I’m reading the biography of Matthew Flinders at the moment, and a recurring theme is the exploration of Bass Strait in unbelievably small, leaky sailboats. In an era when it was common for mariners to set out and vanish without trace, Flinders’ incredible seamanship, leadership, navigational skill (and, it must be assumed, plain luck) meant he and most of his crew survived. Not only did Flinders successfully journey from one end of Bass Strait to the other; he did it after first circumnavigating most of Australia.
Standing at the mouth of the Gellibrand River yesterday, looking out at the same storm-lashed sea Flinders traversed more than 200 years ago, it wasn’t just the cold and rain that caused an involuntary shiver. Some distance up the beach, I watched a large shape wash in on a wave. It was the body of a big buck kangaroo. Did it stumble from a cliff top? Was it swept away trying to swim across the nearby river? I’ll never know, but the discovery emphasised how dangerous this coast can be. Today on the Aire, I had to yell a warning to a family on the other side, to get their car away from the water, as they were completely oblivious to a metre-high bore charging up the estuary towards them. They barely made it to safety with the wave chasing their back wheels.
Fortunately, between 100 km/h gales, 4 metre seas and downpours, there was plenty of fishing with Max – and pretty good fishing too. One by-product of the stormy weather was the condition of the estuaries. Each one was wide open to the sea with a powerful tidal flow. In fact at times it was almost too powerful (hence the bores) with the currents resembling the Goulburn at summer irrigation flow.
That made it hard to get the flies down at times. Still, you could sense the strong inflow of sea water rejuvenating the estuaries, with large schools of mullet, salmon, various minnows and other big, mysterious flashes surfing in on the green water. At the top of the tide especially, a brief truce in the battle between freshwater and salt produced fantastic fishing. For an hour or so, it was possible to find the boundary between the two (often marked by rafts of foam). At the same time, the current slackened enough to allow decent fly depth and contact. We caught fish on the run in, run out and low tide too, but not as many.
It was remarkable to see bream porpoising like trout and powerful bow-waves blasting across the surface, produced by species unknown. Trout? Large salmon? Mulloway? Estuary perch? All we hooked in the vicinity were big bream. Not that we were complaining – just that it would have been nice to solve the mystery. One fish I missed on the Gellibrand looked very much like a large EP.
Anyway, I’ve written before that visual action is unusual on the west coast estuaries in winter, so having fish to cast to at times was a luxury. Hammerheads and Upside-down Minnows worked well on bream, salmon and mullet. For colours, chartreuse, red or black all caught their share of fish.
Overall, this was a trip of wild weather, wilder seas and the biggest tidal flows I can remember on the west coast rivers. I’m not sure we fished the best places at the best times given the unusual conditions, but as Max pointed out on the drive home, we caught some good fish each session, and you can’t ask for more than that.