There are 2 ways I know how to get blackfish (Girella tricuspidata), also known as luderick: One is to fish with a float dangling a tiny hook off rocky shores baited with sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) – a technique I have yet to succeed at; and the other is to get in after them snorkelling with a spear. This last method was a favourite of mine as a teenager around Sydney, and then again in my early thirties as a student doing research on the North Coast. I would use a hand spear (‘Hawaiian sling’ or ‘gidgee spear’) – an aluminium rod with barbed spikes at one end and a large elastic loop at the other that you slide up the shaft to propel the spear when released. They require getting close to the fish, stalking them, a snorkelling version of creeping, around rocks and through kelp, predicting their movements, and taking quick-reflex shots in the tiny window of time before they flee. The elastic digs hard into the space between thumb and finger, still scarred on my right hand from the broken blisters that failed to heal well with the saltwater and repeated wearing away at raw skin. Now, for the first time, I have stepped up a notch with the gear, getting the most basic of spearguns. Now a long thin stainless steel shaft with hinged barbs is loaded up with an elastic loop released by a pistol-grip trigger – double the power, double the distance. Accuracy will probably double too once it becomes the spear that I am used to.
For my first outing with the new toy I ventured into my favourite blackfish spot – a pebble beached lagoon, the most beautiful piece of shore I know, a hidden paradise kept still by a rock reef behind raging seas. The water, although at times crystal clear, was murky from recent storm seas and floodwaters off the land. Armed with the speargun, my shooting range was actually further than I could see, drifting slowly, stalking around rocks, making out the familiar shapes, sometimes their distinctive stripes, and all too often the way that they turn on their side to flee from view and from range (a technique that allows them to escape through the shallowest of water that would bar a larger predator – like a shark… or me in fins). My first shot is too late, delayed by vain hopes of a better opportunity to shoot until it becomes a last ditch hope of hitting a fading shadow in the murky gloom. The next is at a fish perfectly side-on, still cruising away but not panicked; and it hits, down towards the tail, threading the fish body on the steel needle inescapably. With my not unjustified paranoia of holding quivering fish in water where sharks may take an interest, I lift it flapping clear of the water and swim on my back to shore in seconds to dispatch it, beach it, and plunge back in. After two more misses, a clean shot hits close to centre (actually not a perfect shot because of damage to good meat) and a second fish is landed. The second of two fish I would not have got with the range of the old hand spear.
The truth is I have spent a lot of outings launching old bent, degraded-rubber, blunt tipped hand spears vainly at blackfish just that little bit too far away to hit. And so it is also true that I really do like the new edge I get from the speargun. The challenge remains and I’ll take a bit of credit alongside the weapon, gleaned from having hunted these little sea rabbits (because they are jumpy, sea lettuce eating small game) on and off for a quarter of a century. I will not go so far with spearfishing as to head offshore for bigger targets (I’ve a mate who has jumped off ocean-going boats to spear big game fish and then be towed for an hour around the sea dreading the appearance of sharks); but I will keep hunting blackfish, knowing that I’m not the lithe predator I was in my youth, but recalling those days with fondness every time; tasting it in the small boneless fillets fried fast in butter almost burning then quenched with lemon juice and served within half an hour of the kill.