Jim compares now and then.

Recently, I was asked to give an address to a group of flyfishers at a club in Melbourne. It was a formal evening, with many couples attending. I nearly refused the invitation, as I have a view that being in my late seventies, I shouldn’t be giving lectures to anyone. Then I thought, I should be honoured to have been asked, how could I say no? Anyway, I considered the invitation for a while and decided I didn’t want to do a ‘how to/ where to’ lecture. Instead, I considered the topic of the times I’ve lived through by comparison to the present. This idea was partly prompted by an earlier event, where I listened to an outstanding address by Geoffrey Blainey (in my opinion, Australia’s most remarkable historian). Over a decade older than me, Blainey used no notes and gave a perfectly structured lecture.

So I called back and accepted, and the night went ahead a few months ago. After the usual introductions, I stepped up to lectern with a bundle of notes – unlike our aforementioned historian! I cheekily began by declaring to the listeners that most were, like me, probably playing in the last quarter, and some might be even playing in ‘time on’! I also apologised in advance to the handful of youngsters present, which brought general laughter.

I then outlined how lucky my generation has been. I highlighted that most of us in the room, if we wrote our autobiographies, could borrow the title of Albert Facey’s book, ‘A Fortunate Life’.

None of my cohort have seen a major depression, or fought in a major war. A few unfortunates were balloted into the Vietnam War, even fewer went to Korea. On the other hand, our parents and grandparents had seen, been to, or grown up in, the midst of two major wars, a serious depression, and a flu epidemic at the end of 1918 that killed millions.

My mother recalled how, during this epidemic, she and her siblings were sent to Bridgewater in northern Victoria to a family farm, for the best part of a year. Grocery deliveries had to sit out in the open for hours at the end of the driveway before being picked up. There was little schooling, a lot of farm work and they lived, I suspect, through a much more difficult time than we are living through presently with Covid. There were no anti-vaxxers as there wasn’t a vaccine option! In those days, the only real protection for families against the deadly disease was extreme care.

Then, along came the Great Depression. I remember being told the humble rabbit was the only affordable meat available and everyone, with few exceptions, grew their own vegetables. Also, I’m informed that in some houses, even the phone book was used as dunny paper! Onto the Second World War, and one of many privations was, there was no petrol for a fishing trip even if you had a vehicle. I had a grandfather who made a gas producer for the back of his car. It was some sort of charcoal burner, and the car ran on the fumes! Petrol, sugar and other ration coupons existed right up to the late 1940s. Not that I can remember these, but my sister does and she’s only five years older.

We were born just after the war and were affectionately called the Baby Boomers. We were the first generation to have freedoms which had never existed before, some of which are now rapidly reducing again – as we’ll see. I’ve written before of being able to leave home at dawn on bikes (no helmets back then) and the only rule was to be home by the time the lights came on in the street. Our parents had no idea of where we went and what mischief we got up to. No mobile phones then.

Recently I’ve mulled over our time as youngsters and into our early twenties. I think it amazing that, as twelve year olds, we could roam the streets with a Joseph Rogers pocketknife and a slingshot. We ‘owned’ the rubbish tip at the end of Williams Road, South Yarra. (Now all grassed over sportsgrounds and parkland.)  We fought for the treasures therein against the ruffians from Burnley. A good fight with a slingshot was always fun. Plenty of adrenalin, some hurt, a few minor injuries, a broken arm and that’s about all. My mates built billycarts which hurtled down the roads at breakneck speed. There was inevitably gravel rash, as few of the contraptions had brakes. (Remember Mercurochrome antiseptic?)

Today’s youngsters still enjoy the outdoors, but things were certainly different in the 1950s.

I recall raiding bird nests along the Yarra, then blowing the inside yolks out of the coloured speckled eggs for a collection. We also collected butterflies and learnt to pin them to display boards. Kept silkworms and tried to unwind the silk from their cocoons. Pressed harvested wildflowers and orchids into pages with weights. Collected cicadas, washing them out of their burrows and watching them hatch from grub to insect. (We had no PC or TV for alternative entertainment.)

There were days selling barracouta to the merchant seaman from the ocean liners which docked at Station and Princess piers. We were all over those ships, from the dark dirty depths of the boiler-room, to the bridge with the skipper. We were dab hands at throwing streamers at the departing liners. Even got tipped a penny for a successful throw! Today, no one is even allowed on the pier to fish, let alone on a cruise ship. Security is everywhere.

I think back at growing into teenagers and being allowed our first real weapons. Initially a Diana .177 air rifle then a single shot .22 pea rifle. I’ve written previously of coming home on the tram with rifles and dead rabbits hanging around our necks, and a box of ferrets.

Would today’s helicopter parents even consider allowing their precious kids out with anywhere near the freedoms that we had? Looking back, the trust was amazing and I’m positive we were loved just as much as today’s parents love their children.

But the real point of this address is to look at the era from a fishing point-of-view. We were the first generation to have motor cars as youngsters. My first was an FJ Holden purchased on very favourable terms from my mother – a 1 pound ($2.00) a week payback program. That car went everywhere, all over Victoria and the Snowy Mountains. Looking back, we were truly the first generation to have a car as the norm. Previous generations went fishing on horseback, by rail or in a furniture van as a member of a fishing club. (When I was a young bloke, there was a fishing club in nearly every suburb.)

We were the first generation for whom it was broadly possible to travel and explore where we liked. Initially, there were fishing trips to Tasmania and New Zealand, and later to Christmas Island chasing bonefish. It seems only yesterday, but looking back we were truly the generation that saw the advent of fishing guides, fishing lodges and fishing travel. I remember the roads to Sydney, Geelong and Ballarat. They were all one lane either way with unacceptable traffic jams on holiday weekends when I was twenty. In the same year, over 1000 Victorians were killed on the roads by comparison to about a third of that number today with ten times the traffic or even more. Before the new millennium there was no security at airports. One just jumped on a plane. Of course, 9/11 changed all that.

Fishing a flooded backwater on Tasmania’s Macquarie River in the 1970s. Ours was the first generation to enjoy quick and affordable air travel.

The point I wanted to stress in this address was how things have changed. When we started fishing, we hadn’t even considered catch-and-release. Trout Unlimited’s mantra of three ‘H’s’ in descending order of importance – Habitat, Harvest and Hatcheries – hadn’t been heard of in Australia. There are many old photos of strings of quite large trout hanging between trees. They were wild trout that probably had never encountered another angler. Very different today and the pressure on our fisheries came from our generation because of access, freedom, wealth and progress. An ‘around the world’ air ticket was twice the price in 1967 than it was a few decades later, which meant the world subsequently went travelling and anglers were very much a part of that boom.

Catch-and-release was a foreign concept – it simply wasn’t on our radar.

I had a trip to Alaska with a mate in the 1990s. We were promised in the blurb that if we arrived at the lodge on a certain date, we would be able to flyfish for ‘silvers’, the colloquial name for Coho salmon. We booked and on arrival, discovered the fish hadn’t run into the river from the sea yet. We expressed our disappointment and pointed out their promise, explaining we had travelled from Australia at considerable expense. As a consolation, we were offered a few days fishing a remote river with ‘truly wild, large rainbow trout’. Access was by jet boat after a short sea plane ride. We naturally accepted this alternative and headed out.

The first day was a good day in the view of the guides. We all caught fish on Glo Bugs under an indicator. Not, in my view, the most exciting way to catch some trout! The fish might have been wild but had been caught many times before, judging by their hook-torn mouths. And they didn’t fight very hard as I suspect they knew they would be put back. I returned to Alaska later, but that trip reaffirmed that at least in this case, our American friends’ ideas about remote and wild, were vastly different to ours. I never went back.

Today, even in the Western Lakes of Tasmania or the rivers of New Zealand, it is increasingly a challenge to find a truly wild, never-been-caught trout. Many anglers put their fish back and I imagine some trout seem nervous, cautious, very selective and much harder to trip up! To my amazement, I’ve even polaroided a trout that refused a natural black spinner in one of the Nineteen Lagoons in Tasmania.

I like to think the cup is always half full and not half empty and this dissertation is to just look back and analyse. There is still some magic trout fishing to be had with a fly rod, but it is different in comparison to sixty years ago. And, I guess, it will be a lot different again in another sixty. I look back at the Melbourne I grew up in and fret that the adventure, freedom and excitement is not the same for today’s youngsters. They play games on screens, with violence just as we did fighting the Burnley boys with slingshots. We shot birds and animals with firearms as kids, while many of today’s generation do their killing virtually on screens.

Are we the generation who saw the best of wild trout fishing? Time will tell.

Today’s young anglers can still enjoy great wild trout fishing, but I wonder if my generation saw the best of it?

Can we learn to manage our economy without progress, population growth and excessive migration? Are we able to learn to live sustainably? Will we ever learn to live without housing developments over the plains we once shot quail on? Will our rivers continue to be degraded by poor management or farming practices? Will another virus come along to seriously make a dent in the world’s population? After all, we are rapidly becoming a plague on this precious planet of ours.

I don’t know. I would like to come back every hundred years and have a look at how it all ends up, however I know that to be an impossible dream.

Fishing will continue in some form or another; I just hope it doesn’t become some sort of contrived, theme park-type pursuit.

As I came to the end of my address, I asked the audience to listen to the words of another. They are from Edward Abbey in a small book called ‘The Earth Speaks’. The lines were passed on to me at a school reunion, via a teacher who taught me way back in 1959, and they’re repeated in slightly edited form below:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am … a reluctant crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure … it is not enough to fight for the land … it is even more important to enjoy it. While you still can. While it’s still there.

So, get out and hunt and fish and mess about with your friends … ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers. Breathe deep of the sweet and lucid mountain air … sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness … that lovely, mysterious and awesome place.

Enjoy yourselves … keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body … the body active and alive and I promise you this much … I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies … over those desk-bound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators and screens.

I promise you this, you will outlive the bastards!”