For they were-fishers:Lakes

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

The Lakes

Lakes Alexandrina and Albert are located at the seaward end of the River Murray between Point Pomanda and the barrages near the river mouth.  Since the barrages were erected near Goolwa in the 1940's, these waters have become permanent freshweater lakes.  The main species caught are callop ( golden perch), bony bream and congoli, mostly by gill nets.  The bony bream is sold to the rock lobster fishermen for bait.  Yabbies are also caught.  These increased in number over the years until from 1973 onward they became the prime objective of the lakes fishermen, overseas markets having been established, mainly in Scandinavian countries.  (39) In Millicent in 1974, General Manager, Dick Folwer, said that this was being done to handle abalone, rock lobster, and the rapidly expanding yabbie industry.

George Lush who fished from Morgan on the river to Encounter Bay and the Coorong in the nineteenth century, said that he began fishing in the Murray when the river and lagoons were alive with fish.  "the drainage by the government seems to have killed millions of fish', he said, 'In 1890 the Government began to reclaim the swamps which were the chief feeding and breeding grounds of our fish.'

Lake fisherman, Walter Woodrow of Milang, said that he started fishing when he was about thirteen.  "I have fished in the lakes and Coorong and at the Murray Mouth all the time except for four years when I was in Beachport and Kingston.  I was in Beachport in 1904.  The supply of fish there was good.  I caught snook, snapper, barracouta and flathead.'  He also fished for rock lobster under sail with his two elder sons, Walter and John, as crew.  They returned to the lakes after a few years to fish for Murray cod with nets and lines.  They were joined by the three younger sons; John, Harry and Dick.

"We fished solely for cod from 1908 to about 1913.  That was before the reclamation in 1913... of the river swamps and there were plenty of cod in both lakes.  I made some wonderful catches in Lake Albert in 1909 as well as in Lake Alexandrina... In 1914 there was a drought up the river.  That was when the reclaiming of the swamps took place, and from that year we have had only three months good net fishing for cod,... the lake has gone more salt... When there is no water flowing down the river, up comes the salt water and they (cod) die out.  When the barrages are built the water here will be no better... Locking has ruined the fishing in the home of the Murray cod and the further you go down the stream the worse the water gets because the settlers use it all the more.' In 1935 he said that he was then catching butterfish and mullet.  "Two kinds of perch used to be plentiful... and there are still a few about.'  He was also catching mullet form June to September in his nets.

'In 1916 they raised the minimum size mesh from four-and-a-half to five inches and allowed only three months for the change to operate.' In fact, he siad, five-and-a-half inch mesh was the smallest that they would buy in which to catch mulloway, and eighteen inches was the minimum size mesh in which they caught butterfish.  'We have an understanding when in the open water in the lake that one does not set (a net) closer than a mile from another.'  They fished using eighteen to twenty-four foot sailing boats, rowing the nets around the schools of fish (when wet the net weighed half a ton) or they would set the nets.  Two men would use some one hundred by fifty yards of netting.  They would set sixteen nets each day rotating them so that all were dried at least once a week or else they would rot as they were made of cotton, or for butterfish, hemp.  Based at Wellington, the Woodrow family fished the river and lakes.  The Amy was the first boat on the lakes to have a motor, Dick Woodrow said.  This was installed in 1912 or thereabouts.  By 1915 the family owned three boats with motors; the Edith, Amy and Teddy Bear. A number of boats used on the river were built by George Ross and his son, Murray.

There were a few fishermen in the Coorong fishing for mullet in the lakes.  However, after the barrages were built, many turned to the Coorng for butterfish and mullet.  Dick and John Woodrow went to Goolwa three weeks out of four, to be able to fish for callop and bream above the barrages, and saltwater fish in the Coorong.  It was not worth fishing during he full of the moon, Dick said. 

From November to the end of February the fishermen used hauling nets to catch mulloway and after February they used set nets.  Tons and tons of fish were caught as schools averaged one to six tons. Once a record nine tons were caught, but five would usually glut the market.  Two or three tons were sent to market every second day or so.  Fish were gutted, except mullet, and taken to market by local lorries.  The fish were  laid out in these without any boxes, and ice was sprinkled over them.  At first the ice was sent by AMSCOL on the train from Adelaide:  two fifty-pound blocks to a wheatbag, packed in sawdust. Some went into the icebox at Goolwa.  On occasions the Goolwa wharf would be covered with fish.  Men, women and children were hired to help gut the catch.  When the record nine tons was taken, half the town worked on the gutting.  The first lorry load left at 5 pm; the last one got away at dawn.

There were some thirty fishermen at Goolwa when Dick Woodrow moved there in the 1940s.  He and his brother, John, fished with the thirty foot Ida.  The Victor Harbor fishermen also fished in the Coorong in winter for mullet, taking their dinghies or small boats to Goolwa on trailers or utilities.  (In summer they were busy potting for rock lobster off the coast.)  When hauling for mulloway, one fisher went up the forty-foot mast in the bosun's chair as spotter to spot the schools; the other towed the dragnet behind the dingy to encircle any school located.

Other families well known as fisherfolk were the Staceys at Wellington (both the daughters and the sons fished), and the Whites, Jarmans, Normans and Braunsthals.  At Narrung there was Perce Gardner and his son and, fishing the Coorong with his base at Milang, was Hector Semaschko, whose father had been Polish.  Bert Lunstrom was another of the well-known fishermen.

Before the barrages were erected, mulloway, bream and garfish were caught in the lakes as well as in the Coorong.  Afterwards, they were caught only in the Coorong.

Read the next section: The Coorong 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