Blue Bastards

"The Flats Fishermen," by Peter Corbin

Plunge into the fray

by Scott Sadil

To be clear, lest I be charged, once again, with vulgarity, insensitivity or, God forbid, political incorrectness, the name is official, as stated in the scientific literature, not some sort of fabulist allusion borne of poetic license, nor yet another instance of Aussie slang and its penchant for the diminutive.

Blue Bastard: Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus, a unique species, endemic to northern Australia, recent addition to the tropical sweetlips genus. Long known locally as a challenging game fish, the species escaped official recognition until 2015, when Jeff Johnson, a Queensland Museum ichthyologist, noted from photographs that these fish sported a dozen dorsal spines, two or three more spines than other sweetlips in the Plectorhinchus genus. In a nod to colloquial nomenclature, Johnson devised a Latinate appellation—caeruleo for blue, nothus for bastard—a name reviewers at the journal Zootaxa readily endorsed, honoring the handle by which disgruntled or discouraged Queensland anglers had, for decades now, christened these fish, more often than not after coming up short against this formidable foe.

Xyx#&&x blue bastard!

Or, better perhaps, “blue BAH-st’d,” as the case may be.

At least that’s how it sounds to me whenever my guide, Brad Morris, a Queenslander from Townsville, refers to the target by name, rather than simply calling out, from atop his poling platform, that he’s “got one now”—a blue bastard somewhere up ahead of the skiff that I now need to, first, spot myself and then, from the bow, get ready to make a cast to.

Gil Greenberg of Midcurrent Travel

It seems remarkable, in this late day and age, when the world feels smaller than it’s ever felt before, and secrets of any sort, but especially those about fish and fishing spots, fall so quickly to the far-reaching diffusions of social media, that one can still find himself wading about on the ground floor of any fishery, one that hasn’t yet been exploited or otherwise divulged, disseminated or compromised in some essential way. Forty years ago, when I was wandering around with surfing buddies, fly rod in hand, along the Baja Peninsula’s Pacific Coast, I felt there was no one in front of us, that more times than not we were casting flies where flies had never been cast before. The rare dorado, and then roosterfish, obliterated any and all glass ceilings, and by the time I built my first boat for Mag Bay, and began to find fish and fish species in numbers I had never imagined, I believed I stood so far ahead of the curve that I forgot all about any need to look back.

Silly me. The phalanx of smoke chasers, as it were, proved irrepressible, storming the peninsula in seemingly inexhaustible waves. Yet who can blame them—or anyone else—for heeding the call and plunging into the fray?

Brad Morris, on the other hand, hasn’t waited for anyone to show him the way. Dedicated to the challenge of sight-fishing on Queensland’s littoral flats, he’s made a study of blue bastards, especially where they gather, generally undisturbed, along the shores of islands scattered off Cape York, the northern most point of Queensland and all of Australia.

It’s a long way for anyone to travel, more so for those of us starting out east of the International Date Line. And there are skeptics, no doubt, who will question the point of venturing so far to target a fish that looks, I’ve heard it described, like something you’d get if you asked a six year old to draw a picture of a fish.

Or more accurately, perhaps, like a bath toy.

“Ten o’clock, 15 meters,”says Brad, his voice from aft and above.

“I don’t see it,”I say, swinging the tip of my rod an hour or two either way. “More to the left.” I point as I’m told.

“The other left,” suggests Brad.

When I think I finally find the fish, a smudge of pale gray all but indistinguishable from rocks and clumps of dead coral sprinkled here and there across the sand flat, I ask Brad where he wants the cast.

“A meter ahead of it, a meter and a half past.” Again, I try to do as I’m told.

“That was its bum,” says Brad, as we both watch the bastard scurry away.

Gil Greenberg of Midcurrent Travel

Maybe I’m a wee bit nervous. The skiff is crowded—Gil Greenberg, from Midcurrent Travel, who arranged the trip, and Daniel Favato, the company’s young media guy, shooting stills, video, sometimes manning a drone overhead. More likely, however, I’m just not as good at this as I want to be, a lingering doubt, one I try to ignore, that brings into question what I’ve actually been doing the past 50 years of my life.

Later, when I manage to land a cast just so, Brad tells me to strip, stop, strip, strip again—wait.

He’s on it!”

I move the fly, feel nothing, strip, pause again. Brad lets loose a sudden, loud groan.

“He mouthed it,” he says.

We exchange looks. I take Brad’s to mean What were you waiting for? Mine, I imagine, shares the meaning of so many other looks offered up at moments such as these: That blue bastard.