The Old Tamar River Fishermen – Part 2 by Edward ‘Jack’ Windsor

The Old Tamar River Fishermen - Part 2 by Edward 'Jack' Windsor

Those old fellows could build one of these Cod Boats in about three weeks and the life expectancy would be about twenty years for a hardwood boat if it was kept pickled in salt water. During this time, the owner would have recovered the cost of his boat many times over and thus the economies worked out on the right side of the ledger, if they ever had ledgers. 

The wood preferred for the decking was Baltic pine as it was light, strong and cheap. Sometimes the decks were covered with canvas which was painted on and water proofed. 

Sometimes these fishermen would take their boats miles outside the heads after Couta, which at certain times of the year were very plentiful. Couta were the bread and butter line for them at the fish markets, but sometimes they would be smoked. If they caught too many Couta, they were boiled up in a large drum and hung in the chook pen as extra protein for the chooks. Nothing was ever wasted, fish guts were used as garden fertiliser as well as seaweed. 

These old fellows had their favourite campsites along the river banks away from populated areas where they kept a few chooks, perhaps a milking cow and a small garden. They were very independent of other people and had a community of their own. 

I can remember one old man, well into his eighties who would go up to Launceston on the tide in his boat and visit his sister who lived at Inveresk. After a visit, during which he bought materials for his next boat, he would say his farewells and set off down river headed back to his favourite haunts where he would spend his time out fishing like he had always done ever since he could remember. 

He would row out into the ebb current and be carried along by it all the way to the Devil’s Elbow on the first tide, where he would anchor for the night, catch a few fish for supper and afterwards turn in on the mattress under the fore-deck and wait for the next tide to carry him all the way home. It was not unusual to see him out on the water in mid winter with his little fire pot going at some spot where he would catch enough fish to keep him going. 

Those were wonderful times of peace and solitude, away from the rush and bustle of city life. There were always all sorts of birds and animals along the unspoiled bush covered river banks. Here and there was a farm or an orchard with a little jetty to tie up to. He would set his rabbit traps and would never be without something to eat. 

He would have flour and salt, butter, tea, sugar, condensed milk, cooking fat and most things required to prepare a meal in his tucker box under the front deck. 

When the boats were not required for use they were tied up near the high tide shore line so that they were only in the water for a couple of hours between tides. This greatly reduced the tiresome necessity of anti-fouling every few months. Marine fouling is one of the bugbears of operating a boat in salt water. Barnacles and oysters together with a multitude of other marine pests would attach themselves to the boat’s bottom in a very short time, which made for hard rowing and slow progress under power. 

At his little campsite he most probably had a little hut made of driftwood and old galvo. This was his base camp where he kept all his handy stuff which would be needed for the next boat and also where he slung and repaired his nets. There would be a fireplace where he boiled the wattle bark 

for tanning and a few tools for his boats repairs. This spot was his home base where his Missus lived and looked after things whist he was out fishing. 

He had a favourite spot near Point Effingham where he liked to anchor his boat on a flood tide, here he would have his dinner, which could be stewed rabbit and vegies, followed by a mug of billy tea flavoured with condensed milk. 

After a bit of a rest he would step ashore and explore the foreshore for handy stuff that would have been washed up and left by the tide at the high water level. He would gather his fire-wood this way and any useful timber he would take back to the boat and stow it away for later. 

This timber would have been ships dunnage thrown overboard and washed up on the shore or some piece from a construction job going on up river somewhere. That piece of wood would come in handy to make something and save them having to buy it. 

Recycled driftwood was often used in furniture, shed frames, chook houses and if it was suitable it would find its way into his next boat as a floor bearer or some other piece that was needed. 

There was never any hurry to rush off anywhere, so after a while he would slide up under the fore-deck and have a little snooze to freshen up for the night’s fishing ahead. 

The time of the year, the moon’s phase, the wind direction, the state of the tide would all be factors to consider. They knew from long experience where the best spots were and head off to them a couple of hours before dark. As most of the fish species were nocturnal, night was the best time to fish and set their nets. 

During the day at low tide, they would scour the beaches for anything that would snag up in their nets at night, they each had their own pad, which was jealously guarded. These spots had been handed down through the families for generations and the unwritten laws governed who could and could not work those spots. 

to be continued … … 

If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of this story here.

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