To hear Paul Salotti talk, today is a done deal. Fish will be caught. A feast will be had. We barely even need to drop a line in the water.
In fact, we don't. Just a few weeks ago, Paul reckons, a barramundi jumped into the boat of its own accord. "Seriously!" he laughs. "Leapt up in the air and bang, it's flappin' around on the deck."It certainly sounds as though, even for an inexperienced fisherman, today shouldn't be a problem. We're going to catch a pretty big fish – maybe a barra, or a trevally, or a snapper, or even a mackerel – in Darwin Harbour, and then drag it back to the Hilton hotel for the chef there to cook it. From hook, to cook. From line, to dine. It's in the bag.
And so we set out early on this typically warm Northern Territory morning, ready for a successful day of fishing. We begin by motoring out into open water, over the wreck of a ship that was sunk during World War II. We've got huge sinkers on our fishing lines – the idea, Paul explains, is to tap the sinkers on the wreckage of the boat far below, to see if we can entice a big snapper, or a cod, to come out and have a look.
There should be plenty down there to lure. Darwin is, after all, heaven for keen fisherman, the sort of place people travel to from across Australia, and indeed from around the world, to drop a line in and enjoy the bounty that will inevitably attach itself.
Barramundi fishing is huge, given that fish's reputation as the ultimate sportsman's prize. We'll be doing some of that today, as well as trawling for mackerel, and dropping a line in over a few reefs and wrecks in the hope of snapper or trevally.
And it takes seconds – literally, seconds – before there's a fish in the boat. I drop my line in over the wreck, tap the sinker on the hull, feel a sharp tug, and next thing I'm reeling in a snapper. It's too small to keep, but still, this bodes well for my dinner tonight. Call up the Hilton. Tell the chef to get the stove on. We're cooking.
But then, as so often happens with this sport, the fish disappear. There's nothing doing. And so we rock gently on the water, lines dangling slack, sun beating down, while Paul and my fishing buddy for today, Gus, indulge in every fisherman's true passion: talking about fish.
Paul has the best stories. One of his clients caught a mako shark as big as the boat just the other day. He snagged a snapper as long as your arm yesterday morning. Those barra have been jumping into the boat.
Meanwhile, today, nothing's happening. Gus shakes his head before uttering the age-old fisherman's refrain: "Welp, that's why they call it fishin', not catchin'."
Paul chuckles like it's the first time he's heard it. "Too right. Let's go get some barra."And so we gun the engines and head in towards the estuaries that are filled with that famous catch. We cast nets into shallow water to catch baitfish, load up the hooks with wriggling little morsels, cast them back into the ocean and wait for them to do their work.
There's a pause as we get set for the action, and then… nothing. Really: nothing. I have plenty of time over the next hour or so, as Paul and Gus trade tall tales of fishing adventure, to ponder the slight flaw in my "hook to cook" plan. If you don't hook, you don't cook. No fish, no feast.
Paul still seems confident that we'll catch our dinner, however, as we pull our slack lines in and head to his favourite spot in the harbour, a natural reef that's known for its golden snapper and trevally. And so we dangle our lines in and wait patiently for the action to begin. And it does begin. I catch plenty of fish – a couple of trevally, a saddle tail snapper, and even a golden snapper. Unfortunately, they're all too small. The chef at the Hilton would laugh me out of the kitchen. Sadly, we're forced to return to Darwin empty handed.
Back at the Hilton, chef Akash Srivastava just laughs. It's no problem, he says, pulling out something he prepared earlier, a barramundi fillet rolled in a lemon myrtle spice rub, ready to sear, ready to make up for my shortcomings as an angler. Dinner is served.
It turns out my catch today really was a sure thing. Just not in the way I expected.
Qantas flies daily from all state capitals direct to Darwin. For bookings go to qantas.com.
The Hilton Darwin has spacious, comfortable rooms with great views from $126 per night. See hilton.com.
Half-day fishing trips with Darwin Harbour Fishing Charters cost $160 per person, including all fishing gear and bait. See website above. To have the chef at the Hilton cook up your catch, contact Mitchell's Grill on (08) 8982 4155.
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Tourism Northern Territory.