For they were fishers: Coorong

An excerpt with permission from "For They Were Fishers" by Evelyn Wallace Carter

The Coorong

The Coorong is a shallow hypersaline lagoon about 100 kilometres long and between two and three kilometres wide, separated from the ocean by sand dunes which reach a width of two kilometres in places. (40)

This area was fished from early days mainly for mulloway and mullet.  The mulloway also went into the lakes on occassions, probably to spawn, according to Inspector Lawrie Shannon.  'They come into the Coorong out of the sea.  It is the same variety as that caught at Victor Harbor', he said.  By the 1930's boats were being fitted with ice boxes which enabled the mullet to be kept in better condition and resulted in less of the blue tickets for condemned fish.

In 1935 the report of the Royal Commission on the Fishing Industry said: 'Fishing in the Coorong has become of considerable commercial importance since the development of rapid means of transport.  Great quantities of mullet are taken in set nets from December to April.  The industry, as regards both mullet and mulloway, appears to depend on the influx of fresh water which comes in at flood times from the Murray.  From the point of view of the fishermen, the Coorong is divided into two sections by the narrows, which stretch from the Needles to Hack's Point, a distance of about eight miles, but the state of the water varies greatly in places.  In the northern division mulloway are still to be found, but in the southern or, as the fishermen call it, the "top end", only mullet exist in payable quantities.'

Perhaps more than in any other South Australian fishery, husband and wife teams have worked in the Coorong, the man at the mast top watching for the surface ripples that indicate a school of fish, the woman steering the boat and working the engine.  Then, together, they encircle the school and draw it in.  In the early days this was done under sail only.

Dave Evans began fishing with his uncle on the Coorong, and over the years became knowledgeable about the different fish species' feeding habits and movements and the effects of tide and weather.  From the beginning Dave kept a diary which enabled him to pin-point specific places where fish would be at specific times.  This gave him a name for being lucky but, in fact, it was minute observation and recordings that guided him.  After two years Dave began fishing on his own and gradually built up the range of gear that he felt was necessary to catch the right fish at the right time.  Gilling, hauling and hooking were mixed, depending on the time of the year, the conditions, and the advice of the diary tucked in his pocket.

World War II intervened and Dave married Sue Martin four days before leaving for overseas.  He was wounded twice in action and on his return to Australia he and Sue worked together to make a living from fishing, although, owing to lack of finance, they seemed to be back at the beginning again, having to make do with a fifteen-foot boat with a three-horsepower engine from which to set their nets in the Coorong.  They supplemented their income with cockling, rabbiting and produce from the garden.  Sue continued to help set the nets until their son, Ray, was old enough to row a boat.  Tragically, this their only chiild died at twenty-eight in an accident.  Fishing was a family affair during Dave's thirty-four years as a professional fisherman, working firstly with his uncle and then with Sue and ray.  For the last seventeen years that he fished professionally, Dave worked during the summer months with another fisherman, Murray Burt, as there is a lot of hauling to do during those months.  Dave and Murray were good friends and also fellow inspectors of fisheries for some years during the 1970s and 1980s.  Murray Burt and his wife, Nita, also fished together for many years.

Quiet, careful fishing was Dave's way, using sail before the war, and even when faster boats became the norm, he preferred to camp at a spot and listen to the fish and watch their movements to determine the direction in which they would head.  The biggest mulloway he ever caught weighed eighty-seven pounds gutted and his biggest catch from a single haul was over nine tons taken in October 1957.  This catch was made with a new hemp net just before Dave bought some of the nylon nets that were then being introduced.

It is the thirty mile stretch of the Coorong near Goolwa that is Dave Evan's favourite fishing ground, and affter serving as Assistant Senior Inspector with the Deparment of Fisheries for six years and as Acting Senior Inspector for two, it was to there that he retired in 1981 to fish as a recreational fisherman, still with his diary in his pocket. (41)

In the 1980s the Coorong was fished by Meningie fishermen, and some based at Goolwa, for mullet and bream, and mulloway in the lower end.  Coorong fishermen used to get big schoools of mullet but, they say, they are now just making a living.

European carp are caught outside the River Murray barrages as well as in the river.  These fish go out when the barrages are opened and stay close to the fresh water after the barrages are closed.  Before 1979, fishermen were not permitted within one hundred and fifty metres of the barrages, but once this build-up of European carp was recongised, the law was changed.  Big catches are now made there and sent to the South East as rock lobster bait.

A few fishermen at Goolwa make a living collecting the Goowa cockles to sell as bait to recreational fishermen.  This cockle, which is apparently, found nowhere else in South Australia, was the subject of a study by the Department of Fisheries in the 1970s.

THE 1980s

By 1984-85 there were forty-four licensed fishermen on the River Murray and forty-two working on the Lakes and Coorong.  They caught 1,366 tonnes of fish that year, simiar to catches made in previous years.  The 1984-85 catch was valued at $1 million.  The fishermen were particularly pleased about the number of Murray cod caught in 1985 weighing between twelve and fifteen kilograms. (42)

They and the Department of Fisheries research staff believed that these fish had been spawned during the 1974-1975 floods and would provide adequate breeding stocks for several years.  So, our history of the River Murray, Lakes and Coorong fishery can close on a hopeful note, with the possibility of more Murray cod reproducing in the future, if the River is managed so as to allow flooding to take place.


Read about the history of fishing in THE LAKES  from 'For They Were Fishers' by Evelyn Wallace Carter

To learn more about the history of the fishing industry in South Australia read 'For They Were Fishers' by Dr. Evelyn Wallace Carter.  More about the author and the book can be found here