“Karen! Help!” Tracy’s voice bellowed across the bay. The graveyard silence of dead trees, their trunks stretching defiantly like halting skeletal fingers, was shattered by her call. Then, a mighty splash – the unmistakable sound of a large barramundi re-entering the water – interrupted the plea, alerting us all that she did not need saving… She was ON!
A mere two days prior, we were six virtual strangers, coming together to challenge ourselves as anglers, all with different skill levels and backgrounds. Forty-eight hours later, we were comrades. The weather was playing hard ball, blowing a genuine gale since we arrived. In fact, we’d been chased off the water by lightning on the first night, retiring to the safety of our houseboat for some bevvies and a few rounds of Uno. Whilst the lightning had burned itself out, the wind had not, and the physical and mental tug-o-war we each had with our kayaks reminded me of the defiance of Forrest Gump’s Lt. Dan in the face of that ferocious storm.
“Butter wouldn’t melt…” Our mothership looking serene on one of our calm evenings. The first three days blew a bazillion knots! We were starting to believe Lake Monduran didn’t know how to do “calm”.
The 2023 Barra’Yak Adventurers were from left: Jo Starling (author and host), Chantal Meehan, Tracy Andersen, Pauline Biffin, Lee Spyrou, and Karen Van Bael. This selfie was taken as we first motored away from the boat ramp, kayaks in tow. I believe it was the quietest moment of the trip.
No force of nature, it turns out, bests female camaraderie though! As if pulled by an unseen force, the bows of all five sister kayaks pivoted toward the commotion, with Karen at the helm, dutifully leading the charge. The kayaks came from every which way, from likely-looking points and bays, weaving their way between the trees and cutting through the chop like the wind was but a breeze.
The fish jumped again, as if to ensure we all got to see it. It was big!
“Chonny” weaves her way through the maze of standing timber.
Pauline with the first fish of the trip.
There was always someone watching. A curious water dragon questions our sanity.
“Keep your rod down!” called Pauline, “Try to stop it jumping.” Pauline had caught the first barra of the trip on our first morning foray. Tracy had been her buddy and marvelled at just how well Pauline had handled the fish on her own. It was fiery 67cm model that caused a ‘whoop’ that echoed across the lake. Hers was advice Tracy felt confident in… but Karen was the friend who’d encouraged her to come away with this company of strangers. Karen was already there.
Tracy often left “the jobs” to her partner, but joining this trip was her bold leap out of that comfort zone. “The jobs” – baiting hooks, tying knots, netting fish – were now hers to master. She was determined to go home more self-sufficient, but she admitted that she still had reservations as to how much she’d be able to learn.
Skill-building was a major intention of the trip though. Before even selecting our kayaks from the stable of craft that were tethered to the houseboat, we gathered for a knot-tying workshop in the galley, empowering the women to manage their tackle independently, even if they busted off on the water.
We started with an Improved Albright for main line to leader, and a Lefty’s Loop for tying on our lures. I asked each of the girls to relay the lesson back to me, tying the knots as they went. The sense of achievement that shone through their smiling eyes when they essentially “taught me” their knots was nothing short of uplifting. I get the greatest kick out of demolishing limiting beliefs. These ladies don’t just tie knots, they tie knots that don’t let go! Just look at the results of Tracy Andersen’s effort in the photo here!
Knots weren’t the only skill on offer. On day two, feeling more comfortable amongst her new cohort of friends, Tracy sought help with her baitcaster. I reassured her, “I’ll have you sorted in no time,” and we headed to a sheltered bay, an oasis in the relentless wind.
Many people struggle to achieve accuracy with a baitcaster, probably because they’ve watched truly adept casters use a side-arm action, often down low. As fly casting teaches us, the lure can only follow the trajectory of your rod tip, so often, a newcomer’s lure will end up well off to the side of their target. It’s all in the timing of the release.
Add a seated position into the mix and attempting to emulate that casting style is pointless.
My solution is to cast with the rod in a vertical position, passing directly over the shoulder… no whip, just letting the rod load fully on the back stroke and do its best work on the forward stroke. Tracy took to this action like she’d been doing it her whole life. As soon as she’d discovered the sensation of the loaded rod and learned to keep the casting constantly on track to her target, she was bang-on every time! I was thrilled to hear her astounded call, but I knew she’d have earned that hook-up.
“Kaa-rennn!” She called again. “I’m right here!” Kaz replied. And she was… her rod stowed, and net whipped out and ready. When the barramundi bolted for open waters, Tracy leant back on her rod, lifting the fishes head long enough for the net to slide underneath. Karen lifted and the fish slid in… just like that.
As everyone cheered, Karen turned to me… “I think I’m going to need your help!”
“Why?” I asked, “You netted her perfectly!”
“I can’t lift it!” She laughed.
Look at the strain on that rubber netting!
Tracy nurtures her barra back to strength before watching her glide back to the depths. The release was as good to watch as the catch.
This is the face of true elation. The sense of achievement that drives such a smile takes a very long time to fade!
After some reorganisation, wetting of the brag mat, and a four-handed lift of the net, Tracy’s catch, a 97cm barramundi, lay gleaming in the sun, her eyes as wide as frypans with wonder and pride. I could read her thoughts through her expressive face: ‘I caught that!’, ‘OMG, my knots held!’, and ‘WOW! What a glorious fish!’. I think she may also have fallen in love.
Later that night, as we post-mortemised all the various events of the day, Tracy recounted her greatest triumph. She had grown frustrated with watching the shadows of passing barra on her structure side-scan (another skill we all worked on) and decided to fish on instinct. She spied a promising looking stand of trunks, the perfect distance from a lily lined bank, and landed her baitcaster-flung lure right on the money. First roll of the reel handle and the line slammed down. The rest, as they say, is now WRFL folklore, along with the squeals of joy and the beaming, triumphant smile that will forever define the 2023 Barra’Yak Adventure for all of us who participated.
Karen hoists her 101cm barra after an exhausting twenty minute battle that saw our chivalrous guide dive in to try to free it from it’s deliberate snag (among other extreme measures). Truly, this fight goes down in my memory banks as the most unlikely successful catch in history! The fishing gods truly smiled on Karen this day… and there is nothing wrong with her knots! CLICK HERE to watch the fight.
The trip brimmed with unforgettable moments, like the battle to free Karen’s 101cm catch from its well-constructed timber defence, and the raucous laughter and passionate debates between Victorian besties Lee and Chonny over the rules governing Uno. Yet, my favourite memory will always be Tracy’s unfiltered joy at not only her epic achievement and self-satisfaction of all her new skills culminating, but also the loving reverie she enjoyed as she watched her quarry swim back to the depths after being cradled and swam back to strength.
There’s no greater joy high than a great day of fishing, except perhaps sharing the skills that make them and watching another enjoy their own success. Fishing, after all, is too delightful not to share.
Jo is the Founder and National President of the Women’s Recreational Fishing League. Her greatest passion is sharing the empowerment that invariably grows through the sport with any women who care to listen.
Although battling for over thirty years, Jo has only recently been diagnosed with PTSD. This diagnosis was an epiphany, explaining why she’d felt estranged from herself for so long.
Jo came late to fishing, but since being introduced to the sport by her loving sisters-in-law, life took a positive turn. With the clarity of her diagnosis, Jo is able to understand why fishing became such an imperative. Today, she is committed to ensuring everyone learns of its magic.