The Antipodes provide much amusement for the sea-angling colonists, and, save in New Zealand, Tasmania, and, to a limited degree, Victoria, it is to the salt rather than to the fresh water that they must look for sport. So far as Australia proper is concerned, there is nothing more thoroughly enjoyed, and more enjoyable, than that to which the schnapper party addresses itself. It comes in the cool months, when the days and nights are cloudless, and there are no mosquitos. Under these circumstances, and with sport to be reckoned in gross weight, if the fates are propitious, by the ton, your schnapper party is generally hopeful—certainly hopeful at the start. These excursions have a family likeness in all the colonies, for the schnapper will not come up the river to be taken by a mere picnic gathering of ladies and gentlemen, but has to be sought on his rocky sea haunts. In the case of Queensland, where I had my best experience, it meant a voyage to the Flat Rock in Moreton Bay, and many a delightful expedition did we make in the government steamer Kate.
A sketch of a schnapper excursion, as we made them in those parts, may be given as in general features typical of those in other colonies. You start early on the afternoon of a kind of day when a man must indeed be bad in mind and body not to feel that, spite of hard times, it is something after all to be alive ; something to possess lungs that will drink deep draughts of an exhilarating atmosphere. The true type of a Queensland winter day is a keen morning, that smells of frost but bites not, cloudless hours of warm sunshine, a radiant and rapid sunset over purple-tinted mountains and woods, and, with eventide, a return of the scent and feeling of incipient frost. Every object of the river trip is a greeting; the white paint of the houses is bright as the light, and the dingiest gum tree, bathed in the universal effulgence, becomes almost a thing of beauty. The grassy heights, the undergrowths that dot them, the fenced-in allotments whose sward has never yet been upturned, the land under cultivation, the patches of untouched bush, the clumps of banana around the cottages or large suburban residences, the numerous reaches in the river with their profusion of hill and wood—all these are at such a time freshly welcome, though to most of the party they have been for years familiar enough.
There is no fishing generally the first night. Flat Rock is sixty miles and more from Brisbane, and, with darkness setting in by six o'clock, it is as much as we can do to reach Amity Point in time to cast anchor for the night. The excursionists in the comfortable saloon well know how to spend a pleasant evening : cards, conversation, and books—but chiefly cards— help to pass away the time.
Soon after casting anchor we discharge a few rockets and burn blue lights—a bit of pleasantry on our own part that is at once answered by shouts of applause and laughter from the shore. Amity Point is inhabited by blacks who assist in the oyster and dugong fishing conducted there ; and our pyrotechnic display appears to have brought them out of their bark huts and down to the beach. Half a dozen of us accordingly go ashore in the captain's gig to procure what is very practically the sinews of war for the coming campaign—to wit, baits ; to see the blacks around their own camp fires ; and to enjoy a quiet stroll upon the white sand, under the wonderful stars of the Antipodean hemisphere. We are carried through the surf on the shoulders of good-humoured natives, whose teeth literally gleam through the darkness when no other part of their faces can be discerned.
We find three newly-caught dugong being skinned and cut up for their hides, oil, and flesh. These curious creatures in the early days of the colony could be procured by whaleboats and harpooned, but they have been gradually driven to more remote waters. Dugong are now principally taken in a net with immensely wide meshes. The nets are laid in subaqueous thoroughfares through which the experienced fisherman knows the creatures will pass on their search for marine grasses ; the animal becomes entangled, struggles himself into inextricable toils, and, being unable to rise to the surface to breathe, drowns. The dugong is well named the sea cow, for its head is not unlike that of a polled bullock, though its nose is considerably broader, and furnished with a sensitive terminal, by which it may discover and crop the herbage of the submarine pastures to which it flocks. The body roughly resembles that of a gigantic seal, and dugong are sometimes taken weighing a ton and a quarter. The animal is very shy, however, and has to a great extent deserted the old haunts, and must now be sought north of Torres Straits.
Now let us return to our party on board the Kate. We sleep, some on deck, some below in the saloon, some in the hold ; and though under the sunshine we might dispense with any description of coat, at midnight the thickest is not too heavy. At dawn next morning there are signs of movement on board ; the early sportsmen are preparing for action. Day is awaiting the signal to rush impetuously upon the heels of night, and in these latitudes night has to be pretty sharp if it would clear away before the full-orbed sun is close upon it.
We are soon under weigh. The Kate, once out of the shelter of Amity Point, proves herself a remarkably frisky lass, much given to dancing to the piping of the wind, and familiarly responsive to any wave that chooses to flourish its arms around her waist. Then it begins to rain, and the sea begins to rise, and the prophets begin to prognosticate an unpleasant day, and we are, in short, doomed to fishing under considerable difficulties.
The obdurate nature of the ocean bed at Flat Rock renders it impossible to anchor near the fishing ground. The Kate, as fast as she is brought near the desired spot, drifts back again, and as the fish are only to be had near the rocks, the moral enforced upon us is that we must make the most of our time. And this is how we do it. Each man takes up a position, and clings to it. At his feet, if he be a deft fisherman disposed so that there shall never be a hitch, lies a coiled line, thirty fathoms long if it is to be of any service, about the thickness of a codline, and weighted with three egg-shaped pieces of lead, each a pound in weight, and so bored that the line will run freely through The hook is of the largest dimensions, and it is best to have it attached with a length of overgrown gimp, or three pieces of ordinary gimp twisted. The bait is a lump of fish or meat the size of a walnut. Slowly the steamer advances to the charge, until you can hear the green water streaming off the protuding rocks. Look well to the thick leather shields on your hand, else presently your fingers will pay the penalty. It is comical to see twenty gentlemen— cabinet ministers and what not—waiting at the bulwarks, line in hand, in all kinds of expectant attitudes, eager to heave the tackle overboard the moment the way of the stopped steamer slackens.
With splash and shout, at length twenty heavily-weighted lines are speeding through the beautifully clear depths—twenty lines racing through finger and thumb at a rate that renders either a glove or a canvas sheath an absolute necessity. Do your best in ten minutes, for no longer can we remain in the neighbourhood. If we are in luck, in a few minutes there is a loud and long-sustained rub-a-dub on the deck. Is it a heavy-footed man dancing a breakdown ? Nay, it is the first schnapper announcing his release from the nasty, wet, salt sea, and heralding his kith and kin, so that within a couple of minutes the entire deck echoes with the rub-a-dub of fresh arrivals.
It is scarcely sport—it is a piscatorial battue. You are hauling up from the bottom, fathoms down, a burden which taxes all the strength and makes the perspiration ooze from every pore ; yet it is grand fun for a while. The fish bite fast and furious. As your line, after yielding its captive, is recast, it throws out coruscations of silver in its rapid descent. Soon your eye discerns, fathoms deep, an almost impalpable flashing to and fro, as if a burnished platter were gyrating in an eddy ; it assumes a lovely pink hue as you bring it nearer the surface, and then, in a twinkling, a burly schnapper of seven or eight pounds is flapping vigorously and noisily on deck. Sometimes it is a fish at every haul, and, under those circumstances, not the least amusing feature of the sport is the spectacle of a score of excited men jumping round a score of big fish which are doing their best to convey their amazement and indignation to an unfeeling world.