As he walked along the jetty outside the Stockton Prawners’ Club, Geoffrey Hyde looked mournfully at his beloved Hod.
“No nets, no cooker, no cooling tanks,” the 82-year-old said, shaking his head at the sight of his stripped trawler.
“Bloody shocking. I never expected to be doing this in my bloody life.”
Geoff Hyde, whose name is synonymous with prawning along the Hunter River, has finally hauled in the nets. A crook shoulder has forced him to retire after almost 68 years on the water.
Mr Hyde began prawning on the river in 1951, when the 15-year-old headed out with his father, Vic. By the following year, Geoff Hyde had bought his own boat, the first of his six he would own, working the river with a valuable lesson from his father.
“In this game, you can’t be too mouthy,” Mr Hyde said. “If you catch a lot of prawns, you’ve got to keep it to yourself, otherwise everyone comes in.”
They came anyway. He recalled counting 105 boats on the river one day.
For a time, Mr Hyde headed beyond Nobbys, saying he was the first fisher to find king prawns in the depths of Stockton Bight, in 1962. But the river kept calling him back.
When asked about his most productive day on the river, he pointed towards the steelworks channel and replied, “The early 1960s, just over there. It was the [season’s] opening day. By noon, I had 2700 pounds (about 1225 kilograms) of prawns.”
Mr Hyde has seen lean times as well. For six weeks after the 1955 flood, there wasn’t a prawn to be found, but after that, they were “thick as buggery”, with all the food in the water.
But human impact on the river’s health had been enormous. He cited the effects of the installation of floodgates, particularly around Hexham Swamp.
“It was the biggest king prawn nursery in NSW until the floodgates went on,” Mr Hyde said.
The prawners had suffered further setbacks, including the closure of the fishery for the 2016-17 season, due to the Williamtown RAAF chemical contamination controversy. The drought has also robbed the water of vital environmental flows, creating the conditions for Geoff Hyde’s last prawning season to be his worst: “I’ve never seen it like this.”
The prawning fleets have gone. These days, Mr Hyde said, there were only 18 trawlers working on the river, and he feared for the Hunter prawning industry’s future.
“It’s buggered,” he said of the river as a fishery. “There’s no food in it for the prawns, and if there’s no prawns in there, there’s no fish.”
Craig Stringer, from Stockton Prawners’ Club, paid tribute to what Mr Hyde had done for the local industry.
“Definitely one of the leaders,” Mr Stringer said. “He’s a real honour to the joint.”
Mr Hyde is taking Hod out for one final voyage on the river on Father’s Day with his family, before the trawler cruises to Tasmania, to be used as a pleasure boat by his son. Mr Hyde is planning to spend more time at his Fern Bay house and on the road in the motorhome with Pat, his wife of 58 years.
The Hunter River won’t be part of his professional future, but it will always be part of Geoff Hyde.
“The whole river is magic,” he said. “Going out there every day, catching a few prawns, that’s what I’ll miss.”
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.