stuck its head straight up through the floor of Steve’s dory. It apparently was charging after a mackerel, miscalculated and rammed the bottom of the wooden dory, coming right through the floor. Luckily Steve’s new off-sider got over there quick and rescued Steve before the dory sunk. When Steve got back to the main boat he sat down and smoked a whole packet of ‘Winfield Red’, one after the other, and ate coffee straight out the tin.
So basically, in summary….if you’re looking for a little adventure, try something relaxing like catching Crocs or politics. Unless you’ve got totally nothing at all to live for, don’t even think about mackerel fishin’ – and that’s fair dinkum!
I’ll give you the big tip on that one.
Phil O’Brien (born 31 December 1930) is a former Australian rules footballer who played with Hawthorn in the Victorian Football League (VFL).
This story is an extract from Phil’s book ‘You Can Always Find Someone To Have A Beer With!’, a very entertaining collection of stories in the life and times of Outback Raconteur Phil O’Brien. Reckless, financially irresponsible and prone to bad luck, Phil OBrien has turned drifting around Outback Australia into an art form! Containing about 30 short easy to read stories [including pictures] this book will appeal to a wide range of readers, from city dwellers who enjoy an escape to country folk that will relate to the real-life events and characters. Also, travelers looking for a light read while in transit and overseas tourists looking to take home a genuine piece of Australian literature. Stories are based on Phil’s adventures across the Northern Territory, the Kimberley region and beyond.