For three or more days, every twist, every move, echoed the twisting turning pattern of the rest of the school. The school numbered countless thousands of three to four inch herring like fish. Each fish turning and twisting, presented to predators a swirling cohesive mass.
Conformity was all.
The slightest difference in maintaining the pattern, made the one stand out in stark contrast to the rest. That one slow movement enough for a predator to single out it's quarry, and strike.
The nerve receptors along each fishes side could feel the presence of the 1.5 to 2kg (3 to 4lb) kahawai, that constantly patrolled the edges of the school.
They were trapped. Snared by the need to move into the warmer water near the beach to scatter their eggs in the cover of sand, silt and bubbles, of the surf, and the kahawai.
The water was becoming more shallow. The taste became more metallic, less salty. It was harder to maintain buoyancy, as the fresh water from the river mouth they were approaching, mixed with the sea. The closer they moved to the river mouth the more the current pushed at them.
As the water shallowed to less than thirty feet, the school was forced to spread out more horizontally. Now the kahawai moved below, forcing the school closer to the surface.
The closer the school moved towards the bar that crossed the river mouth, the more confused became the messages from the receptors. The surf breaking on the bar deadened the clearer signals of predator and prey.
As the school spread out kahawai began to slash through in random attacks. This began to break the school into smaller schools, each pushed into a ball below the surface.
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Now the feeding frenzy could begin in earnest.
Kahawai attacked from the sides, and from below each school. The swirling patterns of protection frayed and broke down. Some fish in their frantic efforts to escape broke the surface of the water.
The terns and seagulls swooped. Gannets, diving from thirty or more feet, smashed into the school.
Some of the schools raced into the breaking surf to try and escape, and spread their eggs. The aerated water did not have enough buoyancy for their small bulk. They became easy prey for the kahawai.
The frenzy would continue, until the remnants of the school could escape in small groups, back to the deeper water.
For two days prior to this carnage the boy walked the sand dunes, watching the approach of the dark shadow out to sea that hinted at the school beneath. At thirteen he had already watched the scene many times, fingers itching for the feel of a rod in his hands.
Now he slowly strolled along the edge of the water, moving toward the river mouth, a mile or so away. His rod of Rangoon cane, thirteen feet long, swung easily at his side.
The school was now a very dark shadow just under the surface, but still just out of casting range. The birds hovered above ready to pounce on any fish that moved too close to the surface.
He continued to move slowly. There was no need to hurry. The time, would be time, soon enough.
Living at a beach, near a river mouth, taught him the impotence of impatience at events moving at nature's pace.
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He reached the river mouth at the same time as the school.
Slowly, and carefully he waded waist deep out and along the hook of the sand-bar that jutted out at right angles to the beach across the river mouth.
With the easy, graceful-power of youth he swung the rod in an arc over his shoulder, stopping the rod with a punch. The new, prized birthday present, a hexagonal cut, chromed lure, flashed across the water, and smashed into the sea on the far side of the mayhem that was now the nearest school.
He paused for a few minutes to allow the line to sink, and then began a slow, irregular retrieve. Twice the lure returned to the rod tip, unsullied. For a third time he cast, and began the retrieve.
The kahawai was around 3kg (6lb). Strong, but frantic. All around his kin were darting and diving at the bait fish that strayed from the pattern set by its neighbours. He had yet to feed.
At last one bait fish made a turn too slow, standing it out in stark relief to the ball of the school. A sharp flick of the tail and the kahawai darted toward its prey.
A flash of silver darting across its vision distracted the kahawai, and perhaps in annoyance, maybe in hunger, it struck at the flashing intruder.
The sharp prick in its lower jaw did not immediately alarm the kahawai. The spines and scales of thousands of previous meals had pricked him many times before.
But the sudden unseen pressure pulling his head around, was instantly alarming. The alarm quickly turned to panic. He raced for the surface, bolting into the air, in a genes-driven rush to escape.
The boy felt the line come tight and then race off against the drag. He watched as the fish, the biggest kahawai he had had on a line, charged out of the sea, once, again, and yet again, shaking it's head, trying to rid itself of the lure. Then he settled into his well-practiced pump and wind routine, all the time moving slowly and carefully back toward the beach, from the bar.
The kahawai felt it before he saw it. Even in its frantic effort to escape the relentless pressure pulling it toward the beach, his receptors could feel the long slow pressure waves emitted from the regular sinuous movements of a very big fish.
The boy felt too, before he saw. The kahawai made a sudden a sustained near the surface run. He had caught maybe a hundred kahawai before, but this run at the closing stages of the fight, was very unusual. Then he saw it, the dark blue triangle, pushing up a rooster tail as it raced through the water.
Then he saw more. The off-shore wind was pushing back the swell into thin pre-break waves, made translucent by the low setting sun. Through this clear backdrop he could clearly see the whole of the shark in stark silhouette.
His fascination with the sight of his first shark, turned to horror when he saw his kahawai racing ahead of the shark in the same wave.
The dark shapes of kahawai and shark moved closer together on the cinema screen that was the wave. The drama then played out in the slow motion clarity of view that seems to prelude disaster.
With one final lunge of its tail, the shark swept onto the kahawai, and in the eye of the splash turned out of the wave, and headed back to deeper water.
The boy watched as the fin arced toward the deep, and his rod tip arced to follow the fin as line raced from his reel.
The shark felt the pressure from the line, and slightly alarmed surged at full speed at an angle to its previous path out to deeper water. The line pulled across its teeth, and the pressure disappeared. Alarm gone, with the loss of pressure, the shark moved leisurely back toward the schools.
"You bastard," screamed the boy at the fin, as he reeled in the now slack line, "that was my fish, my bloody lure." The fin did not move one inch from its course, at this boys lament.
That, 'little fish get eaten by bigger fish, who get eaten by bigger fish, who get eaten.....,' was a hard learned lesson, but then lessons learned hard, and young, are the lessons learned best. Young learned lessons can drive and fuel a lifetime of learning fishing. It did mine. Can't think of better reason to take a kid fishin'.
For overseas readers: a Kahawai is a saltwater fish, in appearance somewhat similar to a USA sea trout, although it is no relation. To make ID difficult Australians call the fish "salmon" but it is no relation at all to salmonoids. It grows to about 3Kg but much bigger specimens have been caught, up to 8Kg in fact.
Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)
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