Monday 16 December 2019

Winner of 2020 Buzz Words Short Story Prize

To Catch a Tuna by Annmarie Scott

He was there before us. And we were there at dawn - on the pontoon, with the incoming tide and the raucous call of watchful cockatoos. Dad nodded, greeting the sandy-haired boy as we passed, while I kept walking.
          At the far end of the pontoon I set my tackle box down, flicked the latch and opened the lid. 'This one today Dad?' I asked pointing to a shiny, anodised, blue hook.
          'Yep,' agreed Dad peering through his sunnies into the clear water. 'We'll toss a bit of bread in first, then try the bait.'
          Ritually Dad and I began to thread and tie our lines.
          The sandy-haired boy got up from where he'd been swinging his legs over the edge and walked towards us. When he reached my tackle box, he bent almost double. With his hands on his knees, he tilted his head to one side, like a seagull with his eye on a potato chip. 'I'm gonna-catcha-choona,' he declared.
          Dad and I glanced at one another. Then both of us smiled at the boy. He grinned back and his grin was as wide as the horizon. Neither of us had the heart to tell him that tuna are deep-sea fish, and that we were after bream that day.
          Instead Dad asked, 'What's your name?'
          'Sam,' the boy replied.
          When my line was ready, I grabbed a handful of bread pieces from our lunch bag and scattered them in the water below. I could see the fish and watched their shimmering shapes circle the white lumps of dough.
          'You gonna use one of these?' asked Sam, holding up our bait-shop-bag of soft plastic grubs.
          'Yep,' answered Dad. 'I've got a spare hand-reel. Would you like a go?'
          Sam nodded and made himself at home, sitting on the end of the pontoon - grinning and swinging his legs with us until the morning sun rose high in the sky. We felt a few nibbles, a tug here and there, but we didn't catch a fish.
          'Choona don't like worms,' Sam decided as we packed away our tackle. 'They like nippers.'
          'Nippers eh,' considered Dad. 'Oh, you mean yabbies!'
          'Yeah,' said Sam. 'Live ones.'
          'Caught with a yabby pump,' Dad confirmed.
          'I seen fishermen with them down the spit,' Sam continued. He pointed in the direction of the river mouth, where fresh water meets the sea.
          'I reckon fresh bait's a good idea,' said Dad. 'How about, you meet us here again tomorrow,' he added. 'And we'll bring our pump.'
          Sam's face lit up again. 'Sure,' he said and leapt to his feet. 'See ya!'
          The next morning Mum packed us an extra snack in a lunch bag, 'For Sam,' she said. I grabbed a bucket for the yabbies and another for my favourite fish - the flathead we were going to catch.
          'Don't forget to wear something on your feet,' Mum called as I ran out the front door.
          Dad was already hopping from one foot to another on the sharp roadside gravel. Juggling our rods and the yabby pump, he slipped his thongs on awkwardly, while I flip-flopped along the verge after him. When we reached the riverbank, just the other side of the pontoon, Sam was there before us - again.
          He was standing knee deep in a hole he'd dug with his hands. 'I've got a pipi,' he called. Its smooth, clam-like shell was about the size of a twenty-cent coin. We popped it in a bucket with a handful of sand and some water.
          Then, with Dad working our pump, the pipi was soon joined by yabbies with their salty nippers. They look like translucent prawns - with claws, one larger than the other. 'Owww!' wailed Sam as he hurriedly pulled his finger from the bucket.
          Tail first, Dad threaded a yabby on my hook and handed me the rod. Looking out for the nippers, I waded into the river until I was ankle deep in water. I cast there in the shallows - hoping to find a flathead. Walking with the current, I reeled my line in slowly. Cast, then walked and reeled again.
          Sam followed. But encouraged by Dad, he cast a little farther out. Together we worked like this, making our way along the river, close to shore. Dad kept up with our progress, re-threading our hooks with fresh bait as we went.
          I thought I saw a shadow in the shallows and followed it. But when we reached the mangroves Sam and I stopped. Their tangle of growth, in the brackish water near the river mouth, made it impossible to follow any further.
          So, Dad waded in - halfway up to his knees. Looking this way and that, he searched for dips and hollows in the sandy riverbed. The places flathead like to hide.
At first, he scratched his head. Then he seemed to spot something. 'Perhaps I'll have a little go with a rod, boys,' he said in a hushed voice.
          Just as he raised one foot to take an awkward step in our direction - 'Whump!' Dad leapt clean out of the water, almost hooking himself on my line.
          'What'd you do that for?' I asked.
          'Something had a go at my toe,' Dad replied, inspecting each and counting to make sure he still had ten.
          'Well, I reckon it's swallowed ya thongs,' said Sam.
          Sure enough, when we peered into the clear water from the safety of the embankment, all we could see was sand.
          'How about that!' exclaimed Dad. And he scratched his head again. 'Tuna don't like nippers. They like rubber thongs!'
          We all laughed.
          But Dad wasn't giving up.
          'Reckon we'll bring the canoe down next,' he said. 'And try fishing that inlet across the river.' Dad took another look at his ten toes. 'Same time tomorrow?'
          'Yes!' agreed Sam and I together.
          It was the last day of the long weekend. Just after dawn, Sam and I settled into the bow of the canoe. We held our rods, a leftover bucket of yesterday's yabbies and propped a net between us. Dad folded himself into the centre seat. And with a firm push we were launched into the calm before a turning tide.
          It was as if life still slept beneath the surface of the river - its blanket of blue a mirror of the sky. Only the occasional dip of the paddle disturbed the illusion, as a bank of cumulus floated past. Then we were on the other side.
          Dad stowed his paddle beneath his seat. Silently we readied our rods, and one after the other we cast into the clouds. We felt a rush of air as a nearby pelican took off from a tree stump. Wings spread wide, it wheeled in ever expanding circles overhead - watching.
          Dad cast again, landing his bait closer to the tree stump. A moment later I noticed a tug on his line. Followed by another. Dad held his breath and I mine. Then
s-l-o-w-ly he stood and with steady hands he began to reel.
          When the head of a fish broke the surface of the water right in the middle of the nearest cloud, Sam netted it whole with one scoop.
          'Is it a choona?' he cried, his eyes wide with wonder.
          'Yes!' I said, ignoring the familiar markings of a good-sized flathead.
          Dad winked his approval as he handed me the bucket. 'Now take care it doesn't escape - that's our breakfast!'
          Back on the riverbank, Dad gutted the fish. Sam and I collected wood and made a fire in a sandy hollow. Then we wrapped the flatty in aluminium foil and baked our fish in the hot coals. When it was done, we sat and ate, watching the incoming tide until the spuds were cooked too and the food all gone.
          'Nuthin' like cloud-fishin',' declared Sam.
          'Nothing!' Dad and I agreed

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