If you were never one to read outdoor magazines in the 60s, 70s and 80s, then maybe you can be forgiven for not knowing about Vic McCristal.
But rest assured, there will be many tough old blokes around the country who will mourn deeply the passing of a man they knew as McSea. Vic inspired many Australians to go outdoors, and did a great deal to encourage those who did to tread lightly.
Vic, who died at the age of 86 this past week in his home town of Cardwell, north Queensland was never a celebrity in the modern sense, but those who know of his work commonly refer to him as Australia’s best and most influential fishing writer. He is sometimes described as both the father of outdoor journalism and of sports fishing itself in this country.
Vic was born to a family descended from pioneer cedar getters in the Garden of Eden-like setting of Bellingen on the north coast of NSW. One of his earliest memories was the sight of fish swimming free in the Bellinger River. He later recalled, in his typical understated style, that from then on, fishing for him was never entirely about killing fish.
Before he was old enough to go to school, Vic recalled being taught how to catch prawns and ghost crabs with his bare hands by an Aboriginal woman, one of the Kelly’s from Nambucca. The trick, by the way, is to frighten prawns with one hand and catch them with the other, and for crabs, to place a small stick in the hole and ambush them when they emerge. His admiration for the bushcraft of Aborigines never left him and informed his philosophy on fishing.
He also recalled, as a 12-year-old, being scolded by an uncle for returning fish he had caught to the river. Vic later became one of the very first fishing writers to advocate catch and release – now universally practiced by anglers across Australia.
Vic got a taste of journalism on Bellingen’s Courier Sun newspaper as a young teenager, relinquishing the position when the regular journalists returned from WWII. As a young man, he worked in a range of jobs, including as a carpenter for building projects that were part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
In his spare time, Vic enjoyed fishing and hunting, before deciding that he could do better than many of the writers he was reading, and submitted his first article to Outdoors magazine in 1954. Vic’s exceptional clear writing style (“A lure is a lie told by a man to a fish”) and eye for detail was noticed immediately, and Vic quickly established himself as a professional writer.
Vic moved to Cardwell in north Queensland in 1966. From here he became a prominent chronicler of the glamorous early years when marlin the size of small cars were being hauled in off Cairns. Typical of him, he upset some of the local operators by challenging the tradition that the first marlin captured by an angler should be killed and brought back to shore.
This was the kind of moral stand that punctuated his career – for example, he refused to write for hunting magazines when editors started changing his copy to make a kill sound cleaner than it really was.
He is also remembered as the first person to systematically chronicle fishing for barramundi in the Kakadu and Kimberleys with lures, creating trails followed by many.
Although he wrote several books, his lasting legacy is his 1974 classic, The Rivers & The Sea. If you think it is hyperbolic to describe this as what would happen if Hemingway wrote The Canterbury Tales maybe you should find a copy. This long out-of-print book is a forgotten classic of Australian literature, and signals the time when outdoor enthusiasts began to understand they needed to look after the outdoors if they were to enjoy it.
This one work testifies to Vic’s outstanding talent, and his abiding love for the environment and those who inhabit it.
He was the Foundation President of the peak recreational fishing body, the Australian National Sportfishing Association, which had its seeds in roadside meetings with barefoot anglers. To this day, its Constitution – containing a balance of common-sense and an innate sense of fairness – has his thumbprints all over it.
Vic lived alone in Cardwell, until Cyclone Yasi precipitated a move to a local retirement home.
Vic is survived by sisters Valmai Atkins, Elaine Murphy and Moyna Whyte and his many nephews and nieces.