Wild Dog River

Chapter Four – Nolan’s Fury


The pre-dawn was eerie and ghostly grey when I woke, but I had plans.

I dressed and roused Owen from his bunk before heading topsides. Tom Baines was already up in the wheelhouse, sitting like a hermit with a yellow light burning, reading a Cleveland western with a ciggie alternating between his lips and the ash tray. He looked up as I walked in.

‘Up early, champ,’ he said.

‘Not as early as you.’

‘Yeah well, I’m an old fart. I don’t sleep too well these days.’

‘Do you reckon Owen and me could go for a quick fish?’ I tried not to plead, but I wanted this badly.

Tom took a long drag and exhaled through his teeth. ‘I thought the boss man over at the camp told you to piss off first thing.’

‘He did, but he won’t know if we go for a run upstream in the tinnie.’ I grinned, ‘He doesn’t own the bloody river, does he?’

Owen appeared beside me, carrying a bucket filled with a couple of handlines and a few knives and scalers. Tom offered his deckie a smoke from the always near-empty pack of Marlboros and lit it for him. ‘The tide is making, so we’ll want to run the entrance by about eight. Don’t be back here any later than seven-thirty.’

 I looked at Owen and smiled.


The dawn air was cool on my arms as we motored upstream, keeping the revs down to avoid alerting the camp. I inhaled smells rolling in from the inland: earth, dust, unknown gullies, saplings and old trees dying and being returned to the earth.

I wished that my brother Dave was with me. He loves the fishing life as much as I do, and as teens we were always out on the water, coming home in the dark to cook a feed of mud crabs or fish, with Mum fussing over how clever we were. Three years my elder, Dave was always a bit better than me at everything; tougher than me and smarter. I treasured memories of him standing up for me in the playground, or tying crabs so fast you could hardly believe it; or pulling an outboard carburettor apart on a riverbank and reassembling it in a blur. Later, when Dad had passed on, and I guess I was what they call troubled, Dave was the only bloke on earth I’d pay any attention to.

Dave’s married now, working as a mechanic with Eagers Holden down in Townsville. Kelly and Stew are his kids, my niece and nephew. Dave’s far more settled than I can imagine being. He’s still my best mate, though we have few opportunities to hit the water together these days.

Now, motoring around a sweeping bend, and heading down a narrowing straight, Owen cut the motor. The water there had an energy, a sense of life brimming below the surface. With high hopes, we drifted along the northern bank with the tide.

I had a rod and Shakespeare baitcaster, but Owen’s tackle was more basic: a chipped, faded, and scratched Nilsmaster Invincible lure tied to a forty-pound handline. With a wild swing like a red-headed David with his slingshot, he flung that lure almost as far as I could manage with more modern tackle, then brought it in with alternating hands, providing some artful jerks as it came.

Carried by the tide, we arced our lures out alongside snags, or into quiet eddies, keeping an eye out for herring or mullet rippling on the surface, while cormorants stood on snags, spreading their wings for the rising sun, and kingfishers hunted from low overhanging branches. We saw one small croc, hunting down-current steering with his tail. In the first half hour we picked up a couple of forktail catfish and a threadfin. The clock was against us, though, and a lack of local knowledge saw us wasting time in the shallows, almost running aground several times.

Finally, after a couple of hundred casts, I hooked up on a yard of glistening silver that ran like a locomotive and tail-walked on the surface with a flare of red gills. If this fish hadn’t written the handbook on fishy tricks she’d most certainly read it. I was never certain of the capture until that barra was safely in the landing net. Owen had the engine started as soon as the fish hit the deck, and I took the fillets off on the seat beside me as we planed back.

‘Righto you two blokes. Get that boat up and let’s go,’ Tom called as we came alongside. He didn’t need to tell us twice. We had the tinny up on the davit in record time, sluicing down the seat and hull with a bucket on a rope to the skipper’s satisfaction.

As we motored back down past the Wild Dog Camp I clambered on top of the wheelhouse and raised my camera. I took a full roll of photos, zooming into the settlement as closely as possible. I was still hoping for the bonus that Brian had promised me if he could syndicate the article.

To the seaward side of the camp there was a rocky point, and I lowered the camera when I saw Nolan himself walk out and take up station on the furthest of the stones, unslinging a rifle from his back, and calling to me. Reinforcements followed behind him, some of them also armed, heading towards their leader like the rag-tag army they were. The afternoon before I had compared them to meat ants and now that impression was amplified.

‘Stop there,’ Nolan shouted to us. ‘Heave to, you buggers!’

I called down to Tom, ‘Are you gonna stop?’

Nolan fired a round into the air, sending a thousand ducks and geese flapping into the air and destroying the peace I’d enjoyed just a short time earlier. The expression on the old fella’s face would have frightened Hitler, but Tom was no fool, and he was riled too.

‘Like hell we’ll stop,’ Tom roared, upping the revs, cruising on past Nolan and his still-smoking rifle. ‘What’s his bloody problem anyhow?’

I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure whether Nolan was annoyed because he’d heard Owen getting about in the tinnie, or if it was something else. Something old and made of bronze that perhaps he wanted for himself, though that seemed unlikely to me then.

©2023 Greg Barron

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Photo credit: Dick Eussen

Continued next Saturday.

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