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Darwin and the Broken Jaw Fishing Incident

Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin

One morning, when I was young, Hector called me up and asked if I wanted to go fishing. Actually, there was no calling. I ran into Hector on the street. We were both young men. Fishing with what? I asked. I have a reel, he said. Fishing where? I asked. We lived in the big city of Melbourne, Australia, and didn't have a car. Down at the Victoria Dock, he said. Okay, I said. I got to Hector's house at night and we drug out Hector's reel and some whiskey and beer and walked for an hour to the port along the bike path underneath the freeway. The freeway was a new construction and had not been officially opened yet and it was strange walking at midnight under a silent elevated freeway. When we were perched on the concrete dock fishing Hector said I'm going to Darwin.
When, I asked.
Next week.
We didn't catch any fish because we were using Shiitake mushrooms for bait. We ransacked Hector's little kitchenette before we left, which took all of about two minutes, and the choice came down to a strip of bacon, dried mushrooms, or a can of tomatoes. Unwilling to sacrifice his bacon Hector chose the mushrooms. We didn't dig for worms at the port because the dirt at the port didn't have any worms. You could tell. It was dead dirt, packed with gravel. Besides, it was dark and very cold. We huddled with our arms inside our sweaters when we weren't fishing. My sweater was gray and Hector's was brown with a big hole at the elbow. So we fished with dried Shiitake mushrooms and did not catch anything, which was maybe good because the port was very polluted and we could see the oil floating on the water. High above, seagulls drifted like motes in the floodlights of the Citylink overpass, tiny white specks with no features in the flooding of white light.

When did you say you're going? I asked.
Next week.
Darwin was a very far off and exotic place to me. I knew several things about it: that you could not swim in rivers because of the crocodiles. You couldn't swim in the sea either because the crocodiles were there too. They didn't mind salt water at all. Darwin is a collection of homes sitting on the very top of Australia like a flea on a water buffalo. There were water buffalo there too and some people hunted them for sport. There were fifty thousand people in Darwin, five million birds, ten million crocodiles, fifty billion flying stinging insects, three hotels, ninety-two public bars, schools, a jail, hospitals, and two U.S. submarines. You don't live in Darwin accidentally. You go there. You go there with good reason or you don't go at all: you have a job in Kakadu on an oil platform or your submarine is passing by or, like Hector, you know someone who is driving all that distance and has a spare seat in their car and you have no reason to stay where you are when all you have is creeping debt, ex-girlfriends, and pollution.
I was sad. I didn't want Hector to go. Also, I was envious. I had too many reasons not to got to Darwin to go along. I had no debts and I had a girlfriend. That's as simple as the balance was.
Debts + no girlfriend = going to Darwin.
No debts + girlfriend = not going to Darwin.
Just the transposition of that 'no' results in the polar opposite situation where I stay in Melbourne, fishing under a freeway overpass in the dead of night, in a city where it is never fully dark, and where Hector is in Darwin sleeping under a mosquito net to the loopy cries of tropical birds.
I think I felt a fish nibble, I said. But maybe I'm wrong.
If you felt it, you felt it, said Hector graciously.
We had no float for our line so we were using a piece of rotton wood we broke off a bollard on the dock. The dock housed big warehouses full of paper. We knew what they held because we forced a sliding door open - creak - like entering a giant's castle. No need to worry about security. No one cared what happened way out here at the end of Victoria Dock under the Citylink overpass. Sometimes we saw expensive cars parked out here and shady business going on inside. The end of the dock was so far away from the part of Melbourne where the people who cared lived that it occupied a different territory. It was beyond the three mile limit. It was no man's land. There were more seagulls than people and more people than fish. And in the warehouses were bales of paper. Large sheets, with a crenelated surface, clean white paper, "EUCALYPTUS PAPER - BRAZIL" stencilled on the bales. There was maybe a hundred tons of unused paper in bales in there and the bales were moldering, eaten by mice, the wrappings torn open by curious interlopers, slipping and collapsing, bales crushing other bales, paper shredding under the shearing weight of more paper, a big geological sedimentation of paper with glacial forces down at the bottom where we stood.

We should take some of this paper home, I said.
Yeah, said Hector.
We left it where it was and went back to the fishing.
It started to rain.
We were fishing under the Citylink overpass, Bolte bridge which crosses the river Yarra at its mouth, making it one very big bridge, but the bridge was so high up and the seagulls were motes of birds and the rain was so light and capricious that the bridge didn't offer any shelter. We got wet anyway.
I am thinking back to this and changing it as I write it down. In another way it is true as anything else: there really were two young men fishing with dried mushrooms off Victoria dock in a southern megapolis in the dead of night, and I really was one of them. There really were piles of Brazilian paper in the warehouses. But maybe the fishing and paper belong to different nights. It doesn't matter, it's a true thing. I live in America now and I am thinking back to when I was a young man in Australia. It seems very wild and distant to me now.
Neither Hector nor I knew anything about fishing. Hector knew a little bit more than I, but mostly he believed he was cursed. A couple of years prior he had been tattooed with a fish and since then he had not landed a single fish. Every single one he hooked got away. On several fishing expeditions I was able to verify this. I caught garfish, bream, ocean trout and Tommy Ruff and all Hector landed was a puffer, which, apart from being spined and noxious, was too small anyway.

Once we were out fishing on the very end of a breakwater, a little further down the river Yarra, when we had a night that began by being lucky and ended by being very unlucky.
I had a new reel. It was a toy rod, a telescoping rod with an open reel that snarled easily and automatically unless you made an absolutely perfect cast with not a tremor of hesitation in your arm, and it was my first rod, so I was only just learning the art of the cast. Hector, despite a miserable record in the last couple of post-tattoo years, was a dab hand at the free-reel cast. He looked like a cricket player as he flung the line sidearm out thirty feet. Hand reel fishing is a very different experience to rod-and-reel fishing. A hand reel is a bulky plastic thing the size of a small plate which is coiled with more line than you will ever need, because it is nigh on impossible to cast further than thirty feet, and undesirable to do so anyway as you will have to reel in the whole length hand-over-hand when you catch something. Where an automatic reel has a stop and clasp to prevent line running out freely, enabling you to set your rod down and roll a cigarette, or take a short walk, or fish more rods than one, the hand reel is simply a big spool and no such device exists. It has no moving parts. If you put it down the line begins looping out, out, out, with the current or the wind catching it laterally, which didn't stop Hector from putting it down whenever he wanted a cigarette. With a rod it is possible to keep a constant tension on the line for longer as you can cast twice the distance of a hand reel, even with a short cheapo rod like mine, whereas if you want to keep tension in a hand line the only thing is to keep winding it in, and before a minute has passed you have wound it in so far you can see your bait trailing in the water at your feet and you have to cast again.

None of the above matters to the hand-reeler. He or she fishes with a hand reel because of the strata of society he or she occupies. Hand-reelers are underdogs, content with, nay, prefering the fish all other fishermen disdain. Garfish, ocean trout, Tommy Ruff, perch, are underdog fish. They are small, and they are plentiful. To the hand-reeler they are beautiful and practical. They are a readily available food source. They are functional fish and their beauty lies in this function. Sports fishers, the people after red snapper, barramundi, salmon and such, are aesthetic harlequins who are distanced in wealth and idleness from the essential purpose of fishing, which is to promote the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens. Only practical fishers are in touch with their history and ancestry. The hand-reeler shares this humble niche with the commercial fisher, large or small: any hand-reeler would be at home on a stinking, smoking factory ship ravaging the sea bottom with drift nets where a sports fisherman would be hopelessly lost. It's a basic divide. Hand-reelers fish. Sports fishers are just rich people with boats.
I considered myself a hand-reeler by virtue of the fact that my rod was so cheap and I bought it at K-Mart. A point of pride with the hand-reeler is that all of his equipment, reel, float, sinker, jar of worms, sandwiches, cigarettes, knife, rainjacket, whiskey, fit within one fairly small backpack which you can wear while riding your bicycle, walking down a city street, catching the tram, and no one about you will suspect a thing. You get to the water, open your backpack, and there you are: ready. You are always ready to go fishing if you are a hand-reeler.
Carrying the fish home is another matter, but then Hector and I never really caught many fish.
So there we were, fishing on the breakwater. It was a curving causeway of basalt rocks, which arced far, maybe half a kilometer, out into the tidal mouth of the river Yarra. At this point the river is deep enough to admit container ships which drop their goods at Port Melbourne, a little bit upstream. Standing on the rocks at the very end of breakwater the water rises and falls around you like hands clapping and the tide soars visibly by, first in one direction, then, a few hours later, in another. No one ever went all the way out there to fish except me and Hector. No one ever went to many of the places Hector and I fished. Maybe they knew something we didn't. Hector stood and cast his line supurbly out thirty feet, the line flicking off the spool. Hector always took a long time preparing for his cast. Everything was a matter of great deliberation with him. I was different. I couldn't wait to get my line in the water. Every moment I spent fiddling with my gear was a moment a fish might be passing by.
We both went to the breakwater quite late at night, and we took a bottle of whiskey with us. That was my undoing. Riding home, I fell off my bicycle and broke my jaw, my wrist, a rib, and lost three teeth. The specialist who set my jaw told me that the majority of cyclists who have the kind of accident I had (straight over the handlebars, landing on point of chin) die instantly on impact. That is what fishing has cost me.

Hector did go to Darwin, and I got married. My wife was American, and, just for a change, we moved to America. Soon afterwards, I was divorced. I have been here for years now, and I have not once gone fishing. I remember a time when, back when Hector and I were just a couple of boys, we drove my clapped out car as far south as we could. We reached the ocean, and then we continued, driving east along the coast. I kept the car at an even 80 along the empty coast of Australia for three days. I was worried for the health of the car. Hector wanted to drive and drive and drive until the car broke down, and then get out and walk, until there was no further east to go, and we would have to find out what happened next.
But then, it wasn't his car.

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