The centrepiece of the fishing camp was a giant insect-netted marquee grandly named the Taj Mahal. It was here that I found more of that merry band of men snoozing out the midday torpor in front of a fan the size of an aircraft propeller.
Rod told me to help myself to fresh bread he’d baked that morning; Roy offered me a sweet wood-tipped cigarillo; and it wasn’t long before I had a beer in hand too. There was even an inflatable wading pool, filled with warm brackish water pumped from the creek, so that we could cool off without getting eaten by a crocodile.
It was suggested that I could bunk down in a corner of the Taj Mahal at night and I readily agreed – I travel with my little green tent, but I knew I’d be wanting as much as airflow as possible in the cloying humidity of the Gulf. I’d have the Taj to myself.
A little while later the boats came back from a long morning’s devotion to fishing. The captains were Ross and Paul, and the top barra tally was hotly contested between them. These were men who would happily fish all day and all night, and they were principal architects of the expedition. Some of the others were there to fish but also to socialise – and, in Roy’s case, drink excellent Scotch and smoke excellent cigars – but for Ross and Paul, fishing was a deadly serious business.
They had a few good looking fish to show for their morning’s work, and I was keen to get in on the fun. I’ve never fished for something like barramundi before – in fact, I’ve never really fished at all except for the few slim rainbow trout that we hunted out of shallow pools in the mountains when I was a kid. In those days, we caught about one fish a year, and spent most of our time retrieving lures in freezing water at dusk. Game fishing it wasn’t.
It was too early for the evening expedition, but Ross and Livo were going out to check the crab pots. Boat ride, mud crabs, crocodiles? I was there with bells on.
So I commandeered a big hat (thanks Rod!) and we cruised up the creek, crab pot to crab pot. All were empty, except for the odd lost catfish and putrefying remnants of bait. Ross said there’d been no mud crab activity this whole trip; being no mud crab behaviourlist myself, there was little I could contribute.
We continued up the creek to where it joined the Albert River. Ross handed me a line. ‘Go on, have a cast,’ he said.
For sure. I tried to remember how a fishing rod worked and managed to cast without catching anyone’s hat. So far, so good. The lures were huge and heavy – enormous lures for enormous fish.
I reeled it in and cast again. Just as I started winding, I felt a tug on my line. Oh great, I though, I’ve managed to catch a snag already. I kept winding until the line went taught, then I felt it loosen off suddenly.
‘Ooh,’ I said, surprised.
The line tugged again. Quite hard, this time.
‘Oooh!’ I said again.
Then another hard jerk.
‘Oh oh oh!’ I said. Somehow I’d forgotten how to speak. What I was trying to say was, I think I might have a fish.
Livo and Ross looked over with interest, but didn’t move.
‘Probably got a garfish,’ thought Livo.
Now I was really hauling on the line.
Suddenly a silver flash broke the surface, flew through the air and smacked into the side of the boat before disappearing from view again.
Now they moved: it was action stations. Ross was on his feet with the net and I was speechlessly fighting a fish that was at least as long as my arm. Eventually I pulled it into view, tugging hard just below the surface of the water, and Ross scooped it into the boat with the net.
I couldn’t believe it.
There were high fives all round. What a fish! We measured it up – 75cm in length. It was a beautiful male barra and right within the permitted size range. I gazed in amazement as it shimmered in the afternoon sun. What a beautiful fish, solid and healthy. Such bounty from nature.
We fished the same spot for another hour or so, and Livo and Ross came up with a couple more beautiful barra. It was an unexpected end to our fruitless crab pot expedition, and we returned to camp like the conquerors we were.
I tried my hand at filleting but let Ross apply a deft hand to my own magnificent fishy. That night, Rod lightly sprinkled my barra with flour and shallow fried it in a little oil for me. I ate my fish like the heart of my vanquished enemy.