Philip reflects on his father’s lasting legacy.
Fishing memories aren’t always reliable, as my diary often reminds me! Still, even though my recollections are sometimes a bit fuzzy, I think I can safely say that time on the water with my dad, was pivotal to a lifelong love of fishing. The earliest of these memories are remarkably vivid in certain details, but vague in others.
I was only a toddler when I caught an eel in the Yarra at the ‘Bend of Islands’, where the extended family shared a bush block and shack. Probably my first fish, I wrote about this eel in ‘The River Behind the Hill’.
I recall my next catch being a redfin in Lake Eildon near Bonnie Doon Bridge, during a family picnic. It must have been small, because it seemed about goldfish size even to a pre-schooler.
My subsequent redfin memory was catching 72 of them with Dad on Celta lures at Lake Nillahcootie, not far away. With catch-and-release then unknown to us, we caught and kept the redfin until they stopped biting or the school moved away. We were ecstatic, having never before landed more than a handful of fish of any species. But our joy was tempered as we got down to the task of cleaning 6 dozen spiny fish. The experience was further dampened when, that evening, we presented a generous portion of the catch to our thrifty neighbour, Mrs Hogan. As she filleted the redfin in her kitchen, the heads, frames and other offcuts were thrown into a boiling cauldron on the stove. They say smell is one of the most powerful triggers, and sitting here now more than 50 years later, I can still sniff the silty odour of that pot and its contents.
That may have been the point where I stopped thinking of redfin as a truly worthy catch. This was arguably unfortunate, as they are prolific, easily caught, and (if I can compartmentalise the aroma of Mrs Hogan’s fish soup) quite delicious. In fact, for all Dad’s life, he rated reddies as superior to trout for eating.
Anyway, this was around the time Dad’s job as a teacher saw him posted to Timbertop in Victoria’s mountainous north-east. This fortunate move placed the whole family in the midst of a high country paradise, and set the scene for me to meet the fishy love of my life: trout.
It must have been tempting for Dad to launch into the serious business of learning how to fish for trout without the encumbrance of his 6 year old son. Or perhaps it wasn’t, because I have no recollection of anything other than his enthusiasm for me to join him. No sighs of impatience, no words of frustration. Our fishing trips together seemed to go very smoothly and happily, even though, as a father myself now, I know there must have been tangles, flooded gumboots, wet clothes, dropped fish and all sorts of other mishaps which needed to be resolved. The fact I can’t recall a single bad experience in all those early angling years, suggests Dad must have been a master of planning, patience and good humour.
I’ve written before that it seemed as if we were learning this new art together – in hindsight, a powerful positive for a young boy. In reality, the knowledge balance has to have greatly favoured a man in his thirties over a primary school kid. But there Dad goes again – giving me what would turn out to be a life-altering perspective.
The same process continued when my younger brothers were old enough to join us. This fishing thing (with bait and lure initially) was a team effort, not simply teacher/ pupil.
The memories flood in: being perhaps the first people to fish the upper Jamieson River by car when Dad’s Forests Commission contact invited us to drive over there, just as the new Brocks Road reached the water. Or fishing in and around the numerous bridges on the old logging road up the Delatite River above Mirimbah. A trip to the Snowy Mountains, where a giant brook trout followed my lure at Lake Jindabyne… but didn’t actually eat it. Mouse feeders on the Barwon River outside Geelong (who needs New Zealand!), one of which Dad traced then painted and framed. The picture hung on his study wall for years.
Somewhere in there, along came the Julian family; in particular, sons David and Peter, and their father John – who would go on to become Dad’s lifelong mate. A key point here was, not only were the Julians keen anglers, but they flyfished. Before long, Peter and David were commissioned to build Dad and I a fibreglass fly rod each, and soon after we were making our first clumsy attempts to learn this strange art. Once again, Dad and I were learning something new together.
As I mentioned in my last editorial, I think Dad enjoyed fishing as a whole package: the socialising, travel, wildlife, exploring new countryside, the historic connections with camping and staying in old huts. While the actual catching of fish was fun, this was but one enjoyable aspect of going fishing. In later life, I have mellowed somewhat, but back then I was single-mindedly obsessed with the fishing part. And so it was that at some point, my flyfishing skills exceeded Dad’s, and I found myself helping him to catch a trout. Perhaps in a small way, I was repaying his efforts from my childhood: tying on a suggested fly, recommending a particular riffle or lake shore; even spotting for him.
One thing I never quite managed to do though, was persuade Dad, and for that matter John, to stay out until it was truly dark for the magic twilight fishing. Peter, David and I would finally get back to camp by torchlight, to the sound of laughter coming from the cabin, and find our respective fathers wader-less and well settled in for the night.
“The evening rise was fantastic!” I would accuse, “How come you’re back already?”
“Err, well we waited until it was nearly sunset, but nothing much was happening,” Dad would reply (sounding only a little guilty), “So we thought we’d head back and get dinner on.”
I don’t think Dad and John ever did manage to stick it out until the evening rise was well underway, let alone finished. At the time, that disappointed me, but I can see now that I shouldn’t have worried. They were having a grand old time, rise or not.
John passed away in 2015 and for all the good things in Dad’s life after that, I don’t think he entirely got over losing his best mate. Then, a few weeks ago, Dad passed away too. I would like to think they’re having a cast together somewhere now, where the rise peaks in the mid-afternoon, with plenty of time left over for stories and banter well into the evening.