The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 9
OF DUCK NETS, THEIR CONSTRUCTION AND METHOD OF APPLICATION; FISHING NETS, WITH THEIR USES ILLUSTRATED; WEIRS FOR TRAPPING FISH; HOW CONSTRUCTED, AND OF WHAT UTILITY.
Duck nets are usually one hundred yards long by two yards broad, the mesh being four inches wide. In making these nets the aborigines do not use a gauge, as is usual with Europeans. They simply judge of the size by the finger and thumb. The knot, however, is precisely similar to the one which European net-makers use. The meshes are as regular in size as though a gauge had been employed, and the finished net is as uniform throughout its length, and quite as strong as those made by men whose sole occupation is that of net-making.
Fishing nets are about the same length usually as those for catching ducks, but they are not so wide, being only four feet in width. The mesh, too, is different, being only three inches wide. The same kind of twine is used for making both nets. Nets for taking crawfish are only ten feet long, with a width of six feet, the mesh being three quarters of an inch wide. These nets are made by the women always, it being deemed beneath the dignity of aboriginal manhood to make nets to catch such insignificant game as crawfish. The women also make all the bags, waist belts, and brow bands, no matter whether they are to be worn by the nobler animal or not. The long nets, however, are made entirely by the men—that is to say, in every particular, with the exception of preparing the flax, that part of the business being always performed by the women.
When a duck-hunting expedition has been decided upon, all in the camp—men, women, and children—get in motion early in the morning, and start off to the lagoon which has been selected for the scene of their operations.
On their arrival at, or rather near the lagoon, the women make a sort of impromptu camp, where they remain with the children and prepare fires, to be in readiness to cook some of the game which are intended to be taken.
Four men (generally patriarchs in the tribe) go off with the net to the point of the lagoon where they purpose fixing it. It is stretched across the lagoon, and close enough to the water to prevent the ducks from escaping underneath. In the meantime the young active men of the tribe range themselves at regular intervals along both sides of the lagoon, and high up amongst the branches of the trees with which the margin is fringed, those in the trees having each a light disk of bark about seven or eight inches in diameter. When they are all properly settled, one who has been sent off for the purpose startles the ducks. As is natural with these birds, the moment they are put to flight they fly off along the lagoon, following its sinnosities pretty closely. Should it happen, however, as it occasionally does at those times, that they wish to leave the course of the lagoon for some other water in the vicinity, one of the natives in the trees nearest the flying birds whistles like a hawk, and hurls his disc of bark into the air. The ducks, hearing the whistle, look sharply about, and seeing the revolving disc, imagines it a hawk, consequently a simultaneous stoop is made down close to the surface of the water to escape their fancied enemy. Then they continue along the course of the lagoon, the whirling bark disc and the shrill whistle of the native having materially accelerated their flight. When this panic has subsided, and they again begin to soar in their flight. Another whistle, with the accompaniment of a gyrating disc, soon brings them once more to the desired level, and thus the sport continues, until after having run this exciting gauntlet the poor birds find themselves suddenly enveloped in the folds of the treacherous net, when the four guardians thereof, with the assistance of all hands, who now rush forward, take but a short space to secure the struggling prey, 'mid an abundance of pleasurable ejaculations, and such tongue chucking from the women and children, who gloat over the fat, plump birds as they are drawn from the net. Scores and scores of ducks are captured in this manner every season in those districts which abound in wild fowl, and where suitable lagoons obtain.
The fishing net is made use of in two ways. The first and commoner method of the two is what civilised fishermen term hauling. It is conducted in the following fashion:—A lagoon which is known to abound in fish, and is perhaps not more than waist deep, is chosen as the scene of their operations. When the natives have arrived at the chosen spot those who are about to work the net tie pieces of calcined clay, weighing about a pound and a half, at intervals of four feet all along the bottom side, these pieces of clay having been carried by the women for that purpose from the nearest oven. On the upper side they fix small bundles of reeds at intervals of six feet, which act as floats; then the net is ready for work. One man now stands on the edge of the lagoon, holding one end of the net, whilst another native, holding the opposite end, stalks very quietly into the water, describing a considerable semi-circle in hi& progress, coming back to the bank about thirty paces from his mate, when the work of hauling begins in earnest, during which operation those holding the respective ends of the net gradually converge until within two yards of each other. Should the haul be a successful one, all the available muscle, in the shape of women—yes, and children, too—is called into requisition, when, as a matter of course, such a jabbering and clucking of tongues arises as is not heard anywhere out of an Australian aboriginal assemblage. The bellying centre of the net, however, is all the time being drawn nearer to the shore, as can easily be seen by the floating reed bundles, until at last, with one prodigious and final tug, the finny denizens of the lagoon are landed on the grassy margin in one struggling mass of dazzling glitter. We have on many occasions seen as much as half a ton weight of fish drawn from Murray lagoons at one haul, consisting of cod, perch (golden and silver), cat-fish, black fish, and turtle. It is quite a sight to see them all tumbling and jumping about on the grass. Codfish from fifty pounds down to two, and perch from ten pounds down to the same minimum, the large mesh of the net precluding the landing of lesser fish, unless on very rare occasions; and when it does happen that some few small fish are landed amongst the crowd of great ones, they don't take the trouble to throw them into the water again, and as they don't eat such small fry they are left on the grass for the delectation of the crows and gulls. As soon as the result of a good haul has been examined the men pick up their spears, &c., and stalk off to the camp in a most majestic manner, leaving the women and children to bring on the wet, therefore heavy net, as well as the spoil thereof. In due time the latter straggle into the camp by twos and threes, groaning and whining under their respective burdens like so many overladen camels traversing some dreary and arid waste within the limits of the torrid zone.
When a small assemblage, such as two or three families, happen to be encamped in near proximity to a lake, they fix a net by means of stakes in zig-zag lines, about twenty yards from the shore, or perhaps a little further should the lake be a shallow one, and from this net daily supplies are drawn, consisting principally of perch and cat-fish. Occasionally a monster cod becomes enmeshed, when, of course, the net suffers considerably, and in most cases with the loss of the fish which did the damage. An untoward accident of this kind gives rise to much aboriginal language of a demonstrative description, as it entails the labour of taking up the net for repairs, which otherwise would in all probability not be moved for a month or more. Nets so staked are visited morning and evening, and on each occasion from eight to a dozen fish are taken, varying from two to ten pounds weight.
In the Swan Hill district the Murray River runs through an immense area of reedy plains. On the immediate banks of the river, for as far as these reedy plains extend, there is an artificial looking dike, having an elevation of three or more feet above the plains which shelve away behind it, consequently when the whole of these plains are inundated (which they are five months every year, from August to January inclusive) the dikes referred to act the part of dams, and so prevent the water from receding too rapidly, when the sources from whence it comes begin to fail, or, in other words, when the warm weather of spring and early summer has melted all the previous winter's accumulation of snow 'mid the mountains and valleys of the Australian Alps, wherein the many sources of the Murray take their rise.
Whilst the waters cover the reedy plains for miles on every side, the various kinds of fish find delectable grounds in the shallow, semi-tepid fluid wherein to pursue the prey upon which they feed.
In the artificial-looking banks at irregular intervals there are drains three or four feet wide, through which, when the river commences to fall, the waters of the plains find their way back to their parent stream. As a matter of course the fish instinctively return to the river with the receding water. At those seasons the aborigines are in their glory, and no small wonder either, as these times are actual harvests to them. They make stake weirs across the drains, the stakes being driven firmly into the soil within an inch of each other, so that anything having a greater bulk than that space must perforce remain on the landward side of the weir.
Without any great stretch of imagination, the reader can easily fancy the shoals of fish which congregate behind these weirs when the river is falling, and what a very simple matter the taking of them must be. When fish are required a native takes his canoe into the midst of one of these shoals, and harpoons as many as he wishes, or until he becomes tired of the fun.
The water continues to run through these drains for five or six weeks, and during all that time the natives slay and eat to their hearts' content, and are consequently sleek by reason of the vast quantities of adipose matter which they devour in those times of abundance, together with that with which they fail not plentifully to lubricate their bodies from crown to toe.
During this season the windward side of an aboriginal encampment, or even of a single aboriginal, is by far the most savoury, at least to those who are at all sensitive in the matter of malodours.
When the waters have all receded from the reedy plains behind every weir, fish of all kinds are left by thousands to rot and fester in the sun, or to be devoured by crows and other carrion-feeding creatures which are attracted to those points in countless numbers, but notwithstanding their combined and disgusting efforts the air around becomes as pestilential as is the atmosphere in the vicinity of a fish oil factory on the coast of Newfoundland.
Had the aborigines the very least foresight during the fish season they might cure sufficient food to supply their requirements through the dreary months of winter, at which season game is not very abundant, and hunting toilsome. As native salt abounds in the saline lakes of the Malice Scrub, at no great distance from the fishing grounds it is improvidence alone which prevents them from making the necessary provision. Ignorance of the antiseptic properties of salt ere the advent of Europeans might be very well brought in as a plea by them for not making provision in anticipation of hard and hungry seasons. Since their intercourse with white men, however, that excuse is no longer tenable. Still, for all that, the same improvident habits continue to obtain.
The lyoors drag the lagoons for the delicious crayfish, which they catch by the pailful. These delicate little crustacæ are highly esteemed by the aborigines because of their piquant flavour, which we imagine to be entirely due to the fact of their eating them without other cleaning than the mere removal of the outer shell. These little things being in so much request, the lyoors devote a considerable portion of their time to catching them.
They prepare the net for this purpose by tying a hoop round the bottom edge and the two ends, which gives it the appearance of half an oval; the top of the net is eight feet long. It is worked by two women, each having a bag slung round her neck to receive the result of their labours. They go into shallow lagoons, one at each end of the net, and scrape it along the bottom. They do not make much disturbance in the water during the operation, as very little noise would send all the crayfish within hearing distance into their holes, which, of course, would entail so much lost labour. They do not take the net to the bank to empty it; they merely raise it every now and again, and remove whatever spoil it may contain to the bags round their respective necks, and so they continue until they have captured what they deem sufficient. An hour's scraping frequently results in as many of these crayfish as would fill a six gallon measure. They can only be taken by the scraping process during the warm weather. In the cold weather they are all in their holes, so that when a noble savage has a longing for a meal of these favourite shellfish whilst they are hypernating, his poor drudge of a wife has to turn out in the cold and procure the delicacy for him by groping with her hands down the holes of the little creatures, and as the entrances to the holes are all under water, it is both a cold and tedious undertaking to capture a dish of them sufficient for a meal. They have a net also very nearly as fine in the mesh as a coarse cheese cloth, with which during the spawning season they take millions of young fish, many of which are less than an inch in length. Besides these, at the same time they catch immense numbers of young lobsters and shrimps, or prawns, all of which are mixed up together and cooked in the same condition as they are taken from the water. This dish is deemed a luxury of the highest order by the aboriginal epicure. The cooking of these small fry consists merely in boiling them very slowly until the shrimps become red, when the dish is ready. The aboriginal pot made for this sole purpose is an elbow or knot of a tree scooped out until it becomes a mere shell of wood. This vessel is set upon cold ashes, which have been placed to the thickness of two inches over red-hot coals, so prepared for the purpose. After a considerable expenditure of aboriginal patience the water in the wooden pot becomes hot enough to turn the shrimps red, but it never gets beyond the faintest simmer. When cooked this mess looks altogether so disgusting that we never had sufficient temerity to taste of it, even although frequently invited thereto by the natives' many high encomiums on its exceeding great merit.