The Secrets of the Cam

Pete was quite a character. Weather and tide permitting, he could be found on the Kaiapoi Wharf, fishing the river Cam. His obsolete rod seemed appropriate to his age, which was anyone’s guess, but boy, could he catch herrings. Pete and I were fishing friends, although befriending him hadn’t been easy. At first, he rubbished me.

“A girl’s place is cooking fish, not catching them,” he would mumble, just loud enough for me to hear.

Then, leaning back in his derelict canvas chair, his eyes faded from countless years, he watched me bridle.

“A girl has just as much right to go fishing as anyone else!” I told him assertively.

What a nerve. I’d show him, I thought. So, one day, in 1957, when I was 12, I did just that.

Pete and I met as usual on the wharf. The bleached timber, warped by a century of summers, was all that remained of a once thriving port. The tide was on the turn and within an hour it would bustle with activity of a different kind. Fathers and sons with their expensive fishing gear would arrive; acknowledge us with a cursory nod, confident they could give us a lesson in fishing. Did they succeed? Never. We knew the Cam, its contours, its mood.

Nearby the town clock struck seven. While the village slumbered we prepared to fish the tide. I watched Pete commence his familiar routine. First, he opened several pipi, placing them on the wharf to harden in the sun before he baited his hooks.

“That will stop the little buggers taking off with my bait,” he said, as he tossed the shells into the river below.

This was the moment I had waited for. Proudly I showed him my jar of preserved bait. The result of swapping an unwanted eel I had caught for pipis with two Maori boys. I had trouble sourcing pipis, so quickly learned the art of trading.

Pete’s weathered hands turned the jar slowly. His eyes squinted as he looked suspiciously at the layers of salt and pipis.

“What on earth are you hoping to catch with this evil looking stuff?” he exclaimed.

“The usual,” I replied, my pride hurt.

I baited the hooks and cast mid-stream; confident the salt had hardened my bait every bit as good as Pete’s – if not better. Then, sitting on the edge of the wharf, my legs dangling into space, I pondered over his remarks. Pete was old and new ideas weren’t part of his life. I had to make allowances for that. A gentle breeze swayed the willows allowing the sun to filter through. My gloom began to lift.

As if intent on spoiling the new dawn, columns of grey smoke mingled with the blue sky as coal ranges were stoked ready for the Sunday roast.

Pete’s pipe lay abandoned on the wharf; the herrings were running! He leaned forward in his chair and adjusted his battered hat. He was ready for action. With a sharp jerk Pete hooked the first fish. The silver herring struggled hopelessly but it had been caught by an expert. Taking it from the hook I placed it in Pete’s bag, hopeful the next one would be mine, but it was not to be. Slowly the tide crept up the wooden piles. Soon our privacy would be invaded.

Mesmerised by the flow of the Cam I slipped into a daydream world. I dreamt about the big one. I wondered about the bait, about the waiting homework and about the day when I would fish alone. Suddenly I was shaken from my reverie. Caught off guard I scrambled to my feet. This time I had hooked a beaut. Pulling the line angrily from the reel the fish made its bid for freedom.

“Jove lass, you’ll have to hold tight to this one,” Pete said, as he came to watch.

I had caught some spirited fish before but nothing quite like this one. It rose from the water, writhing on the end of the line, then plunged deep, bending the rod almost in two. Each wind of the reel brought it closer to the wharf. Up out of the water it came. I held my breath as the fish swung momentarily between water and wharf. Only when it flopped safely on to land did I relinquish my grip on the rod. We stared in disbelief at the fish flapping in the dirt. This was no herring.

“It’s a trout!” Pete shouted excitedly; his eyes riveted to the tell-tale spots partially covering its body.

“Well I never,” he muttered unable to conceal his surprise.

Behind the stop bank a car door slammed. I quickly flung the trout into my bag, the intruders had arrived. Within minutes the wharf buzzed with activity. We watched smugly as reels whirred, casting lines beyond the feeding bed Our peace was shattered but for once I didn’t mind. I glanced across at Pete. He had begun filling his ancient wooden pipe with tobacco from a well-worn leather pouch. The task always intrigued me. He sensed my gaze and looked up as he searched through his pocket for a match.

“You know lass,” he murmured.

“It might be just as well if your big catch remains our secret.”

The respect in his eyes as he winked proudly at me was obvious. Pete and I were fishing friends – I knew exactly what he meant.

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