My first fishing recollections are of Mentone Pier. I used to ride my old Huntley bike down Naples Road and then wander along the pier to watch the old-time fishermen fishing for garfish and mullet.
I firmly believe that it was during this time, the very late 1950's, that I feel in love with fishing and all its attractions. I can still see the sparkling water as the light south-easterly made it a perfect day for the gar fishermen.
It was here I learnt the patience that is required for fishing. It was here that I learnt to listen to older, more experienced folk. It was here I learnt that to catch a fish on a consistent basis, you have to prepare and more importantly, when the fish are on the bite, you have to fish well, or you miss out.
Recollections of my first fish are patchy. It was during the school holidays in the late 1950's. It was a warm afternoon and the fish were on the job. I can recall riding my small bike to the pier armed with a steel foil rod, plastic academy reel, some small hooks and a float.
I had been able to make up a batch of dough with my mum. It was only a mixture of plain flour and water with a pinch of curry: simple but effective. I suppose I had been fishing, or what I thought was fishing, for about two weeks. I had meticulously watched the elders in action and taken in every bit of information my little brain could store.
That day I pushed my way into a small space amongst the “guns” on the pier. I happened to be sitting next to one of the genuine grumpy old men of the pier – or so I thought. This guy was Alec Rowe. From a very silent gruff start, he taught me to pay attention to detail. He also taught me that the one who works the hardest gets the richest rewards. That first meeting resulted in me, this grubby little fat kid, actually winding in my first garfish on Alec's rod.
I rushed home with my prize catch. I can still recall my mother's excitement.
The next few years of fishing saw me into my early teens. I used to see Alec on a regular basis. He taught me how to strap sandworms at Keefer's boat shed in Beaumaris. Our friendship meant a lot to me, and I think it did to Alec, too. I can still remember some of the last hours I spent with him. He was clearly very uncomfortable, riddled with arthritis, he had recently turned 80. On this particular day Alec was struggling to catch a fish. He had a few yabby tails, some old flathead pieces and a few maggots that he'd botted from down the pier a bit. I had just been over to the back of the creek and dug some fine worms. I asked him how he was going. He replied that he was struggling because he was now too old to get his bait. I told him that I had a bucket of wriggling worms and that he was welcome to help himself. I can still see the warm smile crinkle his hard, weather-beaten face.
At the end of that day, I gave Alec the worms as he was packing up his gear. He was very frail. He turned to me and said: “Thank you, son, for the worms. I would like you to have this float.”. Now people which knew Alec knew that his garfish floats were legendary. Alec's floats rode the waves like no others. That Sunday was the last time I saw Alec Rowe. I learnt later that he lived the last of his days with his daughter on the south coast of New South Wales. This taciturn old coot had forever forged in me the love of fishing and an attention to detail in all things I do. I will never forget Alec. I often think it would be nice to wind back the clock and tell people like him how much they inspired and helped me. Of course, I know that it is impossible. But, after all, I am a dreamer.
Fishing to me was spellbinding. Dangling a line off the end of Mentone Pier and seeing the leatherjackets and garfish coming around your bait and nibbling at it. I used to enjoy talking to the old people, and still do. A lot of my friends are 20 and 30 years older than me. I tell the young kids now if you want to become wise, you've got to start consorting with wise people.
I yearn for those days now because I would love to have that space now. It gave me time out. It gave me a fantasy, a tremendous euphoria. I was enjoying the environment, I was fishing, I didn't have to open my books, I didn't have to concentrate on my teacher, I didn't have to fly for the ball.
With no family background in fishing, I guess my parents were quite mystified. They would come down to the pier and get me off because it was dark and my tea was on the table. I can remember my father used to pride himself on telling the story that when I was nine years of age and late for tea, they would never call the police in fear. There was only one place that Rex would be – on the end of the pier.
My dad would tell the story of a night so windy it would have blown the dog off a chain, I was under the light, fishing on my own. Dad reckoned he asked me what I was doing. I said, “I'm fishing, Dad”. He said. “Have you caught anything?” I replied, No, but I got a bite about two hours ago.” Dad would end the story saying, “ This man has no patience and he certainly doesn't suffer fools well, he's quite loud and he's aggressive in his ways, yet he can sit on the end of a pier or by the banks of the Mordialloc Creek for hours”. I was hooked for life.