Two Ambos and a Leaky Boat
  |  First Published: July 2010

It was the most anticipated fishing trip that I have ever planned.

Twelve months ago I heard a whisper that a couple of canoes get driven into the middle of Cape York’s Wenlock River and left to travel down stream towards the coast over four or five days before being picked up again at a pre-designated location. I just had to do it.

The Wenlock has been made famous by the Erwin family who bought up a large piece of the land to save the landscape and huge crocodile population from bauxite mining. It is now protected by the Wild Rivers Legislation, which will insure that the area will remain in the prestige, wild and extremely remote state that we were lucky enough to experience.

Canoes have never been my thing so a tiny punt was sourced from the garden shed of a mate. Bolting a Watersnake 54lb electric motor kept the entire package light enough to pick up and carry over shallow sections and log jams that can occur in the upper reaches of the river.

I teamed up with a workmate, who is also a paramedic, with a very old and leaky tinny, our expedition was soon known as ‘Two Ambos and a Leaky Boat’. We did manage to convince one of the veteran crews that have done the trip a number of times in a canoe to join us, as well as a good mate of mine and his mad keen brother, aka ‘the potato farmer’.

However, the experienced crew were forced to drop out, so all that remained were two ambos, a diesel mechanic and the potato farmer. I need to add that we were all very experienced anglers who were no strangers to camping out on Cape York and all mad as cut snakes. It was going to be a very interesting trip.

We were driven into Moreton Station near the Old Telegraph Track in the middle of Cape York where we started our journey and were going to be collected three days later near Weipa. Both the tiny punts were loaded with swags, fridge, tackle, generator to recharge batteries and incidentals, which left very little room for anglers.

Prior to the event, we had heard a rumour that there was a group that hit the river a couple of weeks prior to us and had caught only six fish for the entire trip. All four of us had fished the river on a number of occasions and we found this to be absurd. Still, it planted a tiny seed of doubt, which was soon removed with the first barra being nailed by the potato farmer just a few metres into the trip. If the potato farmer can catch the first barra, there must have been millions of them in the system.

The trick to pulling this trip off is local knowledge about how the wet season run-off affects the heights of the Wenlock River. Get this right and you will have an amazing experience, although it is still tough and a lot more to it then just tossing lures at snags, but get it all wrong and you will have a nightmare on your hands.

Deep water means there is no shallow sections that you have to walk through, but when the river narrows and shallows out, it is white water rafting with log jams thrown in to keep things interesting. Nice slow running water usually means long shallow sections that need to be walked or even carrying the boat and gear to the next deep section of the river. We had some excellent advice on this and, while we were all Wenlock rookies, we got the water height perfect.

By the time we made camp on day one, we were all ecstatic with the fishing. Most of the fish were sooty grunter that were landed on gold Halco Scorpions, which were far and away the standout lure for the day. We added plenty of barra and saratoga to day one’s tally as well so there was a lot of bragging going on around the camp fire.

Day two was off to a flying start with half a dozen fish landed in front of the camp before the boats hit the water. After waiting for the mechanic and potato farmer to finish their continental breakfast, which included croissants and various fluffy pastry things, we were finally loading the boats.

Once on the river, sooty grunter and saratoga were jumping all over soft plastics that were worked out of the snags. While visiting the water’s edge during the night, I witnessed prawns jumping from the torch light so I chose to start the day with Berkley Gulp Shrimps. By lunch on day two, our soft plastic supplies had copped a hiding and stock was getting low so Gulp Shrimps were bartered with from boat to boat and each lure was treated like gold. Our boat was even offered French pastries for Gulp shrimps.

We managed around 10 barra for day two but each boat must have landed at least 100 sooty grunter each, along with a handful of togas and archerfish.

The river holds so much timber that is pushed down with the huge wet season that it is rare not to be within casting distance of a good snag at any stage of the trip, and when every snag has a sooty grunter in it, the fishing was unbelievable. I was using 2” Gulp Shrimp in natural colour, Nitro 1/32oz jighead with a #2 hook, 12lb braid and 20lb leader.

In hindsight, I would have opted for a lighter threadline outfit that would have been easier to handle in the flow of the river. The run-off wasn’t fast by any stretch of the imagination but quick enough when you are working almost unweighted plastics in heavy timber.

Enjoying a cold beer while sitting in a shallow section of the river at the end of day two, we experienced one of the local brown snakes coming from the river bank behind us, through the water and straight over the chest of my fellow ambo before swimming to the other side and sliding over the rocks. We just sat there dumbfounded and trying to comprehend what just happened. We were expecting crocodile encounters on the water but the snake took us by surprise.

Day three had us getting a little closer to the tidal zone of the river and we noticed a remarkable difference in the fishing. We were still a good 50km away from tidal water but we were finding good sized barramundi in a lot of the fallen timber, pulling up to six legal barra out of a single snag. Sooties were still biting but we soon traded our small plastic’s rod for baitcasters and 20lb braid attached to Halco barra lures.

We were to be picked up at around 2pm on day three so thinking that we were getting close to the pick up point on the river, we continued moving along, flicking at snags and removing fish. Both boats tied three big barra to the side of the hull, which allowed them to swim along with the flow of the boats while staying alive and fresh for our arrival at the pick up point. My boys would love to see dad come down the river with three big barra hanging from the side of the hull and I kept thinking that it must be around the next corner.

As the daylight started to fade and 2pm had been and gone a number of hours ago, we decided to stop fishing and check the GPS and maps that we had packed somewhere under all the fishing tackle. We soon realised that we were 15km away from the pick up point and were four hours late! Add to this the fact that we had been running since 7am on the charged batteries that were now flat with no extra fuel to run the generator to charge them up again. Weight and space is of a premium on this trip so extra fuel was out of the question. We also only had one pair of oars for the two boats so with one oar each, six barra hanging from the sides of the boats, croc infested river and night setting in, we started rowing towards the proper pick up point. Thankfully, we had the flow of the run-off to assist us but as the darkness set in, things got interesting. On a number of occasions, my head torch would reflect off the eyes of a croc that would illuminate like tail lights in the distance.

Log jams, trees, rocks and a bull shark trying to eat our barra and the glowing red eyes of crocodiles kept us busy all night until we finally arrived at out destination at 11pm that night, 9 hours late and understandably no sign of the girls.

After making contact via satellite phone, we rolled the swags out and slept another night on a small mangrove island in croc country – Do not try this at home!

With no battery power, the morning had us all walking the boats against the flow of the river back to the pick up point where we cooked up some barramundi for breakfast while waiting for the support crew.

A number a barra were caught from directly in front of the breakfast fire, which just topped off an amazing fishing trip with some great blokes, brilliant fishing and what is now my favourite river in the world, the mighty Wenlock.

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