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  ― 138 ―

The Battle for the Pilchards: Being a True Record.

Arripis Salar was his name, but he did not know it. He had heard himself called a buck when he had been sporting in the waves that curled and broke along Maroubra Beach, and had laughed until his gill-covers nearly split at the antics of the beach fishermen, who made semaphore-like gestures before firing pieces of lead into the sea with little sharp-pointed curved contrivances on them to hook his sides.

The fact that scientific men had given him a Latin patronymic did not trouble him one whit. He knew he was born at sea from floating ova, nursed in the curve of a wave, the son of poor but honest sea-salmon parents; but that was six years ago, and he had nearly forgotten the incidents of his fry-hood.

This year he had joined in with the rest of the family for the annual pilgrimage along the coast of New South Wales, after the shoals of pilchards and herrings. He had no fear of death, for when he was born he was made at once aware that he had many enemies, swifter, stronger, and more rapacious than himself.

As a prettily-marked young salmon with golden spots on his sides, he had not usurped the name of his betters in other waters; but fishermen, whether he willed it or not, had styled him a salmon trout, and he had sported thus misnamed among the sand-crabs, worms, and whiting fry until the interfering sharp-toothed tailers and the unerring instinct of his race for travel had driven him northward after the pilchards.

Arripis Salar had flourished. The sea and all that was in it was his. He knew no chains or bondage, and had never been dragged from the rollers by beach fishermen, like many of his friends. True, he recalled one narrow escape. The hook on a jagger's line had caught his back once, just below the dorsal fin, but he had put all his five years' vigour and his great speed into the combat, and emerged from it victorious, with a hook and a piece of gut sticking in his anatomy. In a little while the hook and fallen out, and the hole it left soon healed, and his symmetrical proportions were undisturbed.

Scouting about his usual haunts in company with many of his relatives just outside the temperate zone that favoured so many of his enemies, Arripis learned that a finny newcomer had made an unwelcome appearance along the coast. It was the winter of 1905, when the tidings were carried by whisk of tail and quiver of operculum to the salmon shoals, and great curiosity was manifested amongst the sea salmon regarding the character of the strangers,


  ― 139 ―
and whether they came in peace or war. They were not kept long in suspense. Like four-foot meteors the silver and drab barracoutas shot northward into the grounds held from time immemorial by the salmon, harrying the pilchards and outraging the precedents of at least a generation by biting at everything floating that came in their track.

The schnapper fishermen of Twofold Bay and Eden were the first to complain. The barracoutas had as little regard for the creatures above the water as they had for those below. Finding little pieces of bait adhering to the lines sent down with a message of destruction to the schnapper, they promptly brought their sharp teeth into play and saved the lives of many schnapper by severing the lines. The salmon had never been guilty of such a nefarious proceeding—such a one as only the immoral leather-jackets in their waters had hitherto boasted of.

While awaiting reliable news regarding the strangers, Arripis Salar found he was getting hungry. His food did not seem so plentiful as of yore, and he had no option but to blame the barracoutas. Bewildered at first by the headlong rush of the snaky bodies past him, he hesitated to open his mouth for fear a barracouta might close its cruel bird-of-prey jaws upon his tender tongue. Gathering his wits at last, he noted that the long bodies of the swift fish were unarmed, and that they could not turn as deftly as himself. He called a council of war, and the gathering was one of many millions.

It was held in a bay south of the great headland of Point Perpendicular, and the plan of campaign was communicated along the wave line to the assembled hosts. The sharks and porpoises were in attendance, and it was difficult work to telepath the news while they were foraging for feeble salmon, but finally the tale was told, and the salmon, with Arripis Salar at the head, turned southward and seaward. They travelled in a wedge-shaped formation; not like the barracouta, who were so intent on hunting that they broke into comparatively small shoals, and rushed close inshore on occasions.

There were more than a few spectators of the meeting of the finny hosts. Overhead the cormorants, shags, gulls, penguins, seahawks, and a couple of regal robber eagles hovered, chattering and screaming as they watched the unusual fish movements below. Ever and anon there was a rush of wings and a sudden plunge, as portions of the bodies of salmon floated to the surface after the swift assault of a kingfish or shark into the centre of the slowly-moving shoal. The pell-mell scatter of the scared salmon from the vicinity of these foul murders made the water boil, and often a hapless one, missing his way, would leap out of the water and fall back, unready to avoid the next sortie of the preying hordes that always attended their gregarious evolutions. A great sea-battle was imminent, and the birds, as well as the predaceous fish, that tailed up the salmon shoals knew it.

At last a large shoal of barracouta was encountered, its constituents carrying on the same disdainful tactics that had characterised their movements ever since they had shifted from their depleted feeding-grounds in Bass Strait.

Relying on his bulk, Arripis did not pause. He rushed straight at a yard and a half of barracouta, and closed its gill on one side by the fury of his charge. The 'couta sank some twenty feet before a giant kingfish bit it in two. Arripis bit and butted in blind impetuosity, and nearly every salmon


  ― 140 ―
in the shoal was soon in the fight. Many managed to bite the long bodies of 'couta locked in a jaw-to-jaw death struggle with other salmon, and many smitten ones on both sides floated helplessly on the surface with ruptured air-bladders. Here and there were to be seen injured salmon floundering round and round in ever-shortening circle, with one eye torn out by the sharp teeth of their adversaries. Many were bleeding from great jagged wounds in their sides, and, floating to the top, afforded the winged spectators a few seconds' banquet.

“This,” said a great shark, as he lazily swallowed pieces of fish that came down to him, “reminds me of the feast we had twenty years ago, when the 'couta came up the coast to feed on our grounds. Let 'em all come, say I.”

“Last time the salmon won,” rejoined a great ray. “Only a few 'couta got up as far as Port Jackson.”

The fight continued for hours, and a freshening southerly did not put an end to it, although the increased wave action made many of the charging fish miss their objective. The sea was tinged with blood for acres, and the feathered hosts overhead filled the air with their discordant noises as they fought and plunged for the feast to which they had not been bidden. Many of them had known whale-feasts when the killers had done their deadly work in Twofold Bay, but this was better than whale-meat, and the undertakers of the air were happy. Still the shoals of the barracouta kept pouring from the south, and the salmon school, thinned by the ravages of their enemies, found it hard to battle while they swam against the southerly surface drift. Exhausted by their struggle against the current almost as much as by the fighting, they rested, drifting northward, and several shoals of 'couta seized the opportunity to slip past them close to the shore. The food supply was what they were after chiefly, but they feared no fight. Gradually the salmon were forced further northward, with their enemies at their tails.

For days the battle was continued. None of the combatants went very deep. They knew their limitations, and the areas peopled by the bream family and the giants of the sea were debarred them. Reinforcements from the south rushed into the fray with headlong precipitancy against the salmon. One fighting shoal of barracouta, which had been tearing the lines and nets of the fishermen at the entrance to Twofold Bay, proved a formidable phalanx.

Advancing at the rate of about ten miles an hour, it encountered a wing of the big salmon shoal, and chopped it as if it were so much sargasso weed. Bleeding, quivering fragments of salmon strewed the sea in their wake, or sank into the maws of the fishes below. Massive electric rays, who hated exertion, found food falling before their surprised eyes, and, keeping their batteries well charged to repel attacks by the sawfish, thankfully enveloped the food so freely given them, frightening away the scratching gurnards that were rooting out crabs and other crustaceae at the bottom, oblivious of the battle above them. One section of the fighting multitude got close inshore, and some of the barracouta in their mad haste leaped on to the broken shore with ripped sides, to fall victims to the octopi, eels, and crabs in the pools as evening approached.

Each night the battle ceased, but the first glimmering of dawn saw it renewed. For a long time the issue hung in the balance.




  ― 141 ―

Then the salmon gave way. Arripis Salar and his friends were steadily beaten back.

The splendid green-backed fish retreated, tired and bleeding, and drifted with the current and wind further and further northward, where the pilchard shoals were thinner and the food harder hunting. The only place where the barracouta did not dare to follow them was close to the sandy beaches, where the cresting billows did not suit them. Along each wave the salmon could be seen for miles as the waves curled and broke, but the 'couta skipped the sandy bays, travelling faster across the mouths or keeping close to the rocky shores. So the newcomers stole the feeding grounds of the salmon and won their way north, for the battle was theirs.

Jaded and sick with the pain of many wounds, Arripis Salar would fain have closed his eyes, had they possessed lids, and died of sadness of heart on that hopeless journey. Hungrily he searched the old feeding grounds for stray pilchards, and, finding a shoal of mackerel off Port Hacking, he regained strength during a week's stay in the vicinity of Wide Bay. But his heart was not in his wanderings. It was rather with his dead friends on the back track, and he grew careless and undiscriminating in his feeding. Reaching Bondi Bay at last, he swam carelessly up to a headless prawn. He knew at once that the thing had a steel centre; for that in his dumb despair he cared nothing, although such a thing had marked him before. There was nothing now that held him by the heart to the old familiar bays. Directly his jaws closed on the bait he felt the prick of the needle-pointed barb, and it awoke all his fighting instincts. Carelessness and recklessness and despair vanished for the nonce, and he fought as he had never fought before.

But a skilful hand held the line, and despite his struggles he was guided into shallow foamy water where the aeration was intense and his gaping gills absorbed more than his breathing apparatus could deal with. His last fight was almost over, but he churned the waters in his pain, for valour in him died after hope.

“I've got you, my beauty,” said a man, who ran swiftly down the beach slope, and lifted the game fish clear of the backwash. “You've given me a royal fight and a cut I'll remember for a few weeks.”

And those were the last words Arripis heard, for as the cold west wind beat upon his pulsating gills they dried, and a strange dreamy peace came over him.

“Got anything, mate?” asked a stranger, walking along the beach to his captor.

“Only a ten pound buck,” replied the sportsman.

But neither of them knew that Arripis Salar had committed suicide, or why.

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