If you’re daunted by the idea of saltwater flyfishing, you shouldn’t be – it isn’t much different from lure fishing. Both methods have you presenting an artificial bait to the fish, it’s just that the delivery system is a bit different. Certainly the goal is the same: a hook up on a hard charging fish!
A good place to start is the Pioneer River, because most of it is made up of open areas with relatively few snags. The Pioneer runs through the heart of Mackay and its saltwater reaches extend for quite a few kilometres upstream from the city. Bear in mind that the flies and techniques I’ll be discussing in this article aren’t specific to the Pioneer – they apply to every creek/estuary system around Mackay.
The Pioneer is very tidal, with high-low ranges up to 5m, so most of the angling here is done on the smaller tides. The tidal water runs over clean sandy country so the water is usually clear, which makes it ideal for saltwater flyfishing. However, your leaders and tippets must be kept fine as the fish are sharp eyed.
Many of the larger fish are found in the mouth of the river or just outside. When you think about the volume of water and baitfish that get swept in and out with the tide, it’s not surprising that predators like this area. While there are plenty of spots accessible to shore-based anglers, a boat opens up many more possibilities for flyfishers.
The best time to flyfish here is in summer. You won’t need really heavy gear – an 8wt fly rod with an intermediate sink line will do the trick. If you’re new to flyfishing, this translates to a medium weight rod with enough guts to handle quite large fish, and a line that sinks slowly. This kind of line allows you to make both surface and sub-surface presentations.
Because of the clear water I recommend a 15kg nylon leader, around a couple of metres long. Use a deckie’s knot or similar to attach the leader to a tippet (an extension of the leader) of around 1m of 8-10kg nylon.
There is much debate about what colour tippet should be used or if a clear line is better. My advice is to use quality fine line in light blue, green or clear.
When it comes to reels, a cheap single action fly reel will do, as the fish are generally fought through the rod and not off the reel drag. Tuna and mackerel, because of their speed, are normally tired out using the reel drag, but unless you’re specifically targeting big tuna and macks the simple reel will do for the moment. If you hook a hot runner, you can always try some reel palming, as you would with an Alvey. Burnt palms here we come!
There’s a huge range of fly patterns out there, which can make it hard for novice flyfishers to know which to use. I suggest getting a few different types to start with.
First, I recommend that you get a couple of fly rod poppers. Just make sure they have quality hooks that won’t rust away after the first dip in saltwater. Poppers can be difficult to cast on windy days, so small sizes are best. In any case, the fish you’ll be chasing often feed on small bait, around 50-70mm long.
Another good fly is the Deceiver. These flies look bulky when dry, but in the water they slim right down to mimic baitfish.
When you’re browsing through Deceivers at your local tackle shop, get ones with quality hooks and not too much bulk. Buy whatever colour you like but make sure they have some sparkle in them, either with silver or gold contrasts. I like those that have light undersides and darker tops, especially dark green and black Deceivers with lighter bellies, to match the bait in the river.
The last two fly patterns that are an absolute must-have are Crazy Charlies and Clousers. These are very similar – both have weights tied to the fly near the hook eye – but Crazy Charlies usually have a smaller hook and lighter weights, as well as a sparser body.
The Clousers can be any size but I suggest getting them in 1/0 to 2/0 sizes and with varying weights. It’s also good to have a variety of body sizes. Observing the baitfish in the area can give you a good idea of the best size fly body to use. If you’re fishing a longer body and it’s not getting results, try trimming it to get a shorter profile and see if that does the trick.
The best place to start flyfishing in the river is down near the mouth and along the trainer walls either side of the river. The northern wall is the most prominent and it’s home to a good few species, but the tide really races along here so it’s best fished around dead low tide and for an hour or so either side.
On the southern side the trainer wall is completely covered in sand in some places, leaving isolated patches of rock showing in the sand. Any angler will recognise these places as a good spot to try.
Right at the mouth on the southern side there is a channel marker to show the start of the south wall, and this is a real hotspot. Around this marker the water drops off to good depth and there are some rocks scattered around on the sand bed. These give cover to bait and provide a focal point for predators.
Just outside the river mouth on the north side there are large exposed sandbanks that almost qualify as dunes, and to the south there are large areas of sand flats. Also to the south of the river you’ll find the remains of an old trainer wall that runs south at right angles to the river, and along here is a good spot at high tide or as the tide is dropping off the rocks.
The large sand flats are home to many roaming predators, particularly as the tide moves up over the flats and also while the tide runs off the flats into the multitude of smaller channels. Many a quality flathead has been caught here.
Further up the river there are again plenty of worthwhile spots. At the upstream end of the first trainer wall on the north side of the river mouth is the famed ‘V’, which is an area studded with rocks, deep water and swirling currents. This is a place where anything from a queenfish to a barra to a flathead can be caught.
From here back upstream there is relatively shallow water until near the boat ramp area. Here the main deep water is along the southern side, and this continues up past the wharves and boat pens to the road bridge in the centre of town. From the bridge upstream the water is really shallow and not all that productive.
At the mouth and near it, pelagics are a real chance, and the size of some of these fish here are in the XOS category. Queenfish are the mainstay but there are also doggy (school) mackerel, mack tuna (usually just out from the mouth), trevally of several types, snub-nosed dart, spotted dart, barracuda and pike. All of these fish are likely catches at this time of the year and all respond well to flyfishing.
My choice of fly to deploy near the mouth would be either a Crazy Charlie or a Clouser. Don’t worry too much about colour, the important thing is to get some flash in the fly to attract attention – but keep it fairly subtle. Remember that small baitfish are not garishly coloured but they usually have some ‘silvery flash’ along their flanks.
The go here is to cast and let the fly get down near the bottom, then retrieve in strips of different lengths and at varying speeds. If you watch some baitfish you’ll notice that they swim in spurts, changing direction and varying their speed. Try to get your fly imitating this behaviour and you won’t go too far wrong.
Work your fly around in an arc from the boat or shore and try to cover as much water as possible, and that includes different depths as well as the total area. Watch the fly line closely and keep slight tension on the line so you’ll always know what the fly is doing. Fish it right to your feet and stay alert, as all of these fish (except macks and tuna) will follow a fly right into shallow water.
If you have a follower, try a short, quick strip to get the fly to dart away, then stop and let it sink. Just like in lure fishing, this pause is often when the fly gets taken. Don’t worry too much about hook setting, as the fish generally hook themselves as they light up the turbo and take off. Hang on, keep the rod tip up and enjoy the trip! The hissing of fly line through the water is a top noise.
There are a couple of really good fly targets in the river, and one of my favourites is the estuary cod. Good old ‘gobble guts’ lives along the rock walls, and while most of the cod here are small, the odd fish of a couple of kilos regularly turns up. The obvious place to fish for them is by placing the fly up near the rocks and either working it out or along the wall. Just be ready as the old cod hits em’ hard and then heads for the rocks.
On the rock walls, bream, mangrove jacks and smaller fingermark are also likely to hit a well presented fly. The Deceiver pattern is a good choice when you’re targeting these fish because it doesn’t sink as quickly and it’s easier to work without snagging.
Further upstream, the tarpon is a great fly rod target, particularly at night in the lights of the bridge. Here the tarpon patrol along the shadow lines created by the bridge lights and rails. The go here is the small Crazy Charlies cast up under the bridge and worked slowly out from the shadows to the open water. Tarpon go berserk when hooked, thrashing around, jumping and making hard runs – it’s great fun. Many throw the hook during the fight but boy, it’s great while it lasts! Sometimes, because of the run, the tarpon go deeper and then it’s time to get out the Clousers and work them much the same way.
There is one other species that is also on the card anywhere in the river: flathead. These fish are common here and are often caught on Clousers and Crazy Charlies that are allowed to go deep or right to the bottom. Flathead will also often hit Deceivers worked back out from the rock walls, as this a favourite spot for them to lie in ambush. Flathead grow to good size in the river and there is a photo on this page of a 70cm specimen taken on a yellow Clouser near the mouth of the river.
So there you have it – a short intro to flyfishing in the Pioneer and a rundown of what you can expect to catch. Just remember, it won’t happen if you stay at home thinking about it. Take advantage of our summer weather and get out on the water and enjoy the great outdoors and the clean water of the Pioneer River. See you out there!
1) Sometimes it pays to let a Clouser sink! The result could be a beaut flathead, like this 70cm specimen from the Pioneer River.
2) A typical Pioneer queenfish caught on a Crazy Charlie fly.Reads: 1236