I am lucky to fish with a group of mates, many of whom write for this site, who share the same passion for the sport. Who else would you find to camp for days on a crocodile-infested river in the Northern Territory enduring heat, mosquitoes and monsoonal rain? Or to bob around like a cork in the ocean for hours, green with sea sickness, hoping to catch a winter kingfish? Sometimes we are rewarded for going the extra mile with superb fishing or perhaps an amazing encounter with a pod of dolphins or a whale. Sometimes we are not and being wet, cold, sunburnt or exhausted forces us to make a decision whether to keep fishing, or whether to go fishing at all. On this occasion, one of these split second decisions nearly cost one of us the fish of a lifetime.
The alarm screamed for attention. It was 4:30am and still dark outside Hamish’s house in Eden on the south coast of NSW. We struggled out of our sleeping bags, killed the alarm and looked out the window. It was Easter holidays, and it was meant to be sunny with warm ocean currents conducive to hot fishing. We had planned to chase flathead at Wonboyn Lake on light spin gear. The conditions that greeted us however were freezing cold, and the wind was driving rain against the windows. Dan and I dragged our bodies downstairs to force down some cereal and coffee. Our good friend Lee was asleep on the lounge room floor. “Lee wake up, it’s time to go”. Lee was exhausted from work and politely told us that it was too cold to catch predatory fish as we had planned. And even if they were active he said, the strong winds would make it impossible to fish the lake effectively. Lee is a very articulate man. He said all this in just two short words, rolled over and went back to sleep. He had a strong case: it was arctic outside. Dan and I looked at each other. “What d’ya reckon?” I said sceptically. My sleeping bag beckoned, even the house was cold. “C’mon let’s go” Dan said, “we’re awake now and anyway, how bad can it be?” The decision was made. We loaded a few rods in the car, a travel mug of coffee, cranked up the heating and headed off into the dark.
The drive to Wonboyn lake from Eden is about 40 minutes. We were surprised not to see any wildlife on this stretch of road renowned for collisions. It was an ominous sign. We reached Wonboyn, pulled up in the car park and turned off the engine. Then, we just sat there. The windows were being lashed with rain and neither of us wanted to open the door. We looked at the clock. It was 6am and it was still dark. It wasn’t too late to turn around and go home. “How bad can it be?” Dan repeated. We laughed, grabbed our bream rods, a box of lures, zipped up our rain jackets and began walking to the lake.
We took up positions on the lake’s edge and made a few casts into the gloomy water. The wind made it hard to cast our small plastics very far. On this point, Lee was right. We turned to see a mullet skipping nervously across the surface nearby. Was it being chased? Maybe there is a school of hungry tailor!? We fumbled through our tackle boxes, tied on metal lures and made a dozen casts in all directions. The hooks returned from each cast covered in thin strips of weed and we soon gave up on this idea.
We continued on our (not-so) merry way around the shoreline to where the weed started to thin out. There were now more sandy patches to aim our casts. I was pretty sure this is where we had seen the mullet’s aerial acrobatics a few minutes earlier. I persisted with a small 2.5” plastic trying to make it flick and dart between the clumps of weeds as best I could. But my casts were only going a short distance and I wasn’t feeling particularly confident of catching a fish. Actually I wasn’t feeling much of anything, especially not my fingers and toes. Not to be disheartened I cast out again.
As the lure hit the water I felt a solid tug on the line as it sank towards the sandy bottom. Instinctively I leaned back on the rod to set the hook. “I’m on!” I yelled at Dan. He barely heard me in the wind, but turned to see the rod bent over double. Whatever was on the end of my line was big, but it was almost motionless. “I think it’s a big ray” I called. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve hooked a big ray on soft plastics. But then I felt something else through the line. As the creature took off into the darkness, its tail was flicking from side to side, transmitting pulses through the rod. “It’s a fish!!!”
The fish was big and powerful, but it was slow. It didn’t peel metres of line off the reel, but instead chose to swim up and down the bank, with me in hot pursuit. After a couple of minutes, Dan and I caught our first look at it. ‘It’s a crocodile!’ he yelled. I was quiet. I could feel the 6lb braided line being pulled through the weeds and the rasping of the fish’s teeth on the mono leader. I was terrified that at any moment either the braid or leader might break.
The contest lasted a couple more minutes, although it felt like much longer. The line held strong and soon, this amazing creature slid gracefully up onto the sand. We both whooped and screamed into the wind like children at the back of a school bus. It was a flathead. It was a very big flathead. In fact, it measured over 90cm long and 20cm across the shoulders. It was a massive flathead – caught on a 6cm lure, a tiny fraction of its size.
I didn’t have a glove or a rag, so I took my rain jacket off, wrapped it around my hand and held her jaw. I carefully rested the fish on my leg for support. Dan whipped out his camera and started taking photos. Despite the jacket I could feel her massive teeth poking into my fingers. I didn’t care and smiled for the camera.
This beautiful fish was far too big and too old to eat. The thought never even crossed our minds. After a couple of photos I waded into the lake and placed her in the water. The lake was freezing but I was thrilled to see her swim off into the darkness. On reflection, I’m sure it was her chasing the mullet we saw earlier. We shook hands and congratulated each other on a job well done. We were both ecstatic and my heart was still beating through my chest. Neither of us had seen a flathead this big before, let alone caught one. We sat on the sand, in the wind and rain, and soaked it all up. I ran my fingers along my line, it was frayed and peeling. To this day I’m still amazed it didn’t break.
When Lee arrived around 8:30am, we had only landed two fish, neither of which we kept. One was 91cm and the other was 19cm. We hadn’t caught a fish for lunch, we were soaked through and cold. But we certainly weren’t regretting the decision to get out of bed.
Was this amazing fish a reward for going the extra mile or just dumb luck? I honestly think it was a bit of both. Either way I am indebted to Dan for his positive attitude and humour. Neither of us would have made the decision to go fishing in those conditions by ourselves. But next time, I think it’s fair to say, we will!