What a lot of people forget is that fish don’t have eyelids


ALEX Bellissimo isn’t religious but he reckons that if God came to earth, the big guy would eat whiting. “You don’t have to dress them up because they have no flavour or disguise them because they taste too strong,” he says. “They’re a sweet, sweet fish just as they are.”
This paragon of fishy perfection is our target species this dark December morning at Sydney’s North Narrabeen beach where Bellissimo is attempting to bustle me from the car park on to the sands.


I’ve been up since 4am when the fishing instructor rang to say our lesson was a goer. Bustling — or speaking using actual words — is not something that’s coming easily.

But Bellissimo is worried we’ll miss our window; the perfect confluence of tides, weather and water temperature that could make the difference between four hours of fishing and four hours of standing around the beach waving sticks in the air.

Unsuccessful fishing is something at which I’ve had a lot of experience. My family prided itself on its fishing prowess but, despite spending years of my early childhood casting haphazardly into oceans and dangling hand lines off bridges, I rarely remember anyone catching anything. As I listen to Bellissimo’s endless stock of obscure angler knowledge (“What a lot of people forget is that fish don’t have eyelids”), it dawns on me that it’s quite possible none of us had any idea what we were doing.

Also dawning is dawn. The sun is in full postcard mode, oozing over the horizon like an electrified egg yolk. Pods of dolphins surf and frolic and an American staffie stops to snort at Bellissimo’s battery-operated live bait bucket. The scene is unspeakably beautiful and feels light years away from Sydney and 2008. Down on the crunchy orange sand, Bellissimo threads a thrashing tube worm on to a hook. Its dying mouth gapes like the killer sandworms from Dune and I remember the other thing that has kept me from fishing these past three decades.

There’s no escaping the proximity to death. Like abattoir work, fishing returns the messy middle to the transformation of creature to comestible, forcing us to once again become the slaughterers of our protein rather than engaging distant proxies.

Bellissimo, who says three decades without fishing is his idea of hell, snaps my line into a foamless gutter between two strips of chop. He’ll teach me to cast later, he says. Right now it’s all about the window.
And also about the stealth. Womanvwhiting is hardly Hemingwayvcheetah but Bellissimo says we should always stay one step ahead of our prey. The bait must be allowed to drift; the line moved with smooth confidence rather than rabbity jerks.

Minutes later, the first fish drags my rod into a thrilling J. I do everything wrong but, with Bellissimo’s help, manage to flop a silvery whiting on to the neon sand.

The red hook through the translucent cheek reminds me of what the old guys at work used to say when they saw my lip ring: “Fishing accident?” they’d guffaw in the lift. The piercing is long gone but sometimes I still get the feeling I’m being dragged back through time on somebody else’s line.

Bellissimo wants me to pose for the classic “I just caught a fish” photo while my whiting is still reverse drowning, but I can’t stand it. “Teach me to kill it,” I say, and together we break its neck. The fisho says I don’t seem excited enough but he’s wrong. My hands are slippery with blood and scales and I’m giddy with adrenalin.

After that we reel in fish after fish after fish. Sometimes two at once and one time a huge Australian salmon that rips my line far out to sea before I finally bring it to heel.

Eating the catch that night — crumbed with parmesan the way Bellissimo suggests — is divine but still nothing compared with the non-temporal heaven of those early hours on the beach.

I’m not religious either but if the big guy came to earth, I reckon he would go fishing with Bellissimo at North Narrabeen at some ungodly hour on a dark December morning.

To talk to Alex Bellissimo about rock or beach fishing lessons, call 0408 283 616 or visit www.bellissimocharters.com. 

- originally published in The Australian on 05-01-2009.


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