Sun, wind, waves and fish thrills

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 12:00am

Sam Melia stood in the well of his five-metre steel fishing boat, put two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The sound floated over 100 metres of blue South Pacific swells and echoed off granite cliffs. Two shadows emerged from the tree-line, swooping up with the trade wind under their wings.

The big brown and white fish eagles know Mr Melia well. The gusts took them quickly higher; within 10 seconds they were about 60 metres above the boat.

Then, using a frisbee throw, the charter boat skipper whizzed a brilliant blue reef fish over the water. The larger bird exploded out of the sky like a dive bomber, powering down with talons extended. He speared the fish in those powerful claws and with a victory screech, swept over the boat back to the eyrie ashore.

'He likes easy fishing,' Mr Melia grinned.

I reached into the handy cold box and drew out an icy beer. 'So do I,' I replied.

We were anchored in about 30 metres of water, sheltered from winds by the high cliffs of Dumb Bell Island in the Whitsundays group off Queensland, Australia. Mr Melia had picked us up at Shute Harbour for a five-hour fishing trip - everything provided but the beer - which at the depressed state of the Australian dollar was costing HK$600 for the two of us.

Money well spent.

Going fishing in Queensland is simple. At every small town and city in the 2,300 kilometres of coast from Cooktown to Brisbane, there are boats for hire or, much more efficient, effective and fun, seats on charter boats.

Some of the charter boats are big multi-purpose vessels that take you out to the far strands of the Great Barrier Reef where you can snorkle or fish.

If you are serious about landing something, it is best to opt for a fellow who is dedicated to catching fish. We had Sam Melia. His boat, with Australian logic, is called a 'tinny': it is made out of tough, welded sheets of aluminium and steel. It has a 90-horsepower outboard that rammed us across the minor chop at 40 knots. From Shute Harbour to where Mr Melia thought they would be biting on the far side of Dumb Bell Island took 20 pounding minutes.

It was calm in the lee, a perfect day with a few clumpy white clouds and dark blue waters. The wind cooled the tropic sun. 'Slap on the sunscreen,' advised Mr Melia as he started chopping herrings in half.

Down, down, down went the bait. A few seconds later, there was a hit. Haul, haul, haul in the line, wrapped about a big, awkward wooden hand reel, about as wide as a stool seat. This was hard work.

On the hook was a gorgeous electric blue fish, plump and looking delicious. You would pay at least $300 for this in any Hong Kong restaurant. Mr Melia deftly slipped it off the hook and threw it to his mate, the eagle.

Down, down, down went the next half-herring, hook impaled strategically through the eye. Bang, another bite. This was like towing a minibus. The thick nylon ran through my palms, burning and cutting. There was no way I could hold it.

Far below, the big fish was fighting me. I tried haplessly to control its run with the unwieldy hand reel. Mr Melia was hovering nearby. The tussle went on for 10 minutes until finally there was an ominous white shadow glimpsed dimly through the clear waters; he was still at least 20 metres down.

Disaster. I fumbled the line trying to wind it on the hand reel (which was the kind I had not used since I was a child) and the line went slack.

Mr Melia sensed I was not happy. He was right. 'Can I have a rod and reel?' I asked, more or less politely.

We started trolling, running along the coast where the island's cliffs fall directly into deep water. There were four rods out, one for me, one for my wife Kit (who is possibly the world's least interested fishing companion) and two for the boat.

These short, stubby, strong rods are meant to hold big creatures and haul them in. They are not things of beauty, but tough tools. At the end of the nine-kilogram breaking strain nylon, lightweight scarlet and white lures bounce. These are designed so a plastic lip causes the lure to roll deep underwater. As the boat cruises at about eight knots, the lures are four metres beneath the waves.

'This is a pretty stupid way to catch fish,' I am saying to Mr Melia when . . . WHANG! Kit is clutching desperately to her rod, which is bent almost double. The reel is screeching louder than the eagle. Mr Melia slams the boat into neutral. He is shouting instructions. Pull up the rod! Set the hook! Keep the line taut! Do not let him get under the boat! I reel in the other lines to avoid tangles.

Great excitement: he jumped! The fish is a brilliant green, longer and three times thicker than a baseball bat. 'Schoolie,' shouts Mr Melia. The fish is brought alongside. He gaffs it. It is a school mackerel, about 10 kg, a prime fish. And if it is a 'schoolie' then it means there are a lot more out there.

Hurriedly, we let out the lures and start trolling back the way we came. WHANG! This time it is my line. Boy, what a beauty. I can feel the strength of this powerful creature running up the line, through the rod and into my arms and shoulders.

I haul back sharply to set the hook, then let him run. And, man, can he run.

WHANG! Kit's line has gone again.

We get these aboard, a different sort, bullet-shaped, gleaming silver knights in armour, all muscle and teeth. Spanish mackerel, mine weighs about 14 kg and Kit's about 12 kg.

I am admiring my catch and thinking of recipes when, whang, whang and again, whang, whang, whang. Every time we put a line in the water, there is a savage attack on the lures. The frenzy lasts for 30 minutes. Then they are gone, on the prowl elsewhere.

We slump, exhausted and happy, and it is time for another cold beer.

We pulled a total of nine hard-fighting mackerel ashore in that hectic half hour. It was exhilarating.

Mr Melia's type of fishing is but one of hundreds of ways to go angling in Queensland. I packed an expandable rod in my bag, which extends from 60 cm in the suitcase into two metres on any bridge, estuary, inlet or clump of rocks. I fished a hundred spots with this, not catching anything huge, but having a vast amount of fun.

There are also reef fishing, big game fishing (an immensely expensive way of discovering terminal boredom), and estuary fishing, where you rent a boat or go with a professional guide, which is much more intelligent. On the river that runs through Cairns, I caught some magnificent sea salmon and bream.

One glory about fishing in Queensland is that most holiday accommodation has cooking facilities. So you can eat that plump fresh fish you have just caught. Those Spanish mackerel, fried quickly in a little olive oil in a light crumb batter, were superb.