Northern learning curve
HOW DO you take anglers with very little experience in the tropics and turn them into fishing machines in just two weeks? Simple – you take them on a charter with Eclipse D, then run them through the ringer for another five days in Weipa.
The team consisted of two complete novices to tropical sportfishing, a couple of old hands and the rest who had a bit of experience. Weipa is a great destination for every level of angler because of the sheer fishing diversity and because the worst caster, the worst lure presenter and the worst flyfisher can still catch more fish than they ever have before.
On this trip we wanted to show Melbournians Greg Cooper and Nick Jeans just what all the tropical fuss was about. We also wanted to introduce a few of our southern friends to some topwater and deep hole fishing techniques we had been shown and discovered for ourselves on previous trips.
Luckily, all of our plans came together and everyone learnt something, did something new and had a great time in fishing paradise.
Here’s a rundown on how we grew from a reasonably inexperienced crew to a hardened tropical fishing team who were as comfortable casting a surface lure over the shallows for barra as we were targeting the same fish in mangrove-lined creeks.
Everyone who fishes knows how to cast – at least, that’s what we all assumed. Casting soft plastics in a lake or targeting Murray cod in a big inland river hone your casting skills up to a point, but not to the level that’s needed to consistently take tropical fish in mangrove creeks. Casting under, into and through mangrove roots and branches to present the lure properly certainly proved a challenge to many of the crew.
Fishing in the mangrove creeks is unlike fishing anywhere else. You need to punch the lure in and under cover, not do lazy, high-altitude casts that land perfectly on target – that style of cast just ends up in the branches. You need to be able to master the other casts – little underhand flicks, powerful sidearm casts, backhanded flicks and of course, long-distance casts. And with two or three anglers in the boat, you’ll be amazed at how rarely you’ll be able to do a standard overhead cast.
Nick Jeans, who casts a lot in tournaments and can cast up a storm, showed us all how it wasn’t done on one memorable day. His efforts showed the vast difference between casting an 18g tournament plug with no wind or overhanging branches and casting a bibbed minnow out 10m with it never getting more than 60cm off the water’s surface.
The most comical casting was some very short underhand casting. With about 10 barra milling around a snag at the front of a drain and the boat backed into the snag under an overhanging branch, the only option was to flick the lure underhand 5m to get it in the strike zone.
It’s a common mistake when casting underhanded like this to let the cast go with not enough power and send the lure, with the aid of some not-so-good thumb pressure, up into the overhanging branches. This is what happened to Nick, many, many times. On about the fifth tree topper cast he was pulling down the branch to get his lure when he dislodged a mass of green ants. There’s nothing so comical as seeing a bloke jumping around, slapping himself, trying not to break his rods or lose his lure while his mates are on the deck of the boat crying with laughter (and also getting bitten by the green ants being brushed off the unfortunate caster).
The lesson is to learn how to do these casts before you leave. Go and practice casting underhand, and believe me – casting 5m is harder than casting 10m when underhand casting. Practice sidearm casts and backhanders, too. You’ll need all of them in your arsenal to properly tackle a northern safari.
One universal failing of newcomers to tropical fishing is their choice of tackle. Nowhere is it more important to have an outfit or two that can handle the harsh fishing and the harsh conditions. Specific lures need specific styles of rods and trying to compromise will see less fish caught and frustration levels rise. And yes, it is possible to get frustrated when everyone besides you is catching so many fish.
There were two stand-out incidents that highlighted the need for appropriate tackle. The first was a hot queenfish popper and fizzer bite. Queenfish usually eat anything but on this particular stretch of river they were only eating topwater lures.
One of the Victorians had bought up a light baitcaster, which was great for casting the bigger Bill’s Fuzz Bugs with a slow casting action as it was soft and had a nice parabolic working curve to it. However, this softness and curve, and the lightness of the rod itself, made it almost impossible for the angler to sink the hooks of the Fuzz Bug into the queenfish. So many times the lure got hit and drag was stripping from the reel until the fish turned and the lure fell out of its mouth. Other anglers in the same boat were using lighter rods, but they were stiffer and allowed the hooks to be set properly. Another case of an angler being frustrated in the middle of great bite.
The second incident again involved Nick. Casting along the beaches is great fun when blue salmon, threadfin salmon and barra are on the agenda, but when a big golden trevally decides to get in on the action you’d better be sure your tackle is up to scratch.
Nick hooked a golden on an 8wt rod and the fish sizzled out all the fly line and 100m of backing before Nick noticed and smelt something burning. It was his drag. The fish was still going strong, Nick was trying to loosen the drag, but the increasing heat was making the reel clag up more and more. Just as the reel’s drag seized, he got into one of the boats and chased after the fish. Thirty minutes later when he had the fish within reach, he was about 1km offshore and the reel was just about to fall into little pieces. Luckily everything held and the fish was landed, but the reel was retired for the rest of the seven-day trip. This happened on the evening of day one.
The lesson from this is to make sure you have the right gear. Speak to guides and anglers who have been there before. Spend the extra money on reels to ensure they can handle the pace and go and give the fish the curry they deserve.
The following are some of the most productive lures and retrieves we used on the trip.
Topwater lures have their own special needs when it comes to retrieves. Some can be used in a number of ways, but others work only with a particular retrieve – as we discovered during a good barra bite at the mouth of a creek. The barra were cruising just on a full cast length out and showing a distinct liking to surface walking lures. The standouts were the C’ultiva Tango Dancer and the Rapala Skitter Walk 11cm (unfortunately not sold in Australia anymore!).
The first requirement was to cast as far as you could and then be able to walk the surface lures back to the shore. By this time we had fished solid for five days, so everyone was casting well enough, but getting those surface walkers to actually ‘walk’ proved the difference between getting hit and not getting hit. Greg Cooper had been casting a Bomber around and saw all the action happening in front of him on the surface. He decided he’d better get into the action and raided my tackle box for a Tango Dancer. Casting out, he blooped the lure and used rod sweeps to get the lure skipping and spluttering across the surface.
After 20 minutes without a hit he was ready to give up, and asked how to make the lures work properly. A quick lesson, a couple of practice casts at short range and off he went. First cast, and within 3m of starting a walk-the-dog retrieve a big surface strike told everyone he had the method right. After 20 minutes more he hooked and landed his first surface-chewing barra.
I love Prawnstar lures – they catch fish almost everywhere – but some of the anglers on the trip had never used them and were sceptical. Dirk Wendt, one of the best anglers I’ve fished with anywhere, was one of those sceptics. For almost three years he’d heard me rave about Prawnstars but he’d never given them a go, even though he’d done three, month-long trips to the Cape previously.
His attitude changed after two incidents. The first was when Dirk and I were fishing together up a shallow creek. Dirk was using a gold Bomber and I was using a Prawnstar. It was some of the best sight fishing we’d had all trip with Dirk blooping the gold Bomber and small barra coming from everywhere to check it out. After 10 minutes I decided I’d try to poach Dirk’s barra from the back of the Bomber.
Next cast three barra materialised out of the green water and nosed the Bomber. A gentle underhand cast had my Prawnstar landing next to the Bomber. It sank out of sight immediately so I jigged it once to keep it up where the barra were. On the drift after the jig, one of the barra peeled away and a solid pluck on my line indicated a strike.
I did this for about half an hour before Dirk decided we should reverse the roles and he had a great introduction to the Prawnstar.
The second incident saw Dirk, Trent Butler and Steve Moran fishing a deep, snag-riddled bank. The three were casting diving minnows into the bank and retrieving them out through the mess of sticks. A couple of hits and one bust-off told them there were plenty of fish on the bank and in the sticks, so they tied up to a snag and kept casting.
Trent tied on a Prawnstar and sent it over the side. He hooked the first fish on the first drop, the second on the third drop and the third on the fourth drop. Steve Moran and Dirk didn’t waste time changing over to the Prawnstars as they were getting only the odd tap on diving minnows.
Three hours later, when we happened upon the trio, they were still hooking fish on Prawnstars. We got into the action and had half an hour of sheer mayhem. That session saw uncountable numbers of barra caught by the three, all of them over 70cm. There were also masses of fingermark to 3kg and plenty of threadfin salmon. All three anglers described it as the most intense action they’d ever experienced and all gave credit to the Prawnstar, stressing that the key to success was not only the lure, but the way it was worked.
Bibbed minnows are a tropical favourite of mine. However, like all lures, it’s important to know how to use each one.
When casting in tropical creeks, one of my favourite lures is the gold Bomber and its many copies. The gold Bomber works best when you work it slow and hard, i.e. work it hard with the rod but keep it in the strike zone. The beauty of the Bomber is that you can make it bloop virtually in the one spot. A quick flick of the rod is all that’s needed to force the lure under the surface, with the bib catching and dragging air under with it. After the twitch the lure floats back to the surface. If done right, very few barra will refuse this retrieve.
My other favourite type of bibbed minnow is the standard diving minnow. I have two favourites – the Rapala Shad Rap 9 and the C-Lure Barra Pro. Both lures can be worked slowly through a snag, much like a Bomber, except underwater. When the hooks and rings are upgraded on both, they almost suspend. Barra and jacks can’t resist a baitfish profile lure that twitches and dances in the one spot.
The anglers who had never fished in the tropics really struggled with working the lure without retrieving it, but this technique is essential for consistent success. The less line you can put back on the reel while making the lure do its thing in front of a fish, the more chance there is of it eating the lure.
The moral of the story is that it’s vital to have the right lures on board and be able to use them correctly. Greg may have got a barra to strike his surface lure by retrieving the way he was, but once he learnt the correct retrieve, he had two strikes and landed his first fish. Dirk may never have used a Prawnstar if he hadn’t seen them in action and learnt the best retrieve, and the southerners may not have had the pleasure of seeing five barra nosing a diving minnow as it slowly floats back to the surface if they hadn’t learnt how to retrieve the lures.
In the space of 12 days, eight anglers learnt a lot about their tackle, the techniques and how to turn lookers into takers. With some helpful hints from the guides we used along the way, everyone went home with a store of tricks to try on their local waters or to use when they come back – and rest assured, they all come back!
C’ultiva Tango Dancer
Bill’s Bug Fuzz Bug 75
Lead Slugs (10 – 40g)
C-Lure Barra Pro
Rapala Shad Rap 9
Rapala Tail Dancer
There’s quite a few guided operations in Weipa and they all have access to some sensational fishing available to them. I have only had the pleasure of fishing with Dick Foster on Eclipse and with Dave, but if they are fully booked there are plenty of other options to try.
Dave Donald Sportfishing
(07) 4069 9064
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(02) 9543 9377
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1) A fish.