Exmouth Days

My clock/radio alarm woke me just as the 6.00am news was starting, but I had no interest in that, my mind was on other things. I wanted to hear the weather forecast and so, in the mean time, I looked at the tent walls and was pleased to se that there was no movement in them at all, so my prayers were answered in that respect – there was no wind. Although it was probably the coolest part of the day, I could smell rather than feel the previous day’s heat radiating from Exmouth’s red earth and I had a pretty fair idea that it was going to be a hot and windless day. The news finished, and the weather forecast began…… “Exmouth: Light breezes with a top of 39C with low humidity”. Ouch! It was going to be a rugged day, a 39C shade temperature means that it would be close to 50C in the sun, and in the sun I was going to be for most of the day.

There was an American Naval Base at Exmouth and one of the pieces of equipment there was a large steel 42 foot boat which, for one day each month, was made available to the personnel who wished to go fishing. The day was completely free of charge, and visitors could be invited out if there was room to spare. One of my friends on the base, Kurt Lavrinc had been kind enough to invite me out for that particular day, and despite knowing that it was going pretty uncomfortable, I was looking forward to a day that could produce some brilliant fishing.

As the conditions looked to be just perfect for some shark fishing, I pulled out my Hardy’s Sidewinder No 3, a Penn Senator 6/0 and my harness and rod socket. I checked my leaders and traces, and gave the hooks a brush over with my diamond sharpener. Everything looked to be in perfect order and I was ready for Kurt when he pulled up by our tent. We were in good time, so after loading my tackle we set off for the jetty but we stopped on the way at Bundegi just to jump into the ocean and freshen up a little. Even though it was still before 8.00am the heat of the sun was becoming pretty fierce and so a short swim gave us a little relief from it. Within a few minutes of continuing on our way, we pulled up at the end of the jetty and parked along side the vehicles owned by the other anglers out for the day.

The bows of the boat can be seen just behind me.

As the boat was being made ready tactics for the day were discussed and it was agreed that being as the conditions were so perfect we would start by trolling for Spanish mackerel, and so not long after putting to sea, baits were overboard and hopes were high. Being as only four people could really troll effectively from the stern of the boat, I chose not to get involved in that part of the day, but I spent the time putting together a 15kg rig instead. I used a Penn 209m reel on a Sidewinder No 2 with a ganged rig of three 5/0 hooks. I would use the rig when we started drifting and I intended using a whole pilchard as bait. It was around this time that I realised I had made a bad mistake! Before going for my swim, I had kicked my thongs off my feet, and I hadn’t put them on again after I had got back into Kurt’s car. Already the steel deck of the boat was getting hot, and I knew that before long I would not be able to put my feet down on it. However, the sudden scream of the check on a Senator 6/0 made me forget that problem for a few minutes and I took more interest in one of the Americans striking into and playing a nice Spanish mackerel. Wow, don’t those fish go! I have caught a few my self and it never fails to amaze me when I see just how quickly they can move. However, the angler concerned and his tackle were more than up to the task in hand and before long a nice Spaniard of about 20kgs was gaffed. After asking for, and receiving permission to do it, I had that Spaniard filleted, and the head cut off its spine. I now had a bait for when I put out my shark line. A few minutes later saw another hook up with a Spaniard and this one weighed in at close to 25kgs. I dealt with that one quickly too, and so I now had two good-sized baits for later in the day.

The Spaniards seemed to have deserted us, so we went for a bit of drifting where we all dropped baits to the bottom in search of a fish known locally as the north-west snapper. The fish is in fact a spangled emperor, a member of the sweetlips family, and not a snapper at all. However, it is a voracious predatory fish that fights like a tiger and is top quality eating too. When they are around in numbers, they are an easy fish to catch and it is always good to take a few fillets home at the end of the day. It would have been a good time to put out the shark line, but there was so much action going on with the nor’ westers, I chose not to put it out until things slowed down a bit.

A small bag of nor’ westers

By this time it was getting hot! There was a small awning rigged but that area had been commandeered by the several wives who had come out for the day and brought with them sufficient food for lunch for everyone on the boat including me. I love the way the Americans make an outing like that an event, and I appreciated the fact that not had I only been invited out for the day’s fishing, the invitation was to share in everything about the day. Before we set out I had been told not to take anything to eat or drink because it would all be provided.

Just before lunch, a number of the party decided to go for a swim and after a modified swimming pool ladder was hung over the side about half a dozen of them jumped from the side of the boat and splashed around for about twenty minutes until the skipper suddenly shouted, “Shark”. Those swimmers were out of the water in seconds and we all turned to watch a tiger shark of about eight feet in length cruise slowly around the boat. Now was the time to put out the shark line. Everything was ready to go, a mackerel head was quickly put on the hook, and a balloon rigged so that it would be held at about 15feet. I put on the harness and attached it to the reel and slotted the rod butt into the socket strapped at my waist. The tackle was dropped overboard and slowly the distance between the boat and balloon increased as we drifted away from it. We saw the shark swim towards the balloon and then slowly go down in the direction of the bait. Seconds later, the balloon dipped violently and then burst. Line started running off my reel and I gave the fish a few seconds before hitting it. Instantly it began to run and so I increased pressure on it, line was going to be difficult to recover, so I didn’t want to lose too much of it. The shark began to go deeper and the pressure on the rod was increased – as it was on the harness, which suddenly decided that it had had enough and one of the straps broke. Some of my hosts quickly stripped it off me to see if they could jury-rig it, but it was found to be unrepairable. I settled down to what I expected to be a long, hard fight, but suddenly my line fell slack. I couldn’t understand why, especially when I realised that my bait was still on the hook. I decided not to recover it and sure enough within a minute or so the shark had taken the bait again. The same thing happened again – the line just fell sla
ck, but the bait was still there. After another repeat of those events I suspected that the shark had never been hooked and so I decided to retrieve the bait to find out why. The answer was soon clear, the hook had turned and the point had penetrated the gill cover from the inside, but unfortunately the barb had not gone through it. The shark hadn’t been hooked! By the time I got my bait back into the water the shark had gone, so we all decided that it would be a good time to have lunch, and while eating I kept my feet in a bucket of water which was better than on the little bit of sacking I had on the deck under my feet.

Lunch finished, we went back to fishing for the nor’ westers again, but there was nothing happening. The sun was like a heavy weight on our shoulders, it was HOT - really hot, but no one was game to go in for another swim. We threw a few buckets of water over each other which was refreshing but there was no way to escape the heat.

Around 2.00pm, I reeled in my shark line, chucked the old bait overboard and set the second of the mackerel heads on the hook, making quite certain that the point would remain free when and if I had to strike. I let the balloon get about 30 yards from the boat before putting the reel into gear, setting the check and backing off the drag so that a fish could take line when it took the bait. I then picked up my 15kg rig and joined the others in a bit of bottom fishing.

There hadn’t even been any light breezes during the day and it seemed to be getting hotter and hotter. There wasn’t a ripple on the water, and my balloon looked to be more of a discarded Christmas decoration than something meant to bring about the downfall of a shark. No one was catching anything, there were no bites, it was hot – too hot for comfort – and pretty boring fishing. In fact the Americans were so bored they fell to arguing about the flavour of the new Coca-Cola as opposed to the flavour of the old one. Certainly the majority of them were quite upset that Coca-Cola’s had decided to change it, and it appeared that they had given it nationalistic values in as much that Coca-Cola was an American drink and that no one had the right to change it whether they made the stuff or not. I found the whole thing quite amusing, but figured that being the customers they had the right to have a say in the matter, something to which Coca-Cola eventually had to agree when they scrapped the new formula and reverted back to the old one.

Eventually, at 3.25pm the skipper told us that we had to leave for the base in five minutes and that we should be reeling in our tackle. Just as he said that I had a take on my bottom rod and watched in disbelief as my line just melted off the spool. As many of the Americans who could stood round me and watched my line go until the inevitable happened – I was spooled, pointed and somewhere between me and the fish the line parted. I was shakily rewinding what little line I had left, the Americans were still hooting about it all when someone said, “Hey, look at your balloon”. I looked at where it should be and there was no sign of it, but then someone pointed to it and it was right beside the boat, no longer attached to my line. I thought it had just come off the line, so I picked up my rod to reel in the bait. I found everything to be absolutely solid, and so I really bent into things and told the skipper that I had hooked a bommie, (a large coral outcrop), he told me that I hadn’t and that it was a fish. I couldn’t believe him and told him there was no doubt that I was snagged. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “dunno what it is then, but bommies sure as hell don’t pull boats backwards!” At that I had to accept that it was a fish, but a fish like none I had ever hooked before. It was impossible to make any impression on the thing even though by now I was sitting on a Heath-Robinson type of fighting chair fitted with a gimbals for the rod butt. I bent that rod as it had never been bent before, but it made absolutely no impression on the fish. Recovering any line at all was an impossibility, but the fish was able to take it just when it wanted to and there was nothing I could do about it.

It seemed to be getting even hotter, certainly, the boat would be hotter as it had been absorbing heat through out the day, but at least my feet were no longer on the deck, I was bracing them against the gunnels which was far more comfortable. Very soon into the fight, I was regretting that I had no harness and from the way my arms were feeling at that point I knew that I was going to be hurting badly before the fight was finished.

After about 45 minutes we saw the line start slanting towards the surface and everyone on the boat hoped against hope that the fish would show its self. It did, and as one, the Americans where cheering and whooping as they do when they get excited. Personally, I experienced a feeling of despair, the fish was huge tiger shark and beyond the fact I had a hook in its mouth, even after 45 minutes of me using as much strength as I could on it, I was far from being in control of the situation! My arms were beginning to feel as floppy as bits of wet string and I was thirsty – so very thirsty – and I had taken no drink with me. While I didn’t like to, I had to ask if anyone had a drink they could give me, and instantly every drink on the boat was put into an eskie full of ice beside me, a can of Mountain Dew was popped and thrust into my hand when I let go of my reel. That Mountain Dew is just about liquid sugar, and I could feel energy running back into my arms within seconds of drinking it. It was refreshing too, and I was able to put a bit more into the fight again. Perhaps it would have been better if the shark had been a fast fighting fish, but tiger sharks are not. They are a slow dour fish when they are hooked and anyway, I don’t suppose the one on my line really felt threatened by the feeble pressure I was exerting on it. The fight went on and on, we caught more glimpses of it with the same results – cheers from the Americans and a feeling of despondency for me. At about 5.30pm, two hours after the time we should have headed back to base, the shark just sounded. It just went deep and stopped. The skipper took pity on me and reversed the boat back to it, and stopped us right over the fish. Perhaps the shark was as tired as I was, I don’t know, but I doubt it. It was in a more comfortable environment than I was, and by this time I was just about chain drinking Cokes and a number of other drinks of that nature. There was only one thing I could do now and that was to get that fish up to the surface from directly below the boat. I got out of the chair, put my own rod bucket on and proceeded to use my arms and legs to do just that. Thankfully, during the next half hour the fish never took one inch of line off me, but gradually it came closer to the surface and at 6.00pm – two and a half hours after hooking it – one of the Americans caught hold of the leader and the fish was mine. As the leader was wrapped round a cleat, I threw my rod down, nearly went down with it under the slaps on the back I was getting, and crawled to the gunnels to see what I had caught! I couldn’t believe it, the fish was huge – a shade over 14feet long with a nicely proportioned girth. It was the best marked tiger shark I had ever seen too. It had long been an ambition of mine to catch a fish of over 1000lbs, and I had no doubts that I had achieved that ambition though I had no idea of by how much. As far as I was concerned the day was over, I ha
d no further interest in the fish, I was in too much pain to care about would happen next, but the Americans had their own plans – they wanted that fish to be taken ashore, weighed and they wanted me to have to jaws. However, dealing with a fish of that size does present some problems. Getting it into a boat is obviously impossible and anyway, if I was in a boat with an angry tiger shark of that size I think that I would soon get out of the boat. I have seen the damage much smaller sharks have done in seconds when they had been boated. A fish like that wouldn’t have to bite you to cause you serious injuries. Someone suggested that a noose was put around its tail, but no one was game to get into the water to do that. (We learned the next day how to do that without getting into the water). Eventually, some one dragged a grap out of a locker and it was attached to a rope, thrown over the shark and then jagged back in the hope that it would penetrate the sharks skin and hold it for the tow back to base. Until then, the shark had rested quietly bedside the boat, but as soon as it felt that grap it came to life again! The water exploded as it lashed the boat with its tail and the swivel link between the leader and trace just straightened and the shark was gone.

Tower Zero
The reason for the American presence

As we began the run back to base another boat came out to see what our problem was. We were over two hours over due and the radio had failed so that the skipper was unable to let anyone know what was going on. Even though the boat was out on a pleasure trip, it was still subject to military procedures and according to them it had to be back at the jetty by 4.00pm. Because we were over two and a half hours late meant that the skipper was on “Captain’s Orders” the next day. Thankfully it seemed that as it was a good thing for American/Australian relationships he got no more than a ticking off. The marks on the gunnels showing the length of the fish were carefully measured and the length was compared to other tiger sharks that had been measured and weighed. My fish was judged to have weighed between 1150lbs and 1350lbs. As it was a very well conditioned fish, all of those who saw it agreed that 1200lbs would be a reasonable claim.

Having got back to the jetty and seen the boat winched up to its resting place, Kurt drove me back to his place where we took the heat out of our selves with Strawberry Daquaries poured onto ice cubes that were so cold they cracked and exploded as the drink hit them. The news soon got around the base and several of the guys came round to hear the story that evening. I guess that I must have been a bit of a disappointment to them because I was pretty numb about it all mentally, but my body was hurting like hell, and it was even worse the next day.

I am pleased that I caught that fish, it was an ambition to get one of that kind of size, but I don’t know that I want another. I guess that if I were in a position to do so, I would throw a bait at any shark no matter how big it is. However, if I ever feel a fish that feels as though I have hooked the bottom and I can make no impression on it what-so-ever, I have a feeling that I might just cut my line or hand the rod to someone else, and say, “’ere, you have it mate!”

chevin - 2002