The Curdies River is to me a sacred destination. It is 66 kilometres long from its source in underground water springs surfacing near the extinct volcanic crater lake, Purrumbete in the western district of Victoria to its estuary at the coastal village of Peterborough on the Great Ocean Road.
Along its length there are dairy farms, some bushland and reedy swamps before it enters Curdies Inlet, a narrow and shallow entrance. Upstream, the navigable tidal section of the river is just over 20 kilometres in distance. Precisely how far the saline reaches can change according to a combination of ocean tides and catchment inflows.
Of ecological significance is the salt wedge that lies beneath the surface of tidal river and estuary inlet systems. This wedge is the boundary between fresh water sitting atop the salted water only a few centimetres apart though it can often reach far inland. As a general rule, the colder salted water entering from the ocean sinks below the warmer fresh water entering from the inland. A species that crosses the barrier has special adaptations compared to those who rely solely on fresh or salted water.
At the farming hamlet of Curdievale (about 10 kilometres upstream of the river inlet entrance) the Boggy Creek trickles into the Curdies River, one of six small tributaries. There is a bitumen r0ad crossing a bridge, boat ramp, past a pub named ‘Boggy Creek’ and a prominent sign warning the public, Beware of Snakes.
Inhabiting the tidal section the Curdies River is the native Blue Nosed Black Bream, prized by anglers hoping for a greater abundance. We anglers are fond of saying, hook a Blue Nose and it bends the rod. The species is known for its fighting instincts, its sometimes voracious appetite, finicky feeding habits and its blue nose. The Blue Nose is particularly wary of predators. Its compressed muscular body shape is suited for fighting and is covered by black and golden flexed scales.
Its preferred habitat is close to banks, weed and rubble beds, and timber structures, providing places to dart and hide from predators. Here its favoured food is often more bountiful. This fish is famed for cutting the line of even the best anglers. To lure and land a Blue Nose, a fair degree of angling skill, knowledge, and luck is required.
It costs just $2 to enter the annual Boggy Creek Fishing Competition staged this year on June 5 by the local Lismore Angling Club. It started at 9am and finished at 4pm with a weigh in at the Boggy Creek boat ramp and jetty. The winner is judged according to the heaviest fish caught on the day.
The trophy on offer is a modest trinket presented during the forthcoming yearly gathering of club members at the Lismore Pub. At the presentation the meal will be an ample country pub menu and beer offered at the attractive price of $10 for signed up angling club members.
Still an angling beginner, for the competition I had the privilege of teaming up with octogenarian and local angling legend, Clive Bustard. He’d won nearly all the local fishing trophies on offer. At the lake’s shoreline is the Lismore Angling Club. Its members had constructed and continue to manage an attractive public camping and picnic facility and boat ramp. A feature of the facilities is a good-sized shed catering for club meeting and functions. Recently, the club committee formally named the shed in honour of Clive Bustard who lives in the township of Lismore (population 500+).
I had made the two hour drive west 0f Melbourne, staying overnight at my sister’s family farm property near the township. The next morning, I arrived at Clive’s house early enough for us to set off before 8am so we could arrive at the boat ramp before 9am. As before when we fished together, he had neatly prepared his six cylinder grey Ford Panel Van, small trailer power boat, angling gear, and picnic food.
On the drive to Boggy Creek, Clive had arranged to call into a friend’s house to pick up live minnows for our bait. My contribution was two tubs of live scrub worms that I’d purchased from a local angling shop in Melbourne.
Clive’s approach to angling and most things important to him are like the recent comment of famed basketball player, LeBron James. He led the Cleveland Cavaliers to rally from an unprecedented 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in a best of seven 2016 NBA finals series. News of the comeback victory spread quickly around the globe. In a post-match interview James described how his own match winning performance was achieved: I was calm. I was focused. I was locked in. I now realise Clive catches the most fish because this is what he had always done before LeBron was famous, and without the fanfare.
Anyone acquainted with Clive and his late wife, Lorna, for whom his small fishing powerboat is named, will testify they enjoyed a long and loving marriage. Lorna had no interest in fishing other than cooking the catch. For Clive, angling became a replenishing tonic beyond the boundaries of the home. Together, there was their big catch – proud parents of a son and daughter.
The catch of good angling is not so pleasant for the fish – either a release back into the water or a place at the dining table – which is where many marriages also finish up in the rubbish tin. It seems the trick to success in angling and marriage is to avoid, as much as possible, the inevitable tangling, snagging, and breaking the line.
Only a few months before Lorna died, the Lismore couple had celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Since then, Clive and I have talked about his struggle with bereavement. He described it as a descending veil kept in check with a brave face. I had felt a similarly after the death of my late wife, Angelika Oehma, September 2007, following her battle with breast cancer. Now, I feel individual bereavement experiences can share common ground while each bereavement has its own identity and differences. At times, bereavement seemed to me like watching a weightless hooked live worm descend to the bottom of a waterway.
During an earlier fishing expedition, Clive explained that what we do is for pleasure and consumption while the fish is fighting for its survival. We present lures intended to deceive fish into thinking a decent meal is on offer, when in fact the lure is deadly. Do fish suffer bereavement?
Ever since I have known Clive his angling instructions to me include always take care. On our drives to locations and in the boat we indulge in banter while trying to maintain on course. It’s not easy, but we manage to do it. Later, I wonder: Who is deceiving us? Are we deceiving ourselves? Amid the turbulence is atonement possible without the fanfare?
From the beginning some noise existed. For humans to get a decent feed a variety of deception ploys were essential, most often in the forms of mimicry and stealth. Both fell between the gaps of silence and sound, leading to the formation of languages. The gaps gave room to reflect and inspire. Nowadays, LOUDNESS has now amplified and infiltrated across many fields.
In earlier years when a goal was scored it became a matter of simple glee, pleasure, often shared but contained within the given moment. Now, when the goal scoring experience has become an ultra- theatrical episode blasted loud as possible across all forms of amplified media available. The Donald Trump presidential campaign is another example. It exists entirely on the premise of loudness. The sole purpose is to blot out the nuances of interpretive language and knowledge. Instead, blind blundering becomes the force.
The ever-increasing loudness that is occurring everywhere is comparable to the spread of feral toxins and vermin entering our waterways for ill-gotten gains, made worse by dire management.
Good angling thrives on mimicry and stealth. Knowing the fish’s habitat and habits. Which side of the wedge does the species exist, fresh, salt, or both? Clive said take care.
For all its fight and cunning reputation, the Blue Nose is a sensitive fish. It is a saline species, which means it is among the handful who can traverse between varying levels of salt and fresh water, breed and grow. It is not a migratory fish. It lives within the river tidal estuary where it was spawned. Hence it is subject, not just to the turbulent flows of fresh and salted water that occur naturally within river estuary systems, but also to human interventions.
Clive and I are there to catch a trophy Blue Nose for the thrill of it. Its unfortunate destiny is the table or a release back to the water. Is this fair, or tolerable, or not? What we can share with the Blue Nose is the vital need to redeem the health of the river estuary system itself. The message is simple, Dummy: No Water, No fish.
Is there too much cow poo and pasture fertiliser entering the Curdies River and inlet system?
The friendship between Clive and I started when both of us became troubled by the human intervention that had destroyed our favourite fresh water destination, Lake Tooliorook, where we had fished for trout and redfin.
It was during the longest drought period on record (2000 – 2010) that all lakes and waterways throughout the district were bone dry, including Lake Tooliorook and the upstream Railway Resevoir. During previous droughts the ‘dry out’ had occurred before. Always, when the rains eventually returned, the waterways and lakes had quickly sprung back to life.
But not anymore.
It was during this ‘ten year drought’ period that a government water authority was eager to earn future profits on the assumption of an expected break in the drought. It approved a major expansion of the Railway Reservoir that serviced new irrigation licenses it had awarded to the respective landowner.
The required excavation and constructions works were undertaken during the drought when the Reservoir was empty. The works were obscured from public view behind private property fencing. At no stage did the authority and private landowner advise downstream stakeholders as to what was happening.
The deluge floods of 2010 did break the drought filling Lake Tooliorook to the brim. Soon, Clive and I were bagging out on 2kg+ Rainbow’s and Brown’s. But this period was short lived. By 2013 the water levels had dwindled to the extent there was no more boating possible and fish caught.
Clive had become suspicious. There were local rumours of the new expansion works hidden from view that had occurred at the Railway Reservoir. He showed me photographs of the construction expansions. No water flowed beyond the retaining wall. Downstream waterways and lake had little chance of replenishing. Clive had protested about what had occurred, but his voice fell on deaf ears and was fobbed off by the water authority.
While Lake Tooliorook remains a puddle, a favourite destination for us has become the nearby coastal Curdies River and inlet. Before we had teamed up, I had kayaked the navigable tidal section several times, both double and solo.
The first was with Angelika during her chemotherapy treatment phase. Tour kayaking had become an activity of shared joy during the intermittent times when the poisonous injection effects had subsided. These respite periods became special. At home, we took great pleasure in our great catch, a beautiful daughter. For us both the memories will never subside. Nor will my memories of the sacred waters we had located and traversed together, quietly paddling.
She sat at the front navigating. Her rhythmic paddle strokes set the pace of the craft. At the rear it was my task to follow her pattern and add extra power and steerage. Guide and glide was her forte, which I often struggled to keep up with. At our best we covered considerable distances just above a brisk walking pace, sometimes 2o or 30 kilometres in a day.
We started at Peterborough, not knowing what lay upstream beyond the narrow shallow inlet. Our launching place was on the inlet side of the narrow sandbar that separated the calmer saline water from the sets of wild thumping waves we could see and hear on the ocean side. On previous kayak adventures along coastal estuary inlets we had become familiar with the nature of these sandbars. According to the respective levels of inland catchment flows, outside tidal effects and weather storms, the sand granules were constantly in a state of flux.
At times they formed a retention wall impounding fresh and salt water nutrients on either side. Or, at intermittent times, often during wild storm conditions combined with inland flooding and high tides, sand granules fell apart forming open channels and gutters. Riptides gush through the channels and gutters depositing nutrients from one impoundment side to the other. The sequences of retention and turbulence made sense. Eventually, all walls shall crumble. If atonement is possible it lies somewhere along the fault lines.
As we set out from the sandbar the river entrance to the inlet was in the distance and occluded from view. Even as we paddled closer it was still difficult to fathom exactly where it was. On either side of the inlet banks stood tall standing reeds. Below us, dense sea grasses lay just a fingertip under the kayak. The inlet’s shallowness and sea grasses meant motorised craft prone to clogged propellers were kept at bay, ideal for us yakkers. Across the inlet surface, floating or airborne, were flocks of birds. Beneath were spawning grounds for fish.
While at times the black water seemed like tints of an pending death, for me, the glimpses the dazzling golden streaks along courses of the Curdies tidal section and other estuary tidal river systems we had traversed meant replenishment. At the tidal wedge was a melding and stabilising between two worlds.
Once we found the Curdies entrance and began paddling upstream. For the first few kilometers the tall banks either side of the narrow meandering river, were lined by continuous reed blankets, all above standing height. The river surface and just below were a darkish black featuring an unusual golden shimmering. We had encountered this colour effect on previous estuary tidal river tours along the coastline. It was due to the amount of tannin in the dense catchment peat vegetation washed downstream that settled in the stiller deeper tidal river reaches.
As we continued paddling the density of the reedy blankets began to taper. We passed by a series of grassy paddocks dotted by grazing cows, lines of timber, and floodplain swamps. We saw a couple of small boats anchored to the bank. Each had two people fishing. We stopped and asked what lay ahead and what they were fishing for. They said, the Blue Nose and that they had launched from the Boggy Creek boat ramp a few kilometres ahead.
It became our next destination. Heading upstream, we began to see a red tin roof in the distance, which turned out to be that of the pub. As we approached – the bridge, boat ramp, and picnic ground started appearing. We disembarked, rested and ate our picnic lunches. We saw the sign, Beware of snakes. All along our upstream journey and the arduous paddling back to Peterborough we did not encounter a snake.
After Angelika’s death and before teaming up with Clive, I had returned to the Curdies several times. I had purchased a solo kayak and traversed the entire tidal section upstream and downstream of the boat ramp. I had also gained an interest in fishing. I arranged an outing in the double kayak with a dear friend, Peter Lyssiotis, who had previously fished from banks and piers, but never a boat.
We paddled downstream to a place near the inlet river where we found a small gap in the reeds suitable for disembarking. We bedded the surrounding reeds to make a small area enough for us to sit and lie down. I had brought along a hand reel and line with an attached hook and some prawns purchased from a supermarket.
Peter threaded the prawn onto the hook and tossed it into the river. Nothing happened. We waited and decided to eat our sandwiches. We then laid down and dose. The hand reel was by my side. Suddenly, we both heard a loud thump and both woke up. I saw the hand reel racing towards the bank edge. I lunged to stop it plunging into the water. Peter grabbed hold of me and together we landed a whopping Blue Nose specimen. We were both ecstatic. Peter said the fish warranted a name and I said: Destiny.
After paddling back to the boat ramp we then set out to my sister’s farm near Lismore for dinner and an overnight stay before heading back to Melbourne. We showed her Destiny. She was as much surprised and as impressed as we were. The fate of Destiny became an ample feed for the three of us.
When Clive and I arrived at the boat ramp for the fishing competition we noticed there was only one parked vehicle and trailer. Usually, this is not a good sign. When the fish are on news spreads and the available parking spaces get occupied quickly.
As we began launching a boat appeared from upstream and docked at the landing jetty. We approached the sole angler inside the boat to ask how he went. He showed us an impressive bag of Blue Nose. He’d fished since dawn among the upstream snags using shrimp. He had not entered the competition and was heading home.
We followed his advice and headed upstream. We spent the day moving to different spots but never found a school that was interested. With no luck we motored further upstream to where the river began narrowing. Timber overhung the still water stretches. We knew there would be lots of timber beneath.
Again, no luck, only annoyance with regular snagging and resetting our lines. After a full day of no success we headed back to the boat ramp. Along the way, we pulled up alongside the few Boggy Creek angling competitors that had moored beside the banks and asked how they went.
No luck at all.
Each of the entrants knew Clive and were obviously in awe of how the wily old bugger was so good at catching fish. Once he was satisfied they were not on, we all agreed. He said to me; Perhaps we could have done better with shrimp rather than the live minnows and scrub worms we used as bait.
Not far from the boat ramp we decided to try one more time in an area that was not infested with snags that had annoyed us so much further upstream. I cast a weightless hooked scrum worm close to towards the tall standing reeds along the bank edge. I let it sink slowly to the bottom.
Suddenly there was a strike. I landed a juvenile Blue Nose. It was just on ‘keeper’ legal size. Often even a small Blue Nose can fight vigorously. It did bend the rod. We looked at it and I decided to return the catch to the water to live another day. It was rewarding, but not in angling vernacular a worthy trophy fish.
At the boat ramp there was no weigh in because there no fish were caught by the competitors. Clive was willing to nominate me as the proxy winner of the Boggy Creek Fishing Competition because I was the only one who had caught anything. If Clive said so, this was good enough for me.
When we arrived back at his home at Lismore there was no Lorna to greet him as there had been on countless times before when he had gone out angling solely or with friends. He still seemed to be managing in an emptied house. There were their children and grandchildren within comfortable travelling distance.
Often we talked about the distraught conditions at Lake Tooliorook. Until recently it had become a place of joy. He’d angled the lake for most of his life. Now it was in a ruined state due mainly to greedy self-interests in collusion with poor government management.
Since the beginning it was along the sandbars and estuary river tidal systems dotting coastlines that the requirements of retention, turbulence, and replenishment had found a balancing order. But now, the excessive noise is no good for the fish, nor for the snakes that are harmless unless placed under threat. In our bereavement we seek a balance amid the turbulence of grief.