Who wouldn’t love to enjoy a fishing trip that’s the stuff of dreams, one you’ll remember forever? Many anglers seek this experience overseas, but we have many special fishing places involving some travel and adventure right here in Australia. No need to see if the passport’s still current! In Queensland alone we have everything from Fraser Island to hot spots on the Cape, and heading south Tasmania has prime trout fishing. For those who like hot weather there’s the Top End, but over in WA there’s another world of fishing at Exmouth, the western-most extremity of our wide brown continent.
Exmouth is a long drive from Queensland. Perth is around 4500km away, with Exmouth 1270km north of Perth, so air travel is the way to go. Last September we left Brisbane at 8.15am, arriving at Learmonth airport (very close to Exmouth) at 3:15pm local time after jumping planes at Perth.
All luggage travelled straight through and we didn’t touch the cricket bag with the rod tubes in it until we landed at Learmonth. There we were met by expert guide Allan Donald of FlyFishingFrontiers.com. The main goal was for Denise and I to fulfil long-standing ambitions to take a billfish on fly, but during our week at Exmouth we experienced angling opportunities far beyond our initial expectations. While we chose to flyfish, Alan caters to other sportfishing methods as well. Working plastics or hardbodied lures is just as easy for him, as is trolling skirts or other lures for billfish and Exmouth’s other hard hitters.
Exmouth is blessed with a wonderful diversity of fishing. Pretty much any desirable, much sought-after fish you can think of can be caught there. Barra, jacks, GTs and other trevallies, bonefish, permit, mackerel, cobia, tuna, mahimahi, wahoo, queenies, and of course billfish – and that’s just the start. Fishing near shore reef areas can see all manner of great eating fish such as coral trout, red emperor, gold-band snapper, spangled emperor and bluebone in the icebox.
Exmouth is around level with Rockhampton in latitude, and it’s located on the eastern side of Exmouth Gulf on North West Cape. This upmarket and well set out town of around 2500 people has all the amenities you might need. There are supermarkets, tackle stores and lots of other retail outlets, and it’s very clean and well kept. Eco tourism and fishing are the drawcards. Boating anglers have a couple of bites of the cherry as far as fishing is concerned because both sides of the big promontory are accessible via sheltered boat ramps. And it’s a very pretty place, with blue water all round kissing massive expanses of white sand.
A light westerly wind on day one saw Al’s 6.2m Tru-Line centre console, equipped with a 115 Yamaha, launching at the town’s marina, with its dress circle line-up of very serious gamefishing boats. Big brawling cobia and various mackerel species as well as trevally were just outside the marina. Many options for reef fishing for tasty eaters were also handy. Huge manta rays – so graceful and placid – were accompanied by cobia. Denise and I, being flyfishing fools, loved fighting those hard-pulling cobia. They could be worked to the boat after a fair amount of grunt and strain, but soon as they saw the boat it was on again – only that time they went even harder! With line-blistered fingers and some sweat developing, we opted for a breather and enjoyed a run across to some adjoining islands.
Crystal clear sheltered water in a lee saw Denise and I casting to queenfish, permit, various emperors, and at least three species of trevally on the reef flats at high tide, while Allan moved us quietly along under Minn Kota power. If a fly was allowed to sit for more than a couple of seconds a cod or other reef dweller would whizz out from under a bommie and wreck it. Tough going, eh! While I love my flyfishing, I’m sure anglers keen on using plastics would love this style of fishing as well. So many options, so many great fish and all totally unspoiled!
We wound up with a quick troll for sails off the point of one of the islands. We were excited when a sail turned up but the encounter was all too brief. The sail, obviously not reading the script, became obsessed with the pink squid daisy chain to point instead of attacking the bait-loaded skirt so we could bring him close for a try with the fly. No go.
A nasty attack from wahoo soon stopped our trolling, as they seemed hell-bent on snipping off Al’s pushers as soon as they were deployed. Remember the lyrics from Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler? “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em: know when to fold ‘em.” We folded. Back to base.
On the western side of the Exmouth peninsula the giant Ningaloo Reef extends for almost 300km, in many places virtually almost onto the shore. It has massive lagoon areas offering classic flats fishing for the much sought-after permit and bonefish plus trevally, queenies, emperors and many other reef species. The Continental Shelf, incidentally, is only a few kilometres past the reef break.
On day two with a light southeaster we launched at Tantabiddi Ramp with our fly tackle upgraded for billfish. We’d set up a 12wt fly outfit consisting of an IMX Mega rod, a 4” TFO Large Arbor reel set up with a Rio Outbound Short WF 12 fly line, backed with 500m of 50lb Diawa JBraid X8. Both fly lines terminated in 2m 80lb leaders set up with 10” Spardean tube flies and snelled 8/0 and 6/0 hooks.
In less than 20 minutes we were in 255m of cobalt blue water, 11km from the shore. These are the early season wide grounds; late season grounds are just past the reef’s white water it seems! As far as I was concerned, the world was at peace: with 40 years of flyfishing behind me I was finally living my dream to take a billfish on fly tackle.
Al deployed a daisy chain of pink squid to starboard. To port a solid threadline outfit was set up with a big pusher with a tuna belly flap tucked into the rear of the skirt. Less than half an hour’s trolling in calm conditions saw a big, white splash on the teaser and a black stick giving the pusher a thrashing.
Allan ripped the starboard pink squid chain inboard then commenced a spirited tug of war with the billy as he steadily wound both the teaser and fired up the fish to the transom of the Tru-Line. Bait in; Yammy out of gear. Out with the fly and a dark ironing-board sized fish with blue stripes and dots on it – a sailfish – suddenly materialized at the back of the boat just as my fly landed a tad behind him. The fly line tightened and I struck hard. Once, twice, three times. The fish whizzed off about 40m and gave the best exhibition of head shaking I’ve seen from a hooked fish. The Spardean tube fly flashed in the cobalt water but the hooks held. For 30 seconds it continued, and with no satisfactory result a change of tactics saw a rapid move towards the horizon. Greyhounding leaps saw the 50lb Diawa J8 braid zinging through the rod guides, and this old boy grinning from ear to ear. Bring it on!
For the record, I’ve seen some pretty exciting things at the end of my fly line over the years. I’ve seen barra dancing in the moonlight, the first pink of dawn and right at the last blush of day. I’ve seen really big queenies jump from hook-set to when the fly dislodges, and trout as well. However, I’ve never, ever seen the like of that sailfish as it took off in long, low leaps with that beautiful sail unfurled and flapping, and at right angles to the area where the braid was entering the water.
Time and patience prevailed. After a careful process of pump-wind-pump with the rod held low and very close to the water to apply maximum strain, the sailfish came to Al’s hand for a photo shoot. Then it was time for revival. The blue patches and bars returned as the boat idled gently forward while I held the fish upright until it tore free of my grasp.
Over the next two days we fished the east side of the promontory where some very uncouth cobia, countless queenies, a snip off from a Spaniard and more grief from greedy reef fish were just some of the highlights. Then we headed back on the billfish grounds out from Ningaloo Reef. My wife Denise holding the fly rod ready, El Kampo on strike watch while Al circled the baitfish schools, dodged nearby whales and called the schools of flying fish taking off like coveys of quail. The sea was not quite so kind with a 0.5m swell, and half as much wind chop on top of that. It was building but still quite fishable.
Billfish don’t always appear as planned. With all the trolling runs we did, the GPS screen looked like a couple of spider’s webs overlaid on each other. At length Al suggested we could pull the pin and head inside the reef for some fun on fish trailing the ever-present rays, but less than a minute later a set of dark, fishy shoulders – as wide as the kitchen bench back home – rounded on the baited teaser with an almighty splash.
“ He’s too big!” Al yelled, as an interesting scenario unfolded. The marlin had hold of the pusher and was latched on big time, with Allan almost being pulled out of the boat as he tried to wind it in. Around 10m from the boat the big black decided that the pusher wasn’t worth eating anyway, and let go of it. As Al snicked the engine out of gear he called on Denise to cast the fly into the white water, because sometimes other fish follow a big bloke around. A long, blue striped shape materialized from under the Tru-Line’s transom, and the fly disappeared. Lady Luck had smiled on us – the fish was smaller than the big bruiser we’d seen.
Al called it as quite catchable as Denise struck. The boat surged forward to reinforce her strike, and I watched in awe as the reel’s spool shrank in size at a frightening rate. The black went crazy in a flurry of white water around 200m away, again in an entirely different direction from where the fly rod was pointing. I soon understood the major difference between black marlin and sailfish. In terms of sheer doggedness and tenacity, that black was one cantankerous fish. Early jumps gave way to dogged strain, and I lost count of the additional runs that fish made just as Denise reckoned she had it on a steady move back to the boat.
After an hour Denise was too tired to go on. The energy tank was empty! Alan called time out.
“Have a drink of water and a bite to eat,” he advised. “Just keep hold of the rod and make sure the reel is in light drag. That marlin is even more tired than you and he won’t go far because the fly line’s drag will hold him back.”
She did as he said. Then, encouraged and recharged, she got back into the pump-and-wind business in earnest while Al kept the boat positioned against the chop. After an hour and 40 minutes the marlin was alongside the boat with Al’s hand on the leader. He estimated it at 50-60kg.
Dinner at Whaler’s Restaurant at the Exmouth Escape Resort that night saw the telling and re-telling of the highlights. First: we were very lucky the really big marlin didn’t take the fly. Second: the first look at Denise’s marlin boat-side showed he was wrapped in fly line and leader from those crazy jumps, but Al cunningly manoeuvred the boat to unravel the mess. Third: after one half-focussed photo of the thrashing fish the hook came out as Al pulled it alongside. What a pain! But by IGFA release ruling that marlin was hers as Alan had taken hold of the leader.
I’ve described only some of the highlights from our Exmouth trip. When it was a bit too blowy to fish the bluewater, we worked inside Ningaloo Reef and Al showed us how to catch permit and bonefish. We showed him how not to cast to spooky fish and how to lose the only permit we hooked. Both Denise and I did take some tasty spangled emperor for a BBQ feed though so that was a positive. And goldens and small GTs were plentiful. We had a feast of it!
If you’d like to visit this amazing part of the world, there’s no need to have a boat. Although a guide definitely offers access to the best angling in the area, you can still have fun fishing the rocks at North West Cape, and there are plenty of places where Ningaloo reef is virtually on the beach (enquire at the town Visitor Centre for a brochure showing green zones). There really are rich rewards for shore-based anglers here.
Tackle needs to be tough. For cobia and the like, tackle matched to 4000 sized reels would be an absolute minimum for the spin angler. Upsizing everything is vital for the really big hitters. Fly anglers need strong 10wt gear for virtually everything except the bonefish, where 8ws are favoured. Naturally, it’s 12wt tackle for the billfish.
Proven flies to match all the Exmouth fish are tied by Saltwater Fly Workshop (www.saltwaterflyworkshop.com.au ). They are worth the outlay because these guys have worked with Exmouth guides for years. In town there’s a big Tackle World store so you have access to lures, plastics, more leader material and the like.
There’s ample accommodation in town. Exmouth Escape Resort is one of the more popular venues, but there are also camping and caravan parks with cabins on hand as well. Tent sites? Plenty. Car hire is easy as well.
My advice is to put Exmouth on your bucket list. If you want to catch a fish of a lifetime without packing the passport or enduring extended offshore boat travel to fish far offshore reefs, contact Alan Donald on www.flyfishingfrontiers.com or ring him on 0437 788 035. Alan isn’t just about fly angling, so he can give you a great experience no matter what kind of fishing you’re into.Reads: 1091