Fishing with an Old Man of the Sea

[Originally published in the November 2021 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
By Elinor Bullen

WILLIAM “Pop” Bullen, like many others, departed from England in the late 1940s to relocate to the healthier climate of Durban, bringing his wife and four children with him.
Having been an ardent salmon angler “back home”, it wasn’t surprising that when he spotted a small boat being towed down Point Road and around the Point Prison towards the sea, he followed it to find out where the craft would be launched and for what purpose. After talking to the anglers who owned the boat he was invited to crew on a ski-boat the following weekend.
At the age of 64 he thus became an ardent ski-boater and excellent ’cuda fisherman and even acquired a 3hp Seagull motor to take with him to augment the single outboard most ski-boaters used in those days. With his thick English accent and enthusiastic disposition, he soon became one of the lads among the other ski-boaters.
Pop was always a “doer”, and in 1952 he noticed a 12 metre ex-seaplane tender being auctioned. He acquired this near “hulk” compared to the other ski-boats of the time. Looking down on her she looked like a big speedboat, long and narrow, and had two big diesel engines.

Paul, Elinor and Pop Bullen with their crewman aboard Game Fish in 1960.

The previous owner had named her Game Fish and Pop decided that her name would stay. For the next few months my father was kept very busy getting her into good order. The two 98hp Perkins diesel engines were completely overhauled, the cabin was extended back by 2.5 metres enabling the engines to be inside it, and the back deck was rebuilt to make sure it was watertight. Game Fish had to be converted into a sea going craft because her life of running around on relatively calm waters working with flying boats was over.
In November 1952 Game Fish was ready to take to the open ocean. My father took every opportunity to go ’cuda fishing, trolling with his five rods pulling baits behind the boat. On occasions at least three or four rods would get strikes all at once! Poor dad would rush around striking fish and blowing his whistle to alert his crewman to come and help him. The ski-boaters used to tease Dad no end, calling his rods a forest of bamboo, saying it was no wonder he caught so many fish. For the first couple of seasons Dad fished within a few miles of Durban, Vetches Pier, No 1 and Umgeni River mouth until his confidence grew. My father had found a new wonderful interest in gamefishing.

On one particularly calm day in 1954 Dad decided to troll along the coast past Umgeni River mouth about half a mile out to sea. Knowing that there was a shooting range north of the river, he looked to see if the red flags were flying on their poles. He saw nothing, so he continued on his course, sitting in his chair watching his rods. Suddenly he was under attack! First he heard the splinter of wood near him, then he noticed water spraying up around the boat. He realised that the army was target shooting! Dad dived into the cabin, ducking down between the two large engines for protection. Meanwhile the boatman had opened up full throttle and turned the boat out to sea to avoid the flying bullets.
Once out of range my father surveyed the damage done to his beloved boat. His boatman claimed that one of the bullets came through the side window of the wheelhouse just missing him; it hit the steering column and ricocheted down the entire length of the cabin, splintering the back door frame. The bullet then ricocheted again and headed out to where dad was sitting, piercing through the fabric of his trouser leg, missing his actual leg by millimetres, and finally exiting through the side of the boat,
On my father’s return home from fishing he stopped off at the Natal Command to report his ordeal to the captain in charge at the shooting range that day. Evidently the flags were hoisted, but due to the lack of wind they were hanging limp on their poles. To cheer up my father, the captain invited him to join them at the target range the following week; he eagerly accepted and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of target shooting.

On weekends and during school holidays my brothers, Paul and Charles, and I were keen to fish with Dad. Competition was always fierce to see who was going to catch the most fish and, being the only girl among them, I had to prove I was the best. Even when my brothers were not on board and it was just Dad and I — an old man and a little girl — we were out to beat the young tough ski-boat fishermen.

Our first encounter with an enormous great white shark was quite frightening and certainly will not be forgotten by all involved. Dad and I had gone fishing at No 1 Ground; on our arrival we saw a ski-boat catching ’cuda so we took a troll past them, quickly hooking and landing a couple of fish. We then decided to take a drift just past the other boat and soon hooked up with another two fish which were promptly snapped up by a hungry shark.
Dad instructed me to start the engine and move from the area. We had travelled quite a distance when he noticed someone on board the ski-boat frantically waving a white shirt on the end of a gaff to attract our attention. I was immediately instructed to turn Game Fish back towards the little boat to find out why they needed us so urgently. As we approached them, we could see the three fishermen huddled close together in the middle of their boat, two of them holding gaffs. They looked terrified and were pointing frantically at the ocean directly below them. We were horrified to see an enormous, sinister looking great white shark gliding around below their boat.
Dad immediately instructed me to get the big shad bait into the water to lure the shark away from the ski-boat. I quickly did as he instructed, and we dragged the bait across the shark’s nose so it would pick up the scent. It soon began following us. Meanwhile the ski-boat quickly started its engines and raced off in the opposite direction to safety. The shark continued to follow the shad until we retrieved the bait. When it finally passed the back of our boat just a couple of metres away from us, the width of the shark’s head including its two pectoral fins, was wider than our boat’s transom. I felt a shiver of fear run through my body at seeing such a huge monster so close to our boat, but fortunately it then silently disappeared into the depths.

King mackerel caught off Umdloti from Game Fish in 1954.

During 1956, before I started keeping a logbook recording our boat catches, I can remember one particular day when the ’cuda went into a feeding frenzy. It was a calm, hot day, and our helmsman had not turned up for work, but Dad and I decided to take the boat out anyway; we would just have to gaff fish and remove hooks ourselves.
We trolled towards Umgeni River mouth, and found the ’cuda a couple of kilometres offshore. The bite was so intense, with us catching fish after fish, that we used up our bait in no time and we had to cut the belly shine off our dead fish to use. By lunch time we were so exhausted that we decided to leave the fish and head for home before the south-westerly buster hit us. We knew from our fast-falling barometer that there was ominous weather brewing, and fortunately arrived back at the dock just after 1pm before the bad weather hit. The two of us had caught 66 good sized ’cuda; this catch turned out to be our best catch ever for a morning’s outing. At the time Dad was 70 and I was 15 years old.
On one particular Sunday in April 1960 we left Durban later than usual and headed to Umdloti, 26km north with a travelling time of 45 minutes. On arrival, we could see many other ski-boat anglers were already catching fish. Dad grumbled that we should have left home earlier. Nevertheless, we soon joined the frenzy and with all five reels screaming, it was hard to decide which one to grab first to strike. Dad was blowing his whistle madly for our crewman to stop the boat and help us. Another exciting day on Game Fish had begun.
By lunchtime the fishing had quietened down, much to our relief, and we could enjoy the tea and sandwiches my mother had prepared for us. Dad asked me to count the fish in the box on the deck. When I opened it up it was nearly full and I estimated about 25 fish of around 5kg each. We had hardly finished our lunch when the ’cuda started biting again, so it was back into action. Around 4pm we decided to call it a day. We had just packed our rods away in the cabin when ski-boat S134 with the Mattsson brothers and crew Kenny Wightman aboard came motoring up to our boat. Their ski-boat was very overloaded with ’cuda and they had come to ask my father if we could take several sacks of their fish back to Durban for them; they would then collect the fish at the dock later. My father was always very helpful to the ski-boaters so he was only too happy to oblige them, and several bags were packed inside our cabin walkway. I can remember dad joking with Andy and Frank Mattsson that he would replace all their large fish with our small ones. They were very pleasant chaps and great anglers; it turned out that they had landed 88 ’cuda that day compared to our little catch of 42 fish.
From 1952 to 1962 we had some amazing big catches of ’cuda. Some days when we returned home we were too tired to even eat the supper my mother had prepared for us. Instead we would bath and fall into our beds to sleep. Yet we still managed to rise at 3.30am the next day to be on the fishing grounds before sunrise. If the fishing was slow during the day Dad would sometimes go into the cabin and sleep for an hour or so to help rejuvenate himself.

Elinor with a 26.8kg cuda she caught off Game Fish in 1958.

When my father was 75 he had a major operation which put him out of action for some weeks. During that time I decided to obtain my skipper’s ticket so that I could take the boat out to fish. I had unofficially skippered Game Fish for years, so at the age of 20 I decided to call in at the Port Captain’s office and make an appointment.
On arriving I was instructed to go to an office where I was confronted by a man with dark, piercing eyes and very bushy eyebrows. He introduced himself to me as Captain Nesbit, and my confidence suddenly left me as he looked so fierce.
After I gave him my details and our boat’s name he started firing numerous questions at me. I must have answered them correctly, as he then instructed me to wait in the outer office until my pilot’s exemption letter was brought to me.
I was overjoyed — at last I was officially a Captain with a Harbour & Railways letter to prove it!

One particular species my father was not keen for me to catch was marlin, as he said they took too long to pull in and he battled to sell them. However, on the occasions when Dad was sleeping onboard, I would sneak out a large bait especially rigged up for a marlin.
On one particular afternoon while trolling off Umdloti I hooked into a very strong fish on a large shad bait. The fish did not show itself after I struck, so at first I was not sure what I had actually hooked. I instructed the helmsman to chase down my line to see if we could get closer to whatever it was.
My word what, a shock we all had — it was the biggest marlin we had ever seen at that stage. The marlin was cruising along just below the surface minding its own business and I wondered if it actually knew that it was hooked.
My tackle was a 9/0 Penn Senator with 24kg line on it, and there was no fighting chair or harness on board to help me fight this mighty fish. For three long hours I stood at the front of our boat trying every trick I could think up to turn or tire the fish. At one stage we managed to come within about 30 metres of it.
For the duration of the fight a ski-boat from Durban had been standing by, ready to assist us if need be. Eventually they came alongside and suggested that one of them should take over the rod from me. I readily agreed as I was exhausted.
A very strong looking young man named Alf boarded Game Fish and eagerly took over my rod.
Although he pulled hard on the fish for over an hour, it still made no difference to the marlin which just kept swimming strongly up the coast. We eventually realised the fish was far too big for us and cut it loose.
I subsequently had the opportunity to fish for marlin on a number of occasions and landed a few good ones, but that’s a story for another day.

In late 1962 I decided to quit fishing (briefly) and join my sister who was living in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). During the two years I was away my dad fished with his helmsman, and occasional my brothers, Paul and Charles, went on the boat with him. Unfortunately no one kept a record of what was caught after I left the boat, though I am sure that a lot more fish were landed.
In 1970, at the age of 84, my father sold Game Fish; he’d owned her for over 18 years. Our family was in stitches when Dad told us that the new owner had only bought her, because he was told that she caught lots of fish!
The last couple of years of William “Pop” Bullen’s life were not good as his cancer came back and he died in September 1974 at the ripe old age of 88.
Thinking back I realised how fortunate I was to experience such an amazing life due to my father teaching me how to fish and encouraging me to follow my dreams.
Little did he know in those early days that he had charted a course for me to follow which I managed to successfully navigate, going on to catch many more fish, including some records, and spending 26 years working for ORI. But that too is another story for another day.

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