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Obituary: Rex Hunt, Football star, Entertainer, Fishing Show Host and Cultural Reference Point

[Edition 36] Never a modest man, Hunt none the less was, in private, a vastly different person to the gauche fishing icon he was in public. He loathed fishing, preferring to relax in his Melbourne home listening to chamber music. Even his catch-cry, “Yibbetty-Yibbetta” was somewhat contrived, being the subject of exhaustive research into what might constitute a neutral, ethnically non-aligned and engaging schtick with which to secure the fame he craved.

“He was with us, but was not one of us.”
– Sir Gustav Nossal, delivering the eulogy at Hunt’s funeral

[Edition 36] Australian fishing has been blessed with few heroes. Certainly, Patrick “Whoops” Nossal, the big South Australian who loved to bring back the marlin from the Bight. Vick Hisslop, relentless in his pursuit of the white pointer, that he claims can kill a man “up to 50km from the coast”. Jeff Westlake, the innovator who first introduced the ‘hook’ into Australian fishing in 1964. All these, however, pale into insignificance to the “Bradman of the reel”, Rex Hunt who died at his home in Mordialloc, Victoria, earlier this week.

Never a modest man (his website, www.rexhunt.com.au, describes him as “Australia’s hottest personality”), Hunt none the less was, in private, a vastly different person to the gauche fishing icon he was in public. In truth, he loathed fishing, preferring to relax in his Melbourne home listening to chamber music rather than spending time down at the pub. Even his catch-cry, “Yibbetty-Yibbetta” was somewhat contrived, being the subject of exhaustive research into what might constitute a neutral, ethnically non-aligned and engaging schtick with which to secure the fame he craved.

His football career commenced with Richmond, a team who, at that stage, were struggling in the second division of the Victorian Scrabble league. Their subsequent change of codes from Scrabble to the more open style of play in Australian Rules Football suited the towering men of the Richmond team, and they soon left their earlier dismal record behind them. Hunt was the engine-room of this transformation, dazzling crowds with his displays of ball control and finesse. The statistics tell the story, with Hunt himself moving from a dismal 23-34-12, including only 3 Triple Word Scores, 2 Double Letter Scores, and 5 Uses of the “X”, to a stunning season debut on the football field. His 1978 season totalling 236 goals with an average of 8 goals per game, often from as many attempts.

Richmond soon moved into the top quarter of the league, squaring off against the newly created Hawthorn and a refreshed South Melbourne (who had recently moved across from a disastrous stint as Australia’s only all-male Women’s Hockey team). As a fitting reminder that he began his football career as a professional board-games player, his affectionate nickname on the field throughout his career was “Scrabble” (as in, “R-E-X-H-U-N-T… It’s got 7 letters, and scores 50 points”). Football, however, was to prove merely a stepping stone to his one true career path and a place in cultural history: the popularisation of fishing-based content designed for a cable TV market.

Even as a footballer, Rex displayed a passion for the theatre that set him aside from his team-mates. Despite his antipathy to actual fishing, Rex resolved early on that fishing entertainment would be his path to glory and a mechanism to avoid the inevitable early retirement of the professional athlete. Of course, not all went as planned. Early attempts to put in place a fishing sketch show format as half-time entertainment during Richmond games were viewed coolly in the austere football world of the 70s, where most players had rough working-class backgrounds and few saw the natural synergies between football and fishing that would be viewed as self-evident in years to come.

The breakthrough came in 1983. Rex had already broken into the then largely unexplored field of fishing radio programs (his first show, for ABC Radio and titled “Fish Me Out!” lasted for 7 hours and was recorded directly from his boat in Port Phillip Bay. After the initial discussion of baiting his hook, he spoke very little, except to remind listeners that in fishing it is necessary to be very, very quiet). However, a friend was experimenting with a VHS videocamera nearby. As the team of 7 men carrying the camera walked past, the amateur camera-man noticed Rex through the view-finder, and paused to watch him fish. As he later told his biographer: “He pulled this fish out of the water, and then I saw it: Rex moved his face forward, and engaged in a long, deep, wet kiss with the fish, while rubbing himself erotically against its slimy side. I knew that if we could only tone it down a bit, make it family-friendly but still leave the deep undertones of sexuality between man and fish, we could make television history.”

Rex Hunt’s Fishing World became a media sensation, with millions of fans in 76 countries and 9 languages. The winning formula remained the same – the long, slow build-up, the tense energetic tussle of the fight to land the fish, the inevitable piscine intimacy captured on close-up. Churches, community groups and people who disapproved of carnal knowledge involving fish were outraged, but the fans knew what they wanted.

Sadly Rex’s end came as a unique product of his lifelong disdain for the science of fishing (and in particular for the ability to tell one fish from another) coupled with his love of a fishy embrace. Zoologists agreed today that in failing to identify the highly venomous spiny pufferfish, Hunt almost certainly brought about his own death. When it was over, in an impossibly short time, the startled deadly fish had escaped, but the damage was done. The man they called “rhyming slang on legs” lay dead, and a chapter in the tumultuous, ever-changing and dynamic world of fishing-based cable television was at an end.

Yibbetty-Yibbetta.