30 years ago – the Wild West!
  |  First Published: October 2003

THE WEST coast is a desolate place and comes as a bit of a shock after the lushness of eastern Australia. Shady trees were rare on our trip and our beachfront camp sites were often surrounded by Sturt’s desert pea.

In Onslow we located another of Vic McCristal’s contacts – an interesting bloke named Ian Blair. One of his many ‘hats’ included commercial fishing, so Denise and I were invited out on a typical fishing trip along with a motley crew of fellow travellers.

Ian advised that rods and reels were not allowed, so we were relegated to handlines around the 50kg mark. On reaching the grounds, about 40km offshore, we also found out that catching our ‘bait’ was the first priority as it was rarely carried on board.

Two hours of trolling with large mackerel spoons at the end of heavy rope lines eventually snared a 10kg Spaniard that was quickly cut up for bait. I’d had to put up with the sight of dozens of big queenfish and trevally swimming in the reef shallows out of reach of our lures most of that time. If I’d had a rod and reel I would have been able to catch a couple in no time!

The fishing that followed was fast and furious, with pink and nor-west snapper, parrotfish and huge cod coming aboard as fast as we could get the lines back in. Tangles and broken lines were common, with some of the cod going close to 40kg. A big school of mackerel ambushed the spoons as we moved between two reefs, with more than a dozen beauties coming aboard in as many minutes.

Filleting the fish in a sloppy sea on the way home at night concluded a very long day out. I remember hanging on to the tail end of a huge cod fillet, trying not to slip in the fish slime on the bucking deck and having to dodge the occasional wolf herring that was attracted to the boat lights while the deckie hacked through the heavy rib bones with a machete-like knife.

Our next stop was Exmouth and it was here that our ’63 LandCruiser and boat trailer decided they didn’t want to go any further. The head of the Toyota motor went to Perth and back while the trailer frame and boat keel were welded at the local engineering shop. That left us stranded in the town without wheels for at least 10 days… not good news.

Our neighbours in the caravan park soon presented a solution – they offered to tow the boat if we took them fishing. Over the next week we managed to keep the entire caravan park in fish fillets, catching lots of shark mackerel to13kg by trolling just off the ocean beach. A couple of big Spaniards, flowery cod, a huge longtail and a couple of missed sailfish rounded off some superb fishing.

With the Tojo operational once again, it was on to Shark Bay and then Canarvon where I looked up another of Australia’s most interesting fishing characters – the inimitable Max Garth. Max gives new dimension to the term ‘thinking fisherman’ and has spent much of his life analysing, both lineally and laterally, the techniques at the leading edge of sport- and flyfishing.

A session with Max was certain to require plenty of brainwork and he eagerly awaited my daily visits so that he could bounce his latest ideas off somebody who could provide some informed opinions. A day trip to the famous Grath’s Rock at Cape Cuvier found the sea big and fishing poor, but I learnt so much under the tutelage of the ‘master’.

His enthusiasm for saltwater flyfishing was contagious and, given my initial experiences with Ron Pearson, soon had me determined to giving SWF a try as soon as I returned to Brisbane. Ron and Max had already spawned a small band of west coast enthusiasts and it was to their tackle suppliers that I later turned to set up my first fly outfit.

Meanwhile, my fishing luck changed while handlining the end of the kilometre-long Carnarvon jetty for the renowned west coast ‘kingies’ (our mulloway). Here I hooked a 17kg fish on squid bait then had the line grabbed out of my hands, the fish landed and dumped at my feet by members of the local ‘kingie’ kids.

The Garth family appreciated the feed of fish we were able to offer as a farewell gift!

Soon after that it was time to get the skates on and head back to Brissie via Perth, Albany, Esperance and Adelaide after five months on the road. But there was one more place to visit – my regular stamping ground just north.

Next month: Fraser Island.

1) The author caught this 20kg longtail tuna on his trusty Mitchell 499 off Exmouth, circa 1973.

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