It never ceases to amaze me that we continue to jag such perfect weather for our annual Hinchinbrook houseboat trip. Considering we go every year in the first week of the Christmas school holidays, I always expect to hit in-climate weather. Yet year in, year out, we strike near perfect conditions for boating and fishing.
Our 11th year found us back where we started our first houseboat trip, aboard All Seasons, as our regular boat Princess had blown a motor. All Seasons has a few advantages, especially in the motor department, as it is fitted with twin four-stroke outboards, which are much quieter and faster than the diesel aboard Princess. However, the accommodation set-up for seven blokes is a bit better on Princess. All Seasons has a massive entertainment area upstairs, which is great in fine weather, and a few of the crew slept up there each night. The only drawback is if it rains, and we had a few showers, everyone is forced to sleep downstairs. Princess on the other hand has three enclosed bunks up top, with a good-sized entertainment area still available at the stern.
Enough about boats. “What about the fishing?” I hear you ask. Well this year there were plenty of fish but not much variety. We also struck the last of the nine-day coral reef fin fish closures for the year, which meant as well as no barra, reef fish were also off the menu. Thankfully this wasn’t too much of a drawback. We caught quite few nice-sized grassy sweetlip but they did require careful identification, as there were at least two other species of sweetlip mixed in with them. The give away in accurate identification of grassies is the bright blue Maori stripes radiating out from the eyes. The DPI publication Reef Fish Field Guide shows species regulated in the Fisheries Coral Reef Fin Fish Management Plan 2003, and is a must to accurately identify species.
What we lacked in variety we made up for in quantity, with small GTs by the dozen. They were everywhere, and ready to grab anything from bait and soft plastics to minnows and metal slices. One lure however stood head and shoulders above the rest and Mark Wilson was the lucky owner. It was a 5” shallow diving Storm with an orange back, yellow belly and black tiger stripes. Mark picked it out of a lucky dip of lures I had laid out for the crew at the start of the trip. Colour-wise it was the last lure I would have picked out of the bundle, but Mark being the relatively inexperienced fisherman he is, just pulled it out randomly. It was amongst a bundle of very popular colour combinations like black and silver, blue and silver and black and gold, which were snapped up by the more experienced anglers. However, the tiger Storm caught more GTs than all the other lures combined. At times Mark was getting five or six fish to our one. Needless to say the rest of us were searching through our lure collections trying to match it in colour and action and although we came close, this little number just kept nailing them. I’m sure Mark would prefer to claim “better fisherman” status, but we weren’t letting him get away with that.
I struck a snag on day one when my trusty bottom of the range sounder decided to give up the ghost. John Wedrat and I spent a heap of time trying to get it to work and even tracked the problem to corroded wires in the transducer lead. We found it impossible to join the wires with the equipment we carried and eventually gave it away, relying on the accumulated knowledge of 20 years of fishing the area to put us on the fish. It felt like I had lost an arm each time I got into the tinnie and went to turn the sounder on. The lack of a sounder could well have contributed to our lack of variety in the catch.
While the fishing was fairly singular in species we did really well on the crustaceans. By day two we had eight crays on ice and the crab pots were producing. Terry McClelland, as always, led the oyster picking expeditions and while the squid were plentiful, we forgot the scoop on the first night and only got the odd one after that. We had brought a heap of prawns along to eat and use for bait so the third night saw a fantastic seafood cook-up, with Bruce Cordiner’s barbecued crayfish a major highlight.
The mud crabs just kept coming, thanks to a few inches of rain the week before we arrived, and by the end of the trip we had consumed two meals of muddies and had a few livies to bring home to spouses and to repay favours. In the past we had brought around 20 crab pots but after last year’s dismal results we decided to cut back to only eight pots, and we found this was a winner all round. Checking 20 pots requires a lot of crew and time and tends to become a bit of an ordeal. With eight pots we checked them far more regularly and made sure they had fresh baits every 24 hours. We hardly moved the pots for four days and they were still producing crabs, even on the final pull.
Sushi has become the regular lunch on day one, and even though Hinchinbrook regular, Rob Cannon, couldn’t come this year due to work commitments, his partner Cindy Sedan offered to make some for us. Now that was an offer too good to refuse, so we called past Rob’s place as we left to pick up the sushi to add to his generator that we had already borrowed.
We had decided the year before that we had spent too much money on ice, mainly keeping the beer cold, so we tried taking a generator and 150L freezer. Rob tried the idea on a houseboat trip in September and reported it worked a treat, so we followed suit. We ran the generator on the top deck for most of each day and found this kept everything frozen. We filled the freezer with blocks of ice at the start and then used the ice to keep the beer cold in eskies. It worked a lot better than taking my 250L esky full of ice, as it gradually warms over the days and we invariably have to get ice out by ferry on day four. We did note however that the fishing off the houseboat wasn’t as good this year as in previous trips and that could have had something to do with generator noise.
On day three we decided that it was time to shift our focus from hunting and gathering to a bit of touristy stuff, so we headed to Number Seven Creek in Missionary Bay and took the boardwalk over to Ramsay Bay on the east coast for a very welcome swim. After a refreshing dip in the ocean we headed right up the top of one of the feeder creeks and walked up into the freshwater for a rinse off.
We found an unusual situation in one of the small pools where there was a warm water spring in the bottom of the hole, so the water was ice cold on top and comfortably warm around the feet. It was so refreshing it was hard to leave the pool and head back to All Seasons. There must be the same hot springs in the bottom of some of the holes in the freshwater pools in the top of the northern creek in Zoe Bay, on the eastern side of Hinchinbrook, as I have also found those pools to be hotter as you go deeper.
Grunter, fingermark and mangrove jack are usually our most common species yet this year they were virtually non-existent. We caught no grunter, one fingermark, and one jack. Jason Hagen had a double jack hook-up on a single hook SWIK soft plastic, but lost one of them right at the boat. The other disappointments were salmon, both blue and king, and mackerel. We normally get a few of each, and some years a lot, but we never sighted a single one this trip.
Tarpon on the other hand were thick and we had some sessions where we caught them at will. They certainly are lots of fun, especially in the bigger sizes, as they were this year.
While barra are off the menu it is almost impossible to avoid them when targeting jacks and fingermark. In keeping with our lack of variety we only got one barra but it was a beauty. I nailed a beautiful specimen right on dark on day four and it went just over the magic metre mark. She was carefully returned to the water after a quick pic. It took a Prawnstar Jr El Natural with modified hooks. It was certainly a highlight of the trip for me and the biggest barra we have caught in eleven years. After that capture I was happy to sit around with a smile on my dial and watch the others fish – but not for long!Reads: 1662