A selection of hand-carved planks.
James Dickey’s plank.
Bill Wisely coaching his son in the art of planking.
The Witchdoctor, todays most successful game-fish teaser. The shape of Bill Wisely's original 'plank' can be seen under the smoke and mirrors.
A Short History of the Plank
The plank first came to my attention when I witnessed its use during The Island War. This particular version was a crude affair, consisting mainly of the kinds of planks one sees on backyard fences, though with a handle shaped for a better grip. James Dickey’s plank was another thing altogether: based on the clubs used in the trenches in WW1, Dickey wielded his plank with an artist’s flourish, skittling Waggaists and sometimes other poets as he went in chanting and smiling.
Bill Wisely was the first to use a plank. Fishing from West Fort late one afternoon, he caught a Waggafish using one of Ian the Squid-man’s famous live-baits. When the Wagga came up thrashing and snarling, Bill lifted it into the belly of his boat and took to it with the plank he’d ripped rom the Brooklyn jetty a few days earlier. The Wagga was bucking and throwing red slime. Bill’s hand was a blur as he turned the huge Wagga to red slime.
Soon Bill had a huge collection of planks. His room at the Angler’s Rest was bristling with planks of various lengths and widths. He had planks for dealing with Waggas, planks for sorting out fights at the pub, and planks he used as teasers - these were towed behind his boat while trolling for Waggas and yellowfin tuna. They were painted red, green and blue, and had fragments of mirror glued onto them to attract fish from the deep.
Bill’s plank collection soon became an obsession. The plank he’d used to kill the Wagga was framed and hung on the wall behind the bar at the Angler’s Rest. Bill’s talk became so plank-based, that hardly anyone understood him. The word ‘plank’ appeared so many times in each sentence, the word itself became stripped of all meaning. “Plank you,” he’d say, when giving thanks. “Quite plankly, I don’t give a flying fuck,” was another of his favourite expressions.
News of the plank soon spread, especially within Australia’s tight-lipped and highly secretive fishing community. Steve Starling, our finest fishing journalist, came to Brooklyn to interview Bill about his planks and quickly became a devotee. In Modern Fishing, Starling wrote “...if ten percent of anglers catch ninety percent of the fish, then Bill Wisely is owed one hundred percent credit for introducing Australia to this extraordinary wooden item.” Starling’s article appeared in the February 2005 issue, and within weeks Brooklyn was alive with those wanting to seek Bill’s counsel. He responded by barricading himself in his room, and abusing the plank-disciples from his second-story window.
It soon became clear that the plank, when in the right hands, was not simply a weapon or Wagga-pacifier - it had fish-attracting properties. Steve Starling found this out first-hand while fishing with his mate Bushy out at Rowley Shoals. The fishing had been slow, so Starlo brought his plank and lowered the polished blade into the water. He waved it back and forth, slowly. Soon a school of massive dog-tooth tuna swept in from the around the other side of the atoll and went berserk around the boat, tail-swamping Starling and Bushy with seawater like Flipper, and eyeing the plank as they ripped past, snapping and glowing. That afternoon they caught green job fish, huge barracuda, coral trout and wahoo. The prize was a 250 kilo Waggafish, which Starling attracted and then subdued with his favourite plank.
In England, planks are now used while coarse fishing. Many a pike has known the allure and bite of a deftly-wielded plank. In South Africa, planks are used in the long-distance beach fishing championships: 15’-long, curved and hollowed planks are used to fling a 150gram lead sinker the length of a football field. On the Bellinger River, planks are being used for yabbying and for smashing European carp. Even in the wheat-belt, WA, planks are now the mainstay for farmers wanting to catch the marron that migrate from dam to dam. Despite the Red K’s petition and a flurry of activity on his homepage, thousands of these huge, tasty crustaceans have been planked, cooked and devoured.
I myself have a plank. I fought the urge for weeks, but having seen Bill Wisely at work on the upper reaches of the river, his various planks singing and flying in his hands, I relented and placed my order. Bill is a master plank-craftsman. My plank is made from jarrah, has a handle in the shape of a dragon-fly tail, and one of the landscapes in my book Ross’ Poems has been lovingly carved into the blade.
“There is a teaser lure called the Witchdoctor, it is Peter Pakula’s first invention. Initially designed for use while trolling live baits, the Witchdoctor is accepted as the best fish exciter for all game fishing trolling applications. At trolling speeds the Witchdoctor stays deep below the prop-wash, sending out irresistible vibrations, flashing reflected shafts of fluorescent blue and purple light in all directions, and unlike any other teaser, it never comes to the surface to interfere and tangle with trolling lines.”
The above paragraph is a typical description by a fishing writer promoting the most famous ‘plank’ in game fishing. It claims Peter Pakula invented the Witchdoctor game-fish teaser. It’s true that Pakula came up with many classic lures - the Konahead is one that comes to mind - however, it is not completely true that Pakula invented the Witchdoctor. Here is an account of how the witchdoctor was ‘invented’ and how it was manufactured and marketed by Peter Pakula.
Some years ago when Pakula was in Sydney, he wanted to catch a black marlin, so he hired a game-boat called The Sheriff and set out with its skipper and crew to fish Brown’s Mountain. It happened that Bill Wisely was one of the crew of and on this trip Bill was the live-bait and gaff-man. After a great session of tagging three black marlin and a Mako shark, Pakula had a strike and was hooked up with something big. It was swimming hard and deep and not acting like anything the crew could indentify by its behavior. After about a half an hour Bill called it for a black kingfish, a huge cobia. When they finally saw colour and had the fish on the surface they couldn’t believe their eyes.
What the hell was this incredibly ugly looking fish? Because Bill was handling the trace and gaff he decided to pull the fish aboard to get a better look. When it hit the deck the fish started to ‘growl’ and lurched at the nearest crew member and threw off a foul smelling red slime. This fish turned out to be the first recorded Waggafish caught by a game fishing boat in Sydney waters. When Pakula grabbed the gaff and poked the fish, the Wagga turned its head and snapped at the gaff, breaking it in two. The angry red fish was about to go for Pakula’s leg, but Bill Wisely grabbed his plank and started in on the fish. Something inside Bill snapped out there on the sea that day above Brown’s Mountain. Wisley went into a frenzy of planking the waggafish and within five minutes had turned it into a pulp of dark red jelly on the deck.
This action of Bill’s frightened the shit out of everyone on board. The skipper decided to call it a day. As they cruised back in towards the coast, Bill was trying to wash his plank in the live bait tank. The gunk, slime and red speckled scales embedded in the wood just wouldn’t budge. Bill decided the plank needed to be rinsed by sea-water, so he tied a trace around it and threw it over the stern into the wake. After The Sheriff had towed the plank for awhile, it started to dive and ‘swim’ in a peculiar manner. Bill pulled it closer to the back of the boat and saw that the red scales embedded in the grain of the plank were sparkling. A couple of the crew members came to have a look, they were astonished to see three black marlin were following the plank as Bill wound it back in. Peter Pakula started taking photographs and making notes. He then questioned Bill exhaustively about his old ‘plank’. Six months later, the first batch of ‘Witchdoctors’ appeared in the tackle shops, and these were not much more than versions of Bill’s plank painted red with mirrors glued to both sides.