Invoking The Ghost Of Black George…

Retreating from the heat of the house a couple of evenings ago, we headed for the beach. The sand was firm and even, good for strolling along cooling our feet in the wash at the ocean edge.

Half an hour from sunset, we stopped to watch the fishermen lined up past Floreat drain. No action, until the tailor came on like a switch at 7.40. It wasn’t like the old days, when rods would be bucking all along the shore and gleaming fish big enough to overlap the edges of a frypan winched in every cast. But it was good for these depleted days.

Watching fishermen always takes me back to my early teens, when a mate and I would hit the City Beach groyne at dawn through summer and into autumn, full of the lust of young hunters for the flashing prey that waited out there, past the break. There was a limit to how early we could arrive, set by the sleepy parent on driving duty, and it was never early enough. The end of the groyne was always already packed with fishermen by the time we got there.

There were a few other kids like us from time to time, but most of the crew were seasoned City Beach groyne specialists. They knew each other to nod to, but not much talking was done. There was other etiquette to learn, too. Like perfecting your cast, so you never crossed the lines of other guys who were already in, waiting for a bite.

One scraggy cove they called Black George (named after his nature, not his skin) had it in for us. Didn’t like kids, didn’t like anyone. He looked fearsome – unshaven, dark eyes flashing malice, hooded in a dirty yellow spray jacket, his sneering mouth full of invective and gaps between broken teeth.

There was a cruelty about the way he unhooked his fish, ripping rather than working the barbs out. He seemed to catch more than anyone else. Maybe that’s because he got more water time. Often the end of the groyne was so crowded you had to wait for someone to pull in a fish or go off to re-bait before you could claim a spot. Not Black George. He had his rock he liked to stand on, and if his peers understood this and moved aside in deference as he charged in with elbows raised and rod over his shoulder cocked to snap out his baits, you can bet we did. He had a knife holstered around his waist, and if my mate or I ever happened to cross his line when he had a fish on – and sometimes when he didn’t – he’d go for his blade and cut us off. Once I was already in and he cast over me. Still he cut my line! And you didn’t dare say a word.

Black George notwithstanding, those mornings were great – amazing fishing by today’s standards. My mate and I rarely went home without a full bucket each. And they’d be good sized fish. A mixed bag usually: tailor, herring, whiting, pilchard, an occasional garfish or silver bream.

As fanatical as I was as a kid, somehow I lost my appetite for fishing as the years went on – or perhaps fish lost their appetite for me. Certainly, the catches were deteriorating by the time I ceased metropolitan fishing completely and confined my line-wetting to occasional half-hearted excursions while away for short breaks in the South West.

As I sat and watched last night, tapping into the memories of all those years ago on the City Beach groyne to a sunset pulsing with metaphorical resonance, it was comforting, in a way, to see that the summer evening tailor run was still an event. Things hadn’t changed that much.

Or had they? As we began making our way back, pausing over buckets to check out the catches as we went, I realised that most of the fish were undersized. That’s most, not some.

A few buckets included baby whiting no bigger than three inches!

Back in my City Beach groyne days, fish stocks were plentiful and there were no size limits. There didn’t need to be. The population was much smaller, and boats were not commonplace. Recreational overfishing was not an issue.

We were spoilt, in retrospect. And as bountiful as our oceans were, greed and wastefulness abounded, seemingly without price. My mate and I measured our success in terms of the number of fish we could take on a morning, and indeed, this index of fishing excellence was universal. You’d regularly read gushing reports in the weekly newspaper fishing columns of this or that fishing identity taking 20 dozen herring in a weekend at Peaceful Bay, or filling a freezer truck in less than a week “up north” where the fishing was legendary. Conservation was not part of the fisherman’s vocabulary back then.

So I should resist being too judgemental about these guys last night, taking home all those undersized choppers, shouldn’t I? No, actually. Things HAVE changed. Size and bag limits have been introduced by necessity. And any fisherman today who flouts the rules is an irresponsible prick who should have the book thrown at them.

Wake up, you stupid bastards. These little choppers you’re taking are on the verge of their first breeding cycle. You’re depriving yourselves of better and bigger fishing in the future.

Beats me why the fisheries officers don’t regularly patrol well known summer tailor spots like Floreat drain until the message gets through. They could have charged virtually every fisherman on the beach that night.

30cm, guys. That’s the legal minimum size for tailor. Get some sense of responsibility into ya. And those who are too selfish or arrogant to care, if the fisheries officers don’t bust ya may the ghost of Black George rise and drift along the shore in dark fury at sunset, cutting your lines one by one.

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