We were headed north. At any other point in my 24 years of living, a trip to a tropical island would mean ocean swims, a good book, maybe a surf and a few cocktails. But people change. This trip’s purpose was to spend as much time fishing the saltwater flats of far North Queensland as possible. Sun, salt, double-hauls and hopefully, fish that would make our chins hit the skiff deck.
We stepped off the plane into comforting, thick, tropical evening air, made our way to our lodgings and prepped our gear for the first day on the water. We checked our fly boxes, made sure we had our buffs, sunblock, long sleeves and plenty of water. (Little did we know, we wouldn’t be needing some of those things.)
We rose early to a grey sky and a little wind. It didn’t bother us, it would clear up soon, right? Amos Mapleston, saltwater mastermind and owner of Nearshore Flyfishing, picked us up outside our motel and took us to the docks, where we jumped in the skiff and headed out. The ride out to the flats was exciting – partly due to the prospects of a fish, but more so because it was a rollercoaster ride. It was rough, bumpy and ‘hold onto your hat’ windy.
We began at the mangroves. I found my balance up on the platform and, as Amos instructed, started to cast to any sort of structure in the murky water. This was when we saw our first fish, a flick of bright silver. I looked at Amos and asked, “What was that?” “Barra,” he replied, “We’re in the right place.”
We eventually reached the northern tip of the mangroves. The wind was hitting hard, but I managed to get a cast out. Second cast, and I was on. I felt a big tug, the rod bent, and we saw that telling flash of silver. Muscle memory was my worst enemy for those few seconds, and before I could stop myself, my rod tip was up in the air with a ‘trout strike’ and the fish was gone. I cursed myself for the next 45 minutes while Cale went up on the platform to scan the water as we went further out onto the flats.
Despite the weather, we poled around for a while longer, casting to muddy disturbances being created by rays – hopefully with golden trevally sitting on their tails. But when the wind hit 30 knots, we called it a day with no fish.
Our luck over the next two days did not improve. From 8am to 6pm we were on the water. From rocky platforms at the edge of small bays, to casting right from the beach, to trying our luck wading out on the flats. Nothing was working. We questioned everything: are we throwing the right flies, are we reading the tides wrong, have sharks eaten the entire golden trevally population? Who knows? Well, it turned out someone did know, this someone knew a lot. His name was Bill Mitchel.
Amos had very kindly put us in contact with a friend of his, Bill, who we’d called a few weeks earlier to get some intel on the area and some spots to try. Being the legend he is, he decided to take us out on the flats for a few hours. We met Bill at 9am in a tiny bay, where we chatted, checked our knots and started to wade out. The journey to our spot was probably one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. It’s one thing being in waist-deep water, with stingers, sharks and occasionally (very rarely) crocs when the sun is out, but when it’s grey, ominous and murky, it’s a whole new level or nervousness. Luckily, once we were about 800m from shore, the tide finally dropped and sat around our knees. At least I knew at that depth, any shark that came swimming around my ankles would be one I could probably pick up and throw in the other direction!
The first thing Bill taught us was to spot the most subtle disturbance in the water, and from up to a hundred metres away. To say we were impressed with his eyesight would be an understatement. We watched the reversed waves for a while, training our eyes to notice this slight difference. At one point, Bill made a joke that he could be making this up, and there wasn’t anything to see… That’s when we saw the tail, like a golden trophy rising from the water. Cale had his line out ready to go. He cast. It wasn’t far enough. The tail was moving left. He cast again. Once more, a little further. He was on. The reel screamed and Cale grabbed the rod with both hands, only to realise the line was tightening around his leg. He balanced and hopped on one leg, held the rod in his right hand, and with his left, swiftly pulled the line around and under his foot. If it weren’t such a serious moment, it would have been really, really funny. The fight lasted around ten minutes; ten extremely fast minutes. Watching the power of this fish was spectacular.
From that moment, it was almost like a switch had been turned on and there were fish every five minutes within a twenty metre radius. My first cast at a goldie didn’t turn out to be what I expected. I don’t remember much of the lead-up, just focusing as much as possible on getting a cast in the right area. Then, almost like magic, a fish was on the line. This time, I didn’t trout set. I’m pretty sure I laughed like a maniac, and I forced myself to take some calming breaths to get me through the fight. Bill soon reached in and pulled out a stunning little GT that had beaten the goldie to my fly. I was ecstatic.
Now, I would have been happy with one fish, but lucky me, I got a chance at another. We were slowly making our way back to shore when we saw a school of goldens seemingly pop out of nowhere. There would have been around four or five of them, happy as Larry, moving twenty feet ahead of us. I was ready to go and cast just where Bill said to and bang, the line ran from my fingers. To give some indication of the fight of these things, the area just above my belly button where I was resting my rod during these fights was bruised the next day. Once again, Bill grabbed the fish and handed it to me. Another silver bullet GT had beaten the goldies to my fly. Then, when it began to rain sideways, we called it, and headed in for a beer and recount of the day.
When it’s pouring rain in paradise and you want to celebrate, there is really only one thing to do, and that’s go to the pub. Lucky for us there was a bit of a show going on at the local: toad races. These were not just any amphibious relays, they started with an auction. Each toad was auctioned off, to our surprise, at around $200. Most of the proceeds went to charity, and some lucky man or lady would walk away with around 300 bucks and a great story.
On our last day, we decided to give the flats one more go. Our goal this time was to get Cale’s younger brother, Riley, onto a fish so he could understand what we had been ranting about for the past 24 hours. We waded out. It was still as terrifying as the day before, but soon the water dropped, and we were in prime position. The only problem was, it was raining sideways and my cap kept blowing off. The water temperature was a lot warmer than the blasting air so at least our feet were toasty. We couldn’t see very much in the conditions, but we persevered; fortunate, as Cale started to spot those tell-tale water pushes that turned into tailing fish. Riley’s casting ability exceeds his lack of saltwater fly experience, and he hooked into a fish incredibly quickly. We watched as he fought the fish, and I felt more pressure than I had the entire trip trying to grab its tail as he brought it in. I don’t think I would have been forgiven if I’d fumbled it!
The flight home was somber, but full of recounts and descriptions of everything we had seen and done. We can’t wait to get back out on the flats… although a bit more sun next time would be nice.