Jim thinks back to the way we were.
Quite often, I reflect back on my early days of fishing, when I was about 12 or 13. They were days of complete freedom – leaving home in suburban Melbourne at dawn, heading down to St Kilda or Station Pier on bikes. The only house rule was to be home by the time the street lights came on. By nightfall we were starving hungry anyway, and I don’t ever remember being late! No mobiles to call home; we were gone all day and I still cannot believe the trust handed over to us small boys in the 1950s; or looking back, the risks taken by our parents. Sure, there were a few bike prangs, a broken nose from a fight with other kids, but nothing really bad ever happened.
Off St Kilda Pier there were small pinkies and flathead but days on Station Pier in Port Melbourne were the best. I’ve written before of the times spent as young pier rats, selling ‘couta to the crews from the great ocean liners that carried thousands of passengers to and fro from England. I think back to the burly Lascars in the boiler rooms of those big liners, but no one ever touched us or did anything inappropriate. Thinking back the risks we took were enormous. Perhaps that led me to some trout fishing tactics a few years later, that weren’t quite within the rules.
My fishing from piers started as an eight year old, catching leatherjackets from the Sorrento Pier which would sneak out from the kelp-encrusted pylons. It was an art form to hook them as they sucked the soft mussel from the hooks. Although I didn’t realise it then, that was the start of my enjoyment of sight fishing. Some of my friends would say I still flyfish today with nearly childlike enthusiasm; sight fishing for trout in Tasmania or elsewhere.
Later in my teens there were weekend excursions to Bacchus Marsh with a .22 rifle and a box of ferrets. I’d take the train back to Melbourne in the evening, blood-stained and selling bunnies at just over a shilling a pair to the crowds returning from a day at the football. I remember one time I was showing an old lady our ferrets and one escaped on the Spencer Street tram. People were standing on their seats until I recaptured it! Lots of mates did cadet training at school in those days and young teenage boys on trains with rifles were not unusual. Can you imagine that in today’s world?
Then closer to home, a special hidden hole comes to mind, tunnelled under the fence on the perimeter of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. At dusk, we’d catch eels from the ornamental lakes using a bamboo pole, some heavy nylon and slab of red meat. Slimy and slippery eels had to be put into a hessian bag before they wriggled back into the water. We were chased out of the gardens often but we went back time after time. The groundsmen never found our entry hole! I remember passing the captured eels on to an eastern European shoe maker. Mr Greco put the eels in an old outside bathtub for a few days to purge them and then he would smoke them. My mum never paid for school shoe repairs and we were rewarded with a Violet Crumble bar!
Years later came the first motor car; my mum’s FJ Holden. I did have to pay for it but from memory, not as much as I should have! That increased our scope enormously. With a first job came a weekly pay packet and weekends on the Goulburn River near Thornton became the norm. I’ve also written before about a team of young flyfishers learning the ropes and returning to the Igloo Roadhouse at Buxton to de brief about the weekend’s events.
We were still young, adventurous and eager to explore and learn how to fly fish. I reflect back on David Scholes writing about exploits such as unsanctioned visits to Mr Findlay’s water race. We had similar adventures, sneaking into a remote water supply weir at dusk after driving down a maze of forestry tracks. I remember some superbly-marked brown trout, dark with scarlet red spots, that would take a large Geehi Beetle in the twilight. Yes, we got discovered by a weir bailiff a couple of times but we always got away. I also remember walking back after dark and being run into by a mob of wild pigs!
On another lake with no boating signs everywhere, we used to launch pumped up air beds after dark, then float down the middle, sitting on them wearing waders to keep us warm from the freezing water. There was a slight current so we’d drift and hand paddle and fish all the way down to the other end. The fishing was magnificent, but finally, after a few warnings, the local copper pulled the plug on our escapades and threatened to take action. Said he didn’t want to retrieve dead bodies. Looking back, it really was risky. There were no float-tubes in those days, which would’ve been much safer.
I look at youngsters today and I wish they could enjoy the fun, take the risks and have the freedom we had. They live in a digital age, seem content with it, seem to get a thrill by playing games on an Xbox.
There’s a new generation of flyfishers and I know they film unbelievable exploits on their GoPro cameras and their drones. They download amazing pictures to computers. I think they even have a greater awareness and appreciation of the beauty of their outdoor surroundings, which we might have taken for granted. They have modern tackle that is totally revolutionary by comparison to the cane rods and silk lines we started out with. They have a greater awareness of conservation. They don’t like to kill fish in the same numbers we did.
I hate being an old bloke who thinks we have lived through better times. I observe today and enjoy the enthusiasm of the young but I still wonder whether they’ve missed something special that we had in our time. As a generalisation, I know they don’t think they have. And I guess I will never really know!