When my eldest son was growing up we had all the classic children’s books: Scuffy the Tugboat, Cheer up Little Noddy, Here Comes Noddy Again, Heidi, Alice in Wonderland and Unusual Fishes of New Zealand Coastal Waters. He poured over this book for hours and studied the Moonfish, the Frostfish, Smooth and Rough Leatherjackets, the Goblin fish, the Spook fish and the Cookie Cutter shark.
But I was the one who had to point out to him the most important fish of all – the Old Mum fish. Over the past century explorers and eminent marine biologists have studied her habits. She’s a surprisingly resistant breed with a high level of intelligence and a wide range of habitats. Some Old Mums like open and deep waters while others are just as happy to potter about in the shallows…she’s an altogether adaptable fish.
At Westport’s North Beach on a warm summers evening with nothing more than a snapper line, a bamboo rod and some salted down squid many a patient fisherman has been rewarded with an Old Mum. She’s easy fixed with bait, too – happy to take almost anything. Normally, easy to catch, she can also put up a rigorous fight.
At fishing competitions many a fisherman has received first prize for biggest fish, with an Old Mum, and for the fisherman junkie there’s always the Old Mum Classic at the end of February.
A pair of Redington Prowlers is a must for the sartorially conscious fisherman in pursuit of an Old Mum, and the Redington Classic 590 is available for the connoisseur of good fishing tackle. However, for someone just out on a Sunday drive with an Old Mum in mind, then a bamboo rod thrown in the backseat and a jar of pipis will be all that is required.
Catch and release is also possible – you can persuade her in with a lure, play her for a while and then put her back so she can swim home to her husband and kids.
Personally, I myself have always had ambivalence about fishing. It goes back to the time I was 19 and fishing with my boyfriend out at the Cod Rocks in Charleston, and he caught 7 gurnard in a row. I wasn’t actually fishing I was stretched out on a rock enjoying the salt spray and the 360 degree panorama of sea and horizon, and trying to prove what a great wife I would make, i.e. a huge tolerance to being ignored and capable of enduring hours of fishing without complaining.
Within a minute the squeal of the reel penetrated the air. It was a gurnard. A minute later, an identical gurnard, and then another and another, until there were seven. The fish were hoisted up the rock and swung on to the platform without even the assistance of a hand net. As each fish was landed it seemed to enter into a conversation with us in a croaky, yet imploring voice. They all seemed to be telling the same story.
‘Wait a minute,’ I said to my boyfriend after the 7th fish lay flapping on the rock, ‘these fish are trying to tell us something.’ I bent down and listened attentively.
‘Pleeease put me back! Pleeease don’t take my life away, it’s all I’ve got!’ I debated this. Which would it be, back in the water or a nice pan-fried meal later that evening?
This dilemma has remained with me, always.
To get back to the Old Mum… I’ve tried to educate my son about the worth of this fish. I’m not confessing to being an Old Mum. However if he thinks I’m making up stories and it’s just an attention-seeking myth, its not working so I think I’ll try another ploy. I’ll get a skin, sew on a few scales and learn to flip and breathe through gills and maybe then, he’ll discover the worth of the Old Mum.