The Black Bream Of Australia
by Louis Becke
Next to the lordly and brilliant-hued schnapper, the big black bream of
the deep harbour waters of the east coast of Australia is the finest fish
of the bream species that have ever been caught. Thirty years ago, in the
hundreds of bays which indent the shores of Sydney harbour, and along the
Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, they were very plentiful and of great
size; now, one over 3 lbs. is seldom caught, for the greedy and dirty
Italian and Greek fishermen who infest the harbour with their fine-meshed
nets have practically exterminated them. In other harbours of New South
Wales, however—notably Jervis and Twofold Bays—these handsome
fish are still plentiful, and there I have caught them winter and summer,
during the day under a hot and blazing sun, and on dark, calm nights.
In shape the black bream is exactly as his brighter-hued brother, but his
scales are of a dark colour, like partially tarnished silver; he is
broader and heavier about the head and shoulders, and he swims in a more
leisurely, though equally cautious, manner, always bringing-to the instant
anything unusual attracts his attention. Then, with gently undulating tail
and steady eye, he regards the object before him, or watches a shadow
above with the keenest scrutiny. If it is a small, dead fish, or other
food which is sinking, say ten yards in front, he will gradually come up
closer and closer, till he satisfies himself that there is no line
attached—then he makes a lightning-like dart, and vanishes in an
instant with the morsel between his strong, thick jaws. If, however, he
sees the most tempting bait—a young yellow-tail, a piece of white
and red octopus tentacle, or a small, silvery mullet—and detects
even a fine silk line attached to the cleverly hidden hook, he makes a
stern-board for a foot or two, still eyeing the descending bait; then,
with languid contempt, he slowly turns away, and swims off elsewhere.
In my boyhood's days black-bream fishing was a never-ending source of
delight to my brothers and myself. We lived at Mosman's Bay, one of the
deepest and most picturesque of the many beautiful inlets of Sydney
Harbour. The place is now a populous marine suburb with terraces of
shoddy, jerry-built atrocities crowding closely around many beautiful
houses with spacious grounds surrounded by handsome trees. Threepenny
steamers, packed with people, run every half-hour from Sydney, and the
once beautiful dell at the head of the bay, into which a crystal stream of
water ran, is as squalid and detestable as a Twickenham lane in summer,
when the path is strewn with bits of greasy newspaper which have held
But in the days of which I speak, Mosman's Bay was truly a lovely spot,
dear to the soul of the true fisherman. Our house—a great
quadrangular, one-storied stone building, with a courtyard in the centre—was
the only one within a radius of three miles. It had been built by convict
hands for a wealthy man, and had cost, with its grounds and magnificent
carriage drives, vineyards, and gardens, many thousand pounds. Then the
owner died, bankrupt, and for years it remained untenanted, the
recrudescent bush slowly enveloping its once highly cultivated lands, and
the deadly black snake, iguana, and 'possum harbouring among the deserted
outbuildings. But to us boys (when our father rented the place, and the
family settled down in it for a two years' sojourn) the lonely house was a
palace of beautiful imagination—and solid, delightful fact, when we
began to explore the surrounding bush, the deep, clear, undisturbed waters
of the bay, and a shallow lagoon, dry at low water, at its head.
Across this lagoon, at the end near the deep water, a causeway of stone
had been built fifty-five years before (in 1820) as a means of
communication by road with Sydney. In the centre an opening had been left,
about twenty feet wide, and across this a wooden bridge had been erected.
It had decayed and vanished long, long years before we first saw the
place; but the trunk of a great ironbark tree now served equally as well,
and here, seated upon it as the tide began to flow in and inundate the
quarter-mile of dry sand beyond, we would watch the swarms of fish passing
in with the sweeping current.
First with the tide would come perhaps a school ot small blue and silver
gar-fish, their scarlet-tipped upper mandibles showing clear of the water;
then a thick, compact battalion of short, dumpy grey mullet, eager to get
up to the head of the lagoon to the fresh water which all of their kind
love; then communities of half a dozen of grey and black-striped "black
fish" would dart through to feed upon the green weed which grew on the
inner side of the stone causeway. Then a hideous, evil-eyed "stingaree,"
with slowly-waving outspread flappers, and long, whip-like tail, follows,
intent upon the cockles and soft-shell clams which he can so easily
discover in the sand when he throws it upwards and outwards by the
fan-like action of his thin, leathery sides. Again more mullet—big
fellows these—with yellow, prehensile mouths, which protrude and
withdraw as they swim, and are fitted with a straining apparatus of
bristles, like those on the mandibles of a musk duck. They feed only on
minute organisms, and will not look at a bait, except it be the tiny worm
which lives in the long celluroid tubes of the coral growing upon congewei.
And then you must have a line as fine as horsehair, and a hook small
enough—but strong enough to hold a three-pound fish—to tempt
As the tide rose higher, and the incoming water bubbled and hissed as it
poured through the narrow entrance underneath the tree-bole on which we
sat, red bream, silvery bream, and countless myriads of the small,
staring-eyed and delicate fish, locally known as "hardy-heads," would rush
in, to return to the deeper waters of the bay as the tide began to fall.
Sometimes—and perhaps "Red Spinner" of the Field may have
seen the same thing in his piscatorial wanderings in the Antipodes—huge
gar-fish of three or four feet in length, with needle-toothed, narrow
jaws, and with bright, silvery, sinuous bodies, as thick as a man's arm,
would swim languidly in, seeking for the young mullet and gar-fish which
had preceded them into the shallow waters beyond. These could be caught by
the hand by suddenly gripping them just abaft of the head. A Moruya River
black boy, named "Cass" (i.e., Casanova), who had been brought up
with white people almost from infancy, was a past-master in this sort of
work. Lying lengthwise upon the tree which bridged the opening, he would
watch the giant gars passing in, swimming on the surface. Then his right
arm would dart down, and in an instant a quivering, twisting, and gleaming
"Long Tom" (as we called them) would be held aloft for a moment and then
thrown into a flour-sack held open in readiness to receive it.
Surely this was "sport" in the full sense of the word; for although "Long
Tom" is as greedy as a pike, and can be very easily caught by a floating
bait when he is hungry, it is not every one who can whip him out of the
water in this manner.
There were at least four varieties of mullet which frequented the bay, and
in the summer we frequently caught numbers of all four in the lagoon by
running a net across the narrow opening, and when the tide ran out we
could discern their shining bodies hiding under the black-leaved sea-grass
which grew in some depressions and was covered, even at low tide, by a few
inches of water. Two of the four I have described; and now single
specimens of the third dart in—slenderly-bodied, handsome fish about
a foot long. They are one of the few varieties of mullet which will take a
hook, and rare sport they give, as the moment they feel the line they leap
to and fro on the surface, in a series of jumps and somersaults, and very
often succeed in escaping, as their jaws are very soft and thin.
By the time it is slack water there is a depth of six feet covering the
sandy bottom of the lagoon, the rush and bubble under the tree-bole has
ceased, and every stone, weed, and shell is revealed. Now is the time to
look on the deep-water side of the causeway for the big black bream.
There they are—thirty, fifty—perhaps a hundred of them,
swimming gently to and fro outside the entrance, longing, yet afraid to
enter. As you stand up, and your shadow falls upon their line of vision,
they "go about" and turn head on to watch, sometimes remaining in the same
position, with gently moving fins and tails, for five minutes; sometimes
sinking down to the blue depths beyond, their outlines looming grey and
indistinct as they descend, to reappear again in a few minutes, almost on
the surface, waiting for the dead mullet or gar-fish which you may perhaps
throw to them.
The old ex-Tasmanian convict who was employed to attend to the boat in
which we boys went across to Sydney three days a week, weather permitting,
to attend school, had told us that we "couldn't hook e'er a one o' thim
black bream; the divils is that cunning, masters, that you can't do it. So
don't thry it. 'Tis on'y a-waistin' time."
But we knew better; we were born in the colony—in a seaport town on
the northern coast—and the aborigines of the Hastings River tribe
had taught us many valuable secrets, one of which was how to catch black
bream in the broad light of day as the tide flowed over a long stretch of
sand, bare at low water, at the mouth of a certain "blind" creek a few
miles above the noisy, surf-swept bar. But here, in Mosman's Bay, in
Sydney, we had not the cunningly devised gear of our black friends—the
principal article of which was the large uni-valve aliotis shell—to
help us, so we set to work and devised a plan of our own, which answered
splendidly, and gave us glorious sport.
When the tide was out and the sands were dry, carrying a basket containing
half a dozen strong lines with short-shanked, thick hooks, and two or
three dozen young gar-fish, mullet, or tentacles of the octopus, we would
set to work. Baiting each hook so carefully that no part of it was left
uncovered, we dug a hole in the sand, in which it was then partly buried;
then we scooped out with our hands a narrow trench about six inches deep
and thirty or forty yards in length, into which the line was laid, covered
up roughly, and the end taken to the shore. After we had accomplished
laying our lines, radiating right and left, in this manner we covered each
tempting bait with an ordinary crockery flower-pot, weighted on the top
with a stone to keep it in its place, and then a thin tripping-line was
passed through the round hole, and secured to a wooden cross-piece
underneath. These tripping-lines were then brought ashore, and our
preparations were complete.
"But why," one may ask, "all this elaborate detail, this burying of lines,
and, most absurd of all, the covering up of the baited hook with a
Simply this. As the tide flows in over the sand there come with it, first
of all, myriads of small garfish, mullet, and lively red bream, who, if
the bait were left exposed, would at once gather round and begin to nibble
and tug at it. Then perhaps a swiftly swimming "Long Tom," hungry and
defiant, may dart upon it with his terrible teethed jaws, or the great
goggle-eyed, floundering sting-ray, as he flaps along his way, might suck
it into his toothless but bony and greedy mouth; and then hundreds and
hundreds of small silvery bream would bite, tug, and drag out, and finally
reveal the line attached, and then the scheme has come to naught, for once
the cute and lordly black bream sees a line he is off, with a contemptuous
eye and a lazy, proud sweep of tail.
When the tide was near the full flood we would take the ends of our
fishing- and tripping-lines in our hands and seat ourselves upon the high
sandstone boulders which fringed the sides of the bay, and from whence we
could command a clear view of the water below. Then, slowly and carefully,
we tripped the flower-pots covering the baits, and hauled them in over the
smooth sandy bottom, and, with the baited lines gripped tight in the four
fingers of our right hands, we watched and waited.
Generally, in such calm, transparent water, we could, to our added
delight, see the big bream come swimming along, moving haughtily through
the crowds of small fry—yellow-tail, ground mullet, and trumpeters.
Presently, as one of them caught sight of a small shining silvery mullet
(or a luscious-looking octopus tentacle) lying on the sand, the languid
grace of his course would cease, the broad, many-masted dorsal fin become
erect, and he would come to a dead stop, his bright, eager eye bent on the
prize before him. Was it a delusion and a snare? No! How could it be? No
treacherous line was there—only the beautiful shimmering scales of a
delicious silvery-sided young mullet, lying dead, with a thin coating of
current-drifted sand upon it. He darts forward, and in another instant the
hook is struck deep into the tough grizzle of his white throat; the line
is as taut as a steel wire, and he is straining every ounce of his
fighting six or eight pounds' weight to head seawards into deep water.
Slowly and steadily with him, else his many brothers will take alarm, and
the rest of the carefully laid baits will be left to become the prey of
small "flatheads," or greedy, blue-legged spidery crabs. Once his head is
turned, providing he is well hooked, he is safe, and although it may take
you ten minutes ere you haul him into such shallow water that he cannot
swim upright, and he falls over upon his broad, noble side, and slides out
upon the sand, it is a ten minutes of joy unalloyed to the youthful
fisherman who takes no heed of two other lines as taut as his own, and
only prays softly to himself that his may be the biggest fish of the
Generally, we managed to get a fish upon every one of the ten or twelve
lines we set in this manner, and as we always used short, stout-shanked
hooks of the best make, we rarely lost one. On one occasion, however, a
ten-foot sawfish seized one of our baits, and then another and another,
and in five minutes the brute had entangled himself amongst the rest of
the lines so thoroughly that our old convict boatman, who was watching us
from his hut, yelled out, as he saw the creature's serrated snout raised
high out of the water as it lashed its long, sinuous tail to and fro, to
"play him" till he "druv an iron into it." He thought it was a whale of
some sort, and, jumping into a dinghy, he pulled out towards it, just in
time to see our stout lines part one after another, and the "sawfish" sail
off none the worse for a few miserable hooks in his jaws and a hundred
fathoms of stout fishing lines encircling his body.
This old Bill Duggan—he had "done" twenty-one years in that abode of
horror, Port Arthur in Tasmania, for a variegated assortment of crimes—always
took a deep interest in our black-bream fishing, and freely gave us a
shilling for each one we gave him.
He told us that by taking them to Sydney he could sell them for two
shillings each, and that he would send the money to a lone, widowed sister
who lived in Bridgnorth, England. Our mother deeply sympathised with the
aged William (our father said he was a lying old ruffian), and always let
him take the boat and pull over to Sydney to sell the fish. He generally
came back drunk after twenty-four hours' absence, and said the sun had
affected him. But Nemesis came at last.
One day some of the officers of H.M.S. Challenger, with some Sydney
friends, came to spend a Saturday and Sunday with us. It rained hard on
the Saturday night, and the stream which fell into the head of the bay
became a roaring torrent, sending a broad line of yellow, muddy foam
through the narrow opening of the causeway, which I have before mentioned,
into the harbour.
Sadly disappointed that we could not give our guests the sport which we
had promised them, we sat upon the causeway and gazed blankly upon the
yellowed waters of the bay with bitterness in our hearts. Suddenly "Cass,"
the Moruya River black boy, who was standing beside us, turned to us with
a smile illumining his sooty face.
"What for you coola (angry)? Now the time to catch big pfeller brack
bream. Water plenty pfeller muddy. Brack bream baal (is not) afraid of
I, being the youngest, was sent off, with furious brotherly threats and
yells, to our guests, to tell them to come down at once with their fishing
tackle. I tore up the path and reached the house. The first-lieutenant,
commodore's secretary, and two ladies at once rose to the occasion, seized
their beautiful rods (at which my brothers and myself were undecided
whether to laugh in contempt or to profoundly admire) and followed me down
to the causeway.
Before we reached there Billy Duggan and my brothers had already landed
half a dozen splendid fish, one of which, of over ten pounds, was held up
to us for inspection as a curiosity, inasmuch as a deep semicircular piece
had been bitten out of its back (just above the tail) by a shark or some
other predatory fish. The wound had healed over perfectly, although its
inner edge was within a quarter of an inch of the backbone.
With a brief glance at the fish already taken, the two officers and the
ladies had their rods ready, and made a cast into the surging, yellow
waters, with disastrous results, for in less than three minutes every one
of them had hooked a fish—and lost it.
"Ye're no fishing for finnickin' graylin', or such like pretty-pretties av
of the ould counthry," said the old convict patronisingly, as his
toothless mouth expanded into a grin. "These blue-nosed devils would break
the heart and soul av the best greenheart as was iver grown. Lay down thim
sthicks an' take wan of these," and he pointed to some thick lines, ready
coiled and baited with pieces of raw beef. "Just have thim out into the
wather, and hould on like grim death—that's all. Sure the boys here
have taught me a mighty lot I niver larned before."
Our visitors "hived" out the already baited lines, and caught a dozen or
more of splendid fish, varying from 6 lbs. to 10 lbs. in weight, and then,
as a drenching downpour of rain blotted out everything around us, we went
home, leaving our take with Billy, with the exception of two or three of
the largest, which we brought home with us for supper. He whispered to my
brothers and myself that he would give us "ten bob" for the lot; and as
the old villain's money was extremely useful to us, and our parents knew
nothing about our dealings with the ancient reprobate, we cheerfully
agreed to the "ten bob" suggestion.
But, as I have said, Nemesis was near to William Duggan, Esq., over this
matter of the black bream, for on the following Tuesday Lieut. H———happened
across the leading fishmonger's shop in Hunter Street, where there were
displayed several splendid black bream. One of these, he noticed, had a
large piece bitten out of the back, and he at once recognised it. He
stepped inside and asked the black-moustached Grecian gentleman who
attended to the counter the price of the fish, and where they were caught.
"Nine shillings each, sir. They are a very scarce fish, and we get them
only from one man, an old fellow who makes his living by catching them in
Mosman's Bay. We give him five shillings each for every fish over 6 lbs.,
and seven-and-sixpence for every one over 10 lbs. No one else but this old
fellow can catch black bream of this size. He knows the trick."
H——, thinking he was doing us boys a good turn, wrote a line
to our father, telling him in a humorous manner all about this particular
wretched back-bitten black bream which he had recognised, and the price he
had been asked for it. Then my father, having no sense of humour, gave us,
one and all, a sound thrashing for taking money from old Duggan, who
thereafter sold our black bream to a hawker man who travelled around in a
spring cart, and gave him three shillings each, out of which we got two,
and spent at a ship chandler's in buying fresh tackle.
For 'twas not the "filthy lucre" we wanted, only the sport.