Despite a rough run of weather leaving many Sydneysiders missing the stormless drought, crisp, sunny winter’s days with gentle westerlies flattening out the sea were always going to make an appearance at some stage; it’s just La Niña after all, not the apocalypse. The Pacific Ocean is all too often a dreadfully misnamed body of water, but occasionally it lives up to its promise. With the cool water, trolling lures for pelagics like summer and autumn bonito doesn’t yield so well; but long relaxing drifts across the deep offshore sand for flathead (Platycephalus spp.) and the occasional other interloper (like leatherjacket, flounder or rays) comes into its own.
We motored in the tinny (aluminium dinghy) to the north end of a surf beach, stopped and threw out the drift anchor (like an airstrip windsock on a rope) to slow the wind’s westerly push. An offshore current pushing southwards did the rest of the work – setting us off on a long relaxing 2 hour drift to the southeast. We’ve done this often enough not to worry if the fish aren’t biting because soon or later on a 3 kilometre journey ending 2 kilometres out to sea they always eventually will. As the shore receded, the quiet solitude of the open ocean started to envelope us. On the edge of a huge city, bobbing in a seemingly endless calm, fishing heavily weighted paternoster rigs in inky blue depths of around 50 metres.
Often distracted by tending my line, bringing up or netting the occasional legal-sized keeper and releasing back the equal or even greater number or undersized ones, I would sometimes look up like someone waking surprised in a wilderness. Whales, seals, penguins and albatross (in addition to the usual shearwaters and gannets have all been seen in these winter outings, like the great cold south has come visiting (even though the penguins are local). This time a Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), landing by our lines and ducking its head under to see what was going on down there, diving and underwater flying for any skerricks of bait within reach. Then a Great Skua (Catharcta skua), a strangely fat mongrel-brown maritime scavenger from the south, sitting like a feathered stray dog waiting for cast-offs, not begging nor even hardly acknowledging our existence; just waiting with the patience of an opportunist.
Over time we lost count of the number of keepers in the box, muddled by the calm rhythm of the fishing, the numbers of undersized returns and the hypnotic slap of water on the metal boat. But we knew we were doing well enough, with enough to need to open the freezer for, and the catches only getting more consistently legal-sized with either distance offshore or the light fading towards sunset or both. Keeping just enough time to do the boat ramp thing before darkness we reluctantly headed in: 12 good flathead (bluespotted I think; Platycephalus caeruleopunctatus) and 1 flounder (Pseudorhombus sp.).
Back in the kitchen, each fish is carefully opened rather than quickly gutted, each time a 50-50 party game with the prize being a female’s roe. I have a peculiar love of these, buried in salt in a bowl and put in an oven on as low as it goes for however many hours it takes to suck it dry. The salt dusted off it can be simply chopped finely and sprinkled as a garnish (particularly if mixed with dehydrated sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) given the same treatment) that tastes deeply of the sea; of the deep sea no less, of fish hauled up from 50 metres below. Problem was, from my cut of 6 fish, only two females, one very light with roe. That said, this stuff goes a long way.