THE UNDERWATER SCENE
By Rod McNEILL
An exploration of the underwater scene answers many queries for anglers. The old adage “fish are where you find them” is undoubtedly true, particularly when you are looking for them in your own element.
Whether it be an angler or an underwater spear fisherman, the movement of fish is of intense interest. Many observers of both methods of taking fish have seen fish captured from what has often been considered barren area. This, naturally, has stimulated interest of anglers and spearmen alike.
The most interesting aspect of being an angler-cum-spearman is that one has the opportunity of observing all the interesting underwater movements of the fish for which one angles from above.
This, in itself, must interest the angler who has never had the opportunity of working under-water.
Having spent the past 20 years fishing with rod and line for drummer and luderick, I feel I can speak with some confidence. As a keen angler, I had often fished a locality where it was customary to catch reasonable quantities of these species and disregard the possibility of fishing in less inviting places.
Like most rock fishermen, I considered the surge and wash in the vicinity of reefs, etc., most likely places to fish successfully. Undoubtedly, fishing in such positions does produce the desired results, but my activities as a spear fisherman has given me the opportunity to explore the fishing grounds with almost a fish’s eye.
This, coupled with my unabated interest in angling, has completely re-educated me, regarding the possibility of catching fish in various places along the foreshores. Places where an attractive “cabbage” or “weed” bait would appear to be of little purpose, now suggest more than just a mere possibility. As a rod-and-line man, I would have by-passed the calmer water. As a spear fisherman, I see extensive schools of luderick feeding in places where, as an angler, I would never have imagined them to be feeding.
On a rising tide at dusk in both calm and milky surging water, I have seen drummer willing to rise to floating food. Often, when below the surface, I have felt confident that a bread bait used in such positions would be a positive.
Places such as this can be shown to any keen drummer angler by an experienced spear fisherman.
Many anglers, owing to physical limitations, cannot be expected to take an active interest in underwater spear fishing. But, would not such information be of value to them?
Fishing spots are a subject of much discussion among anglers, particularly rock hoppers. A glimpse of them through the goggles would end many arguments.
Fish habitats and movements beneath the water are of interest to line and spear fishermen alike.
The drummer, or “pig” (that is, the black gentleman), are about our most common sight underwater. The smaller fellows play in a group of often a hundred or more, but the bigger fish are much more scattered. The “pig” is essentially a curious fish, and its swallow-like movements make it hard to target, except for the experienced.
Even then the shot is a moving one, and there is no greater fighter on spear or hook.
The luderick, another “gorilla” (to become zoological) is good to eat and good to hunt. Occurring mostly in schools, our striped friend is always a wary target and yet has the innate flightiness of his species.
To quote the old hand at this art of spear fishing, one Denny Wells, “There is nothing more exasperating or exhausting than looking for a shot in a flighty school of niggers.”
Red morwong (or red carp) are fascinating rock dwellers. Many a bream angler, hooking “the biggest bream of the night,” has been disappointed to find either his gear busted up or has dragged a morwong from the rocky bed.
The red morwong is relatively easy prey for the spearman. His fighting efficiency when hooked or speared is unquestionable. The approach to him, as an underwater intruder, has two aspects: Firstly, the morwong is undoubtedly a most stately fish. To most, he appears as some proud stallion. He has a lofty air of almost studied indifference to his surroundings. His sheeplike stupidity makes him a comparatively easy target.
As a second consideration, the morwong is an excellent table fish, combining the taste of blackfish and bream.
The black bream is a fish that has always had the respect of the light-line angler.
The keen night breamer, with his insistence on quiet, no lights, and his endless theories on when and how to “hit” a biting bream, is an interesting man.
A visit to the black bream under water would surprise him. Fishing among the boulders, the spearman often comes upon a school of feeding bream. They will never stay around as long as the luderick but their timidity is not so acute as the line angler would suppose. The bigger ones are more wary, but quite a few fall to the spearman’s steel.
The big “blue” - the famous and beautiful groper of the N.S.W. coast – is the spearman’s ambition. Experienced spearmen never take a shot unless reasonably certain of mortally wounding the big fellow. His initial rush is so powerful that 150lb. nylon behaves like cotton under the strain.
The loss of a spear and expensive headwear is a consideration, but wounding and loss of such a large creature is something that the humane fisherman abhors.
The blue groper is often found in quite shallow waters and near a “wash.” He becomes obviously excited upon being approached and his tiny pectoral fins flutter in agitation. A ‘
“blue” will either move rapidly off on sight, or will twist and move in an agitated manner in much the same area, giving the spearman a chance for a breath and a shot.
Fast-moving fishes, such as salmon, kingfish and mulloway, are infrequent catches for the underwater man. A chance school or odd individuals give an occasional opportunity for a shot.
The ‘rays are fearsome objects seen underwater. Their lazy, rippling swimming action and their batlike heads create a rather awesome atmosphere. They are embarrassingly friendly at times and their presence is not welcome, particularly when a glimpse is caught of the ratlike tail, with its enormous barbs.
On one occasion I saw one of these “Army blankets” sink over a wounded luderick and then move on its rippling way leaving no trace of the poor “nigger.”
A lot is heard of the carpet shark or wobbegong. Being a nocturnal feeder, he is seen most often towards dusk. He is a lazy-looking, ugly creature, but capable of terrific speed if scared or on the hunt. This can be proven by the fact that we have found remains of the speedy salmon in the stomachs of some of them.
As a personal theory, I feel that “wobbies” become more active and antagonistic in early summer. Most stories of definite attacks on spearmen have occurred during this part of the year.
Ron Ware, a prominent spearman and sworn “wobbie” enemy was recently bitten on the foot by a large member of this species. Only for the fact that he wore leather shoes at the time, I am sure the outcome would not have been so uneventful. Even so, the shape of a “wobbie’s” dentition, in deep puncture marks, is not a pleasant reminder of his potentialities as an underwater menace.
Spearmen do not disturb fish to the disadvantage of the line angler. For three winters now, I have taken nigger gear and speargun to Pussycat Bay, at La Perouse. There, in rough, southerly weather, we search the washes for luderick, bag a few with the gun and, when the cold beats us, we warm up at a fire, rig the rods, and fish in the same place with good results.
All spearmen return time after time to their favourite fishing spots. Even a break of half an hour between “dips” is enough to allow the fish to return and continue their feeding and usual habits.
Often a spearman will notice that a fish is most agitated and apprehensive when between a rocky projection from the seabed and the hunter. A fish is always a less flighty target when not hemmed in. This is because all fish have a lateral line. This line starts at the operculum. Or gill opening, and runs along the thicker part of the body, curving down to its end short of the tail or caudal fin. It is in effect the fish’s radar mechanism. J.R. Norman, in his excellent work “A history of Fishes,” says: “A lateral line system has been generally regarded as the seat of a sense akin to feeling, but it would perhaps be more accurate to describe this sense as combining the qualities of hearing and touch.”
The lateral line is a concentration of nerve endings that convey sounds and vibrations to the fish’s brain.
Dr. Barton, one of the world’s leading ichthyologists, marvels at a fish’s ability to dash about a pool without injury. . . .”One cannot but admire the marvellous muscular response, the extraordinary rapidity of co-ordination of the body of the fish to the varying stimulation on the lateral line sense on one or other side of the body.”
So it must be stressed to the spearman-learner that quiet and lack of hurry are essentials in good hunting. One’s muscular contractions, even heart beats under stress in quiet waters, are a warning signal to perturbed fish.
This is but a brief resume of fish movements under water, but constant observation by spear fishermen will provide invaluable information, not only for spearmen but for anglers, too.
So much more can be said on this subject. Every phase of it could be enlarged and expanded, which only goes to show that fishing is not just a matter of baiting a hook or loading a speargun, but full of enormous detail and endless interest.
Let us not count our success by the number of fish we bring home. Let us appreciate the relaxation, the friendships, and the wealth of interesting detail that those magic words “Comin’ fishin’ ‘’ bring to us.
From: Anglers Digest January 1951 Pgs. 260-262, 294.