Timaru’s Reuben Mitchell born into fishing and loving it
Sunday 21 June 2015
"Compliance costs, deemed values and MOSS are driving people out so why would you go and beat yourself up in 30 knots of southerly when you can earn as much driving a truck."
Reuben is the fourth generation of Timaru-based Mitchell fishermen and I asked him why he went fishing?
"Dad was one of six brothers, five of them were fishermen. Uncle Brian died when the Anita sunk up in the corner near Akaroa. Uncle Gordy's 65 and still doing it so I guess it's in the blood."
Reuben was 12 when he started 'going out' with Dad. Horribly seasick wrapped in his sleeping bag and sitting on the wheelhouse doorstep all he wanted to do was go home.
"I'm not taking you home; we're ten hours away!"
"At that point I wasn't really keen on fishing but the next school holidays I was asking Dad if I could go out again."
"Do you not remember the last time" he'd ask?
Reuben finished the sixth form with good marks in food technology and metal work; was a career as a chef in the navy the way to go, or perhaps an engineering apprenticeship?
"Dad had just bought the Achernar off 'Uncle Gordy' and asked me what I wanted to do. I wasn't sure so I asked if I could go out with him."
So Reuben went set-netting.
"Dad didn't see the need to work the shitty days so I used that time off down at Hampidjan's net shed getting my net building skills up to scratch, cutting rates and that sort of thing.
I had the best of both worlds."
When Rueben had accrued sufficient seatime he was off to the Fishing School in Nelson where he passed his Inshore Launch Master ticket.
"When I came home I did a few weeks driving. Dad would stand back and watch me haul and that and he must have been pretty happy with how I was going so the boat was mine."
Slipping the boat towards the end of October, the Achernar is given a 'birthday' and the set-net gear is put on. Chasing rigs and grey boys (school shark), fishing had been good leading up to Christmas but dropped off markedly after 'the break'. The persistent phone calls from Roger Burgess (Talleys) to 'come round' and catch albacore got Reuben thinking.
"It's a long way to take a little boat. The weather and long range forecasts last year were terrible but this year the forecast was better so we decided to give it a go. Besides they'd put the price up a wee bit."
Unlike set-netting and trawling, Reuben explained how tuna fishing is all about patience.
"It's about being out there and putting the hours in because albacore are a real weird fish; you never really work them out. One day they'll be down 100m, the next they're on the surface.
They'll be going hard on the short lines today and tomorrow it'll be the long lines. Or they'll favour one lure one day but not the next. They really mess with your head and you start wondering if the gear's right, if the boats got an earth leak and so on. There were times we'd have only 30, 40 fish by 4 o'clock and I'd be pacing around thinking we're in for a real shitter of a day and you pull a 100 fish just before dark."
Coming from an East Coast port I asked Reuben about the notorious 'Grey Bar'.
"We haven't had any bad crossings because there's no hurry to get in and no need to take any risks. I only come in during daylight and on top of the tide. I'm not a fan of going in when it's dark so we'll just sit a few miles off, get a few hours' sleep, have a good breakfast and then go in."
From April until the set-net season Reuben trawls for red cod, gurnard, skate and 'flats' and believes the inshore fishery is pretty stable; partly due to the QMS working and the local fishermen looking after it.
"Last year was a good year for yellow belly flounders; Uncle Gordy and the others say they haven't seen the fishery like this for years! I think they come from the Lake Ellesmere area and breed here in Caroline Bay. The small boats used to tow around the Bay but now we have a voluntary one mile closure in the Canterbury Bight which I think has been very good for the fishery."
The 'flounder patch' is where you get the great big sand flounders close to home. Twenty or thirty cod on deck might look good but five, six, bins of these big flounders for the day and you're laughing. There's an agreement between the boats that work that patch; no towing after 5-6 o'clock.
There's no towing at night on the 'Day Boat' patches and no sucking it dry."
Fish prices have remaining pretty static despite the cost of catching and compliance going through the roof.
Reuben believes fish prices should reflect the freshness and quality.
"I wash, pack and ice the flats in the case, all the same way up; they're still twitching when you unload but you get paid the same for fish that's sat in a boat's freezer for five days and given a quick wash so they look fresh."
Reuben runs the 44 foot Achernar mostly as a day boat.
"I can get about 60 cases down below and a few on deck. If I can't fill her up in three days I probably shouldn't be there."
Reuben also helps with his father's other boat, the Daroni.
"I spend most of my days off now at the shed on the forklift pulling out nets, getting wire ready, splicing sweeps up or picking up stuff. Sometimes I'll go out if they need a crew."
I asked Reuben now that he runs the Achernar if he does anything differently; particularly with 'the gear'.
"Not too much. Watch your speed, watch your spread; that's two things that Dad's stressed. It's all about 'chasing in gear'; the net's just the wee bag at the end of it so I'm more focused on door spread and sweep length to get better herding than going bigger in the net. It's really important to keep your gear nice and even to make sure the wee boat will fish as well as it can. It takes about 10 minutes to wind it off the drum.
It's peace of mind knowing the gear's working properly; that when you shoot it away you're not going to have any bugger ups or be left wondering when that part's going to break. We're also running bigger meshes on our codends getting cleaner bags; most of the dogs go straight through."
For much of the year Reuben runs the Achernar single handed with 'Dad' filling the role of Shore Manager and an extra hand with a needle in case of a big rip-up.
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