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The King Mulloway

I GREW up fishing on the Hawkesbury River and during those early years it seeped in, beyond the reach of conscious memory. Once it’s in your blood it enters your life and you are governed by the tides, the forna and flora, the mangroves and mud­flats.

Memory is an active part of fishing, not simply the recording of facts but the deeper upper reaches of the subconscious river, the places where we once had to fish to survive. Fishing sustains the soul because it was once one of the most natural things a human being could do, that is why you can enter that state of grace, that lightness of being, while fishing. It is to do with the field of being, you can project yourself back to the original lores, rites and rituals.

Forty years back, at dawn under a calm sky in an old clinker-built skiff, a thin mist floats above the surface, there’s not a windin the world. A pair of tawny swamp harri­ers hover and glide around their nest in a ghost gum that hangs out over the river from the ancient escarpment. Their sweet whistling song belies their predatory nature. The smell of squid floats up from the belly of the boat. Your legs are bare, your heart beats faster, nothing goes unfelt. Three lines slant out at different angles into the first of the run-out. You are 12 years old. Half a bucket of live green prawns is the most incredible thing in the world to you.

Now cut forward to New Year’s Eve 1996. The celebratory dinner was a sedate but deeply satisfying affair; spent with my wife and our friends, John and Mauli. On our little point in Mooney Creek the wildest gesture to mark the New Year is a solitary car horn beeping out over the river.

The kids are in bed and John is restlessly pacing the veranda and peering out onto the moonlit tide. What better way to celebrate a new year than another session on the Hawkesbury fishing for the almost mythical king mulloway.

We set out for The Fork, one of our self named jewie spots, in the upper reaches of Mooney Creek. We left around 1am with a dozen snap frozen squid about five inches long and 15 poddy mullet in the bait tank. We anchored up on a glassy black stretch of river on the top of the tide with a half moon moving through the stars. In the first hour of the run-out we hooked up and pulled in just about all of the usual beasties in the river, a huge white pike eel, a couple of stingrays, a small hammerhead, a bango ray and a few of the larger and most ugly specimens from the plague of catfish.

We fished right through the tide until dawn. We had three rods out with squid and a live mullet but as the boat swung around before the tide started running in the mullet kept tangling the lines. We pulled in and decided to fish one rod with a floating squid. As soon as it hit the bot­tom off it went.

This time it seemed to be a good fish. The first run ripped out a lot of line against the drag. We were fishing quite light, 10 kilo pink Ande, a game line we used for its hardness, straight through to the hook with no trace. The fish stopped. Always a worry because it is clas­sic stingray behaviour, but this one took off again and seemed to be bumping up onto the mudflat. It came in after an hour – a black-backed bullray, its wingspan at least four feet across.

It exploded and we got drenched. We must have looked crazy. Talk about mulloway madness.

We returned the next floating squid into the run-in tide. The same thing again, a great run and then nothing, it felt like I’d hooked a wall. This time I said to John, “That’s it, I’m cutting this off.” This is not something I’d usually do but I’d had enough.

The night had been so perfect and now in the glassy dawn the last thing I wanted to see was another bloody great bullray. John grabbed the rod and said. “I’ll have some fun.” I’d made up a Sabre glass blank into a special jewie rod and this was teamed up with my faithful old red ABU 7000. John swung the rod around and did just about everything you wouldn’t do if you had a decent fish on. After a few minutes though the look on his face told me everything. This was a jewie.

John handed me the rod and I felt the sheer weight, heavier than any mulloway I’d ever felt – but then the give away bump, bump. It hardly ran now. Within five minutes we saw colour, a golden shaft of sun hitting the flank of a fish. It was huge and I was so excited I struck without thinking.

When the fish felt the gaff I turned and straightened out the hook. Considering the light line we were unbelievably lucky – the great fish took off again and this time as though it had just been hooked. It was still green. After 15 minutes we got it to the side of the boat again and this time I gaffed it in the shoulder. It exploded and we got drenched. We must have looked crazy. Talk about mulloway madness. John managed to get our big snapper landing net over its head and grabbed the gaff and put my arm around towards its tail. We finally had a firm hold but the fish was so big we decided to just hold it there against the side of the boat. We waited at least 10 minutes until we heaved it into the boat, it flopped onto the floor and we just sat there looking at its great golden side with its line of inlay diamonds flaring in the sun. As I pulled in the anchor, the morning breeze turned into a wind, and the swamp harriers were singing their sweet, deadly song.

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