Crayfish in the Western Wilds

To anyone casting a roving eye across a map ofAustralia, the island of Tasmania appears to be small and inconsequential. This assumption would miss appreciation of the unique opportunities for hunting, fishing and adventure accessible on foot or by four wheel drive.

Tasmania crouches in the path of the Roaring Forties between the 41st and 43rd degrees of latitude. The waves and wind that lash the west coast travel unhindered by contact with land all the way from Cape Horn. It is one of the most mountainous islands in the world and its varied geography gives rise to a number of regions with unique physical characteristics.

The eastern half of the island is promoted as the Great Eastern Driveand rewards tourists with beaches, summer resorts and a reputation for sunshine. The western half is labelled as the Western Wilds for good measure. The area has challenged all since the beginning of European settlement. North of our fishing location in MacquarieHarbourlies Sarah Island, a penal colony in the early 19th century. A famous convict named Alexander Pearce encouraged fellow convicts to escape with him in an attempt to reach settlement around Hobart. Escape he did. The downside was that he ate his fellow convicts during their struggle through the hellish environment of thick bush and rugged terrain.

The west coast ofTasmaniahas attracted intrepid adventurers drawn to its dangerous isolation for prospecting, mining, bush walking and a variety of other reasons. One of those attractions is chasing the valued delicacy of the crayfish. Commercial fishermen seek them out with well equipped boats, working the coast for days on end when the weather allows. Recreational fishers access the conservation area on quad bikes to set up camp along the coast in secluded bays with faint chance of interruption by a wandering bush walker.

My mate Steve and I have accessed this remote area over the years, dropping in by helicopter to set up camp for extended stays, totally self reliant. The chopper drops us on a remote beach where the gear is dumped clear of the rotor downwash for the take off. As the throb of the engine departs, we are left with the sound of waves rolling in and the call of sea birds swooping over the beach. Gear has to be ported up onto a small ridge above the beach, a site cleared and a suitable camp built to withstand any change in the weather. Today may be calm with light cloud scatted across blue sky but a storm can roll in over the western horizon at any time. The area gets a lot of annual rain and the winds can be ferocious. Even behind a shelter belt of low scrub, such a storm can test any camp setup and the character of its inhabitants. It’s best to be prepared.

Tents provide comfortable sleeping cover as long as a ‘hip hole’ is dug before set up. When using a three quarter li-low to save weight in the chopper, a ‘hip hole’ adds an extra bit of comfort. The tent fly should be treated with water proof spray to enhance protection, but nothing beats another small tarp slung over the top. It doesn’t weigh much and ensures good shelter if the weather turns foul. When it does turn, it may go on for days so it’s a valuable investment.

The fishing is exciting and the equipment minimal. With three people on board, an R44 helicopter doesn’t have much extra space or payload. Every item has to be evaluated carefully. It helps if some items can serve more than one purpose. Pre-trip planning involves considering every item, including meals. It doesn’t quite get to the stage of cutting a tooth brush in half but gets close. The pot used to boil crayfish can also be used to carry fresh water up from the creek. After unloading and watching the chopper climb away, I discovered that my tent pole and pegs had been tucked away in some secret crevice only known to the pilot and were winging their way north. Ah well, that’s what a survival knife is for!

Knife choice is always heavily influenced by personal taste shaped by experience. A survival knife should be able to fulfil a range of chores and most importantly, must be on hand when a problem arises. Some ‘survival knives’ look great but are simply too big to carry around all the time. Some are designed by experienced celebrities. They look good to assist marketing but in a real situation may be too small when the brown stuff really hits the fan. My personal choice has been shaped by the conditions in which I’ve needed to survive.

For me, a survival knife is a multi-purpose, last resort tool. It has to be strong with a full tang and must be able to dig, chop, slash, slice, cut and in a pinch, skin small game or prepare a fish. While other tools may do each job better a survival knife is meant to be just that. In a real life situation, a survival knife is the one you may be carrying at the time. Ideally, it should to be able to perform all these jobs in a pinch. My personal favourite is a Muelay with a medium size drop point blade. It fits the bill in terms of size, weight, blade design and practical application and the serrations on the back of the blade are actually useful. However, there’s a whole range of designs that will also do the job. Intended use in the most likely environments to be encountered will guide blade design but personal preference will always determine the final choice.

During habitation by the Aboriginal peoples, the country was burned regularly. The new growth generated attracted game and made movement much easier. After their removal from the landscape, the bush grew untamed. These days travel on foot is a major challenge. Saplings spring from the rotted trunks and damp humus. The fortresses of tangled horizontal scrub, bauera and green masses of cutting grass over two metres high ensure that the environment earns its wild reputation. Movement is exhausting at best and impossible in some places.

On the west coast of Tasmania shelter is important. Storms blow in unexpectedly and can be violent, with lashing wind and rain. A 6 x 4 metre tarp is rigged to provide shelter. One edge is pegged at ground level to provide protection against wind with a roof to fend of rain. The bottom edge is weighed down with rocks for added security. Pegs are a decent size, cut using the knife of choice and hammered in with a rock to resist any blow. A pit is dug for maximum control of the camp fire. This can be filled in when leaving to minimise impact on the environment. A small gas stove is used for minor cooking to reduce reliance on the fire.

Cray are caught using a small ring and net that fits comfortably in the chopper. Bait is usually a rock cod, caught on a hook with a small shell fish. With the need to travel light, only the line and hook are brought in then tied to a small branch. From a suitable spot along the rocky shore, the bait is dropped in amongst the kelp until there’s a strike. The cod is pulled out and tied to the mesh on the ring. A search of the rugged coastline always reveals a kelp infested cleft slashing into the rocks like the cut of a wood cutters axe.

Crayfish are always there but sensitive to environmental conditions such as the amount of weed, recent storm activity, clarity of the water, the amount of light as well as other factors we have no knowledge of. When everything comes together, the first sight of a reddish-orange shape crawling toward the bait really focuses the attention. Tension builds. Even a fleeting shadow of the hunter may startle the crayfish back into the kelp. The tension drags on while patient handling of the ring is demanded. As the cray crawls onto the ring, judgement must be perfect as the ring is pulled in.

Searching the clefts slashed into the rocky shoreline can reveal much of interest. The one that really captures attention is the sight of a squid a metre or more long, sliding gracefully along the bottom between waving arms of kelp. They’re not the target so the visual sighting can be enjoyed. Cray would have a different perspective as those long tentacles can reach into any crevice, destroying any assumption of safety.

An eye has to be kept on the waves rolling in while a crayfish is played. Only twice have I made the urgent call, ‘Run!'. To his credit, Steve has always dropped the line and done just that as a rogue wave from the Southern Ocean rolled in over the rocks. One of those could easily wash a careless person into the sea or grind their flesh against the razor edged limestone. The outcome wouldn’t be pleasant but the reward is irresistible. The ferocity of storms along this coast is evidenced by the remains of a fishing boat that dragged its anchor at night during a storm. The waves carried it across an expanse of jagged limestone to rest against the rocky, forest draped coast. Both crew survived the ordeal but many sailors weren’t so lucky. The west coast is an exciting place to enjoy but that enjoyment demands high standards of risk management.

When fishing for crayfish bubbles determine the level of excitement. One last throw saw the ring descend onto a patch of sand surrounded by kelp. Most crayfish moving into the bait expel a small trail of bubbles. The general experience is that the bigger a trail the bigger the crayfish. One cray in particular stood out as the waves were rolling in. We had already run once from a rogue wave but these bubbles were beyond anything I’d seen before. It was like a small whale or a submarine blowing its tanks to surface. A small exaggeration maybe but the mind can play tricks under excited anticipation.  I called out for Steve to man the ring. It was his throw and his play. He dragged the ring gently toward the surface, timing the waves and the sweep of the kelp to ease it out of the water. A final determined heave deposited the catch onto the rocks. It was beauty that could only be admired before dropping him back into the ocean. We already had a feed of cray stirring in the sack resting in a rock pool. The size limit of those taken home was determined by the size of the esky. If they didn’t fit, back they went.

Cooking crayfish is a simple but delicate affair. They’re dropped into boiling water for a time determined by size. The biggest is dropped in first followed by others according to size so cooking is finished at the same time. After cooking the antenna are snapped off and they’re hung in the cool shade of scrub next to the beach. There they will keep until the chopper arrives. On departure day they’re packed into the esky, wrapped in a damp calico sack to survive the road trip home. Before going into the freezer there’re placed in a plastic bag and the air squeezed out.

They’ll be good for months if defrosted carefully. They’re placed vertical in the fridge to let any liquid drain out into a bowl. Defrosted this way, the superb flavours of the crayfish can be enjoyed months after being caught. I’ve read other ways of defrosting a crayfish on the internet but wouldn’t recommend some of them if flavour is valued. Enjoying the taste of crayfish in the wilderness isn’t difficult. It can be eaten cold with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and lemon juice. For entrée I used a pinch of salt and a squirt of green Tobasco sauce topped by freshly harvested sea lettuce. For mains, pieces of cray were dropped into a pot of Korean spicy noodle soup.

Men have also been drawn to this wild coast to retrieve the highly valued Huon Pine. This timber was used in the construction of many coastal vessels, fishing boats and recreational dinghies, many of which still survive as the oil in the timber resists rot.

In the face of an uncompromising environment, exploration of the western wilds was very different to mainland Australia. It was a slow and wearing struggle against wet and cold, dense forest, moorland bogs, rugged mountains and swift flowing rivers. Each kilometre of track, each clearing, each hopeful shaft sunk into the white quartz gravel and each piece of new knowledge about the country was sought at the cost of loneliness, frustration, extreme discomfort and relentless toil.

Immense riches of gold, silver, lead, copper and timber rewarded the lucky few. The lure of fishing and adventure still rewards those willing to test themselves against this unforgiving environment.

We’ll be back again!