Our fishing culture

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Fishing culture has always been a big part of our region’s history. We go back to the early fishing days at Crowdy Head.

The early fishermen were part-timers. They were men working the land, timber cutters, railway fettlers and boatmen from the Harrington Pilot Station. They first came for the sole purpose to supplement their meagre larders. During the Depression more and more little shacks appeared; their owners returned home at the weekend. As conditions improved, few found they could make a reasonable livelihood from fishing and worked tedious long, hard and cold hours at sea.

Prior to the breakwater walls being built, Crowdy Harbour was very open and exposed to the elements. Men fished with set lines (commonly known as long lines) compiled of a long roll of strong cord with about 200 shorter, finer lines with hooks attached at measured intervals along its length.

Neatly coiled in boxes, the hooks were baited and ready for ‘setting’ when the lines were carefully dropped over the side of the boat into the ocean. Two empty kerosene tins were used as floats, one each end of the long line. Attached to each tin was an old hurricane lantern. These were ’termed’ the markers. While waiting to lift the set lines, the men would hand line. When they fished at night the wives took it in turns to light a kerosene lantern just before dusk. Placed in a specially made box, it had a red piece of glass set in one side, and was nailed to one of the paperbark trees which grew in a stand between the current fish co-op and Muir Park.

The men on their way back from fishing, lined up their boats with this ’red’ light and the lighthouse beam to navigate through the entrance channel and back to their mooring. After fishing all night the catch was brought in, and all hands were needed to pack the fish in boxes lined with bracken fern and ice. They were loaded on a dray and horse to be carted across the ‘plains’ (now part of Crowdy Bay National Park) to Moorland railway station, where the train took the catch to the Sydney Fish Market. The catch was dealt with, but the fishermen were left with the hooks to be cleaned and baited and the lines coiled back in the boxes. That job was often given to boys, who finished up with a couple of bob in their pockets while the exhausted fishermen could catch a few hours sleep.

One of them, a few hours into deep sleep, was unaware that a rat chewed his foot. Another, still in his coat with a meat pie in his pocket, slept while a rat chewed through his coat to get to the pie. Rats have a voracious appetite and are plentiful among the rocks of the breakwater walls.

When Claude Radley, an early deep-sea fishermen invented fish traps, long line fishing came to its end. The traps were a relief from the hard work. Lines were brought ashore, piled in a large heap and set alight with kerosene. They were engulfed in a bonfire. The rectangular fish traps were constructed with a timber frame and covered in wire netting and simplified the fishing industry. Almost 95% of all the snapper for commerce was taken in these traps. Black cod, now called groper, was caught together with the snapper. They are a harmless fish and never move far from their cave. People love to pat them, but they are just about cleaned out by spear fishermen.

Another invention of Claude Radley was the lobster trap. It took the place of 8–10 lobsterpots. Fifteen traps gave a regular catch of a hundred dozen. Penned in the river, they tended to become ‘sleepy’ when too much fresh water entered. It weakened the lobsters and numbers died in transport; a catch of six hundred dozen lobster lost one hundred and fifty dozen that way.

Fish inspectors considered the dead lobster poisonous and poured kerosene over them so that they could not be sold. Claude decided to do something about this and cooked half of his catch. He sent it to the market with the other half left green to compare prices. Some agents in the market did not like the cooked lobsters. They cooked them for the little buyers who had to pay extra for the service.

Dick Pearce was another fisherman who talked of the disappearance of Leatherjackets. In the early days he used to catch a lot of fish, but did not get much money for them. He trapped a lot of Leatherjackets. They were plentiful and he’d catch about three or four thousand pounds of them per week. Ten years later, there were barely any left. A few of them were in winter, perhaps a tub full some time in July.

He speaks about his boat, which had no wheelhouse and was open, with a flush deck that was always wet. Sometimes he had a mate. They just wore dungarees, because they did not own any special wet weather gear. Water would run down their front and out the bottom of their pants. They were always in bare feet. To wear boots on the boats was too dangerous. If one went over the side, there was no hope if wearing boots. They constantly watched carefully for changes in the weather – clouds come up fast and men got caught because they were tempted to hang on for a bigger catch.

He was set-lining off Old Bar and fell overboard. The back of the boat had a counter stern, but nothing round the sides. He was running the set line out of the box. It was wet, the boat rolled and he went straight off. Another time at night, he tipped over at the Manning bar.

The boats were not flash like people have today; the craft were small, less than 30 feet. “I used to love being out at sea. We had lots of rough weather, which I did not mind. A lot of time I fished on my own and could manage 20 fish traps. If the weather turned really bad, I would just come home, but it had to be pretty bad.”
> Researched and condensed from ‘Crowdy Head’

by Rebecca Linton, by Mieke van Werdt.

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