The Sea Series: Crab pots

Words by Maggie McDade

Published on July 11, 2012

My uncle pulls the writhing silver fish up from the water and drops it in the bottom of the boat. It slaps about on the aluminium floor, its tail flicking my calf and spraying salt water. He reaches into the bucket for the filleting knife, grasps the whiting with a rag, and holds its head flat against the seat of the boat. A clear eye stares up at us and its mouth silently gasps for air. There’s a cracking sound as my uncle sticks the point of the filleting knife through its head. The fish stops slapping. Straight on ice. My volleys are covered with little red specks of blood.

I reach into the bait bucket, pinch a yabby behind its head, and thread it onto my hook. I push the point through the yabby’s tail and up its middle. It curls over the metal and wriggles its legs. I cast into the oncoming tide, and flick my reel back over when it hits the water.

It’s quiet out here with just the water hitting against the side of the boat and the yabbies scratching around in the bait bucket. The fresh smell of blood, salt, and sunscreen sits on the wind. We’d left at dawn and the sun is well up now, relentlessly bright against the sea. Earlier we’d set a few crab pots in the mangroves.

‘Something sinister about crab pots,’ my uncle had said while we worked.

We don’t say much now. Every now and then he’ll walk to the stern of the boat and motor us back toward the rocks before we begin to drift again.

‘There should be some bream down there,’ he says, assessing the shapes of rocks in the water. I can see how his mind is working, thinking about the food that’ll collect around the structures and the fish that will come looking for it. ‘Maybe a few squire too.’ I nod and continue my casts. I suggest some burley but he shakes his head.

The esky slowly fills with fish. A few more bream and a small snapper. For lunch we eat sandwiches of cheese, tomato and ham, with two icy cans of lemonade. As the sun lowers in the sky we head back to the mangroves to check our pots. We motor in and I smell thick mud. I can see the white milk bottles we’d used as buoys bobbing between the trees on top of the water. My uncle slows the throttle and I reach over the side of the boat to grab the first bottle. I gently slide the rope through my hands, over into the boat, guiding the crab pot up through the water.  My uncle speaks.

‘Just sinister.’ I stay silent. ‘That story from the Territory. Bloke found out his missus was cheating on him with a trawlerman, so he tracked the bugger down at the pub one night. They left together, and no one saw the trawlerman again. The angry hubbie had cut him up and put him in his pots, down the mangroves for the crabs to pick at.’

I say nothing and haul the heavy pot into the boat.

At the bottom there’s a female mud crab, her beady eyes looking up at me, claws in the air. I take grip of her from behind and turn her over. I grab the fillet knife and slit her white stomach.