Sydney: Adventures in worm whispering

By Jenny Tabakoff

The Pacific Highway is a road of endless possibilities. Every turn-off to the east leads to a beach, headland or estuary that is a happy memory or dream for someone.

Beachworms lie in the wet sand, waiting to be tempted out by tasty morsels of burley. Photo / Thinkstock
Beachworms lie in the wet sand, waiting to be tempted out by tasty morsels of burley. Photo / Thinkstock

Hundreds of thousands of people make their own particular annual pilgrimage on the Pacific Highway, taking the turn-off to what they are certain is the ultimate NSW coastal destination with the whitest sand, best surf breaks, most suicidal fish.

Until this year, The Lakes Way that leads to Forster, Tuncurry and Pacific Palms was, for me, a road not travelled.

It leads, via 40km of twisting road and ever-denser cabbage-tree palms, to the white, crunchy sands of Seven Mile Beach. Here, as if on cue, two (or was it three?) whales put on a display about 80 metres offshore, black backs arching out of the ocean, tails flicking and disappearing beneath the waves.

When people talk about how they feel when they see a whale in the wild, it sounds like a cliche. But to find yourself almost alone on a beach, sharing a moment with something so rare, so large and so obviously happy, is heart-stopping.

"What sort of whales are they?'' I ask a local.

"Any sort you like,'' she says.

Whales are, apparently, a relatively common sight here between May and early November. Even so, the local's eyes are drawn to the whales' antics and there's an involuntary smile on her face as she watches them head south. Familiarity does not breed contempt.

Whale-watching isn't even meant to be on our agenda. We are here for something much less exciting - or so we thought. Our equipment: a mesh bag with some fish heads and tails (this constitutes burley), a pair of plastic pliers and a bucket.

Yes, we are about to be initiated into the ancient art of beachworming.

Anyone who has had a go at yabbying, using a metal pump in an estuary, will know how much fun and free bait can be had from chasing after those cunning little wrigglers in the sand and shallows.

But it turns out yabbying is a doddle compared with beachworming.

Noel Turner, the maintenance man from the nearby Tiona Sundowner Tourist Park where we're staying, has volunteered to be our worm whisperer.

Beachworms lie in the wet sand, waiting to be tempted out by tasty morsels of burley. Patience and stealth are the key to catching them, says Noel: "You've got to appetise them.''

This means swishing the burley bag seductively as the waves run up on the shore, eyes peeled for worms that pop their greedy mouths up.

"There's one!''

The worm quickly disappears but, now you know its position, you flap a little piece of fish directly on its patch of sand, to tempt it out a bit further. The tactic works, and its ugly head emerges a centimetre or two above the sand.

"You got to come on them steady and quiet, so they feel comfortable,'' Noel says. "Then you hit them.''

He demonstrates the technique. "I grab them with the pliers and then I put my fingers underneath ... "Up comes a worm, the diameter of my little finger, with a curling, pulsating, slimy body that is - oh my God - a metre and a half long.

Noel has another piece of advice: "If you just pull the head with the pliers, it's going to come off.''

He looks at the gaggle of city-slickers transfixed by the worm draped over his fingers and adds: "Okay, who wants a go?''

For amateurs such as us, beachworming is a two-person operation: one to do the burley dance and keep a lookout, the other to flap the scrap of fish and attack with the pliers. No matter who has the job of getting the worm, we are always too fast, too slow, too late, too early. We end up soaked by a sneaky wave as our pliers grip empty sand.

"No, it's bolted,'' Noel says. "Better move on.''

He smiles at our frustration, encouraging us to keep trying.

"Oh, you only missed him by that much ... You were that close, mate ... He's so far under, isn't he? ... The more you do it, the better you get.''

We keep trundling along the beach, empty-handed apart from the times that Noel demonstrates the correct technique.

"If the swell comes up, don't hit the worm,'' Noel says. "Pull your pliers back. That way he'll stay there.''

But there's so much to watch and think about: the waves, the scrap of fish, the pliers, the fact that everyone else is watching ...

Oh well, we started at the southern end and Noel says the worms get bigger and better the further north you go. That means there are almost seven miles of beach and worms stretching in a beautiful arc before us.

If it were up to us, we'd never gather enough bait to drop a line in the ocean, but Noel can read the sand and his prey. He knows which way the worm's body will be lying and even how big it is likely to be, just from a brief glimpse of its head.

Soon, courtesy of his prowess, we have enough worms to try our hand at ocean fishing. The rods have to be thick, about four metres long and seriously heavy, with a whacking great sinker to get beyond the breakers and withstand the buffeting of the surf. It all combines to give us quite a workout as we stand in the waves. Is this why fishing is classified as a sport?

People say the waves here abound in whiting, "jewies'' and kingfish, and this gives rise to dreams of dinner cooked from our catch. Anyone can catch a fish, can't they?

Noel shows us how to thread a segment of worm onto the hook. A beachworm's body, it seems, was seeingly devised for this purpose, perfectly enveloping the metal. If I were a fish I'd be fooled.

Today, however, both beachworms and fish prove far more intelligent than me. Noel says we're here a shade too early and that we'd probably have better luck at sunset or early evening. We nod in doubtful agreement.

In the meantime, there's good fish, prawns, crab and oysters available at the local seafood shop. That's dinner sorted.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE:

Seven Mile Beach, part of Booti Booti National Park on the NSW mid north coast, is about 300 kilometres or three and a half hours' drive north of Sydney. A daily coach service runs from Sydney's Central Station via Newcastle airport, stopping at the Tiona Sundowner Tourist Park in Pacific Palms on its way to Forster. Information: forsterbus.com.au.

STAYING THERE:

Tiona Sundowner Tourist Park is nestled in the Booti Booti National Park between Wallis Lakes and Seven Mile Beach. It offers a range of cottages, cabins, caravans and campsites set amid cabbage tree palms. Campsites cost from NZ$32 a night - and Noel is happy to give guests the lowdown on beachworming. A five-minute walk through the cabbage tree palms takes you to the Green Cathedral, a unique open-air church where palm trees take the place of pillars. Behind the altar, instead of stained-glass windows, is a vista of Wallis Lake and the setting sun. Information: tiona.sundownerholidays.com.

PLAYING THERE:

Endless beaches and the beautiful Wallis Lake offer a wide range of holiday activities, including surfing, snorkelling, beachworming, fishing, rainforest walks through the national park. The nearby twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry have cinemas and monthly markets. If you crave something more structured, take some surf lessons. (A one-day lesson from Waves Surf School, including lunch, costs $113. See wavessurfschool.com.au.)

- AAP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 26 Nov 2014 12:40:14 Processing Time: 2321ms