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Fortescue's


wazatherfisherman
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Fisher's come across plenty of creatures that need to be managed carefully. Some have sharp teeth or sharp spines, others have venom or poison of some sort and need to be treated with caution should they end up on your hook. The tiny Fortescue is one small fish that really packs a nasty punch and they are quite common in our estuaries.

My introduction to Fortescue's was at Windang on the banks of Lake Illawarra, my grandparents had a permanent 'on-site' caravan in Oaklands caravan park and we used to go down there as often as possible. Extended family owned the caravans each side of ours and much of the time during summer, there'd be a fairly big group staying over on weekends. During the 60's, the lake was really alive with crabs, fish and prawns, and water activities, whether the catching of any of these or just swimming or boating, were always a big part of going to the 'van.

Initially, we had a wooden row-boat and as most of the fishing action happened in one of the two main channels straight out from the van, it was a simple matter of just rowing a couple of hundred meters out from where the boat was moored to catch some fish.

Grandma loved having a punt on the horses and after snagging a really massive 'daily double' at the TAB, decided to surprise Grandpa by buying a new boat with an outboard motor. The boat was aluminium- which was a fairly new material for building smaller boats at the time and it was painted white with the logo "Topper" painted above a top hat and cane on the bow. It was the first aluminium boat with outboard motor at the Windang end of the lake and arrived on a truck (no trailer with it) from Knock and Kirby's at Warrawong.

Having a powerboat meant plenty of new options for fishing, opening up the 'big lake'- the main body of water just west of Windang, but also made prawning trips out to the channel near the bridge an easier proposition. 

Prawning from the boat is quite different from shore-based wading for them. The way we used to do it, the boat was anchored across the current with an anchor out both bow and stern, then a wooden oar was wedged under a seat each end of the boat, so it reached out over the water and a 'Tilley' lamp with small reflector shield was placed on each oar, the wire handle of the lamp fitting into a small slot cut in the oar. As the prawns moved down on the outgoing tide, a long handled prawn net was maneuvered downwards to catch the prawns as they'd float close to the boat. At times, especially after a few hours of doing it, you just leave the net in the water and scoop any prawns (and Blue Swimmer crabs) that you see swimming or clinging to bits of lake weed.

Occasionally, also in amongst the lake weed would be small fish, including the Fortescue. Brown and black coloured and normally in the 5-10cm long range, these small fish have poisonous spines and they shouldn't be handled if at all possible, however, every now and then one wasn't seen when emptying the weed from the net. I'd been warned about touching the weed, and normally the net's contents were emptied into a white plastic tub to sort the prawns from anything else, but my Grandma- who was a good fisher- turned the net over one night and a Fortescue spiked her right across the palm of her hand. We stopped prawning straight away, but before we even had the anchors in, Grandma was in agony from the spiking.

In those days, not a lot was known about the best treatment to use and as Grandma had been a nursing sister, nobody was about to tell her what to do. I was pretty young, so I don't remember what they tried, all I knew was she was both sick and in pain. The Fortescue affected her really badly and she was crook for a few days, so I learned that they were to be left well alone. From that night on, the prawn nets were turned inside out using piece of wire that Grandpa purposely made for the task.

Other than coming across them in the weed at Windang, every now and then someone would catch one in a place like Narrabeen Lake, but they weren't something we often saw around Sydney Harbour. Then one night, fishing at Clifton Gardens wharf, my mate Fraser and I caught heaps of them.

We had gone to the wharf to fish the whole night (there was no way home until the next morning as we were only about 14 - so no car) for Hairtail, which would often turn up as the tide got close to high. To catch the Hairtail, we first needed to catch small Yellowtail, to use as live bait. Most fishers would be aware that there's a distinct difference between the 'daytime' and 'night-time' Yellowtail, with the daytime ones usually both smaller and considerably thinner than the larger 'night time' variety. For the record- the Hairtail seem to prefer the daytime sized ones, so getting to the wharf and catching some bait was something you needed to do before dark. You would get the odd smaller one after dark, but they're mostly the larger ones when fishing around areas like Clifton.

Hairtail fishing at Clifton, our favourite spot to fish for them was off the back of the pool, rather than out off the end of the wharf and our favourite spot to catch the small Yellowtail was right in the corner of the inside of the pool. I know that these days, it's strictly forbidden to fish in the pool, but when we were fishing there many years ago, no such restrictions applied and we also fished for Bream, Whiting, Luderick and squid in there as well.

Arriving well before dark, we set up just along the back of the pool and started fishing in the corner for Yellowtail. Mince (always the gun bait!) baited up on a size 14 longshank on the 4lb handlines, with only a single small piece of split-shot for weight and soon started getting some beaut sized baits. These were kept in one of the old collapsible wire keepers, so no aerator was needed and no need to buy batteries. We managed about a dozen Yellowtail before the sun disappeared over the big hill at Clifton and although it was still a fair way off high tide, decided to put a live bait out each.

Bobby cork, sinker then wire trace and 2 ganged 3/0 Limerick hooks the rig and you set the cork about 8 or 9 feet deep, before pinning the Yellowtail and sending it out some10-15 yards from the back of the pool. The Hairtail would come in pretty close as the tide got high, so no need for long casts.

This particular night we got a Tailor on dark and had another couple of baits bitten pretty well in half by other Tailor, before the squid turned up and killed a few more of our precious small 'daytime' Yakka's. With still a few more hours before the tide, our bait supply looked a bit lean, so we decided to fish the corner for Yakka's again. We expected to get the bigger night-time variety, but better to have a few more baits than not.

The actual pool 'netting' is made up of stainless steel rings about 6 inches in diameter, all linked together, that hang below the concrete top of the wharf and there's marine growth attached to the fence, providing a home for many small sea creatures including sea-horses and small fish. We only ever took about half a loaf of white bread for Yakka burley no matter where we fished and we had only used a couple of slices, so after throwing a tiny bit of burley in, started fishing for some more bait.

Normally when fishing in close to the corner, with just a tiny bit of burley, plenty of small fish would turn up pretty quickly and as we'd had no trouble catching them on our arrival, expected to load up on a few more, even if they were going to be bigger. We knew from experience, not to let the line become 'straight down' when fishing the pool, because you wouldn't get a Yellowtail along the actual fence, but rather out from it in 'clean' water. If your bait sank close to the fence you would catch undesirable species like Sweep, Mado, tiny Bream and various kelp dwelling fish. 

After fishing for a while and no more Yellowtail showed up, vigilance in keeping the lines away from the pool net was forgotten and after catching a couple of tiny Bream, a Fortescue was pulled up by Fraser. I recognised it straight away and told him what it was, adding that the best way to deal with them was to put a shoe on them and pull the hook out with pliers. No problem, hook removed and Fortescue pushed back over the edge, down into the pool. Over the next hour or so another half a dozen Fortescue's were pulled up the Yakka lines, but not a Yakka to be seen.

A couple more bites from Tailor on the live bait left us with only the one's we had out, no more left in the keepnet and prime Hairtail time approaching. Back to Yakka fishing with a lot more urgency, this time we moved from our pool corner further down the wharf.

Within a few minutes we got a couple of Yakka's, but they were fairly large and really not suitable for what we wanted; we learned a couple of years later that any larger Hairtail would have no problem taking one of these large 'night-time' sized Yakkas, but at this stage, were convinced that you needed small ones for live bait, so back to the pool to put heaps of burley in. 

After using all the burley in the pool corner, the only fish we caught were several more Fortescue's. Each time one was landed, we'd just hold it down with something and go and grab the pliers to unhook it, seemed easy enough. Then suddenly, while Fraser was holding one down, it managed to 'flip' completely long-ways and spiked him in his thumb. Within only a few minutes, Fraser's thumb had swollen up almost double it's normal size and as there were no other people at the wharf to ask advice from, thoughts turned to going home.

There was a public phone at the bottom of the staircase, way over in the car park and we packed our gear up and went over to ring home to see what to do. My mother was really sympathetic and told us to stay at the phone and she'd organise a cab to come and pick us up, don't know what we would have done otherwise as it was nearly midnight and I lived at Croydon and Fraser at Bass Hill.

By the time the cab arrived Fraser's thumb no longer looked like a thumb and his whole hand was swollen dreadfully, he was in heaps of pain and the half hour trip back to Croydon seemed to take forever. I do remember the cab costing $11- which was the most expensive cab ride ever! On arriving home, Mum had already rung Western Suburbs Hospital and knew what to do. A bowl of really hot water was put on the table and the hand immersed. As the water cooled a bit, more hot water was added to make it as hot as Fraser could stand and this seemed to do the trick.

About half an hour after immersion, the pain had subsided and the swelling was reduced considerably. In those days, the only home pain-relief tablets were either Disprin, Aspirin or Bex and after having a dose of one (I can't remember which) Fraser finally got to sleep. His thumb was still swollen the next day, but the pain wasn't too bad and neither of us tried unhooking a Fortescue again.

If you happen to catch one, be extra careful with it- they have a spike on the side of their heads as well as the dorsal spikes that got both Grandma and Fraser and I'm pretty sure the treatment is still the same- immersion in as hot a water as you can tolerate (without burning yourself) as it neutralises the poison

 

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Great story Waza. I know exactly how Fraser would have felt having suffered being spiked by what the hospital described as a Gurnard. Fishing at Port Welshpool in Gippsland, Victoria I was spiked and within a very short time my entire hand and arm started to go black and felt like it was burning. A trip to Toora Hospital had the Dr and Senior nurse looking for a picture of the culprit. That done (via the internet) they proceeded to debate how to treat it. Doctor said one thing and the Senior nurse insisted HOT WATER. I got some pain relief and the hot water eventually did the trick. The pain was excruciating that's for sure. Gunna look for a picture of the dreaded Fortescue in case I ever catch one. Cheers, bn

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Just reading the first part of that brings back memories, except I still live near the lake and still crab and fish, no Prawns now (for various reasons it seems) but "The Big Lake" was a haven for holiday makers in the early days, and to a point, still is. Not a huge fan of "Forties" been stung once, and it wasn't too bad, but then, I only got a jab, not a full on spike!

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Waza. Great read again. 

I can relate to a few parts of your story . I bought my first boat from Nock and Kirbys , it was a aluminium Savage I think for memory a Snipe can't remember now if it was 10 foot or 12 foot and it had a 4hp Johnson on the back and sitting on a small trailer, I was too young to have a license ( around 1962 ) so my brother in law would take me down to the ramp I would go fishing ( sometimes with a mate ) and he would pick me up later on in the day at a designated time.

Do you remember Vincents ? they were a competitor with Bex . a yellowish powder compared with the Bex which was white powder. and a sweeter taste.

I am lucky as I have always avoided being stung by the dreaded little buggers, have encountered them often but have always managed to keep clear of them.

Been stung by other species.

Frank

PS Nock and Kirbys later became BBC Hardware

Edited by frankS
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Hi Waza. This story brings back memories of by Dad being stung by one while prawning in Lake Wollumboola. Same as your Grandma, he got hit while emptying a prawn net and I'd never seen him in so much pain. 

Funny thing is, I have a mate who's surname is Fortescue and he can be a painful little %%%%% at times as well, haha.

Good story mate.

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Bloody hell . . . you guys keep bringing back the memories!

Dad used to take Vincents APC's, I seem to remember them being pink.

Wasn't the ad for Bex as the remedy for all that ails you 'a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down' ?

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48 minutes ago, noelm said:

There's plenty in Wollumboola, not too sure why, but there seems to be more there than anywhere else.

Yeah, stacks of tiny ones. I don't know why as well and you'd only ever come across them at night.

We used to run around in the shallows as kids during the day and never got stung.

 

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7 hours ago, big Neil said:

Great story Waza. I know exactly how Fraser would have felt having suffered being spiked by what the hospital described as a Gurnard. Fishing at Port Welshpool in Gippsland, Victoria I was spiked and within a very short time my entire hand and arm started to go black and felt like it was burning. A trip to Toora Hospital had the Dr and Senior nurse looking for a picture of the culprit. That done (via the internet) they proceeded to debate how to treat it. Doctor said one thing and the Senior nurse insisted HOT WATER. I got some pain relief and the hot water eventually did the trick. The pain was excruciating that's for sure. Gunna look for a picture of the dreaded Fortescue in case I ever catch one. Cheers, bn

Hi Neil ask a nurse every time! Didn't know Gurnard were another fish to be careful with! Cool looking fish unlike the Fortescue which are anything but attractive- When I was a kid the golden rule for 'dangerous' fish was if it looked 'ugly' or inedible, then don't touch it!

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6 hours ago, noelm said:

Just reading the first part of that brings back memories, except I still live near the lake and still crab and fish, no Prawns now (for various reasons it seems) but "The Big Lake" was a haven for holiday makers in the early days, and to a point, still is. Not a huge fan of "Forties" been stung once, and it wasn't too bad, but then, I only got a jab, not a full on spike!

Hi Noel I've seen a few people spiked by them when prawning, but as I didn't know them can't relate the details. Both Fraser and Grandma really copped it from their spikings

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3 hours ago, frankS said:

Waza. Great read again. 

I can relate to a few parts of your story . I bought my first boat from Nock and Kirbys , it was a aluminium Savage I think for memory a Snipe can't remember now if it was 10 foot or 12 foot and it had a 4hp Johnson on the back and sitting on a small trailer, I was too young to have a license ( around 1962 ) so my brother in law would take me down to the ramp I would go fishing ( sometimes with a mate ) and he would pick me up later on in the day at a designated time.

Do you remember Vincents ? they were a competitor with Bex . a yellowish powder compared with the Bex which was white powder. and a sweeter taste.

I am lucky as I have always avoided being stung by the dreaded little buggers, have encountered them often but have always managed to keep clear of them.

Been stung by other species.

Frank

PS Nock and Kirbys later became BBC Hardware

Hi Frank hope you're well, Grandma didn't tell Grandpa she bought the boat and it arrived the same day she bought it, with the motor on a little trolley that it was kept on. The boat was just left chained to the tree out front of the van and everything else was just left in the van's annexe which was only buttoned up. Nothing ever got pinched.

I do remember Vincents, you could buy them (like Bex) over the counter in plenty of stores.

I've been lucky also and haven't been stung by any real nasties and didn't know Kirby's became BBC.

Wayne Taylor who was in my rock fishing club-team worked with Joe the Gadget Man at their big store in town for a couple of years ("Don't forget to bring your money with you" was his cry on TV) 

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1 hour ago, Green Hornet said:

Yeah, stacks of tiny ones. I don't know why as well and you'd only ever come across them at night.

We used to run around in the shallows as kids during the day and never got stung.

 

Hi Pete funny that- I've only ever seen them at night as well

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2 hours ago, Burger said:

Bloody hell . . . you guys keep bringing back the memories!

Dad used to take Vincents APC's, I seem to remember them being pink.

Wasn't the ad for Bex as the remedy for all that ails you 'a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down' ?

Hi Stu I remember that ad too!

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44 minutes ago, wazatherfisherman said:

Hi Pete funny that- I've only ever seen them at night as well

I always assumed they buried themselves through the day Waza, but a quick google search revealed they're found on water up to 30 metres deep and often seen by divers, indicating they most likely head to deeper water.

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3 minutes ago, Green Hornet said:

I always assumed they buried themselves through the day Waza, but a quick google search revealed they're found on water up to 30 metres deep and often seen by divers, indicating they most likely head to deeper water.

Thanks! That explains it

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You keep bringing back great memories again Waz.

Never been spiked by a Fortescue but have been by Spinefoot/Rabbitfish. When I was a kid I'd ride my bike down to a railway bridge, climb up on it and fish off it for Luderick. Now its banned because of the danger of big trains hitting people, its amazing no one did get killed. You would need to up on the lines, make sure there was no trains coming (one end you had a good view of what was coming but the other was a bit of a blind corner)  run along them, get the Pylon you wanted  to fish off, then squeeze down between the 2 tracks. You would then sit on the pylon with your legs dangling over and fish off. This was a fair bit above the water and when the trains came over they were just above your head. At certain times of the year we used to hook the occasional Rabbit fish, they were never very big but still had us wary. Had one flip when I was getting it off that got me on the finger and that hurt but another time I was being so careful to get this thing released, finally getting the hook out of it I pushed it over the side with the knife. Now there I was bare feet as we only wore thongs in those days. The fish did a wonderful 108 deg flip and as it was falling went Dorsal splines down on my dangling foot. This happened in slow motion as I watched it all unfold. Now that bloody hurt and I still had to ride my bike home. 

Ahhh great memories, that's one of the better things of getting old, you have a great collection of them.

Thanks again Waz.

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Another good story Wazza. 

My grandparents had an 'on-site' van in Oaklands, and a boat about 8 foot long, white fibreglass with some red trimming. I spent my teenage years fishing in the lake during school holidays, and when the sand mullet were about, I would catch a bucket full and sell them to the bait shop on the north-east side of the bridge. Some pocket money for the ice cream van or milk truck that visited the van park.

Only had to row out a short distance for a few fish, or further up to the drop-off for flatties, or the back channel for big bream (busted off by the big ones) or down to the entrance for the ocean-run blackfish.

The little island out past the first small channel next to the van park (think that island is no longer there) is where I learnt about whiting. Pumped squirt worms in the shallows and found the whiting would swim into very shallow water to grab any worms swimming about, so I took a rod out and caught my dozen while the boat fishos caught only a couple.

Anchor the boat across the channel at night for the prawns (let the blue swimmers swim past the net) and drop a cork line out the back with a live prawn for some big whiting. The cork would bounce around the boat, so haul up the whiting and scoop it out with the net.

Some nights I caught enough by just wading about the little island, sometimes getting enough greasyback prawns for live baits and eating the schoolies and occasional king prawns.

A few people had bait traps where you would put your live prawns inside and tie a line from your boat to the trap and leave it in the water until the next morning. Thieving bastards became aware of these traps, so the traps would be gone by the early hours of the morning. I was shown the use of a large hessian sack, wet it with salt water, lay some live prawns on one half and fold the other half over it. Most prawns were still alive by the following morning, into a bucket of water then off fishing.

I once scooped out a piece of weed that had a fortescue hidden in it, faaark, didn't do that again and as a kid learnt to be careful. Fortescues are in abundance in Port Hacking if you know where to look. After the big seas outside, kelp is broken off the bottom and rolls along with the run-up tide and over Maianbar flats during high tide. If you pick up a large piece of kelp, sometimes you will see a fortescue or 2 has been swimming along with the rolling kelp, or even a Sargassum fish.

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2 hours ago, Blackfish said:

You keep bringing back great memories again Waz.

Never been spiked by a Fortescue but have been by Spinefoot/Rabbitfish. When I was a kid I'd ride my bike down to a railway bridge, climb up on it and fish off it for Luderick. Now its banned because of the danger of big trains hitting people, its amazing no one did get killed. You would need to up on the lines, make sure there was no trains coming (one end you had a good view of what was coming but the other was a bit of a blind corner)  run along them, get the Pylon you wanted  to fish off, then squeeze down between the 2 tracks. You would then sit on the pylon with your legs dangling over and fish off. This was a fair bit above the water and when the trains came over they were just above your head. At certain times of the year we used to hook the occasional Rabbit fish, they were never very big but still had us wary. Had one flip when I was getting it off that got me on the finger and that hurt but another time I was being so careful to get this thing released, finally getting the hook out of it I pushed it over the side with the knife. Now there I was bare feet as we only wore thongs in those days. The fish did a wonderful 108 deg flip and as it was falling went Dorsal splines down on my dangling foot. This happened in slow motion as I watched it all unfold. Now that bloody hurt and I still had to ride my bike home. 

Ahhh great memories, that's one of the better things of getting old, you have a great collection of them.

Thanks again Waz.

Hi Blackfish great story! I fished off the railway bridge over Coffs Creek once and got into big trouble, in those days ANY adult would tell you off for doing the wrong thing!

Been spared the Rabbit fish sting but have caught a fair few when chasing Luderick in the lower harbour. There used to be 2 nice Maltese blokes that purposely fished for them using Kelly rods and a bread/weed dough. They used to get plenty and reckoned they were great to eat. They used tongs to pick them up

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2 hours ago, Yowie said:

Another good story Wazza. 

My grandparents had an 'on-site' van in Oaklands, and a boat about 8 foot long, white fibreglass with some red trimming. I spent my teenage years fishing in the lake during school holidays, and when the sand mullet were about, I would catch a bucket full and sell them to the bait shop on the north-east side of the bridge. Some pocket money for the ice cream van or milk truck that visited the van park.

Only had to row out a short distance for a few fish, or further up to the drop-off for flatties, or the back channel for big bream (busted off by the big ones) or down to the entrance for the ocean-run blackfish.

The little island out past the first small channel next to the van park (think that island is no longer there) is where I learnt about whiting. Pumped squirt worms in the shallows and found the whiting would swim into very shallow water to grab any worms swimming about, so I took a rod out and caught my dozen while the boat fishos caught only a couple.

Anchor the boat across the channel at night for the prawns (let the blue swimmers swim past the net) and drop a cork line out the back with a live prawn for some big whiting. The cork would bounce around the boat, so haul up the whiting and scoop it out with the net.

Some nights I caught enough by just wading about the little island, sometimes getting enough greasyback prawns for live baits and eating the schoolies and occasional king prawns.

A few people had bait traps where you would put your live prawns inside and tie a line from your boat to the trap and leave it in the water until the next morning. Thieving bastards became aware of these traps, so the traps would be gone by the early hours of the morning. I was shown the use of a large hessian sack, wet it with salt water, lay some live prawns on one half and fold the other half over it. Most prawns were still alive by the following morning, into a bucket of water then off fishing.

I once scooped out a piece of weed that had a fortescue hidden in it, faaark, didn't do that again and as a kid learnt to be careful. Fortescues are in abundance in Port Hacking if you know where to look. After the big seas outside, kelp is broken off the bottom and rolls along with the run-up tide and over Maianbar flats during high tide. If you pick up a large piece of kelp, sometimes you will see a fortescue or 2 has been swimming along with the rolling kelp, or even a Sargassum fish.

Hi Yowie the milko and ice cream truck bring back great memories, also getting a Matchbox car from the newsagent- that was my favourite part of going away- even more than fishing!

My Mum was our family's champion squirt wormer

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  Wazzas done it again. Remember fishing the lake in the late 70s onward it was awesome then, still take the family down to this day. As for the Fortesque got tagged by one I caught fishing for yakkas at Port Kembla thought i would unhook it rather than re rig, regretted that idea for many painful hours. Can also remember Nock and Kirbys also Downes hardware stores bought fishing gear there including a Diawa black and gold reel circa early 80s cost me more than a weeks wages still going strong though it has been retired will never part with it though, Purchased a few rifles at  Downes and the local Big W to.

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I got a touch up by a Fortescue, many years ago  in the Hawesbury!  It was pure ignorance on my behalf, as I had no idea of what it was when I caught it.  I held it in attempt to release it and it gave it to me.  I ended up in hospital for two days, 

One lesson in life that I will never forget.:1yikes:

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Great write up mate, here's a photo I took of one for future reference.

It should be noted there are a few varieties, with this one the most commonly found in Sydney (Marbled Fortescue).

If you zoom in on this photo you can actually see the swollen venom sacs on the first two dorsal spines.

Nasty buggers!! 

IMG_0947.JPG

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