Alex's Column 15/10/20

It was 1980, and two mates and I were heading down a seriously-flooded Daly River in March.

We were going all the way to the mouth where we would spend a few days aboard a commercial barra fishing boat belonging to the husband of a workmate of mine.

It would be our base for own daily fishing excursions.

Back then, there were more than 20 commercial barra boats competing for net space from outside the Daly mouth to right up the river to the then closure line at the “Cattleyards”.

We were not that far from the river mouth when we saw a big, open, unpainted tinny coming from the other way.

As it got closer, it veered towards us and I slowed down and stopped as it came alongside.

There was a lone young man, rugged and strong, and about our age, driving the boat and he was straight to the point: “Where are you blokes heading?”

I replied something like: “We’re going to spend a few days on a barra boat, chucking lures wherever we can.”

We chatted for a while and I’ve often looked back on that moment as a very important one in my life because it was when I met Mike Fraser, a man who would become a great mate of mine.

If you were at all following NT barra fishing politics in the 1980s and 1990s, you would appreciate the Top End fishing scene has lost a great advocate with the recent passing of Mike Fraser.

A born-and-bred Territorian, who grew up fishing around Darwin from a very young age, Mike became one of the original commercial barra fishermen when he entered the fishery in the late 1970s.

More importantly, he became a strong and vocal advocate for the commercial barramundi fishery, and he was Chairman of the Commercial Fisherman’s Association – which was all barra fishing – for several years.

It was during that period – when I was AFANT President – and now and again afterwards, that we sparred in the media, at industry meetings, and when we wet a line and enjoyed a beer together.

It was a tough time for commercial barra fishermen back then because the recreational fishing industry was growing in leaps and bounds, and the Government was taking notice.

There were major river closures to netting, huge reductions in commercial fishing effort through various licence buy-back schemes and a great deal more scrutiny on commercial fishing operations.

But through much of it, Mike Fraser led a charge, always made a lot of sense, understood where the future lay and kicked some goals in the process.

The Mike I knew the best was the wild man of the rivers.

He was a strong bloke but definitely gentle, understanding and fair by nature.

He was not only a brilliant commercial fisherman and crabber, but he was a top angler too.

I once spent a week with him on his boat in a remote river with my boat tied alongside.

It was pre-bag-limit days and, so my boat could fish without nets at all the hotspots, he kept them out for the whole week.

It didn’t matter though because, between him, his deckie, and the three in my boat, our lures kept his freezer filling at pace he was happy with.

I learnt a lot about both barra fishing and crabbing from Mike Fraser; he was a natural.

He was always so aware of the environments around him where he operated.

When I met him on the Daly that first time in 1980, he was on his way to slip a net in at the mouth of Moon Billabong outlet above the commercial closure line.

It was why he came over to us – to check that we weren’t Fisheries officers.

As I soon found out, in those days, all the pros were netting illegally every chance they had; it was like tax evasion to them.

Mike Fraser will be sadly missed by the commercial fishing industry, some of the older players in NT Fisheries and AFANT, and all his mates who shared time on the water with him, myself included.

This column extends its sincerest condolences to Pauline, Camille, Nigel and Michael James Jnr for their great loss.

Mike Fraser was not only a great commercial fisherman, but he knew how to outsmart them on lures too.