YOU may have read an article by Stephen Booth in QFM July 2002 about his trip to Weipa aboard the Eclipse. I was fortunate enough to be part of that trip, and immediately after we returned we were planning for a return trip this year.
The mothership Eclipse is a 15 metre twin-hulled vessel with three deck levels and plenty of room to accommodate eight fisherman and up to three guides, a cook and a captain. We elected to have a partially guided trip again, with one guide. Having a guide is invaluable, especially when fishing new areas.
This year’s team consisted of myself and Tony Smith from last year’s team, and newcomers Bob Searl, Mick Storey, Mick Elliott and Trevor Fairhall. After such a successful and memorable trip in 2002, the expectations of a similar trip were high – but part of my brain suggested nothing could be as good the second time.
Last year everything was perfect, including the weather (yes – for the whole week!). This year everything except the weather was perfect. We had a week of constant south-east winds blowing at around 20 knots for most of the trip. This is an offshore wind on the eastern side of the Gulf and limits your fishing to close inshore and the protected side of the rivers. The fishing is so good in these far northern areas it’s easy to compensate for the wind.
We commenced fishing at the mouth of the Jackson River some 11 hours motoring overnight from Weipa. One of the many advantages of fishing these wilderness areas aboard the Eclipse is that you never travel during fishing hours and there are only two minutes between air-conditioning, great food, excellent accommodation and unreal fishing. The queenfish attacked any popper we tossed. Many fish were hooked only three feet from the boat, and this would have to be one of the best visual fishing experiences available. These fish averaged around 7–10kg
I learned a good lesson on my second queenie for the morning. Having the fish alongside with the leader in one hand and a tail in the other, an eruption from under the boat resulted in the fish gone, me in the middle of the boat checking that both hands and all fingers were accounted for and thinking ‘crocodile’! The Loomis and Cronarch were balanced on the side of the boat slowly going over, but I made a quick grab and the line was taut. Luckily we had drifted into only four foot of water and a 150kg-plus grouper was sitting on the bottom with no sign of fish or popper. The 20kg braid and 35lb leader had no chance of moving anything, so it was goodbye to the first hard body of the trip.
After that episode, we always used landing nets.
Following the morning session, one boat departed for the 3km trip down to the Skardon River, while the remaining two fished the higher reaches of the Jackson. The Jackson produced cod, a few barra and jacks while the Skardon was alive with small barra, although they weren’t very keen to attack a lure. Late that afternoon all three boats were back on the flats a kilometre upstream from the mouth of the Jackson, working a very active patch of queenies until the thought of cold beer and a hot shower beat worn-out arms.
Again this year, while each of us waited for our turn in the shower, we had the entertainment of feeding the three large gropers permanently stationed at the back of the Eclipse.
The next morning, after a short fish at the mouth of the Jackson, all three boats travelled the 2km up the beach close inshore to the McDonald River. Following the guide, we all beached our boats about 50 meters downstream from a large snag in the river mouth and walked to the snag. All around the snag a school of around 30 jack up to 2kg was just cruising in the clear shallow water close to shore. Five were caught in the first two minutes, and several more in the session along with javelinfish and barra.
After this session we floated the boats over the snag and were amazed at the hundreds of fish the snag held, including large barra. The rest of the morning was spent on the rock bars upstream with limited success, but several species were caught.
Tony Smith had an interesting encounter with a 4kg Queensland groper – while he removed the lure it spewed up a freshly eaten 2 foot black snake. That would make interesting live bait fishing!
The mouth of the McDonald River lends itself to all forms of fishing. One bank has deep water and large snags and a good sandy beach, and the other side has a combination of deep channels abruptly rising to large areas of sand flats covered in about two feet of water at low tide. Hard body, soft plastics and fly anglers could spend a week at the mouth of this river and still not catch all species available.
After lunch on the Eclipse, now parked outside the mouth of the McDonald, we headed the short distance up to the Doughboy and Cotrill rivers in the small boats to explore new territory and fish the many creek offshoots.
Everyone seemed to have the most success catching barra by anchoring off a snag or drain and thrashing the water with up to 30 casts until the barra started to play the game. After you caught one fish, several more hook-ups or strikes usually followed.
Like all fishermen, after a couple of days’ fishing everyone becomes an expert on the area and has worked out how to best improve their hook-up rate. My theory when up the rivers is to look for a good snag at the mouth of a drain with not many baitfish visible.
During one session at the mouth of the Mcdonald River, Mick Storey, while fishing on the shallow flats along the tide line, had several good hook-ups of trevally and queenfish. However, a very large grouper strategically stationed was having a shopping spree with Mick’s lures and fish.
The next two days were spent on the last three rivers or the close-in waters of the Gulf, catching up to 45 species of fish.
One memorable session happened on the way back for lunch, about 1km offshore. Birds were working a concentrated school of baitfish, and all three boats motored over to witness a Mother Nature killing spree at work. The session lasted for about 40 minutes, and only about four fish were landed, including a 15kg golden trevally, 5kg bludger and GTs. Everything else hooked – no matter what the size – was food for the torpedo-sized Spanish mackerel on the hunt. There was even a giant cod gorging itself on the compressed baitfish.
Lunch that day was barra burgers, and the entertainment was Jennine, our cook, feeding two 3-4m lemon sharks while brushing their backs with a long handled broom. Yes, with a couple of the standard large groupers stationed underneath!
I spent the afternoon session with Tony and our guide Shane in the upper reaches of the McDonald, successfully chasing barra. That was the afternoon we encountered our largest crocodile. We were about 300m away from a mud bank and Shane suggested that a crocodile was up ahead. After a quick look I informed him he was mad and it was only a large log. At 150 metres the log sprouted legs and slowly slid into the water, and we estimated it to be around 6m long. We fished the mouth of that mud bank for about 30 minutes and were amazed how our 5m boat with a 2m beam could become so small. The crocodile didn’t worry the fish, as just a few yards away we caught barra while a smaller crocodile looked on from the shallows.
On the Wednesday night we motored back to Port Musgrave and arrived at around 11pm. It was a pleasant trip with a good meal and a few wines. As you can see, very tough conditions prevail in the far north wilderness areas.
The next day was eagerly awaited by the return anglers from last year’s trip, as we were going to fish the ‘old buggers’ rock bank at the mouth of Milita Creek. Unfortunately the bank was fully exposed to the 20-knot south-easterly blowing, but two boats braved the conditions for the middle third of the run-out. We were rewarded with around 15 barra in a 90-minute session. After that it was up the creek to search for the other boat .
The rest of the day was spent out of the wind catching barra, jacks and threadfin salmon. We didn’t want the day to end as tomorrow was Friday and the return trip to Weipa.
The trip back was uneventful until we rounded Duyfkin Point and were exposed to the full force of a 30-knot south-easterly. The next three hours made good sailors out of all of us.
The trip came to an end with a few beers at the Weipa bowls club and a goodbye to our hosts for the week – Captain Dick, Jeanne and Shane.
We thought our last year’s trip was just about perfect, but improvements had been made. These included unlimited fresh water, thanks to a desalination plant being installed, and pull-start motors on the fishing boats replaced with electric start four-stroke EFI 50hp motors. The only disappointment was the wind and my inability to fish fly. The wind I can do nothing about, but I’ll be sure to learn flyfishing before the next trip.
Oh, to be in Weipa now that winter is here!
THE BEST BY TEST
Hard bodied diving lure – 12cm Lively Lure Mad Mullet shallow diver in yellow, brown, gold and red.
Best popper – anything as long as it splashed.
Best soft plastic – Atomic 3” Bass Grubs in Natural colours fished on 1/8oz jig head
Best fly – tell you next year
1) Snags on beaches are min FADs. This one had over 30 jacks up to 2kg sitting on it when we arrived.
2) Mangrove jacks are one of Weipa’s most targeted sportfish. These two are typical of the quality we found on our trip with Eclipse Charters.
3) Diamond trevally are not common, but are a welcome catch. This one was landed by Tony Smith on his second Eclipse adventure.