Totally hooked ... in the hot seat in open waters. Photo: Tourism Queensland
Ben Groundwater is all at sea as he joins the pros angling for fishing's biggest prizes.
THEY don't mince words in central Queensland. They call a spade a bloody spade and even then they're not happy about having to explain what a bloody spade is.
So John's not about to let me off lightly. We're in a tinnie on Lake Cania and I've just caught a fish. It's only a little thing and it's dangling on the end of my line, slowly spinning unhappily in the air while I try to figure out what I'm supposed to do next.
A Lake Monduran barramundi.
I caught it but I don't really want to touch it. What if it spikes me? Poor thing. I didn't even mean to catch anything so small. I wonder if it will live if I throw it back?
Eventually John gets the hump with waiting, reaches out a meaty hand and whips the fish off the hook, chucking it back into the dam's murky waters.
Then he turns to me, lifting the sweat-stained cap off his head and wiping his brow.
Reels ready for action. Photo: Ben Groundwater
"So answer me this," he says in a slow drawl. "How does a bloke who knows nothing about fishing get on a trip like this?"
It's a fair question. In fact, it's one I had already asked myself. The answer is pure luck, being in the right place at the right time, but you can't tell blokes like John that.
You just have to fake your way through it.
The trip I'm on is a fishing extravaganza, a hunt through saltwater and fresh for some of angling's biggest prizes: metre-long barramundi in the dams and hulking giant trevally in the ocean. We're starting on the "Bass to Barra Trail" in central Queensland before heading out to the blue water off Yeppoon and Mackay.
My fellow anglers are seasoned pros, representatives of Australia's premier fishing magazines. They can bait up a line like I can order a cappuccino. They were pulling fish out of the water while I was learning to walk.
Our first morning starts early - fisherman early. We've all piled into a van in Bundaberg by 4am, making the one-hour drive out to Lake Monduran, a large dam known for its big barra.
Everyone is excited. They're all in the back talking about rigs, jigs and fingerlings and about braids and spools and schools.
Fishing must be the world's most jargon-filled sport. I understand none of it.
There's talk, too, that it'll be a tough morning given the height of the dam waters. "She's over 100 per cent at the moment," growls one of the anglers. "All the fish have gone over the top."
And there's another issue with the notoriously fickle barramundi. "You know when barra hit 70 centimetres they all change sex to become female?" asks another angler. I nod, even though I clearly didn't know that. He grimaces. "So do you understand females?"
Turns out the guys were right to be pessimistic. It's a beautiful morning on the dam, with dead gum trees reaching spindly fingers out of the water and into the slowly brightening sky, but there's nary a nibble to brighten our day.
Jamie, our skipper, reckons he has caught 30 barra in the past month. I soon realise this is a common refrain among fishermen: "You shoulda seen it yesterday ..."
Disappointed, we head back to the boat ramp, where the other groups look similarly empty handed. "How'd you go?" I ask one of the magazine guys.
"Had a few hits," he says.
"So, does that mean you didn't catch anything?"
He grins: "Yeah, but you never actually say that."
Next there's a three-hour drive to Lake Cania, a dam chock full of silver perch and saratoga. The pros are after the saratoga, which are hard to catch and horrible to eat. To me that makes them a fairly pointless species but to real anglers it makes them the perfect catch-and-release fish.
So while the anglers go hunting for 'toga, I meet my new mate John and head out in search of something we might actually catch. And, lo and behold, the perch are lining up to jump in the boat, presenting me with the frequent problem of what to do with them once they're on the end of the line.
It's faintly embarrassing but at least I can head back to the campsite in Cania with a better story than "got a few hits". The saratoga fisherman? Not so much.
Unfortunately, fishing trips run very much on luck and the next day we're out of it. We're up early as usual, beating the kangaroos out of bed as we continue on the trail to Lake Callide, where the local angling club has agreed to take us out.
We're chasing barramundi again and my partners in this mission are two local boys, "Flipper" and "Rabs". Neither seems to think we have much of a chance with the lake as high as it is - "too much water between the fish" - so we settle in to a morning of what fishing is really all about: banter.
A couple of lines are thrown in the water but they're decorative pieces, really. Flipper and Rabs couldn't care less that I don't know how to fish, because we're probably not going to see any. And we don't.
"Sure is, Flipper."
AS AN amateur angler, it's always been my theory that the bigger your boat, the bigger the fish you'll catch. And today's boat is big.
We're heading off the coast of Yeppoon aboard a catamaran called the Keppeluna. With us is an expert guide, Graham Scott, who could probably catch fish with his hands if he felt like it. He has just announced that we're going after GTs - giant trevally - which has been met with the sort of cheer that in my world is reserved for G&Ts.
Scott reckons he knows a spot. Sure, mate, everyone "knows a spot". The catamaran edges towards a rock shelf near an island and two anglers make their way to the front of the boat clutching rods rigged with enormous lures.
One of the magazine guys pitches a long cast near the shelf, tugs on the line and, bang, it's a hit! It's more than a hit, he's got a GT and it's already fizzed off with half his line.
Thus begins an intriguing battle as the angler reels in his catch, which is duly dragged aboard, photographed by budding cameramen as if it was one of Michael Jackson's children and then thrown back overboard to fight another day.
Another cast and we've got another GT. And another. Pretty soon everyone on board except me has caught a giant trevally, so I move to the front of the boat to join Scott in hunting the monsters.
I cast madly for half an hour but there's nothing.
The GTs have disappeared. Turned shy.
About the only thing I've come close to catching with my wild casts is Scott, who must be politely fearing for his life as I bend the rod over my shoulder and fling another huge barbed hook past his face.
It's not to be. We give up and head to a reef instead.
There I manage to haul in a morwong, by far the biggest fish I've ever caught, but the lack of any cameras just goes to show that all fish aren't created equal - a morwong is not a GT.
And that, as they say, is that. We head out the next day, this time to a reef off Mackay aboard the Black Samurai, an equally large boat, but the fish aren't biting. Our skipper gives us the old "you shoulda seen it yesterday" line but that's no help.
All we can do is sit on deck and allow the professional fishermen to indulge in their favourite pastime, staring off towards the horizon and making declarations about how great fishing is.
"Sure beats workin', eh?""Not a bad day at the office, mate."
And you know what? They're right - even if you don't know what you're doing.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Queensland.
Fishing jargon explained
Hit A bite from a fish that either results in a catch or that fish swimming off with your tackle.
Inquiry Similar to a hit, only this one's a mere nibble. Good for explaining a bad day. "Did ya catch anything?""I got a few inquiries."
Follow Even more tenuous than an inquiry. The sworn belief that a fish has followed the bait but not been tempted into a hit. Also good for explaining a bad day. "Aww mate, I had loads of follows."
Spooled When a large fish swims off so far your line runs out, leaving you to stare forlornly over the side clutching an empty reel. Results in the saying: "Yup, I got spooled today, mate."
Sharked When a shark helps itself to the fish that's on the end of your line. This is also known as a "change of species".
Lost him on the reef A saying used to excuse the loss of a fish that's been hooked, while taking no personal responsibility. "What happened?" "Oh, I must have lost him on the reef."
Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Bundaberg, Gladstone and Mackay. 13 13 13, qantas.com.
It's best to hire a car to reach the Bass to Barra Trail, or just stay in town to charter a blue-water boat. Car hire in central Queensland can be arranged through Avis, avis.com.au.
Burnett Riverside Motel in Bundaberg has queen rooms from $150 a night, burnettmotel.com.au.
The Big4 Cania Gorge has cabins from $90 a night, cania-gorge.qld.big4.com.au.
The Mercure Capricorn Resort in Yeppoon has rooms from $105 a night, capricornresort.com.au.
The Clarion Hotel Mackay Marina has rooms from $285 a night, www.mackaymarinahotel.com.
Anglers will need their own boat and equipment to get out on Lake Cania and Lake Callide. For unofficial guides in the areas, phone Russell Nowland at Cania on (07) 4167 8183 or Kev Banks at Callide on 0408 188 915.
Lake Monduran Barra Charters runs half-day trips from $260 a person, lakemonduranbarracharters.com.
For ocean charters on the Keppeluna, phone Richard Wilson on (07) 4933 6991 (POA).
Full-day charters on the Black Samurai from Mackay cost $5000 for six people. blacksamurai.com.au.