A long time ago in Emerald, so the Fishers Almanac says, Mary’s boychild, Bruce, was born on a torrid Christmas day.
Now, initially there seemed nothing particularly special about Bruce. But being an only child, he was doted on by his mother of course, and greatly loved by his father, Alf.
Alf was a keen angler and by the time the boy was three years old he would go off with his father to one of the local waterholes to fish. Alf had constructed a little rod for Bruce made of tapered split cane segments painstakingly bound and glued together. At the base was a tiny sidecast reel. By the time he was four Bruce was also a competent fisherman. He could cast his line well and never got his line in a tangle. He had learnt how to allow a fish to take the bait and run a little before setting the hook. When father and son arrived home from fishing, Bruce would run to Mary with his fish and she would proudly make a fuss of him.
Then, one day when he was five, Mary walked Bruce down to the local church to attend Sunday school. Sometime later, when she returned to escort him home again, Bruce was nowhere to be found. After a quick search, she located him in the nearby hotel. The Emerald Anglers Club was having a quarterly meeting. Most of the anglers with a beer in hand, were listening to Bruce expound on how to catch eel-tailed catfish. Someone had generously bought a lemonade for Bruce and he seemed right at home. Mary was somewhat appalled by this and dragged the reluctant Bruce away home, scolding him all the way.
Just after this Bruce began to keep fish. With his father a willing ally, they purchased a number of large tanks and populated the tanks with juveniles of the common species that they targeted.
Bruce was intensely interested in what the fish ate, when they preferred to eat and when they lay dormant. He kept detailed journals recording all of this data.
And in the meantime, he and his father continued to fish and he began to put into play what he was learning from his captive fish. As a result his fishing success was greatly improved.
Sometimes his father would ask Bruce’s Uncle Jack to fish with them. Jack was an inveterate storyteller and Bruce loved to hear his tall tales. Jack was a farmer and struggled to make a living from his small holding and augmented his income by driving trucks.
Alf often loved to fish at night. Bruce vividly remembered one such occasion when Alf, Bruce and Jack sat alongside each other on the bank of a waterhole with their baits cast out into the river’s depths.
Jack said, “I haven’t been out on the river at night for a while. I guess I was put off once when I went out to catch yabbies with Bob Smith.”
“Why? What happened?” asked Alf.
“Well it was the winter of ’53. It was a cold one. Do you remember?”
“I certainly do. It was cold all right.”
“God knows why, we went out that night and determined to camp overnight on the river. Yet despite it being cold we got a good haul of yabbies in the afternoon. As it got dark it began to get cold, so we retired to the camp. We decided to have the yabbies for dinner, so I lit a fire and placed a kerosene tin full of water over it and waited for the water to boil. I’d made a pretty hot little fire with some bloodwood and it didn’t take long for the water to boil. Once it did we tossed the yabbies in. It was getting really cold by then, so we broke out a bottle of rum and had a few snorts while the yabbies cooked. Well, I supposed we might have been a little distracted by the rum, because when I remembered to check the yabbies the fire had gone out. And what’s more, it was so cold that the water had frozen. And more than that, the water had frozen so quickly, the ice was still warm!”
Alf merely shook his head and guffawed. But Bruce was astounded.
Then on another occasion as the trio sat beside the river, Alf asked Jack, “How is the farm going? Do you still grow watermelons? You told me a while ago that you were doing well with watermelons.”
“Oh, no,” responded Jack. “I don’t grow watermelons any more. I grow zucchinis, pumpkins and corn.”
“Why did you give up watermelons?”
“To tell the truth, Alf, I gave up growing watermelons because I was too good at it.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Jack. Why would being too good at growing watermelons stop you from growing them?”
“Well, when I grew watermelons the vines grew so quickly that they wore the bottoms out of the watermelons dragging them along the ground. And nobody wants to buy watermelons with their undersides worn through.”
Alf uttered a small despairing moan but Bruce’s young mind was full of the notion of watermelon vines dragging their fruit across the fields.
But all the while Bruce was still experimenting with his fish. He began to understand when and under what circumstances native freshwater fish fed.
Some of his friends would occasionally ask, “Going fishing this weekend Bruce.” And Bruce would reply, “No, it’s too hot.” Or, “No it’s too cold.” Or, “I’ll wait till the moon is a little fuller.” Or,
“No. The storm we had during the week has discoloured the water too much.” Or whatever. And he was invariably right. As a consequence people sought his advice about when to go fishing.
He now turned his attention to finding the preferred foods of his native fish. He fed them all manner of insects and grubs and various berries. He found, for example that the sooty grunter had a fondness for the berries of Moreton Bay figs.
He was also, by now, an enthusiastic junior member of the Emerald Anglers Club.
But Bruce was growing older. Bruce had been a diligent student of slightly above average academic ability. As he neared the end of his schooling Mary and Alf discussed with him his career prospects. Mary suggested Bruce might want to become a teacher. Alf said that his friend Brett O’Connell was doing well in his accountancy practice and maybe would take a young man on to work with him and study accounting. But Bruce would have none of it. “I want to open a fishing tackle shop. There is nowhere around here that people can buy good tackle. There is a vacant shop in the town centre that used to be a hairdresser. It’s been vacant for ages – so I am sure we could lease it at a reasonable rate.”
Mary and Alf weren’t so sure that their son could make a living from a small business. They knew that many small businesses failed. But Bruce was adamant and eventually they relented. On enquiry they found that indeed they could lease the shop for a reasonable amount which wouldn’t unduly saddle the business with excessive overheads. So Bruce’s Bait & Tackle kicked off.
After a quiet start the business gradually built. Whilst Bruce had plenty of quality tackle suppliers, getting bait proved difficult. At the back of their house, Bruce composted a large area with sleepers for borders. Earthworms thrived there and he could maintain a reasonable supply for his customers. He opened the shop on weekends for the convenience of his customers, but took Monday and Tuesday off to go fishing himself and to catch yabbies and bony bream for sale as bait. In the evening he would manufacture sinkers in a little mould from scrap lead he accumulated.
He would often attract visitors to his shop and gave them advice on when and where to fish. He made little maps showing anglers how to get to a dozen or so local fishing holes. His advice was well-appreciated and his customers would often leave with an armful of fishing tackle.
But providing bait was the most tiresome part of his job and he began to wonder if he could produce artificial bait that was attractive to fish. For several years he made various concoctions and tried them on the captive fish in his tanks. Finally he found a mix that they were somewhat attracted to. He put some of his mixture in small sample bottles and gave one to customers that made a substantial purchase. Each had a handwritten label on it, identifying it as Bruce’s Bait. He asked such customers to give him feedback on the efficacy of his concoction.
This feedback, combined with his own experimentation, allowed him to continually improve his product. Soon anglers came to the shop specifically requesting his artificial bait. As the demand grew, he spent his nights brewing his bait. Earthworms and the other natural baits were now little in demand. As the demand grew he started a mail order business sending copious amounts of his bait to other inland centres where freshwater fishing was popular. The bait was now extremely effective and he, and many other anglers, used it exclusively.
Somewhat taking after his Uncle Jack he placed a warning on the label of his bait bottles. This is how it read:
Warning: don’t open this bottle unless you are at least 10 feet away from the water! Otherwise fish will be attracted by its odour to jump on to the bank to get to it. This is not an ethical way to catch fish! True anglers want the fish on the hook and engage in a tussle to land it.
But despite all this the bait was tremendously effective.
And then one year the Coves came to town. Bill and Marge Cove became Bruce’s next door neighbours. The Coves were quite poor and had seven children to sustain. Bruce and his parents became steadfast friends of Bill and Marge, and were quite fond of the children too. The children began to refer to Bruce as “Uncle” Bruce. It wasn’t long before Bruce and Bill (and often a couple of the children) started going fishing together. Not surprisingly with Bruce and his famous bait, most expeditions resulted in a nice bag of fish. (Bruce of course in an endeavour to conserve fish, which he was now reliant on for his livelihood, would stop fishing once he deemed that they had a reasonable catch.)
But when they returned home Bruce was strangely surprised. Marge’s eyes lit up. She would examine the catch and couldn’t conceal her joy with the thought that here was something to augment their meagre larder and help feed her voracious family. He had never appreciated that a few fish could be so important to anybody!
As time went by Bruce and his parents developed an amiable relationship with the Coves. Uncle Jack by now was running a few goats. He would occasionally slaughter a goat and bring the carcass in for Alf and his family to consume. But Alf would pass half of it over to the Coves to help feed their household. In order to reciprocate such kindness Marge would often bring over a half dozen eggs from her hens. (Bill had constructed a large chicken run in his backyard the occupants of which would consume, among other things, food scraps from the two households.)
Marge was adept at making bread and Mary at baking cakes. So cakes and bread were often exchanged over the adjoining fence.
In this way they became good old-fashioned neighbours who looked out for each other without undue intrusion.
But one day Bruce was digging worms out of his compost when he noticed Bill sitting on an old milk crate under his mango tree. He seemed in a sombre mood. Bruce wandered over to the fence.
“Gidday, Bill,” he called.
Bill looked up and saw his neighbour.
“Oh, Hi Bruce,” he said in a rather sombre tone.
“You seem to be down in the dumps. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, Bruce, on Saturday it’s Marge’s birthday. About a dozen of Marge’s friends and relatives are planning to be here Saturday evening to celebrate with her.”
“Surely Marge will enjoy that?”
“Yes I suspect she will.”
“Then why are you so disconsolate?”
“Well, to be frank, I have no way to cater for 20 plus people.”
“Oh, I see. That is a problem. Won’t your visitors bring anything with them?”
“They’ll probably bring a cake, or a tart, and a few drinks, but will expect that we’ll provide the main course.”
Bruce mulled the problem over for a while. And then he enquired, “Do you think they would eat fish?”
“Yes, I am pretty sure they would.”
“Well, then maybe I have a solution for you.”
Bill’s eyes lit up. “What is your solution?”
“How about you invite your friends to come to Jensen’s Waterhole at 4:00pm on Saturday? I’ll catch the fish for you. We’ve got a set of fire irons with a large grilling plate. That should cook enough to satisfy your throng.”
“But you normally work on Saturdays!”
“That’s no problem. I would enjoy catching fish to feed your family and your visitors. Could you get Marge to bake a half dozen loaves of her fabulous bread?”
“I am sure she could easily do that.”
“Would you mind if I asked mum and dad to help too?”
“Of course not. We would love them to be there. They are such good friends.”
“It would probably nice to have a few ingredients for a garden salad to accompany the fish.”
“That’s fine. I have got a good crop of tomatoes maturing in my garden.”
“Good! And we have a few lettuces.”
Bruce immediately went to his parents and asked for their assistance. Unsurprisingly they were keen to help.
Early on Saturday afternoon, Bruce and his parents set off for Jensen’s Waterhole. Mary had brought a large tub of coleslaw, as well as a couple of lettuce in an esky. Alf set up the fire irons and Bruce gathered some firewood. He was particular to get some solid hardwood. He liked to start the fire and ignite the hardwood and let it burn down so that when he cooked it was over a bed of hot coals. By 3:30pm the fire was to his liking. He then rigged up his favourite rod, broke open a large canister of his famous bait and placed a little camp stool on the side of the waterhole. His father grabbed a large bowl, a filleting board and a sharp filleting knife and placed them alongside the camp stool.
At around 3:45pm Bill arrived with Marge.
Bill walked down to talk to Bruce.
“Have you caught any fish yet?” he asked anxiously.
“I haven’t put my line in the water yet,” replied Bruce.
Bill looked up at the camping area and he could see a couple of cars arriving.
“Don’t you think you should start fishing?”
“Well now that your guests are arriving , I think I should. But freshwater fish always taste better when they are cooked as soon as possible after being caught. Now my father is going to be down here soon. He will fillet the fish as soon as they are caught. He’ll take them up to the hot plate where my mother will cook them.”
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Bill.
“Yes. There is one important thing you can do. On a warmish afternoon like this some of your guests might want to swim. Can I ask you to ensure that they swim in the channel on the downstream of the hole so that they don’t disturb my fishing?”
“Of course! Of course!” replied Bill. He strode back to the camping area to give these instructions to his guests.
Bruce then baited his hook and cast into the waterhole. Within a minute or two he reeled in his first fish. His father was now beside him. He quickly filleted the fish, threw the remains in a garbage bag, washed the fillets and put the fillets in the bowl. After ten minutes Bruce had caught four fish and the bowl was full. Alf strode up the slope and gave Mary the fish fillets, who then put them on the hot plate and then Alf came back down for more.
This sequence was repeated many times that afternoon. The fish accompanied by Marge’s fresh bread, the coleslaw and the garden salad proved a great hit. Finally as the light began to fade Alf came down to tell Bruce that he could stop fishing now.
Bruce washed his hands, put his fishing gear and bait away and went up to partake of some of the fish which his mother had put aside for Bruce and Alf. The grilling plate had been cleaned and put aside and now a row of billy cans were sitting simmering anticipating tea being made to accompany the cakes and other desserts that Mary had made or the guests had brought with them. A few of the men had a beer in hand. Gas lights were lit and the little gathering sang “Happy Birthday” to honour Marge.
Finally the guests began to wend their way home. Now there was just Marge and Bill Cove, Mary and Alf, and of course Bruce. Marge was beaming. She pecked Bruce on the cheek and then likewise Alf. Finally she put her arms around Mary and hugged her.
“Thank you all,” she exclaimed. “I can’t remember a better birthday.
When the word got around, some said it was a miracle that Bruce could feed such an assemblage by his catch alone, relying on his home-made bait. In Emerald this astounding event became known as the “Miracle of the Coves and the fishes.”
When he next went to a meeting of the Emerald Angler’s Club some wag had written a song which he proposed should become the Emerald Angler’s Club Anthem.
The Emerald Anglers’ Anthem
Hark, the Emerald Anglers sing,
Bruce’s bait is just the thing!
Yellowbelly swim a mile
Just to taste his baity guile.
Joyful all we anglers sing
To anoint old Bruce our king.
Fisher folk will all proclaim
Without Bruce’s bait it’s not the same.
Hark, the Emerald Anglers sing,
Bruce’s bait is just the thing.