Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral histories 2015: My Life of Fishing by Ray Dickie

Last updated on 27-Apr-22

This talk was one of series of 17 talks broadcast on South Gippsland community radio 3MFM during 2014-2015 with the assistance of a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.


My name is Ray Dickie. I was born in 1936 and started fishing in 1951, though I’d been fishing from a dinghy before that. “Dickie’s Bay” below “Silverwaters” is named after my family and is a great King George Whiting fishing spot. In the early days the netting boats from Hastings would anchor there at night with their fire pots burning and grandad would row out to them with a nip of whiskey.


The rail came to Wonthaggi around 1910 so then fish were taken by horse and cart to Anderson and put on the train for Melbourne. In the late 1920s Dad did a bit of fishing and farming and sometimes drove the fish truck to Melbourne.


Dad died when I was about 10 and we got off the farm. I left school when I was 14 and worked on a few of the smaller couta boats. Then I got a job with Bert Johnson on the “Evening Star”, crayfishing. That’s how I got over the sea sickness.


After World War 2 there were 50 to 60 couta boats fishing out of San Remo. Naturally there was a hell of a lot of fish caught. Some days’ catches were in the hundreds of wooden boxes and each box held about 70 pounds of couta. They were all caught on hand lines with a wooden lure. Before that the lures were white cow hide, but the couta caught just as well on wooden lures, and they were easier.


A typical day would be to be out on the grounds just before daylight, because the fish always bit best right on dawn. The grounds were anywhere from Pyramid Rock to Kilcunda. Most couta boats only had one person on board. Before I started it was nearly all sail, but we had inboard motors. The boats were carvel built, between 20 and 30 feet long – most 24 or 25 feet.


A lot of the time we were on quotas because the agents only sent down a certain number of boxes, all of which belonged to them. When I started, some blokes used to load boxes on their boat the night before. But that meant others had no boxes. It was decided to hold a meeting to work out a better system. I was only 16, but I got the job of counting the empty boxes when they came back from market, divide that by the number of couta fisherman, and write on a blackboard on the jetty what the limit of boxes was for each bloke the next day. After that every box in the port was on the jetty at night.


The couta were so thick that if our quota was 10 or 12 boxes we would have caught that by sunrise and be on our way home. Once we caught them we had to head and gut them. This was done mainly at sea, but sometimes at the jetty if we hadn’t finished by the time we motored home.

When we got home, if it was high tide, we got the boxes on board, stack about 30 fish to the box, and put the boxes onto the jetty. If it was low tide, we had to throw the catch up one by one onto the jetty and load them into the boxes there. There were heavy trolleys that ran around the jetty on rails. We’d load the boxes onto the trolley and wheel them up to the big sheds on the jetty. We’d put them into the shed, where there was an ice room. We’d get the ice, which was in blocks, and crush it in a big box with a tamper, then shovel it in on top of the fish. There was always a bent nail on the underside of the lid, so we’d put our name ticket under that, and then hammer the lid down.


Some of the truck drivers were Bert Blackney, Doug Carmichael, Henry Fleisner and then came Clarrie Spokes – all good carriers. At one time I bought a boat from Alec Lacco at Rye. Clarrie brought it back for me on his truck but I was flat broke, so Clarrie said “That’s alright, just pay me when we can.” That is the way things were done then.


The San Remo Fisherman’s Co-operative was set up in 1948. That was an advantage to the fishermen because then we could make our own ice. Before that it used to come back on the truck from Dandenong. We then also had somewhere to store bait for the crays.


With the amount of couta being sold the price fell in a heap. A cannery decided to take some. We loaded the couta into a tip truck and when they got it to the factory, they just tipped it out onto the floor! It was quite good after it was canned.


For the last 12 months that I was in the couta industry we did a lot of filleting. We’d do about 4 boxes an hour. We’d put them in the Co-ope freezer and keep them til the winter. That helped the price a bit. Most of the couta were caught in the spring time – November being the best month – and a bit in the autumn.


In the off-season I’d go catching pike at the back of Phillip Island or down to Cape Paterson, and in winter I’d go mash netting in Western Port. I made up all my own nets for whiting and rock flathead – mainly table fish.


In the 1960s the couta started to decline so it was a case of get bigger or get out. A few of us got bigger boats, some just got out. The fleet went from 3 to 4 big boats to about 12 to15 in the Cray and shark fishing industries.


My first big boat was the 32 foot “Pamela J”. We worked mainly away fishing. My brother John – known as Jock – worked with me. Mostly around Phillip Island and Cape Paterson, and Cape Liptrap. We had “Pamela J” for about 4 to 5 years. The last two years we decided to Flinders Island for the opening of the Cray season on 1st November, which was about 24 hours’ steaming. We’d leave 3 or 4 days before, then we’d stay there til mid- December. We kept the crays alive in the boat’s wet well, then take them once a week into a little town on Flinders Island called Lady Barren and from there they were air freighted out to Melbourne or Sydney aboard Bristol aircraft.


There were 20 to 30 boats and each boat would have 15 to 20 bags with about 3 dozen crays in each bag. Each bag weighed about 100 pounds. Our biggest price was two and ten pence per pound. Just recently they were $100 per kilo. There was a buyer at Flinders Island who would pay us. The last year we were there we had 20 bags a week for 6 weeks. Now there are only about 3 or 4 Cray boats work out of Flinders Island.


On our boat we were allowed 32 cray pots in Victoria, which was a pot a foot, and in Tasmania we were only allowed 22 pots. Victoria was a pot a foot with a maximum of 40 pots. So a 50 foot boat couldn’t have any more than 40 pots. Now boats have 100 or more, but on very strict quotas.

During the six weeks we were down there, my wife Judy would bring one of the kids down and we’d stay in a house there, while Jock flew out for a week. Because a Cray boat is not very big and we’d get sick of each other!


When we came home we crayed around home til February and we’d go to King Island for three weeks, though there was nowhere near the Crays there as there was around Flinders Island.


In the Cray fishing the most important thing that happened in my time was the advent of echo-sounders, which allowed us to ‘see’ what sort of bottom we‘d be putting the pots on and also how deep it was. GPS came in the eighties and meant we could go exactly back to where we wanted to be, which is especially important at sea where we can’t see land and can’t take any marks. We got radar in the early 1970s and that helped. We could travel at any time, day or night, foggy or clear.


We eventually got sick of going away for so long, so about the mid-60s I got a 45 foot boat called “Lentara”. On that we did a bit of craying but mostly shark. That way we’d only be at sea three to four days, in Bass Strait. That was with long-lines. They were 6 millimetre nylon rope with a hook clipped on about every 20 feet, and about 6 miles of line. It was pretty hard work. We’d start in daylight and finish just before dark. At the end of the day we had to clean the shark and we had an ice room on board, so we’d put them on ice. It got a bit hard for Jock so after 12 months he gave it away, and I put on two young deck hands.


Coming home we’d get all the fish out of the ice room and stack them on the deck. Then when we arrived at San Remo jetty we’d throw them all up onto the jetty. We’d load them onto the truck. They’d be tarped down and went to market in bulk. A piece of tarp went down between each different boat’s lot of fish. They had to be stacked in a special way. There might be three tons of shark per load. Nowadays of course they have to be in refrigerated trucks, in insulated bins that hold approximately three to four hundred kilos.


The agents operated on a commission of about 10 per cent. But we were at their mercy. They’d give us the weights and paid us the price. It was supposed to be an auction system. Where we lost out more than anything was in weights. We never had any way of weighing them before they left home, so just had to accept what the agent said. Nowadays with the big insulated bins we know what is in them. They are weighed on the jetty.

In 1971 I got another boat built by Pompies at Mordialloc. This was the “Endeavour”, 55 foot. That boat is still in San Remo and is probably the nicest boat that came into the port. Two Lacco brothers were working with Pompie at the time, so the “Endeavour” is a nice mix of both boatbuilding families.


When I went to Pompies and said I wouldn’t mind a 55 footer they started building it and I gave them a five thousand dollar deposit. As they were building it I told them I wasn’t sure I could afford it, but they just kept on building. Eventually it was finished and launched and I said to them “Well, what do I owe you?” They said, “Well, what do you reckon?” So I wrote them a cheque for $50,000 and I still don’t know to this day if it was enough or too much or what!


Both the “Lentana” and the “Endeavour” were Huon Pine on the bottom and above the water line was Celery Top Pine. Worms won’t eat Huon Pine as it’s very oily. In those days they’d make us up a half model and we’d tell them what changes we wanted and they built it from the half model. Nowadays it’s all computer modelling. The kids got Pompies to make me a half model of the “Endeavour” for a gift later on. I also have an oil painting of her by Lyn Hahn, painted off a photo when we were steaming home in a bit of rough weather.


A few things happened with shark in the 1970s. Someone found out we could catch shark with monofilament nets. But the shark died in the nets because they can’t swim backwards, so they weren’t in as good a condition by the time they got home. We fought against nets, but Fisheries weren’t any help, saying the nets were more efficient. We didn’t win, so we had to join them and put nets on ourselves.


Then the mercury scare came in and all the shark over forty one inches had to be thrown overboard, so it became political. Mostly we were catching gummy shark, so it wasn’t so bad. Our argument was it was a naturally occurring mercury because shark are at the top of the food chain and so accumulate more than other fish. No-one’s ever been poisoned with it. Now there are strict quotas on how many we can catch.


About 1975 I got a 52 foot steel boat built, named “Jupana” – a combination of Judy, my wife, and Pam and Narelle, my two daughters. My son and son-in-law worked that as one of about 15 shark boats operating out of San Remo. Now there’s only five. Now with quotas and restrictions they’re even having to put onboard cameras. This replaces the observers we had to take out every now and then. It’s to make sure we’re not doing the wrong thing.


In 1980 we got another wooden boat at Pompies. Another chap and myself decided we were going to semi-retire, so we’d go trawling. We wanted a 48 foot boat each. We bought two of everything, and both worked on them. Then we had to work out which boat was whose and they had to be named. So we had a coin-tossing party at the boat builders. My boat was called the “Mako” and my mate’s boat was the “Yukom”. They were identical.


We mainly caught school whiting and sand and tiger flathead. It was a pretty hard semi-retirement though, because the feeling that you want to keep going out is still there. But it was better, because it was mainly day fishing. That carried me through til I retired in 2002.


I’ve done a couple of rescues. Going to Flinders Island one day in a 30 knot North West wind, I saw this flag out to sea and it turned out to be five Greeks in a runabout with no anchor, well off Kilcunda. If we hadn’t arrived they would never have been seen again. We brought them home.

Another day I got a call about 4 a.m. to say a freighter plane had gone down off Inverloch and could we go and find the pilot. We went down there, then the Tasmanian ferry and the Navy came later, so we got pushed further south. We found the wreckage, strewn everywhere. We then found one of the pilots drowned but still in his life jacket. An abalone boat pulled him out. We found the other life jacket, but no pilot. After about 12 hours we decided to leave and had to get clearance from Canberra. After we’d been home a while we got a phone call from Canberra asking if we’d go back because they thought they’d seen an oil slick, but we’d had enough and told them to get the Navy to do it. Every time there was an emergency at sea out here they seemed to phone me!


I love the sea – the open air. There was never a day when I didn’t want to go to work – and there’s not too many who can say that! Nowadays we could say that once upon a time I fished to live, but now I live to fish!