Monday, November 25, 2019

All Fish are the Same by Peter Ninnes

Two Australian anglers win a fishing trip to New Zealand, but it's not the kind of fishing they're used to; by Peter Ninnes.

"You little beauty!" Leo's hairy arm waved his phone in my face as I opened the front door, rubbing my eyes. "I tried to call before I came, but you didn't answer."

"What day is it?" I asked, tightening my Batman dressing gown against the fresh breeze slipping through the door.

"Saturday, mate. Check out this message!"

I pushed his phone further away, so I could focus on the text.

My eyes refused to obey. "What's it say?"

"It's about the Christmas raffle!"

Leo and I were both members of the local deep-sea fishing club. We fished together every Sunday. We'd each bought a book of ten tickets in the club Christmas raffle every year since 1998, without a shred of luck. It was enough to make me doubt the existence of the white-bearded man in the red suit.

"What did you win? A meat tray?"

"No, mate. The first prize. I won the first prize!"

My head suddenly cleared. "Hang on. Wasn't that a trip somewhere?"

"New Zealand, mate! Four days trout fishing in some place called Lake Taupo! For two people!"

"I bet Maria's keen," I said.

"You bet she is. Can't wait to get me out of the house. I'm thinking of booking for the second week of December. Get that apprentice of yours to cover your jobs. Are you up for it?"

"What the hell do we know about trout fishing? Isn't that freshwater? With flies and whatnot?"

"Yeah, mate, but the prize includes a guide and lessons! Anyway, it can't be that difficult. All fish are the same. Dumb as a rock. I'm gonna catch the biggest trout ever!"



We hired a car at Auckland airport and fought our way through the Sunday afternoon traffic. I took the wheel, having lost the toss. Leo, his fishing cap perched at an angle above his black curls, read from the guide book chapter on his phone.

"Get this, mate. Lake Taupo's area is equal to the whole of Singapore! Imagine how many fish are in there just waiting to jump on our lines! It's one hundred and eighty-eight metres deep, and forty-seven kilometres wide. That's bigger than Sydney Harbour, I reckon. And this is the kicker, mate. The lake's actually the crater of an old volcano. They call it a colder... a colder..."

"A caldera," I said. Leo was born in Australia, but only spoke Greek before he started school. Even now, in his mid 30s, he still discovered new English words.

"Yeah, that. But it hasn't erupted since the plasticine."

"Pleistocene."

"Isn't that something kids play with? What's that got to do with volcanoes?"

"It's a geological era. A long time ago."

"Must be due for a blow up." Leo laughed. "Anyway, you're just a stumpy-legged sparky, how do you know this shit?"

Leo had it over me in height, but I liked to think I was a bit brighter than him. "Wikipedia, mate. I read the Lake Taupo article before we left."

"Clever for a pommy convict bastard, aren't you?"

"Seven generations removed," I reminded him, for the seven thousandth time.



We changed drivers after a couple of hours. As the light drained from the sky, we pulled into a lookout above Taupo town.

"Would you check that out, mate! Must be the biggest lake in the country!"

"It is."

"And look at those mountains. Now that one over there looks like a real volcano."

I studied the map on Leo's phone. "Must be Mt Ngauruhoe."

"Jeez, they've got some funny names around here."

"Yeah, why can't they just have normal ones like Woolloomooloo and Parramatta?"

"Too right, mate."



The guide knocked on our door at eight o'clock the next morning.

"Tommy Rangi," he said, holding out his hand. He led us across the lakefront road to a smart blue cabin cruiser hugging the wharf.

"Nice calm conditions today. Perfect for trout fishing lessons," Tommy said. "I understand you fellows are experienced fishers, but it's your first time to go after the world's greatest fish, eh?"

"Too right, mate," Leo said, "but all fish are the same, I reckon. I'm going to catch a bag full!"

It turned out that not all fish were the same. On the first day, Leo lost three lures. On the second day, he managed to get his line caught in the boat's radio mast.

"Be a good lad and climb up and get that for me, Tommy," Leo said.

"Your line, your problem," Tommy said, so Leo, cursing and moaning, spent an hour on the roof of the cabin trying to extract the line which was snagged in all sorts of nooks and crannies in the mast.

On the third morning, I pulled in a two-kilogram trout. Leo stared as Tommy scooped it up with the net.

"See," I said to Leo. "It's not that difficult. All fish are the same."

Leo sulked for the rest of the day.

By lunchtime on the fourth day, Leo had caught nothing but a bad case of the pissed-right-offs. He'd lost two more lures, all mysteriously chewed off without Leo feeling even the smallest tug. He'd started dropping F-bombs in every utterance. Tommy was as patient as an angel, but at last he said, "If you swear too much, the fishing gods will get annoyed, and then you'll have no chance."

"Fish gods, smish gods." Leo cast his lure far from the boat. He began to reel it in rapidly, as if greater speed would increase the chance of catch.

"Slowly, Leo," Tommy repeated for the umpteenth time. "You've got to caress them onto the lure, not spear them through the belly."

Once again, the lure came up empty.

"You better get a move on if you're going to catch that bag full," I said.

Leo glared at me, but before he could let fly with a new round of swearing, Tommy intervened. "There's one spot we haven't tried yet. It's over by Motutaiko Island. I know a guy who caught a three-kilogram beauty there a few years ago."

Tommy eased out the throttle. The overcast skies of the first four days had given way to a cloudless azure firmament, from which the sun threw an endless torrent of stinging arrows. The air was still, like a cat waiting to pounce on a bird. High cliffs dominated the western side of the lake, and the low-rise outline of Taupo town sprawled along the shore to the north. The hull sliced through the placid water, and in about ten minutes we hove-to off a little green cone perched a few hundred metres from the eastern shore of the lake.

Leo's lure sailed through the air and plopped into the lake. Immediately there was a mighty pull on his line.

"Jeeyaz!" Leo started to ease in the line. Now that he'd actually hooked a fish, his skills came to the fore. He pulled on his rod, which was bent over like a palm tree in a cyclone. Then he slackened the pressure a fraction. He pointed his rod in one direction, and then another. He reeled in the line centimetre by centimetre. At last we saw the fish, glinting in the light but still several metres below the surface.

"Five kilos at least!" Tommy said in an awed whisper.

The fish was just a few centimetres down, fighting, cornered, but tiring.

"Here he comes," Leo said, his forearm muscles bulging like subcutaneous ropes.

A spectrum of colours flew at us as the sun struck the fish's scales. At that moment, a tremendous clap of thunder boomed across the lake, and the boat rocked wildly as a gust of wind hit. I grabbed the rail. Leo tipped forward, and the fish, well caught on the line, dipped back into the lake. Leo reeled and lunged after it at the same time, both hands still on the rod. His cushion-shaped belly nearly swallowed the rail as he leaned over the water. His feet slowly slid backwards, and before I could grab his shirt, he went over the side, performed a half-somersault, and landed flat on his back in the lake. Leo's rod splashed down a few metres away, and he went under faster than a six-ounce sinker.

The boat lurched back the other way. My shoulder struck the life buoy hanging on the cabin and I fell to the deck. More thunder peeled in the cloudless sky. I jumped up to see Leo surface and start thrashing about, so I threw him the buoy.

"Look!" Tommy yelled.

Behind Leo, and barely 300 metres away, the small island, Motutaiko, had disappeared under a massive plume of grey smoke rollicking into the sky.

I hauled on the rope, but Leo was too heavy to get over the side.

"Pull him up aft!" Tommy helped me drag Leo to the small ladder at the back, and then dump him in the bottom of the boat.

"Let's get out of here!" Leo croaked, and vomited a few litres of lake water over the side. Tommy started the engines, and jerked on the throttle. The sudden acceleration threw me on top of retching, wretched Leo. I rolled off him, just in time to see a great rock falling out of the sky. It missed the boat by millimetres, hissing into the lake like a mythical freshwater monster. Ash and grit poured down on us.

"Gotta get out of this ash plume!" Tommy yelled. The boat veered to starboard. Leo and I rolled like a pair of barrels and banged our heads on the gunwale.

"Fuck!" said Leo, trying to rub grit out of his eyes.

"Shut up, Leo!" I said. "Too many f-bombs and you stirred up the volcano gods."

"Volcano gods, schmolcano gods! Like I said, it was due."

The southerly wind pushed the plume of smoke towards Taupo town. A vast sheet of ash rained down in the same direction, like a black gauze curtain pulled across the stage at the end of a scene.

"I'm gonna make a run for the boat ramp at Five Mile campground," Tommy said. "We can hitch a ride from there."

Five minutes later we reached the shore.

"Can you believe we just drove straight over the boat ramp? Take a look at that!" A dozen camper vans floated like disoriented ducks at the new edge of the lake, which had risen and expanded across the lower parts of the camp ground. Twice as many more vans were fleeing for their lives as the volcano erupted in the lake. Drivers honked and hollered as they tried to muscle their way out of the only exit road.

Tommy eased back on the throttle. The water began to recede. Tommy drove the boat gently onto the mud, away from the jumble of campervans now drifting toward the lake proper.

"Let's run to the front of the line of campervans and see if someone will give us a lift." Tommy wound the anchor rope around a pole, and we leapt into the mud. As we sloshed towards higher ground, we heard a whistling overhead.

"Down!" Tommy yelled. We threw ourselves onto the sludge at the sound of fibreglass splintering. There was a whoosh, like the time I accidentally ignited the petrol tank of my lawn mower. We eased ourselves up and looked back at the boat. The rear end was alight. Smoke snaked up from the rim of a metre-wide hole in the roof of the cabin.

"That's going to take some fixing," Tommy said. "Come on!"

We reached the high-water mark and paused for breath. Leo could barely run at the best of times. Having been plucked from the lake, thrown in the mud, and nearly hit by a stray boulder, he was gasping and panting like the steam train my family rode along the Don River on our last holiday.

Near the front of the line, an older couple offered us a lift.

"Wee bit of a blow up today," the woman said. "You fellows look a fright. You better climb in the back."

"Don't worry about the mud," the man said. "I'll need to clean the ash off the outside when I get home to Wanganui. Might as well do the inside, too."



A week later, Leo, Maria, Val and I rocked up to the fishing club Christmas party. A gaggle of members gathered around to hear about our catches.

"And how are the mighty trout fishermen?" asked Rick, our cheery, ruddy-faced President.

"One of us caught a fish," I said. Leo's scowl showed that it wasn't him.

"Well it was a waste of time giving Leo the prize," Rick said. "I'll make sure that doesn't happen again!" Everyone laughed.

"I had one that must have been seven kilos," Leo said. "Fought like a demon. Ran it this way, ran it that way. Hauled it in, let it out. Nearly pulled my arms off. Got it to the boat, pulled it out of the water, sunlight shining off its scales like a rainbow in the sky. I was just about to land it, and you'll never guess what happened."

"The boat sprang a leak and sank?" Rick asked, eliciting more guffaws from the crowd. Leo didn't reply. He was staring into his beer, as if searching for his elusive prey in the deep, clear waters of Lake Taupo.

2 comments:

  1. Fun fishing tall tale. Lake Taupo eh? I'll have to check it out maybe that fish is still there!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Quite the fishing adventure...interesting to think how this story might evolve after dozens of tellings, re-tellings, and the requisite exaggerations!

    ReplyDelete