Sunday 17 August 2014

Exmouth: how we didn't catch (m)any fish at all     

Okay, so it isn't a bonefish ... Georgina's first Exmouth catch on fly was this stargazer, being held by our guide, Allan Donald, of Fly Fishing Frontiers

Words and photos: MIKE GEE

Saltwater fly fishing is the new Mecca for worshippers to the shrine of the fly. Just pick up an #8, #9 or #10, add suitably specialist line (or just go intermediate like the rest of us), tie on 15-20lb leader, add clouser and go!

Or so you think. But, as we found out, it comes with a brand new world of disciplines, problems and ways to screw up.

For those of you, like us, who have spent years, even lifetimes, mastering the wiles of pursuing trout in country as challenging as the art itself, saltwater fly fishing looks a safe bet.

Look at all that ocean and estuary out there, brimming with piscatorials just dying to leap at a sparkling fly (they do look sexy) the moment it hits the water.


Our latest trip to the bone fishing capital of Australia, Exmouth, educated us, in so many ways, as to why the clouser-casting, muscle-stretching image may be slightly suspect.

Firstly, it's a long way to get there from the Eastern States of Australia yet alone anywhere else in the civilised world. You can fly to New Zealand - the rightful place of worship for all trout bums - and be in a stream fishing in half the time it takes to get to Exmouth. 

No matter. Out of seven hours of flying and several hours of hanging around airports comes the promise of bonefish spearing rapier-like down a sandy flat through a turquoise blue sea.

Or at least a couple of Golden Trevally, a Queenfish, perhaps a Permit or Mangrove Jack... 

Or... Or... Or...

Aah such stuff are dreams made of.

Mike Gee looked the part, at least
As we sit here, arms, shoulders and backs sore from the extertions of four days, it is possible to dream, but the reality is less comforting.

What if I was to tell you that one of our leading fly fishers, a man at the very peak of our sport cut short a recent two-week trip because the water was so blown out by a storm and the resulting floods that the fish were holidaying in a different state.

Or that on our trip the wind blew so badly that one of the local fishing store staff reported the only reports he'd heard in the last week were from boaties returning either empty-handed from hours in chop-smashed seas or simply unable to get out to sea.

Georgina Swan - ready for the weather
Then there were two fellow fly fishers staying at our hotel, the Novatel (Exmouth 5-star, elsewhere 4-star), who we would see at breakfast everyday pouring over a tablet device, checking the latest weather reports from three or four different sources, hoping to find that the wind was abating. Mostly it wasn't.

Naturally enough, the day we left it did. Cue two passengers on the flight from Learmonth to Perth (you can't fly direct from anywhere - you have to connect through Perth or Darwin).

Passenger one: How did you end up?

Passenger two: I gave up fly fishing, then I gave lure fishing, eventually I ended up on some rocks with bait and got a garfish.

Passenger one: Better than me. I got a blowfish over three days.

The point of these anecdotes is not to put down the Exmouth fishing experience but rather to point out that a lot can go wrong and conspire to make fishing either difficult or impossible. And, despite all the glossy fishing mag articles filled with stories of huge fish and massive hauls, there are no guarantees that you will catch anything at all. Just like anywhere else, really.

That said, let's get down to the good stuff because on any fishing trip there always plenty of positives.

Georgina fishing the Ningaloo Reef flats - glorious
There is nothing more glorious - other than standing in a trout stream in the middle of nowhere framed by mountain and forest - than standing on a Ningaloo Reef sand flat, 400 metres from shore, the water still well below the waist, casting flies, hard bodied lures or soft plastics across the turquoise water or into the darker channel along the edge of the reef.

We drew a blank but we had one experience that will live with us forever.

Early in the day before we reached the flats, we were casting hard bodies - rip and slash - into a strong breeze when three dolphins appeared about 150m out to sea. Nothing too remarkable in that. They were cruising slowly along, doing plenty of show and show more, when all of a sudden about a dozen panicked sea mullet jumped out of the sea parallel to them. The dolphins showed little interest - mullet wasn't on the menu, apparently.

This, however, did little to assuage the mullet because all of a sudden - in tempo with the waves as they rolled in - a wave of mullet erupted out of the water well above the wave top heading straight for shore. And then another wave erupted, and another, and another, until there were four mullet fronts up and flying at a time - and like heat-seeking missiles risen from the kraken wakes headed towards us, their big bull heads glinting in the sun. It looked like an invasion. 

Within 30 seconds there was an ocean of mullet within five metres of our feet. They boiled and twisted, turned to look back out to sea and, finally, sensing the dolphins had moved on, they slowly drifted back whence they had come.

I have trapped in my mind a picture of those waves of mullet, flying through the air, all arc and graceful touchdown, arc and touchdown.

Such moments are reasons alone to fish. Nature's grand cycle of life and all it involves can be so splendid and breathtaking.

The dolphins also had the same fishing pattern in mind as we did. A few hundred metres down the beach, the reef touched closer to the shore, and then swung out to sea, as the beach line kicked back towards the range creating the perfect flats bay and access to the reef for at least 800 metres.

So here's one of the great levellers of fishing: a bikini-clad French woman in her 20s using squid and octopus for bait caught more than we did - albeit a smallish spangled emperor and a solid spotted cod - by casting adroitly along the reef edge.

There are a lot of spotted cod along this stretch of coastline.

Whether the dolphins had shut down the area or we didn't fling acceptable lures - a local fisho assured me they were on the money - there was little action, the odd nudge and hit but no solid takes. We'd left the fly rods in the car due to the blustery prevailing wind but they would have been ideal on this sheltered flat. Ah well, next time.

Flats fishing on Ningaloo Reef
After a couple of hours we moved on, driving 20 minutes down the long road that winds through the Cape Range National Park from Yardie Creek to the Lighthouse which marks its turning point inland, eventually ending up in Exmouth.

This flat offered a different challenge; the sand ran in channels through a rock and reef strewn bottom. This is stonefish country, so - as for all shore-based flats fishing in the area - wear a pair of solid water shoes. 

A series of old fence posts flanked a sandy point being investigated by several pelicans and it was here we found the most fish. Twice great surges through the water sent hundreds of baitfish racing ahead, then all would be quiet again. Whatever was causing the kommotion it was thoroughly disinterested in whatever lure we worked through these waters.

The tide, incoming for an hour to high, was perfect, and as Georgina wryly commented in the end it came down to luck, to being in exactly the right position at the right time - which we weren't, although most times we were only 50 metres or less from where the water suddenly boiled and the small fish went shake, rattle and roll.

Nature, however,  injected another memorable moment. As I cast across the flat, a head suddenly popped out of the water about 1.5 metres in front of me. It is arguable who was more shocked, the large turtle or myself. It eyed me for about 20 seconds, a wet E.T. of some distant alien past, then disappeared in a blink. 

Turtles abound on Ningaloo Reef and lay their eggs in the many sanctuary zones.

The day was done, the fish total was none, but it still felt like a splendid day.

Allan Donald of Fly Fishing Frontiers - we recommend him
The same could be said of our day out with our excellent guide, Allan Donald of Fly Fishing Frontiers. Conditions were so unsuitable - overcast, drizzling, and windy - that he suggested postponing but we didn't have any days to postpone to, so we decided to brave the murk anyway.

Allan had already popped over the previous afternoon and taken us to the local oval for some practice sessions on #10 rods, Georgina and I having never cast anything above an #8 before. They are big rods - heavier than the average freshwater fly rod - with an action that determines a really specific cast. Stop the back cast at 2pm and pause for however long it takes to get the line right out then slight down haul at noon - if you can - before letting go with plenty of oomph around 10am.

After an hour or so including 15 minutes into the wind - because a lot of flats fly fishing on a boat, at least in Exmouth, ends up being into the wind - we were done. As if life wasn't tough enough already.

We launched from Tantabiddi, the main ramp on the western side of Cape Range National Park around 9am; mercifully the wind was blowing straight as a die from the east which meant the flats were protected to some degree and the water conditions were relatively benign. Then the Gods of Fishing decided it was time for a designated downpour. Wet we got. 

However, it was also obvious that the cloud was breaking up and sun wasn't too distant. Much better conditions for fish spotting from Alan's perspective.

Georgina took up front casting deck position with a #10 weight and clouser while I took the rear with an Innovator Nitro spin rod and a hardbody lure called a buckeye. Alan's seven-year-old makes up an intriguing homegrown version for him (at a dollar a pop).

Remarkably, despite having to cast into a 30km/h wind Georgina soon had a fish on fly ... a small, okay very small, fish, but a fish nonetheless. You had to feel sorry for the stargazer - so named because the eyes are on top of its head - which really had bitten off more than it could chew. 

Fifteen minutes later she was on again, this time bringing in a more respectably sized Spotted Cod. 

Georgina with her spotted cod - which are plentiful along Ningaloo Reef

Soon after I hooked into a really solid fish; the line screamed and peeled away, and we were away. Unfortunately, a reel-burning dive a minute or two in took it to a nice piece of coral and it was gone. Given the prevailing fishing in the area it was most likely a decent spangled emperor. Impressive.

The wind then made a crucial play, swinging to the north-west. This meant the swell and the waves were now rolling into shore and the journey back would be into the face of the wind and water. It also picked up to around the 35-50 km/h mark rendering fly fishing near impossible.

Georgina switched to a Nitro and began casting large lemon Gulp shad plastics while I switched to a popper for a while before switching back to the buckeye. Eventually, I hauled in, you guessed it, a spotted cod.

The one that eventually got away
Fifteen minutes later and a larger fish towed her around the front of the boat before diving under a rock and despite Alan’s best efforts to extricate it eventually breaking off.

A few times bigger fish, queenfish on one occasion, would split the swell open briefly. Golden Trevally reign in these inshore waters so they were the most likely other culprits. But these were now tough fishing conditions.

We continued south-east with Alan picking out the best flats and bommies and again I hooked into something very large - line peeled off rapidly with Alan chasing it as I got braid back. Then we saw it - a huge turtle. Alan immediately cut the line and freed it. Apparently, turtles have a fondness for artificial lures. And on that small piece of flat we saw another three.

Allan Donald looking for fish
Oddly, we then then had lunch on those wind chopped, swell cut, flats. Alan asked if we wanted to go on as he had some bommies and more flats to visit on the way back. Initially, we agreed. The sun was coming out, surely it couldn't be too bad. Then we turned back into the wind. Waves began pouring over the boat and us. As we hit top speed to reach planing - the most efficient way to travel over waves - each one hurled itself venomously into my face and body. We were drenched in minutes. It was then Georgina and I looked at each other and around 2pm decided enough was enough. The next 25 minutes are the wettest moments of my life. I've fly fished through torrential downpours, in snow, slipped and fallen in 5C rivers and half frozen, but never have I been so thoroughly drowned as wave after wave smashed in.

Looking back, we smile about it; another adventure, another batch of stories. But right then ... It was bloody miserable, although I secretly reckon Georgina loved every soaking second of it.

When we got back to the ramp, there were a couple of other erstwhile fishermen and boaties who helped Alan get the boat on the trailer in what had become treacherous conditions. They, it turned out, had been trying to get out there for three days but the seas and wind were just too big for their small boat and liking.

They seemed amazed we had gone out; looking back perhaps I am too. But, you know, I'd do it again. And Georgina would be in that boat before you could blink. Because this is what we do whenever we can. Live to fish.

Fly fishing in Wapet Creek for queenfish
 and mangrove jack
And that is really the end of this tale. We found some more untouched lonely flats and beaches over the next couple of days, strode in wonder and awe through this naked, sun-smacked land, faced the breeze and chased crabs through the shallows. We found Wapet Creek - a mangrove swamp - and smacked poppers and hard bodies at disinterested queenfish and mangrove jacks; the tide was never really in our favour. 

And we found where it enters the sea surrounded by kilometres of flats renowned - in the right season - for the permit that run them.

There are a hundred barren shores and turquoise flats left to visit and we will find fish and remember these days when it just didn't happen. Tight lines.
Wapet Creek enters the sea to the right of this photo - at high tide
these are permit flats