It Ain't Always About Catching Fish

by Greg Milner, Perth

Note: Some translation is helpful for non-Australians. For "mulies" read pilchards. For "Palm Beach" read "just south of Perth". For "snapper" and "jewie", read the most admired demersal table fish on the Australian coast. For "herring" read tommy ruff, and "tailor" read bluefish.

Few lights shine brighter than the eyes of a child in a moment of pure joy. And seeing it happen, the very worst you can do is smile, and bask in the reflected glow of it.

I had planned the trip to the nth degree, determined to catch the fish that had eluded us the day before. I was really focused on it, spending two hours setting up the right rigs, making sure the hooks on the lures were needle sharp, the drags on the reels set to an ideal tension, the fuel tank full to the brim, the battery charged, the sounder and two-way radio working perfectly, lifejackets and flares correctly stowed, navigation chart folded in the right spot ... even the baits were laid out neatly in layers on a tray in the fridge, gangs of sharpened six-oh hooks gleaming through the sides of the mulies.

First light the next morning, I launched our little boat at Palm Beach, and with eleven year old Tim and 9 year old Sally beside me, I opened the throttle wide, the hull rose comfortably to an easy and familiar plane, and we skimmed across Cockburn Sound. Only a light southerly ruffled the surface of the water as we turned west under the arch of the big coathanger bridge that joins the mainland to the naval base at Garden Island.

I had an inkling things weren't going to go as planned the instant we cleared the southern tip of the island and struck out into open water. The wind had come up already. By the time the sounder told me I was over the five-fathom bank, the sea was turning grey, rising in short, sharp saw-teeth, like the roofs of old factories. The only way to stay dry was to run with it. But in a 4.4 metre centre console, you can run, but you can't hide. Turning into it sent a shower of salt spray into our faces. Finally, we found a likely lump on the echo sounder's screen, and anchored up.

Tethered firmly to the coral fifteen metres below us, we pitched and rolled as I gritted my teeth and set everything up ... a trail of berley streaming from the stern, turning the choppy water slick behind us, a floating pilchard drifting in the slick for the chance of a passing Samson, and two rods armed with what I considered to be irresistibly-baited hooks to send to the bottom for skippy, or with luck, a stray snapper or jewie. These I handed to the kids, who huddled in what I thought was a particularly unenthusiastic fashion in the bottom of the boat.

As I fought the pitch and roll to rig my own gear, a small voice rose above the rush of the wind in my ears.

"Daddy," said Sally, "I feel sick."

"You'll be okay," I muttered, a little too grimly. "Just look at the horizon."

"What's the horizon?"

"Just...look at the island. Or something. And keep those rods off the gunwale, you'll never feel the bites if...."

Then she began to cry, holding her stomach, her pale face twisted in pain. The rod clattered to the deck.

Gawd.

It was hopeless. I felt guilty about feeling annoyed as I pulled everything back on board, started the motor and eased forward into the chop while Tim retrieved the anchor.

We punched uncomfortably across the broadside seas, getting wetter and wetter. Half an hour it took, all the while reassuring Sally we were nearly there, before we reached the sanctuary of a small bay on the island's southern shore. I was saturated, weary, and more than a little grumpy.

But the kids weren't. They jumped onto the beach and lay blissfully in the soft, sun-warmed sand. I watched them collect shells while I untangled fishing lines. By now I'd resigned myself to not catching any fish. Almost.

Why don't we just troll for a few herring or tailor when we go back under the bridge?

This was more like it. The tide pulled and tugged at the boat as it rushed past the pylons, but in no time we had half a bucket's worth. It was beer o'clock, so I turned the bow for home. And just then, a dolphin appeared from nowhere, streaking up under the boat, zooming past, returning and flipping on its back just below the surface, looking up at us with beady eyes and that dopey grin that makes dolphins so endearing to humans.

Sally, who only an hour before had been at death's door, shrieked with delight.

"Dad! Dad, let's feed him the herring!"

Tim joined in. "Yeah! And the mulies!"

Hang on! To hell with that! The herring's dinner, and the mulies are bait for tomorrow!

But it was too late, Sally had already grabbed a still-wriggling herring and was dangling it over the side, slapping the surface so energetically I thought she was going to fall in.

From thirty metres away, the dolphin zeroed in like a heat-seeking missile, a grey blur on a mission. He torpedoed upwards, mouth open, burst through the surface and lay on his back. Sally's doomed herring disappeared down the hatch. The dolphin turned right way up, and exhaled, sending a plume of fine spray across the bow.

"Oh! Wicked!" The kids dived for the bucket, two herring each this time, and the boat damn near capsized as they leaned out to give our dinner to the dolphin. It accepted greedily.

Don't get me wrong, I reckon dolphins are cute too. But with all these fish swimming freely around him, this one was just freeloading.

But, what the hell. It was fun. And how many people get to do this without shelling out for a guided cruise?

The kids emptied the herring bucket, and started on a fresh five dollar bag of mulies. The dolphin, which Sally had by now claimed as her pet and named Chip because of a noticeable nick out of his dorsal fin, must have been bursting at the seams, but was smart enough to know you always make the best of a free feed.

In an hour, my supplies of both herring and mulies were exhausted. Looking like Russ Hinze after a beer-drinking competition, Chip eventually wallowed away to sleep it off. Or whatever dolphins do when they've made absolute pigs of themselves.

All the way back to the boat ramp, you couldn't wipe the smiles off Tim and Sally's faces.

"Dad," she said, "that was the wickedest day of my entire life!"

The next day, I left the rods behind, loaded the kids into the boat, filled up with fuel, and called in at the little deli on the beachfront near the ramp. I bought a big bag of frozen mulies, thawed them out in the water, emptied them into the bucket, and headed out to the bridge.

Chip had recovered from his bout of gluttony. He was just where we'd left him. I could have sworn he had a table napkin on this time.

For two hours, there wasn't a hint of juvenile sea-sickness. I sat at the helm and smiled to myself, listening to their yelps of delight as they stroked the dolphin's rough skin. In the lee of the causeway, only a little wind-wave slapped against the fibreglass hull. A pair of sea lions popped up two metres astern to join in the feast, adding to the wonder.

The sun shone on a great truth, one I vaguely recognised about agendas, and life being what happens while you're making plans. Something like that.

I tossed a mulie into the water.