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The Snapper Countdown

The Snapper Countdown


Flashback.  Date: 22nd December 2005.  Trip: The Pre-Xmas Bash.  I was diving with three other members of North Shore Underwater Club: the fish magnet Mike Bonnici, the human fish Antony Judge and the silent hunter Wayne Judge.  We were diving in phenomenal 20m+ visibility over scattered white boulders and it was a particularly fishy day.  Whilst stalking a moving reef of mulloway, my eyes were diverted by a school of ghostly pale fish swimming in midwater.  Their light pink flanks reflected sunbeams in every direction, and there was no mistaking their identity as the school of large snapper drifted away with a beat of their oversized blue-laced tails.  The fish seemed to move effortlessly through the water, always wary, suspicious eyes cast over their shoulders towards the diver finning ungracefully towards them.  This was the first time I had ever seen big snapper, a school ranging between 5 and 7 kilograms with the bony foreheads and angry expressions that are characteristic of this prized species.  I longed for the school to turn around, to come within range, or at the very least to turn around and give me another look.  I was mesmerised, and from that point my mission for a good snapper had begun.

Date: 28th October 2006.  Trip: October Reconnaissance.  Sometimes it seems the more you want something, the more elusive it becomes.  It wasn’t due to lack of opportunities however.  I can recall on one day diving up the coast the water had a milky, but not quite murky visibility.  Burley is not a technique I commonly employ while hunting fish, but on this day small chunks of fish trickled down the water column and were rolling over the reef below.  I tucked up and dove to the top of a ridge where the burley had settled among a school of small yellowtail.  It was not a deep dive, perhaps 10m at the most.  I found my position and lay flat on a rocky slab, watching to see if any hungry fish had caught scent of a free meal.  This was my chance: a snapper of approximately 2kg was swimming towards me, totally unaware of my presence.  With a flick of its tail the fish turned broadside, urging me to take a shot.  I recall that at the time I was thinking of the fish in the esky, the relief of landing my first snapper and the bragging rights, rather than focussing on aiming.  Not surprisingly, nerves got the better of me and I clean missed the shot.  My spear sailed high over the dorsal fin and some metres past the target.  The old adage “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” rung true that morning.

On the way back to the boat, I descended with a full breath in 12m of water and lay patiently.  No fish, so I looked towards the surface and directly above me was a 4kg snapper, gently finning in the current.  I rose off the bottom, and the snapper spotted me and casually began to glide away from my outstretched speargun.  I took a long shot on an upward trajectory and the spear dropped below the fish.  In what seemed like a final taunt, the snapper still did not bolt away.  It cruised off nonchalantly, untouchable.

The snapper I keep seeing get bigger and bigger with each encounter.

Date: 27th May 2007.  Trip: End of Autumn Assault.  On another trip away I was on the reef/sand edge, lying on the bottom with a 1.3m reel gun.  I’d spotted some spangled emperor and my eyes strained to pick out their ghostly silhouettes from the settling sand.  Just before ascent I was schooled by over 50 gold-spot and sawtail surgeons.  They were smothering me and so curious that they were literally inches away from my mask and fins.  Sheer laziness took over diligence and I ascended through the school and spun to look over my shoulder, gun at my side.  Naturally, this was the one time when a single 5kg snapper had joined the surgeon fish to check out the camo-clad foreigner to this patch of reef.  I hastily bring the gun into firing position, but this snapper did not get this big by being stupid!   My prize was no where to be seen by the time my gun was levelled.

Date: 19th December 2007.  Trip: The Pre-Xmas Bash.  I was tormented while diving for kingfish at Fish Rock.  The first occasion  was a clear, sunny day with blue skies above, grey nurses top to bottom below.  I dove through the sharks, searching the water for a cruising kingy.  I was 5m from the surface in 25m of water when a large samsonfish dodges a grey nurse shark and makes a beeline for me – typical for a dopey sambo.  The fish then turned broadside (within range) and the long pectoral fins, iridescent blue spots and large tail betrayed its identity.  It was the closest thing to a 10kg snapper that I had ever seen – this fish was truly immense.  Snapper are a protected species at this spot, so it was a cool sight but I was not any closer to taking that snapper trophy for the year.

Date: 26th January 2008.  Trip: Australia Day Bash.  I spiralled through a school of undersized kingfish on one of those rare days with no current at Fish Rock.  I sunk towards the bottom in 25m of water and another “samsonfish” swam out of the murk towards me… another snapper pushing the 10kg mark.   Fish this big look prehistoric and out of place.  Snapper at this spot must know they are protected.

Every spearfisherman knows that to get the fish, you need to spend the time in the water.  Every dive that you try something new, dive a new spot or try out a new technique – you learn a little.  Every five minutes in the water is five minutes closer to that fish of a lifetime.  My snapper countdown timer was fast approaching zero.

Date: 11th May 2008.  Trip: Festival Boys Weekend.  Magic can happen when you least expect it.  On the last day of a successful weekend at Coffs Harbour with the NSUC party crew consisting of Chi, Angus and Ads we tucked into a dive location which has plenty of washy gutters – it was jewfish hunting time.  This spot had produced jewfish on many occasions in the past and I really wanted to land a big one to close off a great weekend.  Rather than blasting in from above and spooking everything, I was diligent enough to dive early and approach a classic jewfish gutter from the side.  I pushed my 1.3m reel gun ahead of me before peeping around the cunje-encrusted rock.  There were no sleeping jewfish in this particular gutter, but there was a long, slim fish; that had a bluish hue and was resting just off the bottom.  I dismissed it as a netted sweetlip until it swam off the bottom and down the gutter away from me.  There was no mistaking this fish was a snapper with a prominent hump and long, wispy pectoral fins.  Like I said, magic happens and the fish seemed to follow my thoughts.  The snapper turned 180 degrees and swum up the gutter directly towards the flopper on my spear tip, as if in a trance.  I fired and the fish was secured through the pectoral fins, the spear tip lodged into a boulder and the other end of the spear still in the muzzle.  3.85kg of snapper.  Finally, and success could not taste any sweeter.

Redefining Keen

Redefining Keen

As winter settles in Sydney, the patterns of the members of the North Shore Underwater Club change.  As the water cools and the big fish of Summer/Autumn become scarcer, weekends away transform into weekends in Sydney – catching up with all of the people who have been neglected when the fish are “on”.  That is until I spoke to the Queenslanders who know that winter time means calm weather in the Sunshine State (in theory).  The perfect time to drive up to the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and get amongst the species on offer in Central Queensland.

It was during one of NSUC’s annual Pre-Xmas Bash runs up the coast that we met up with and dived with a gun Gold Coast diver – Bryson Sheehy.  Bryson only knew us through Myspace, but welcomed us into his world of diving the Tweed Coast – showing us some great spots and looking after us.  Our winter-time trip would be our 6-month reunion.

The crew would be myself, Michael Takach, Bryson, and another Gold Coast spearo, Mikey.  The excitement was building as Michael and I touched down at Coolangatta airport on a balmy Friday evening.  Bryson picked us up from the terminal and casually mentioned (in that Queenslander way) that the weather had become less than perfect.  The collective decision was made to sit it out at Broadbeach for a night at least – not a hard decision to make considering the night life that is available on the Gold Coast.

A close eye was kept on the weather charts for any sign of improvement in the wind – it was forecast to blow between 15 and 25 knots for a week!  Over the weekend we used the time to pack the car and boat and double check we had everything.  The boat and car were at capacity with the gear and luggage of four keen spearos.  A quick change of the trailer wheel bearings later, we were finally on the road at Sunday lunchtime – destination Seventeen Seventy.

We arrive at night and checked into the house that Bryson had booked for us.  It was a bargain and sleeps 10, so the four of us had a bedroom each.  Imagine the perfect spearing 2-storey holiday house with a large lawn, balconies all around to dry your gear on, plenty of space inside to relax or to re-rig spearguns.  I could barely sleep due to excitement: I knew the next day I would be spearing in warm, tropical waters while my friends in Sydney would be facing another cold day at work.

The alarm buzzing at 4:00am was inhumane.  This hour redefined the meaning of “early start” for me.  An hour later we have launched the boat and cleared the heads.  The forecast hasn’t improved much, 20knot SE winds forecast all day.  Nevertheless, the crew make the unanimous decision to bash out to the reef.  We came here to spear fish didn’t we?!  It starts out OK, 1.5-2.0m seas and a bit of banging.  Two and a half hours later of constant banging in an alloy boat, we finally pull into the lee side of a reef.  Never again will I complain about the distance and long boat rides to the FAD – this trip redefined “KEEN”.  We travelled approximately 60 kilometres across an angry ocean to get to this reef – it better be good!

Unsurprisingly, there was not a single other boat on this reef.  I slipped over the gunwale into the warm, aqua-blue water and the long boat ride was forgotten in an instant.  We were diving in paradise.  On the first drift I spy a species that I’d never seen before – Spanish Mackeral!  They aren’t huge, but they are cruising by in ones and twos.  Below them swim big eye sea bream, sailfin snapper, venus and black-spot tuskfish, spangled emperor, parrotfish, wrasse and of course the grumpy coral trout.  We explored all of the reef edges and found such varying terrain.  On the outside edge I find a big Spanish mackerel just finning in the current, waiting for his next meal to swim by.  Despite knowing the Coral Sea rule of “get closer”, I make the mistake of misjudging distance in the crystal clear water.  Nearby, Michael and Bryson don’t make the same mistake and pick up beautiful Maori cod specimens almost identical in weight.

The variety of species on the reef was unbelievable.  The bonus is that most of them are fantastic eating.  At the end of only our first day we have picked up between the four of us: black wrasse, coral trout, maori cod, mangrove jack, moses perch, tuskfish and parrotfish.  Due to the coral reef fin-fish bag limits, all four divers were very selective in the fish they chose to shoot.

The sun was still high in the sky when we headed back towards port.  The conditions were deceptively calm as we were anchored on the lee-side of the coral reef.  We all knew the ride back was going to be long and uncomfortable through rough seas because the winds had not abated at all.  Two spine-jarring hours of boating later, we were back at shore cleaning our fish for the day.  Despite four and a half hours driving through a washing machine, we were all smiling as the fruits were worth the effort.

We remarked at the time that it was amazing how much we could fit into one day.  After dinner and showers had been sorted, we counted back the hours – we had been awake for 18 hours and active for every single one of those 18 hours.  The weather was forecast for winds to increase on Tuesday, so we were all relieved to be able to catch up on some sleep and rest for a day.

Wednesday was the day of highs and lows.  The forecast had not changed, 20 knot SE winds blowing all day.  We were hungry for another taste of the reef, and bashed out to the same reef again.  This day was cut short around lunchtime.  I still hadn’t landed a Spanish Mackeral, I wanted one desperately.  I passed up a shot on a 6-8kg black-spot tuskfish for a Spanish Mackeral, only to miss the Spaniard – this was becoming more than a joke!  The tide had turned and current was increasing.  As I drifted along a sandy bottom with lumps of reef, my attention was diverted by a silver ghost swimming below me.  I carefully dived down, lined up the unwary fish and finally put a spear into my first Spanish.  The fight did not last long, but I was impressed at the speed and power of even a small fish (5.5kg).  I was elated, hooting and carrying on in relief that I had finally thrown the Spanish Mackeral monkey off my back.

That high was dropped to a low pretty quickly when Bryson waves me over to the boat, “Jules, the steering cable has snapped”.  To put this situation into light, we were 60km from port, the wind was blowing 20 knots from the SE whipping up seas of 1.5-2.5m.  And we couldn’t steer the boat anywhere.  While waiting for our 26-foot Noosacat white knight to arrive, we chanced upon a resting fishing trawler to moor up behind.  Two hours to wait, with nothing to do – the obvious choice was to make light of a dark situation and go spearing!

By chance, where we were moored was about 15m deep, with a predominantly sandy bottom.  The barren sand was punctuated by outcrops of reef, some as small as a car, others as large as a house.  Our breakdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise as these oasis’s certainly held fish.  One particular rock was covered in thousands and thousands of baitfish – we had to literally sweep the pint-sized baitfish out of the way to be able to find the fish holed up in the backs of caves.  The technique worked and by the time our tow home had arrived, some cracker coral trout and mangrove jack had made it into the esky.  The two and a half hour tow home rounded out a VERY long day for us.

You would’ve thought that a broken steering cable meant it was game over and time to head home – not so for us!  A mechanic in Bundaberg sorted out the steering cable in quick time and we were able to salvage two more fantastic days on the reef

We returned to the scene of the crime.  We had marked out the “baitfish rock” from the previous day and headed directly to the mark.  Bryson shows the Sydneysiders exactly how to hunt the reef at this spot and plucks magnificent fish from each of the bommies.  A 17kg GT hits the deck, followed by a very well holed-up 9kg longnose emperor.  This fish looked prehistoric and abnormally oversize – it was an amazing catch and the fish of the trip.  All of us savour our lucky return to the reef and have a cracker of a day with a mixed bag of trout, bluebar parrotfish, cod, amberjack, moses perch and black wrasse.  I had one of those moments when I wish I had a camera on me.  I’m about to ascend when I spy Michael’s floatline behind a bommie.  His body language changes quickly and he hugs the sandy bottom and starts throwing clouds of sand over his head.  I still can’t see what he is aiming at, and just before he extends his arm, a school of shimmering spangled emperor materialise in front of his gun.  The spear hits the mark a moment later.  A textbook stalk and hunt; I was stoked to be able to quietly observe it from just metres away.

You know you’ve had a great trip when you come home and the boat is in bits.  The damage: a crack in the hull, a crack in the pod, broken rocket launchers, half of an instrument panel, mystery wires hanging out of the motor, snapped winch cable and worn trailer brakes.  Reef trips for you lucky QLDers is like Coffs Harbour to us Sydneysiders.  Since then Bryson has tormented me with tales of new spots on new reefs even further from port.  These reefs hold large mackerel schools, caves choc-a-bloc with mangrove jacks, big bruiser black-spot tuskfish – and I’ve been emailed photos to prove it.  You sure know how to make a spearo jealous!  Michael and I had travelled 2.5 hours by plane, 17 hours by car, 18 hours by boat, all for 3.5 days on the water and a box of fillets each… Was it worth it?  You bet!  The photos will last a long time, the memories even longer.  We had redefined our concept of a spearfishing adventure.  Seventeen Seventy, we will return.