November 23rd, 2002
Here's what Ern Grant, Australia's most revered fisheries scientist, has to say about the mangrove jack in in his superb book Fishes of Australia (now republished as Grant's Guide to Fishes): "It is a violent ruffian; a hooligan; a thug; a close associate of terrorists."
That sounds like my kind of fish.
We've been moored up in Missionary Bay for two days now, and it has become ever clearer that saltwater flyfishing is exactly like trout fishing on the big lakes and reservoirs of the United Kingdom. There's an awful lot of water, very little of it has any fish in it and unless you have previously done some sort of deal with Satan, you have very little idea where to start looking once you've failed for a few hours or, in our case, days. But our enthusiasm has not been diminished: indeed, it has been fuelled by a few idle hours consulting the Australian fish porn magazines, which are depressingly full of pictures of blokes with moustaches holding giant watery predators. "Look at the fins on that!" becomes a sort of mantra, a spirit-raising exclamation designed to maintain our willingness to spend yet more hours frying in the tinnies in a vain attempt to catch something worth taking a picture of.
So we continue. One thing we learned from the magazines is the importance of "structure" – anything in the water which might conceivably conceal a fish. We've already found a couple of thousand sunken mangrove logs, which seem tremendously popular hereabouts – although not, importantly, with the fish. So we spend some time looking for something else, a dull task indeed when all you can see for tens of miles are more bloody mangroves. And eventually, we find a rock.
Doesn't sound that exciting, I know. But to us, it is the equivalent of a desert oasis, or a mystery blonde appearing to meet a recently released prisoner; and we fall upon it with the same sorts of enthusiasm. Or at least, I do – the other boys disappear in search of some of its cousins, leaving me to drag my now-bedraggled flies across and around this large, still-submerged boulder in the middle of the creek. Structure!
I miss the first strike on the second cast, out of surprise as much as anything else; a fast, vicious pull that gives me the sort of most welcome but almost forgotten thump in the chest that needs no explaining to any fisherman. But when it happens again on the next cast, I am ready. I remember to strip-set instead of strike, and I am rewarded with a vivid pulsing, a doubling of the rod. Something stripey appears in the water; disappointingly few seconds later, it is in the boat. A Moses perch, handsomely marked with its distinctive thumbprint and no more than nine inches long, but it has the teeth of a double-figure pike already – a proper Australian fish, bristling with spikes and ill-temper. It may not get me into the fish porn mags, but it is without any doubt a saltwater fish caught on fly gear. It counts.
Back at the R&R, I feel extremely ambivalent. On one hand, I have achieved part of what I came here for. On the other, I have caught a fish smaller than the average perch in my local rivers; moreover, a fish which any baitfisher can catch in their hundreds from any pier or jetty in the Australian tropics. (Actually, I have caught two of these, a second identically-sized specimen appearing minutes after the first). And on the way back to the mothership, I even caught a small tarpon, perhaps a pound or so, from an unfortunate school that stopped for a crack at the baitfish directly in my path. Mangrove jacks are still nowhere to be seen. It's not exactly Rex Hunt, is it?
Mike and Tom have better news on their return. Mike has caught a small barramundi, and Tom has caught a bruiser of an estuary cod – but they cheated and caught them on lures and spinning rods. The wind is much too strong to flyfish now, at least if one wants to keep one's nose or ears unpierced by a size 2/0 Pink Thing, and so it stays for more or less the rest of the trip. Our saltwater flyfishing adventures are over almost before they have started.
The pressure is clearly getting to all of us. Tom wants to go lamping for crocodiles in the dark; Mike is hauling catfish from the back of the boat on rotten prawns; I am inventing new cocktails based on the somewhat eccentric collection of spirits and energy-boosting drinks in the esky. The water laps sensuously against the hull, concealing the buzz of the mosquitos we are now too drunk to feel biting us. We switch off the lights and gaze at the Milky Way, brilliant and hazy above us, drowning in the exquisiteness of this place and cursing it for its reluctance to lend us any of its fish. It occurs to me that we may actually be too comfortable here – soft beds, good food, cold beers and shade seduce us away from the water when the fishing gets tough. Camped on land, we would spend every spare second afloat with rods in our hands, if only to escape the terrible, beautiful wildlife that abounds here; spiders, snakes, crocodiles and sandflies that in some cases might literally eat us alive on the mangrove-infested shore. Quartered safe out here, the temptation to sit a session out on the top deck is a powerful one; and indeed I succumb the next day, idling guiltily in the morning sunshine while the rest of the crew diligently explores the creeks in a desperate search for a worthwhile fish.
And eventually, we get some. Chris catches a beautiful fingermark, a sort of pharmacologically-enhanced bream with the pull of a Mack truck and the taste of ambrosia, and a barramundi too. And finally – finally – Tom catches a mangrove jack, a fish of maybe three pounds. It wriggles feebly and gives itself up in seconds: this "violent ruffian" has all the pull of a paper bag. Do we laugh, or cry?
In the end, we just go to the beach.