Sport fishing with a rich history in Bermagui

Photo of Mark Thornton

A small NSW coastal town boasts some big-game attractions and a link with a famous novelist. 

A rocky headland overlooking the fishing village of Bermagui on the far south coast of New South Wales has a big photographic memorial plaque idolising a favourite adopted son.

There are half a dozen other memorial plaques on the headland, all too often found where people go down to the sea in ships, with the simple but sad few words “lost at sea”.

The photographic plaque is different. It remembers a foreign fisherman who died not locally at sea but at home in California in the lee of the San Gabriel Mountains. But he spent long periods in Bermagui and made it world famous for marlin fishing, helping establish deep-sea sport fishing here.

His name is Zane Grey, author of more than 90 books about the American frontier and the wild west. His books have been adapted to make 112 films. Between 1917 and 1926 his books were listed among the top 10 best-sellers nine times. His most popular novel was Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912. It is still heralded as one of the best western novels.

Grey was patron of the Bermagui Sport Fishing Association, set a number of world records for his catches of big oceanic fish such as tuna and marlin, and wrote about them in An American Angler in Australia. He also shot part of a film about sharks, White Death, here in 1936 and worked on his epic Australian western novel Wilderness Trek.

Fishermen first noticed Bermagui in 1933 when Roy Smith of Yass, near Canberra, caught a black marlin weighing 105kg. Within two years, big-game anglers including Grey were visiting Bermagui. In 1936 Grey caught a 42kg yellow-fin tuna, the first ever seen in southern NSW, effectively generating a lucrative export industry leading to Bermagui becoming the tuna capital of Australia. Bermagui’s caravan park, just across the road from where Grey used to camp, was renamed the Bermagui Zane Grey Tourist Park in his honour. 

Bermagui is famous for big pelagic fish because the deep ocean beyond the continental shelf is at its closest point to the mainland. It is along the edge of a continental shelf where upwellings bring nutrient-rich water to the surface. Game fishing off the south-east coast depends on the East Australian Current and prevailing wind patterns. If the current brings clear blue water down the edge of the shelf in summer and flows more slowly than three knots, its stream of warm water will attract nutrients, a whole range of fish and the game fish that feed on them. These days most sports fishermen tag the fish they catch and return them unharmed to the ocean.

Bermagui is a village of 1800 people set within a magnificent spotted gum forest which locals refer to as “the cathedral”. It is the northern entrance to the Sapphire Coast and nestles in the lee of Mt Dromedary, an extinct volcano named by Captain Cook in 1770 because he thought it looked like a camel, though most locals refer to the mountain by its Aboriginal name of Gulaga. It dominates the landscape north and south for more than 100km. In 2001, the mountain became a national park. The village and surrounds are the traditional lands of the Djiringanj people, part of the wider Yuin clan. The name Bermagui is derived from the Djiringanji word, permageua, believed to mean “canoe with paddles”. 

There is an ancient midden on the edge of Wallaga Lake, north of the town. Since time immemorial the Yuin brought their harvests of shellfish to the point and the midden of oyster, cockle and abalone shells is 20ha and 4m deep. It’s the largest midden in eastern Australia and is about 10,000 years old. Yuin legends recall a time when the sea levels around Australia were much lower and their ancestors could walk to Montague Island, now 9km off shore. It’s sobering to think that while scientists discuss evidence of the rising water levels, the Yuin have a collective memory of it. 

A community of more than 170 Yuin people live in the village of Akolele on the edge of Wallaga Lake. Their forebears helped the first white settlers navigate from the coast up to the high country at Kosciuszko, pointing out their ancient trading trails. One of these, the 365km-long Bundian Way, south of Bermagui, is thought to be more than 40,000 years old and is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.

The Yuin also fielded an Aboriginal cricket team to play in England in 1900 and acquitted themselves rather well. The first such match in 1868 featured Victorian Aboriginal people and although the Times described them as “the conquered natives of a convict colony”, they won 14, lost 14 and drew 19 matches, earning considerable respect from the public. This happened years before the first Test match between England and Australia. 

There is a busy calendar of music festivals and sporting and cultural events held in Bermagui — of note is ReBoot for sporty types, the Four Winds Festival of (mostly) classical music, the Bermagui Seaside Fair, Sculpture Bermagui and the Bermagui Bike Show. For music fans there’s the River Rock Cafe, just north of the bridge over the Bermagui River, which has an open-mic session every Friday evening.

Like many coastal villages, Bermagui has an active community of musicians and local artists who play and exhibit through a network of studios and galleries throughout the year. A number of local characters featured in the comedy film The Man Who Sued God, starring Judy Davis and Billy Connolly, which was shot in the village in 2001. Angelina Jolie also shot part of her film Unbroken there in 2014.

Unlike any other coastal villages in Australia, Bermagui has a goldfield that extends into the sea. Montreal Goldfield operated from 1880-1883, when 250kg of gold was unearthed using just picks and shovels. A richer lode was found on Gulaga, where 600kg was mined until 1920.

Such is the beauty of Bermi, as it’s affectionately called, that I holidayed there for years. Since then I’ve bought a house overlooking the ocean. Perhaps I’ll see you at the River Rock Cafe.


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