The allure of the open ocean and deep blue water is perhaps more about the absence of solid form, more perhaps of the feeling of flying, the giddy vertigo of the free fall, to be surrounded on all sides by fluid space. Diving deep into this abyss and hunting the large predatory Tunas, Wahoo and other powerful pelagic species that follow the warm currents each year off Western Australia is certainly a worthwhile crusade. For some it is all they crave but to dream of nothing but limitless ocean and large species is to miss the treasures one has right at his feet. The shallow nation is one of abundance, from Rock lobster, Octopus, Abalone and a hundred different small species come days of some of the best memories and a place we should all visit more often, the treasury of the shallow sea.
oing my best to blend into the bottom I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Opening them again I peered left under the long limestone ledge. Vision better adjusted to the shadows I could see my quarry perhaps 12ft ahead of where I lay. Only a small fish, but not one often encounted. The Sand bass is shaped much like a Barramundi, has a similar texture and sweet flesh. However, they only reach about 2kg in size, this one was perhaps half that. The Bass glided out of his home, out into the open were he stalled backlit by a shaft of sunlight. I only had to move the gun tip an inch before dispatching this troublesome little fish.
by Paul McKeown
Returning to the surface I felt a satisfaction quite disproportionate to the size of my prey but it had been a good game of cat and mouse around the limestone reef, I hadn’t shot one of these fellows for years. I loaded the gun with the Bass still on the spear, pulling the rubber back I continued the hunt. The area I was diving was shallow, perhaps 7-8 metres, low limestone ledges peppered with kelp divided by sand laneways. Good overhangs and bowls of clean white sand made it the perfect hunting ground. Local environmental conditions keep this shallow reef awash with warmer water. It sits close to 5 fathom bank and seems to lay within a very good fish ‘corridor’, between deep water
and more protected shallow ground layered with unusually good reef features for holding a variety of species. The species in this patch included Black spot goat fish (Red mullet), King george whiting, Skippy and numerous Sand bass. Certainly not as large compared to the usual more robust West Australian targets like Dhufish, Samson fish or Mackerel but certainly on this day at least were just as entertaining and dare I say it but every bit as good, if not better on the plate! As mentioned, this patch held Black spot goat fish. They are an especially unique fish in colour, form and flavour. Bearing the tell tale black spot just forward of the tale, bright purple and pink hues with a white chin adorned by two soft ‘goat’ like whiskers, it is easy to see why they are so named. With soft flesh packed onto a generous frame and an individual flavour that is best suited to Mediterranean style cooking, they are a popular target. Goaties are not particularly hard to spear. The challenge is getting them to remain still long enough to secure a shot without also imbedding your shaft in the reef! Before long, I had four of these in the bag, plenty for the recipe I had in mind. Meeting up with Spence, we decided to give it 5 more minutes. Spence had seen a good
Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy - W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965), The Razor’s Edge, 1943 school of Mackerel and was keen to see if any more would come in on some burley. The Mackerel didn’t return but several small Pink snapper made short work of our efforts. Curious as to the size of our pink friends, I dived to see how close I might approach. The Snapper weren’t of size to invite a shot, however a flash of blue caught my eye. A Blue groper of about 7 kilos joined the Snapper for a free meal. A tad late he snooped across the sand directly in my line of fire. Gregarious in nature and very good eating at this size, unfortunately for him, also fare game in the West so no second thought about adding him to hessian sack. The lads wanted lobster so a move north east saw us close to Stragglers Rocks, a location renowned for its big King george whiting and shallow wave washed cracks, bristling with our local crustacean. Both lads grabbed the cray loops and headed for likely looking ground. I fumbled with my camera, toying weather or not to take it or the gun. My mind was made up by a shout from Spence, he and Rob had seen something. I picked up the gun and swam hard for their location. Rob passed me on the way back to the boat. On arrival, Spence was suspended over two of the finest King george I had ever seen. It was only 4 metres to the bottom, Spence dived as I did. Skittish they flicked once or twice but were unsure of which posed the greater threat, Spence or I. They made an unwise choice. Slightly above I sighted along the spear and fired at the largest. A simple shot to take but you are never sure with this species
as they are very quick and slender. I pulled him up and only became aware of his true size when I grasped him around the neck. My hand only made it half way around! I quickly realised he was a special fish. I swam him back to the boat and grabbed the camera for a few shots. The boys had a few good Lobsters and were keen to head home. I drifted over the shallow country for a few minutes more. Lobster antenna waved from under ledges, a monster Queen snapper hovered on the edge of visibility but would come no closer. I turned and headed for the boat. Almost there, a small Samson fish meandered over for a closer look. Not a large fish but nice and plump, light bronze mottled with gold, he was quite striking in the shallow clear water. I fancied some sashimi so dispatched him summarily. The day was only half over but I had a stringer of some of the best eating species and had a day of fine weather and good hunting in great company. Home was only an hour away. There really is so much water so close to home. The road that lead to the targeting of the aforementioned species was an enlightening one. Due to the recent restrictive changes in our local fisheries laws, our most popular targets had shrunk to a bag limit of two category. One demersal species and two category, one pelagic species per day. To put this into perspective, not so long ago you could take home a total of 7 category, one species in the west coast zone. Now you could swim all day passing up fish you would have taken in the past, waiting for that ‘horse’ Baldchin or Dhu to show itself
(Dhufish now have a boat limit of two regardless of the number of divers). Some trips you could now go fish less, a frustrating prospect if the family was waiting at home for a feed of fresh fish!
and finding no pearls in the sea, blame not the ocean, the fault is in thee - Firdausi.
I had seldom looked past the cat 1 species, after all, I thought who wants to target small fish? I turned my nose up at the thought, looked down on my good spearing mate, Dean, who so often extolled the virtue of hunting the shallows and the flavours of the nimble but size challenged species that lay therein. With the tighter bag limits I found myself hardly squeezing the trigger. On trips to Jurien I would come home with one or two fish and when the big one showed up I started to miss. Dean, on the other hand, usually had a full stringer of tasty and colourful treats and he didn’t miss when the opportunity to nail a larger and perhaps more cunning species when it showed up. Another good spearing mate, Cam, was a dedicated competition spearo. I wondered what the attraction was, why bother? Funnily enough Cam seemed luckier than most when out diving. Hindsight is easy but the penny still didn’t drop, my luck didn’t improve and I wondered what I was doing wrong. It took a
chance conversation with a very experienced South African spearfisherman called Graham Carlisle. I recalled chatting to Graham at one of our usual club meetings about competition spearing. I nearly dropped my hot dog when he showed me his 80cm competition gun. With the trend of longer and bigger guns, this seemed like a step backwards. Graham explained that by using a small gun it taught you how to get much closer to your target and it taught you how to stalk successfully. Competition spearfishing can teach many skills, however, not everyone wants to compete. The lessons learned by using small guns and targeting smaller species can be forgotten. Long guns can make you lazy, a return to the shallows and short guns is a day well spent and you can also find some very tasty surprises. Here are a few recipes for the smaller species mentioned. The Goat fish I did filleted and boned, pan fryed with skin on. Add to the pan cherry tomatoes then sliced mushrooms. Add pesto sauce (from the jar is fine) and basil. Have your linguini pasta ready. Just before you take everything out of the pan, throw a handful of spinach leaves over the top, let them wilt just a little then add everything to the pasta. Very good species for this style of cooking. The Blue and Sambo, I did in a Thai style curry. Use a deep pan with a lid or wok. First, fry off an onion with a couple of finely diced, small hot chillies out of the garden. (If you donâ€™t like hot curries then miss this part!) Once the flavour is sweating out I add the green chilli paste, lemon grass and garlic. Then get it nice and hot, mixing the spices in the pan. Once this is done I then add a tin of coconut milk and simmer, dice fish and add along with one Kaffir lime leaf. Lid on and simmer adding fresh coriander stalk and root, finely diced. Simmer and serve with jasmine rice and coriander to garnish. With the King george whiting fillet, I leave the skin on after scaling first. Dust in flour and pan fry. Simple but wicked!