The Sea "Salmon" Season in Australia by Louis Becke
The sea salmon make their appearance on the southern half of the eastern seaboard of Australia with undeviating regularity in the last week of October, and, entering the rivers and inlets, remain on the coast till the first week of December. As far as my knowledge goes, they come from the south and travel northwards, and do not appear to relish the tropical waters of the North Queensland coast, though I have heard that some years ago a vast "school" entered the waters of Port Denison.
Given a dear, sunny day and a smooth sea the advent of these fish to the bar harbours and rivers of New South Wales presents a truly extraordinary sight. From any moderately high bluff or headland one can discern their approach nearly two miles away. You see a dark patch upon the water, and were it not for the attendant flocks of gulls and other aquatic birds, one would imagine it to be but the passing reflection of a cloud. But presently you see another and another; and, still farther oat, a long black line flecked with white can be discerned with a good glass. Then you look above--the sky is cloudless blue, and you know that the dark moving patches are the advance battalions of countless thousands of sea salmon, and that the mile-long black and white streak behind them is the main body of the first mighty army; for others are to follow day by day for another fortnight.
Probably the look-out man at the pilot station is the first to see them, and in a few minātes the lazy little seaport town awakes from its morning lethargy, and even the butcher, and baker, and bootmaker, and bank manager, and other commercial magnates shut up shop and walk to the pilot station to watch the salmon "take" the bar, whilst the entire public school rushes home to prepare its rude tackle for the onslaught that will begin at dark.
The bar is a mile wide or more, and though there is but little surf, the ebbing tide, running at five knots, makes a great commotion, and the shallow water is thick with yellow sand swept seaward to the pale green beyond. Presently the first "school" of salmon reaches the protecting reef on the southern side--and then it stops. The fish well know that such a current as that cannot be stemmed, and wait, moving slowly to and fro, the dark blue compactness of their serried masses ever and anon broken by flashes of silver as some turn on their sides or make an occasional leap clear out of the water to avoid the pressure of their fellows.
An hour or so passes; then the tumult on the bar ceases, the incoming seas rise clear and sandless, and the fierce race of the current slows down to a gentle drift; it is slack water, and the fish begin to move. One after another the foremost masses sweep round the horn of the reef and head for the smooth water inside. On the starboard hand a line of yellow sandbank is drying in the sun, and the passage has now narrowed down to a width of fifty yards; in twenty minutes every inch of water, from the rocky headland on the south side of the entrance to where the river makes a sharp turn northward, half a mile away, is packed with a living, moving mass. Behind follows the main body, the two horns of the crescent shape which it had at first preserved now swimming swiftly ahead, and converging towards each other as the entrance to the bar is reached, and the centre falling back with the precision of well-trained troops. And then in a square, solid mass, thirty or forty feet in width, they begin the passage, and for two hours or more the long dark lines of fish pass steadily onward, only thrown into momentary confusion now and then by a heavy swell, which, however, does no more than gently undulate the rearmost lines of fish, and then subsides, overcome by the weight and solidity of the living wall.
Along the beach on the southern side of the river stand a hundred or more yelling urchins, with stout lines fitted with many baitless hooks and weighted with a stone. As the swarming fish press steadily on within ten feet or less of the shore the children fling their lines across, and draw them quickly in. Sometimes two or three fish are "jagged" at once, and as the average weight is 10 lb. the jagger takes a turn of the line around his waist and straggles up the beach. Even if he has but one fish hooked amidships he has all he can do to drag him out from the countless thousands and land him. It is not an eminently ideal or sportsmanlike sort of fishing, this "jagging," but it possesses a marvellous enjoyment and fascination for the youth of ten, and older people as well; for a full-grown salmon is a powerful fellow, and his big, fluke-like tail enables him to make a terrific rush when under the influence of terror or when chasing his prey.
Once over the bar and into the placid waters of the tidal river, the vanguards of the hundreds of thousands to follow pursue their way steadily up the shallow flats and numberless blind creeks, where they remain till spawning is over. Every day some fresh accessions to their numbers, and at night time strange, indescribable sounds are heard, caused by the movements of the fishes' tails and fins as they swim to and fro, and one section, meeting another, endeavours to force a right-of-way. On the third or fourth evening the sharks and porpoises appear, having followed the "schools" in from the sea, and wreak fearful havoc among them. Sometimes in a deep pool or quiet reach of the river one may see a school of perhaps five or six thousand terrified salmon, wedged one up against the other, unable to move from their very numbers, while half a dozen sharks dash in among them and devour them by the score; and often as the current runs seaward hundreds of half bodies of salmon can be seen going out over the bar. At night time the townspeople appear on the scene in boats with lanterns and spears, and for no other purpose than the mere love of useless slaughter kill the fish till their arms are exhausted. At places within easy access of Sydney by steamer or rail some few thousands of salmon are sent to market, but as the flesh is somewhat coarse, they are only bought by the poorer members of the community, 4d. and 6d. each being considered a good retail price for a 10 lb. fish. The roes, however, are excellent eating, and some attempt has been made to smoke them on a large scale, but like everything else connected with the fishing industry (or rather want of industry) in New South Wales, has failed. It sometimes happens (as I once witnessed in Trial Bay, on the coast of New South Wales) that heavy weather will set in when the salmon are either passing inwards over the bars or are returning to sea. The destruction that is then wrought among them is terrific. On the occasion of which I speak, every heavy roller that reared and then dashed upon the beach flung upon the sands hundreds of the fish, stunned and bleeding. At one spot where the beach had but a very slight inclination towards the water from the line of scrub above high-water mark there were literally many thousands of salmon, lying three and four deep, and in places piled up in irregular ridges and firmly packed together with sand and seaweed.