To fish or not to fish - that is the question

Jim Kayes tests the waters of social media to see how people are coping with being told to avoid their favourite pastime.

“There is something ridiculously exhilarating about catching a fish. The thrill might have faded for the salty angler, but for this rookie, the novice still snagging fish hooks into his fingers, it is a giddy experience to pull a snapper from the depths of the Hauraki Gulf.

“Perhaps it started back in childhood days of lost lines in the rocks between Red Beach and Orewa. Maybe there is some small satisfaction that, at last, steps towards equality might be made in the tussle between the slippery buggers beneath the surface and Mr Fisherman above. Or it might be even more primal – a Neanderthal gene awoken by the tug on the line. Or is it an aqua version of Christmas, a watery lucky dip in which, as the sinker vanishes, the excitement is the mystery of what will emerge.

“Let me be honest about this. When it comes to tally time, I’m more a feeder of fish than a plunderer. Lines stripped bare of bait rise dripping and empty more often than they do heavy with a snapper. But when one is hooked, when the rod bends and the skipper calmly reminds me to lift slowly and wind on the descent, it’s hard to stifle the inner boy. ‘Come here my precious’.”

I wrote those words after my first trip to Great Barrier Island with a bunch of mates three years ago. There were two boats then, one owned by a panelbeater, the other a boat builder, and I was very much the rookie. They gave me a pink hat to wear.

Pining for a day out on the water. Photo: Jim Kayes

This year’s trip was meant to be next weekend and there were three boats, with another panel beater joining our small flotilla. Covid-19 put an end to that. Stay home, we’ve been told, and staying home we are, though there is huge debate in the fishing community about whether that should apply to those who want to self-isolate at sea.

It comes after the Coastguard asked boaties to stay in their harbours to avoid potential rescues – rescues that would be carried out by volunteers who were, themselves, meant to be isolating, in lockdown.

“Last year Coastguard volunteers responded to more than 3700 calls for help, proving that regardless of planning and preparation, people can’t always rely on their own steam to get home,” wrote Coastguard New Zealand CEO, Callum Gillespie, in a Facebook post. “As individuals we need to recognise that our actions can have an effect on others.”

Gillespie then cut to the chase: “We have had a lot of calls and messages from the public asking if they’re able to go out on the water during the lockdown period, the answer is no. Should you get into difficulty, you will quickly want help from Coastguard volunteers and staff, requiring them to leave self-isolation and come together to help you. Please don’t put yourself or others at risk, stay off the water and out of harm’s way as we unite against Covid-19.”

Not everyone could see the logic in this. Some felt Coastguard NZ was impinging on their rights. Others, it seemed, thought the volunteer rescue service was getting a bit above its station. As one suggested on Facebook, the lives of Coastguard volunteers were no different to those in other emergency services and the Coastguard should rethink its stance.

“I think that coastguard should be a necessity service during the lockdown,” he posted. “I don't see how people's lives from coastguard are put into jeopardy, no different to a gas station attendant…nurse…electrician…pak ’n save staff member who would be in closer and more contact than a boat needing a tow in.”

He copped some flak from other anglers, with most supportive of the Coastguard’s request.

“Arrogance and ignorance at its finest,” said one. “If we all pull our heads in, do as we are asked, there will be many more years to fish. We thought about going out fishing, but putting it into perspective, we will stay on dry land and protect the VOLUNTEERS who give THEIR TIME, UNPAID to protect themselves and their families during this time.”

Others persisted with the “this is my right” claims. “I will probably just wander down to the local rock and go for a spear or fish,” went one post. “No boat. It's about mental health too.”

At which point another largely volunteer service, Surf Life Saving New Zealand, weighed in about how they were keen to keep the IRBs in the sheds. “Please NO rock fishing, fishing from a boat, surfing, kite surfing, knee-boarding, stand up paddle boarding, paddling, snorkelling, surf ski, or diving etc etc - during the Covid-19 lockdown,” they said on Facebook – adding a few heart emojis to soften the blow.

“Yep we know it sucks. If you get into trouble, you take our emergency services away from where they need to be.”

Another reader was quick to complain. “I fail to see why I can't do what I want alone. I'm going to the beach tomorrow by myself. No problem.”

Others backed the call from Surf Life Saving to keep potential rescuers safe, but again, there was no easy consensus: “Option A: I walk around the street. Risk assessment: other people are doing the same; could get close to infected people and virus spreads,” wrote one. “Option B: I drive from my isolation bubble to boat ramp, launch boat, have fun on and in water, from boat ramp drive straight home. Risk assessment: no contact with anyone outside my bubble. Therefore, no spread of virus.”

And even though Police Commissioner Mike Bush had clearly stated people shouldn’t drive to the beach, people were still asking why on Facebook. “Can someone tell me why going in the ocean all by yourself has anything to do with containing a virus?”

The majority of responses seemed to be on the side of keeping emergency services staff safe and available for other duties: rescuing surfers, swimmers and anglers, went the argument, is just an unwanted distraction when there’s a deadly pandemic sweeping the world.

The writer with another friend. Photo: Jim Kayes

It’s enough to make a bloke want to go fishing.

“As my first snapper is swung onto the duckboard things quickly descended into chaos. I try to get out the hook, but suddenly there is a tangle of twine. I’m dancing a jig of unbridled excitement. The fish is flopping across the deck. My mates are yelling: “Don’t step on it, you idiot.” The inevitable happens – is it any wonder my team beanie is pink.”

I’ve graduated to a black beanie and I’m disappointed we aren’t heading out next week. It is a superb few days, where catching fish is secondary to mateship, banter and a few beers as the sun slips inside the Barrier.

But there is, if we get this right, always next year.

*Made with the support of NZ On Air

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