The Schnapper is, like nearly all the fishes of these waters, beautifully tinted, and the prevailing colour is rose pink, speckled with turquoise blue. It is a thick, broad-sided fellow, as if originally intended for one of the bream tribe. The resemblance to the bream, however, ceases at the top of the shoulders, where there is a bony hump and a sharply sloping, undulating ridge of bone down to the mouth, which is horny and well furnished with teeth. You deposit your game, not in the familiar creel, but in a sack bag, knowing full well that at the wharf at Brisbane by-and-bye there will be an astonishing number of acquaintances, who happen to be passing—just by accident of course—-and who will somehow walk away with a brace of fish dangling from a bit of spun yarn. The schnapper is, in fact, excellent eating. It does not come amiss in any shape—boiled and served with shrimp sauce ; fried with egg and breadcrumb ; soused ; and, better still, as mayonnaise.
The best of schnapper fishing is that you leave off contented. It is hard work : the fish range between five and twelve pounds, and it will be a very bad visit indeed to the Flat Rock if the poorest fisherman does not get ten or a dozen schnappers. The best of the fishing lasts not more than two hours, and much of the time is occupied in steaming, after the drifts, up to the rock again. Yet we return with two hundred and fifty schnappers on board besides other fish, making a total weight of not much less than 2,000 lbs. It is no uncommon thing for six hundred large schnappers to be taken on one of these excursions.
It is not, however, schnapper alone we take. At one of our halts we catch a very strange collection of fish indeed. First there are three varieties of the parrot fish, shaped something like a carp, coloured a brilliant scarlet, and armed with four ivory teeth, protruding like those of a rabbit. A small fish, the exact image of a thick-set trout in bodily form, and about half a pound in weight, falls to my share. How it could have taken the schnapper hook is a mystery to this day ; but there it is in the Brisbane Museum, admirably set up and preserved, and taking its place among the natural history specimens, with its scientific classification, and my own name as the distinguished donor, duly set forth in intelligible characters. The fish is designated ' Diacope octolineata ; family Peresidei.' The colours fade somewhat after death, but I make a memorandum with fishy fingers before it gives up the ghost, and thus it reads : 'In shape not unlike a Wandle trout ; fins and tail bright gamboge ; belly ditto with vermilion spots ; sides deep yellow, with four lateral stripes of bright blue—rows of turquoise on cloth of gold.' A king fish is also taken, a blue and white gentleman apparently of the bonito persuasion. A perch, own brother in shape to our English friend of that ilk, only a magnificent vermilion with black spots, is another celebrity.
On the trip I am here recalling we had during the last half-hour a succession of surprises. A member of Parliament, since a cabinet minister, called lustily for help, and we rushed to his aid. He had hooked a shark, and after a tremendous tussle the beast was landed by means of a couple of boathooks thrust into his hideous mouth. It was about five feet long, and as it betrayed an uneasy conscience and was far too lively to be safe, it was conciliated with a well-sharpened axe. Another member of the Legislative Assembly, not to be outdone, set up a wild hullabaloo ; he too, so he averred, had a shark. You could see it was a big fish, there were strong men (all parliament men) engaged in bringing it in ; but, instead of darting hither and thither, it came up a dead weight, no more like a shark than the chub is like a pike. Its sheer weight unfortunately severed the line, and there were blank lamenting faces near the sponson, and general laughter from the rest of the company.
The lion of the collection was taken by a member of the Government, since known to fame as a statesman ; it was a groper of 60 lbs. weight. It did not show an ounce of pluck from first to last, but allowed itself to be hauled in as if it were its fate, against which it were useless to contend ; and the only protest it made on deck was to open its jaws, but in a manner more indicative of an ill-mannered gape than a decided exhibition of defiance. The naturalists are quite right in saying that this fish is distinguished by its large mouth ; a medium-sized portmanteau might be stowed away in it without the slightest inconvenience to the fish. After the engagement is over, the combatants clear the decks, remove the slain, put away their weapons, and resume attitudes and pursuits of peace.
Fishing excursions like that which is sketched in some detail in the foregoing pages are, however, only occasional.
The everyday sea angling is of a more simple kind, and can be indulged in without a chart and the victualling of a ship. Round the Australian coasts there are always sea breams, and on sandy beaches three or four kinds of whiting. Jew-fish and many other species come into the rivers at given seasons, and among them sea mullet in prodigious numbers. These, as under the Great Bear, are not free biting, but the smaller sizes are often taken when angling for other species with rod and line, either from the moored boat, or from rocks and banks.
At Brisbane our little property, with its buffalo grass sward, was protected from the tide by a ridge of rocks and mangroves, and all we had to do when fancy prompted us was to walk down past the orange trees, seat ourselves on the bank or in the punt, and let the float make its allotted swims. Sometimes there were only obnoxious catfish ; sometimes small mullet appeared ; but our common stock were bream, which, when they were foraging near, loved to grope about the roots of the mangroves, and we could catch them either with prawns (of which we took quantities off the garden by sinking a minnow net made of muslin) or by lumps of paste covering the hook. It would be a very good specimen which ran to 1 1/2 lb. ; and the fish was worthy of respect, being game to the death, and out of the water no disgrace to the best frying-pan ever imported.
In these waters you never quite know what you are going to hook. Sometimes the tidal rivers appear to be in undisturbed possession of a queer little fellow that is called a perch because, I suppose, it has little of the perch about it except its bars, and its boldness in the matter of biting. It has a blunt head, and square mouth overhung by a thick bony snout; and there are at least two kinds, the gold and the silver. A sea fish that comes into notice when the water is thoroughly salt, and sharks are reported amongst the shipping, is the flathead. He is a peculiarly artful or lazy fish, that seems to do business at leisure, for instead of seizing the bait with appetite and rushing off with it, as any healthy-minded fish should do, it quietly sucks in the morsel as it lies, so that you have no suspicion of being engaged with a customer until you haul upon your line, and find the creature well hooked. Some of these fish require very cautious treatment, and it is always wise to conclude that the stranger has knives and daggers concealed about his person. The flathead has an unconscionable quantity of spines, and demands very careful handling. I have known them caught from fourteen pounds downwards, and their value at dinner-time makes us anxious to basket them, although it is always best to pin the victim to the ground with your foot before removing the hook.