Stinker’s History: The tale of Jimmy Chalkley – Part 3

Jim and brother Jack cooking lobsters.

THIS is the final part of a three part series on Port Stephens fishing identity Jimmy Chalkley. To read part one or two visit the News Of The Area website.

DURING his fishing life Jim experienced many memorable occasions which generally involved rare displays of nature.

It was very interesting to hear him give his account of the day he encountered a massive school of bream.

“The biggest heap of bream that I have ever seen travelling outside the heads,” he said.

Jimmy was 22-years-old and the huge school had gathered at the back of North Head off Hawks Nest Beach.

“Around 1970, we were catching hundreds of boxes every morning and then this huge school of fish arrived,” he said.
“There was an argument between our lookout men Charlie and Bill Asquith.

“One was on one hill, the other on another.

“Charlie, who couldn’t see the big patch, was signalling for the net crew to take 70 boxes which were moving along the beach.

“Bill was telling us to row out to sea to surround the massive school that he could see but his brother couldn’t.

“His instructions were to keep going out wide, so we kept rowing out and out.”

The lookout men’s arm signals were clear to the seasoned fishers.

With a raincoat on, to make it clearer, the system of relaying a message was a simple one.

Right arm straight out, that meant go out.

Arm straight up in the air, meant to come along.

Left arm out, meant to come ashore.

Two arms up meant stop, while spinning your arm around as fast as you can in a circle meant ‘Hurry up! Get out of there!’.

Now there are mobile phones which makes the whole process far simpler.

At the time there were seven in the crew: Father and son Bill and Danny Asquith, father and son Charlie and Les Asquith, brothers Jack and Jim Chalkley and big Merve Russell.

“Bill was continuing to hold his right arm out so we kept rowing seawards until we reached 70 feet of water,” Jimmy recalled.

“Then we saw them.

“What a sight!

“The water was crystal clear and as far down as we could see was a wall of magnificent bream.

“As far as we could see in each direction, bream stacked on bream, thousands and thousands of them averaging over 1kg in weight.

“A rough guess would be in excess of 700 boxes.”

As we crew approached the school it became increasingly obvious that they didn’t have enough rope and net to surround them.

“The only way we could possibly catch these bream was if they turned and swam closer to the beach.

“Well, that never crossed their minds.”

In the end, Jimmy reckoned the crew lost 700 boxes because they didn’t have enough rope to pull them in.

“They all just kept headin’ north as if nothing happened.

“You can’t catch ‘em all,” Jim confessed.

Jimmy Chalkley can only be described as a master fisherman.

If there was something to be caught, Jim would give it plenty of thought before he came up with the simplest and most effective method to get whatever it was out of the water.

Like the time he went trapping eels in the Myall.

“It was because they took fish out of our nets in summer, chewed their heads off and left them dangling in the nets, useless and very dead,” Jim explained.

“In the winter months I finally worked out that the eels swam down into the deep water, which was warmer.

“I organised to trap short finned eels all year round.

“This I did with great success for five years in a row.

“For three of those years my average yearly income from eels alone was well over $100.000.00.

“The going price was $2.50 for any eels over 1kg in weight and $1 a kilo for any under 1kg weight.

“The biggest eel I caught was 13.7kg.

“Anything over 5kg was referred to as a ‘Jumbo’ and we got $5 a kilo for them.”

Once caught, the eels were taken out of the traps and poured into a truck full of fresh water, then taken off to market.

Two buyers in Sydney would smoke them, while others would be sent up past Brisbane.

The bulk of the catch went live to the Asian market.

Jim had it all worked out.

I once asked Jim why he stopped catching eels when they were so lucrative.

“I caught ‘em all,” Jim smiled.

By John ‘Stinker’ CLARKE

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