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Trouble Below


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Long before we started hiring houseboats for our Hairtail hunting trips every year, we used to hire the old Halvorsen cruisers from Bobbin Head. They were lovely old craft, fairly shallow hulled and suitable for the calm waters of Cowan Creek. When I say shallow hulled, what I mean is that the hulls were reasonably close to being flat underneath, nothing like the 'deep V' vessels of today, which made them slightly susceptible to any waves or swell movement. They were powered by inboard motors and had a fairly long keel underneath to effect steering.

The old Halvorsen's were fitted out with all the necessary equipment for a couple of nights on the water but seriously lacked outdoor 'on-deck' space. Throughout daylight hours this wasn't that big a problem because you could fish from several different positions, including a decent space on the bow, both the raised stern area and the waterline boarding platform and also from the narrow walk-around sides. As night fell however, the lack of outside space became a bit of a problem.

You could roll up the side covers of the stern interior by day and fish out of the 'windows', but they needed to be kept rolled down from darkness onwards due to the high condensation levels, which are a feature of the area on winters nights. The night time air would be wet and often misty, with an appearance of 'rain droplets floating through smoke' being the only way to describe it. The side covers on each side of the boat sat directly above lounges, which were converted from daylight seating to beds for the night time and the covers protected the sleepers from the cold, wet night air. Same applied if it was raining, side covers stayed down.

It was our fourth trip using a Halvorsen for chasing Hairtail and after only catching a few the previous year, decided we'd give Smiths Creek a try instead of the regular grounds of either Waratah Bay or Akuna Bay, that we normally fished. Smiths is a really large creek- almost like a river in both size and width, with the same deep, emerald-green waters that Cowan is famous for and no dwellings or signs of man visible, bar a couple of public mooring buoys in each of it's three main bays. After dark, the only lights visible are either stars or occasionally other boats, and unless the wind is blowing hard through the trees, it's really quiet and as tranquil as it gets. The deep waters of the entire Cowan system for the most part, don't have a great deal of current either, which adds to the enjoyable fishing experience.

As there were no sounders or fish finders on the Halvorsen's, we had to rely on old fishing map books in order to find the 'proven' grounds that regularly produced fish, in order to put ourselves in the right spots in this new part of the system.

 Part of the beauty of Hairtail fishing includes the knowledge, that Hairtail generally roam around the different parts of these waters and if they aren't found initially at your chosen anchorage, by using a constant burley trail and putting yourself in an area they travel through, will usually see them turn up at some stage of the night. In these 'travelling spots', you have to be ready for them when they turn up, as without either plenty of bait fish holding close to your boat, or a constant burley trail of sizeable 'chunk' burley, they often don't hang around for more than a few minutes as the school moves through. Organization is part of the key to success, so plenty of burley needs to be at hand prior to their arrival and all the crew spend a bit of time doing their share of cutting it up. 

Normally, for burley we liked to use cut up Pilchards, Yellowtail and some type of Tuna or Bonito. These are cut into about 2cm pieces and put into a few buckets, strategically positioned alongside each fisher's chosen position, where they'd be distributed just a couple of chunks at a time, for the duration of the fishing session. When a school of Hairtail turned up, a small handful replaced the couple of chunks, so you needed to have it all ready beforehand, as they are one species that really responds to this type of burley and the school will generally hang around for enough time for everyone to get a few before they're off again. On good nights, there would often be several 'bursts' of them, as different schools moved around the various bays of the system. They do of course, end up taking station 'somewhere' and seem to stay put, but often when they stop moving, they also stop aggressively feeding, unless of course you use something like the 'enticing' chunk burley.

Along with the chunk burley, a secondary 'minor' burley trail is also employed, in the form of soaked bread, which is shredded fine and with a little Tuna or Whale oil added, was perfect for attracting and keeping the large schools of small bait fish around the boat. This burley was placed in a small purpose-made burley dispenser and sat partially in the water at the stern. Whenever the boat rocked or moved, a small amount of this burley was released and attracted hordes of bait in the form of Yellowtail and Hardyheads, both species being genuinely abundant throughout Cowan Creek and it's tributaries like Smiths Creek. With a generous amount of oil added to the bread, on most nights, the water around the boat is really alive with bait- Hardyheads on the very surface and Yellowtail within the top few meters. Daylight sees Garfish and Slimy Mackerel added to the mix, plus Herring at times, so there's tons of food for predators like Hairtail.

For this first go at fishing Smiths, we chose a spot that was both marked in the map books and was also recommended to us by senior members of our fishing club. It was only about 15 meters out from a steep shore and you could guess what the underwater terrain was like, just by looking at the sheerness of the land. There was a vertical wall going straight from the creek side bush down into the water and you couldn't see the bottom even right in close. Nice and deep, over 12 meters and exactly what we wanted.

Most of our Hairtail trips were organised around either the new moon period or a day or two before full moon, as that's when we'd had most success. Those nights also coincide with the largest tides for the month and are beneficial in the way of seeing greater fish movement. Another factor when fishing these locations on these tides is that with a bit more 'run' in the water, burley ends up being distributed over a larger area and attracts more fish.

We anchored up just using the front anchor- as years went on, we later abandoned this form of anchoring and always used both bow and stern anchors instead, but on this trip, we just used the one. 

Burley trails commenced and some serious Yellowtail fishing done until enough baits were captured and swimming in the large plastic laundry basket we used for keeping the bait in. The beauty of keeping the live bait in the basket is, you don't need to change the water, run an aerator or worry about how many baits you put in it. The noise of an aerator alone breaks the tranquility and isn't necessary, with the hanging basket allowing fresh water to simply run through it's holes, keeping your bait aerated and importantly also- the same temperature as the creek water. Baits placed in above-river containers, have at times died, due to the air temperature becoming freezing cold, far far colder than the main body of water you've just caught them from.

Like many fishing trips, sometimes even the best made plans don't end up rewarding you with anything and although we thought we were in a good looking spot, in a productive area, with plenty of bait around the boat and a steady, rich burley trail in place, no Hairtail appeared for us on on this first night of the trip,  By about 1am we'd all succumbed to the wet, freezing cold night air and decided to turn in for the night; we had two more nights to fish and although we all knew that the fish are likely to turn up at any stage of the night, getting out of a warm sleeping bag to fish the pre-dawn session wasn't appealing this night.

Nobody was that quick to get up in the morning, there was a pretty heavy fog- another feature of Cowan Creek during winter and although it was well light by the time someone got up to put the kettle on, the sun was well hidden and the air genuinely freezing still. The boat had changed position considerably and the tide was nearing it's lowest point, we seemed to have drifted about 15-20 meters from where we'd been sitting during the night and were a bit closer to the shore, still out off the sheer wall but slightly downstream of where we'd been. The boat had drifted over the anchor rope, which was just hanging limply over the side, but we weren't too concerned at all, in fact we decided to get breakfast organised before we thought of up anchoring and moving to the next location to try.

After a big hot breakfast, with plans made of where to head next, attention turned to the anchor. As we pulled the rope up, it stayed under the boat and it was definitely rubbing on something, indicating it was fouled on some unseen object. When the anchor had got caught up on previous trips, just re-positioning the boat had always been successful to free it, but sadly, no matter  which way we floated around, the rope stayed fast to whatever is was rubbing on under the hull.

Not wanting to run the engine -as we didn't know if the rope was caught somewhere near or on the prop, or in fact if there was even a prop at all, we decided that we'd just try and raise the anchor up off the bottom and see if we could move it off enough to head slowly towards the shallower waters and sandbank of nearby Stingray Bay- the first major bay inside the mouth of Smiths Creek. Surely we'd know by feel, if the rope was caught on the prop pretty quickly. 

So we slowly hauled on the rope until the weight of the anchor chain could be felt, followed by the even heavier weight of the big anchor. Free from the bottom now, we slowly hauled the anchor up, but could still feel it caught under the hull, until all of a sudden we couldn't get it any further. We let a bit of anchor line back out and the lot seemed to go down easy enough, but on pulling it back up, again it would only come so far. We wondered if during the night, that a fallen branch hadn't fouled the line and got stuck under the boat, as the bush reaches right up to the water and the entirety of the surrounds of the waterway are completely tree-lined, maybe if we pulled a bit harder whatever was lodged might come unstuck or break if it was a small branch.

We pulled the rope as far as it would come, until it again hit the unseen barrier, this time however, we pulled really hard and felt the sensation of the rope moving over a hard barrier. Unfortunately, this time after letting a bit of rope out again, the anchor refused to fall as it had previously. As we knew we'd got the chain under the boat and it wouldn't fall, this left us with a huge problem. There was no way to safely move the boat as we now had the big anchor and about 5 meters of chain hanging off something underneath and to make matters worse, as we were no longer anchored, started to slowly float further out from shore.

What to do next? There was nothing for it, somebody had to go over the side and find out what had happened. As the vessel's hirer, the responsibility lay with me and I was aghast at having to go in. The water was warmer than the air, but still it would be really cold, we were now floating albeit slowly, but well away from the shoreline, we'd been burleying all night with both Whale and Tuna oil -which aside from attracting anything in the water was leaving an oily slick that would stick to the skin. Also, due to the sun not breaking through the fog enough to penetrate down into the water, frankly, it looked 'sinister'. 

Once the decision was made, I went inside to strip down and get a towel ready, only to hear a splash come from the stern where all the crew had assembled. My great mate Fraser had taken the initiative, stripped down and hopped overboard from the boarding platform at the back of the boat. To say I was grateful is an understatement, I was wrapped! It was a great gesture, but getting wet was only part of it.

Initially, Fraser only went a couple of feet under before coming back up- the coldness had just about taken his breath away. He regained his breath and dived under the stern, out of sight for a few seconds, before coming back up to tell us what he could see.

Under the boat, a few meters up from the stern was a keel about 90cm long, attached at one end, but open-ended the other. The rope had gone between keel and hull and stayed there. Then, as the tide had fallen and left some slack in the anchor rope, the boat must have done a complete 360 degree spin, leaving a complete loop of anchor rope around this gap between keel and hull. When we'd pulled the anchor up each time, it had got as far as the chain reaching the gap, where it wouldn't pass- that is until we'd pulled really hard and actually pulled the knot and chain a few links over the keel until it was stuck.

From our very first overnight trip to Cowan, we'd caught plenty of sharks. Different types of Whalers, Hammerheads and one small but angry Bull Shark that Fraser himself had spotted, thrown a bait straight to and hauled pretty well straight on board. We ate that one, but were impressed by it's teeth, regardless that it was small, it still looked pretty mean. That shark and plenty of others caught were forefront in all of our minds, regardless that it was mid-winter, you just never know what's lurking in the deep, heavily burleyed darkness of the Creek.

"Keep a REAL GOOD eye on the water will you- seriously" says Fraser before again diving under and out of sight. He resurfaced again a little further along the side of the boat and said "I'll get it this time", before again diving back under and out of sight. What seemed like ages passed, before he came up and with the raised thumb gesture, then swam around to the boarding platform and lifted himself out of the water. Two of the guys ran up to the bow and pulled the anchor rope and it was free, so up it came and the anchor was secured.

By now, we'd drifted out a fair way from the shore and were well out in the main part of the creek. Fraser was cheered and went straight in for a well earned shower to both warm up and rid himself of the burley sticking to him.

After he came out of the shower, he explained how the rope had been stuck and the difficulty of getting it off. Unwinding the rope wasn't the hard part, that hadn't taken long, but trying to take the weight of both the big anchor and long chain with one arm while untwisting with the other on a single breath in freezing water and looking up at what he described as what looked like a "loungeroom ceiling" of white hull was very difficult.

We moved out of Smiths Creek and headed for Jerusalem Bay, where we stayed the night, catching half a dozen Hairtail and four Whalers and a Hammerhead shark to boot. Who says they aren't around in winter? Lucky they weren't in Smiths Creek and lucky to have great mates like Fraser!

 

 

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What a great story, enjoyed every detail. It brings back a memory of one of my trips on the Hawkesbury, also on an Halvorsen. Same as you middle of winter early morning. We had tied the tender dinghy to the bow, so that we could fish from the stern. I was moving along the narrow deck to the bow where I had to bend down to untie the dinghy rope, my rear end collided with the raised cabin and over I went, fully clothed in winter clothing. My mind saw bull sharks homing in on the splash. I swear I popped straight up out of the water and landed in the dinghy, It happened that quick I don't think my undies got wet. No sympathy from those on board and one of those moments imprinted in the mind forever.

Grandad

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11 minutes ago, grandad said:

What a great story, enjoyed every detail. It brings back a memory of one of my trips on the Hawkesbury, also on an Halvorsen. Same as you middle of winter early morning. We had tied the tender dinghy to the bow, so that we could fish from the stern. I was moving along the narrow deck to the bow where I had to bend down to untie the dinghy rope, my rear end collided with the raised cabin and over I went, fully clothed in winter clothing. My mind saw bull sharks homing in on the splash. I swear I popped straight up out of the water and landed in the dinghy, It happened that quick I don't think my undies got wet. No sympathy from those on board and one of those moments imprinted in the mind forever.

Grandad

Hi Grandad glad you liked it, I too have been overboard up in Jerusalem Bay in the night and actually have a photo of less than half of me wet, my legs were going like crazy to keep me up and the fish I landed on was a 6ft+ Hairtail caught on a new $400 outfit that I wasn't going to let go of. The photo is in storage or I would have put it up as 'evidence' that you can use fear to defy gravity!

Regards Waza

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Hi Waza. Great story.

Your description of the cold, wet misty nights reminded me of many of my winter jewfish trips.

A million to one that the anchor rope could foul like that, but uncanny how often things like actually happen. Pity the same doesn't happen with powerball.

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Hi Waza, what a fantastic story of true mateship and ingenuity to get yourselves out of trouble. Lesson learned and changing to the bow and stern anchoring solving the problem thereafter. Your skilled story telling is of great interest to many of us on Fishraider. Keep them coming, you have an enthusiastic audience, especially during these Covid lockdown periods. 

Hope you're keeping well, cheers, bn

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1 minute ago, big Neil said:

Hi Waza, what a fantastic story of true mateship and ingenuity to get yourselves out of trouble. Lesson learned and changing to the bow and stern anchoring solving the problem thereafter. Your skilled story telling is of great interest to many of us on Fishraider. Keep them coming, you have an enthusiastic audience, especially during these Covid lockdown periods. 

Hope you're keeping well, cheers, bn

Hi Neil trust you're well. Thanks I'm glad you're enjoying the stories, it's the only way I feel I can contribute to my community, so it's become a priority with me. Just trying to help keep folks entertained with something different to read.

It invokes great memories for me also and keeps me in the loop of fishing. Another side is the re-connection with old friends, even though some are far away, many of the guys in these stories read them and enjoy the recounts. The facts have to be exact or I'd get in strife!

Connection with others is vital at the moment as many that live alone are suffering from isolation as well as the whole terrible situation of covid19. Always happy to get nice feedback so thanks mate!

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Another good story there Waza.

I think you are slowly leading us along to the time you caught a 10 pound sand whiting, or a 2 metre jewie. :074:

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3 hours ago, Yowie said:

Another good story there Waza.

I think you are slowly leading us along to the time you caught a 10 pound sand whiting, or a 2 metre jewie. :074:

Hi Yowie I've already done the Jewie story! It was Bream and "The" Jewie- it's about 20 something pages back in fishing chat! No 10lb sand whiting- sorry! 

While I was working at the Australian Fishing Museum at Birkenhead Point, just about EVERY fisherman that came in had at least one story to tell me, often after checking out the life-sized casts of fish on the wall. The only ones I've put up so far are the ones I witnessed, but do have a few that I'll post over the next few weeks related to me by others, as they have to be told!

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10 hours ago, wazatherfisherman said:

Hi Yowie I've already done the Jewie story! It was Bream and "The" Jewie- it's about 20 something pages back in fishing chat! No 10lb sand whiting- sorry! 

While I was working at the Australian Fishing Museum at Birkenhead Point, just about EVERY fisherman that came in had at least one story to tell me, often after checking out the life-sized casts of fish on the wall. The only ones I've put up so far are the ones I witnessed, but do have a few that I'll post over the next few weeks related to me by others, as they have to be told!

@wazatherfisherman how many stories have you posted?

I need to make sure these are all stored so people can read them

If there are enough I could make a subforum in Articles - raiders what could I call this? wazas yarns, Fishy Tails give me some ideas please :)

I think we all agree waza has contributed many, many hours writing these stories for us all to enjoy and reminisce. 

Donna 

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4 hours ago, mrsswordfisherman said:

@wazatherfisherman how many stories have you posted?

I need to make sure these are all stored so people can read them

If there are enough I could make a subforum in Articles - raiders what could I call this? wazas yarns, Fishy Tails give me some ideas please :)

I think we all agree waza has contributed many, many hours writing these stories for us all to enjoy and reminisce. 

Donna 

Hi Donna I looked back through Chat and put the corresponding page/yarn in some sort of order: P1) Trouble Below, The Old Zoo Wharf

P2) Jackets at The Gate, Yamba- Bream, Yamba- Estuary Fisherman's Pilgrimage, Fishing at Burning Palms

P3) Shaky, The One That Got Away,

P7) The Great Pilchard Kill,

P11) A Previous Rock Fishing Tragedy

P13) The Mate's Rod Effect, Surviving

P17) Hidden Dangers of The Cliffs

P21) The Very Last Rock Comp

P23) The Husky Jerk, Bream and "The" Jewie

P25) Washed In Alone, The Wave, 

P26) Wally's Snapper,

P27) Getting Rescued, The Cliff Fall

P28) The Mattens Cliff

P29) Disappearing Flathead, Bait Fishing For Bass Murwillumbah Style,

P30) Huge School of Fish, Landing a Pig From a Boat,

P31) Houseboat Fishing, First Hairtail, The Kingfish and The Turtle, Pike Eels

P32) Rats, The Eels of Currarong, The Eels of Glasshouse Rocks, John Dory Fishing

P38) Daytime Prawning, Reminiscing-Mulloway Kingfish and The "Murk" effect

P42) When the Fish Bites Back!

P56) Reminiscing-Silver Trevally

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Its surprising to see you've posted so many great stories Waza. I never thought it would have been that many.

Thanks for all your efforts and helping to keep us entertained while in lockdown.

You deserve some type of award I reckon.

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