JD finds world-class saltwater flyfishing without leaving Australia.
I think angling travel is the best travel. There is the expectation and excitement around potential captures, exotic locations, the organising of equipment, watching countless YouTube videos about target species, special flies to tie… Not to mention the excuse to buy more gear! The planning and build up is longer than the trip, but it’s just as much a part of it.
I’ve recently returned from a fishing trip to the Wessel Islands off the northeast tip of Arnhem land; a week of guided fishing based on a live-aboard mothership.
Tropical saltwater flyfishing provides a wealth of target species, from hard-pulling pelagics, to stalking spooky fish on the flats. While permit and blue bastards were high on the agenda, the trip also offered opportunities to tangle with a wide range of other fly-eating saltwater species.
As a trout stream fisher who is used to 3 to 5 weight rods with 3lb tippet, the learning curve for salt is very steep. It’s way outside my experience, but it is so alluring. I wanted to have a go at whatever I could throw a fly at. Tropical flyfishing in June is also about as far away as you can get from the gloves, coats and beanies of winter lake trout fishing.
A worry about trips like this is whether you get ‘what they say on the box’ – and it has to be acknowledged that it doesn’t always turn out that way: fishing and weather can’t be controlled. However, my experience with the Wessels trip was it was more like Dr Who’s Tardis, which is bigger on the inside than the outside. The trip delivered way more than it said on the box – and more than I could have hoped for.
The Wessels are remote – a good day’s sail from Gove in the Northern Territory – and they can only be accessed and fished through a single charter operation which has the permission of the Traditional Owners. I’d booked the trip a couple of years ago but like many things, Covid had played a hand and the original June trip had been deferred to the next November, and then deferred again to this June.
The closer the trip came, the more I became a hermit and went to ground, making sure I didn’t expose myself to any Covid risks and miss the trip. I was an extremely relieved man when the compulsory RAT came up negative and I hopped on the Gove flight to rendezvous with the boat.
Permit are one of the big deals in the saltwater flyfishing world. Later, one of the guides on my trip would state that, “Permit are one of those rare fish where anyone can tell you exactly how many they’ve caught.” I must admit, I hadn’t really had them on my flyfishing bucket list. However, after watching countless flats videos pre-trip, and then talking with the other anglers aboard our mothership, I started to see the appeal of this enigmatic fish, and the passion they instill in flyfishers. Before long, I desperately wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Other marquee flats species in the Wessels are blue bastards and tusk fish. Then there are the pelagics, with queenfish and various trevally species, as well as other fly-eating tropical fish.
Living on a mothership is very good. With only 6 anglers aboard, each day we would head out in one of three purpose-built skiffs – two anglers and a guide in each – and slowly work the many flats looking for fish. Although the weather was often not the best for sight-fishing due to unseasonal low dark cloud, the guides had amazing fish-spotting abilities. The trip was fantastic, and every day was special, but one day really stood out.
Bastards and Tuskies
On this day, we’d travelled nearly to the top of the island chain several kilometres from the mothership, and had been slowly working across a flat. My co-angler Phil was up front on the casting deck when Tiger, the guide, spotted a blueish shape about 20 feet away. Phil cast, let the fly sink, then started a slow retrieve. The blueish shape turned, followed the fly, and ate it. A dogged fight and a blue bastard for Phil, his first. A good start and smiles all round.
Blue bastards can be very frustrating to catch, and we heard stories of a fish which can be ridiculously temperamental. Apparently, they have varied behaviour and can mooch around for ages seemingly oblivious to flies being thrown in their direction, or sometimes they can spook easily. They can appear to be blind to flies dropped right in their face, or they may chase them down with gusto. Blue bastards can also make sudden changes in direction, making it hard to present a fly, and they can be extremely fussy when it comes to flies that may get an eat. On one of the days on this trip, a fellow angler worked on a fish for about an hour, with multiple fly changes, before the fish decided to eat. In this context, Phil’s fish was certainly a good start!
Not long after, it was my turn up front, and Tiger pointed out another slow-moving shape. I cast into the general vicinity and began the slow draw retrieve. Tiger said to strip-strike on any resistance – no matter how slight – so I was all tensed up with full concentration. I did an excruciatingly slow draw on the fly, with the rod tip in the water to keep contact, feeling for anything at all. Added to this pressure, was telling myself NOT to trout strike – something I knew I would be instinctively inclined to do.
Meanwhile, Tiger was constantly talking through what was happening: “He’s seen it, he’s turned on it, he’s following, he’s following…. get ready ….” I was like a coiled spring as I slow stripped. Slow it down, slooow strip… was that resistance? It could have been? Strip…what was that? A short strip-strike anyway and BAM! Instant connection, and the tusk fish, which had grabbed the shrimp fly in the gentlest of fashion, turned into a rampaging bulldozer and headed for the reef. The directions to fight tusk fish were, ‘Don’t give them any line because if they get going, they will head to the horizon.’ Following that advice, I became engaged in a pugilistic, no holds barred, hand-to-hand battle of strength. No reel or drag, just hand on the fly-line, stripping and holding, plus some rod pressure to prevent the tusky from getting traction.
The fight was not pretty. It was a 9 weight rod with 30 pound tippet, versus a dogged, super strong ball of colourful muscle. Finally, the rod won out and a beautiful black-spot tusk fish was landed. The colours on these fish are stunning. And there were more smiles all round. A great day!
Although permit had eluded us, by late afternoon we were all pretty happy, having had success with a blue bastard and a tusk fish. The sun was getting lower and the day’s session on the flats was about over, when the Tiger pointed out some nearby mangroves. While he’d never seen barramundi in them, he thought the mangroves looked like they should hold barra, and if we wanted, we could go over and check them out? So, without a lot of confidence, we went over for a quick look before we had to head back to the mothership.
Standing on the bow with Tiger behind me, holding a shrimp fly in one hand, with about a rod length of fly-line out of the tip runner and a pile of stripped line laying on the deck in readiness for a quick cast, we scanned the water ahead of the boat. We saw countless mullet, the odd shark, and a couple of vague moving shapes which couldn’t be recognised from a distance. They faded away before we could get within casting range. With my mind starting to wander after the long day, Tiger’s shout of, “Permit in the mangroves!”, was startling. And there, right beside us, not much more than a rod length away, as clear as clear in amongst the mangrove roots, was a permit.
I let go of the fly and swung the rod into position to get ready for a cast… and promptly and deftly wrapped the fly around the electric outboard! The permit had now moved out the shelter of the roots and looked like it was disappearing. We were so close, surely it would spook at any moment. I untangled the fly as calmly as I could and saw the fish starting to head deeper. All I could do was literally throw the fly by hand between the boat and the permit. The permit shot forward. I’d obviously spooked it and lost my chance. Then suddenly the line went taut, and a short strip-strike connected with something solid. The fly-line came to life in my hand and a moment later began peeling off the reel. The fish hadn’t spooked, it had pounced forward and eaten the fly! With the drag singing and the backing disappearing, we had hooked a permit.
The fish took off across the flats, taking a lot of line as it went. But while I was a facing where the line entered the water, the fish had actually completed a large arc and had headed back towards the mangroves. As the permit made it to a tangled mess of roots and twigs, I obediently followed Tiger’s advice to, “Give it slack, give it slack!” The permit miraculously rolled over a snag, didn’t get caught up, and screamed off again away from the mangroves and back out to the flats.
I started to calm down and settled in to actually playing the fish, getting a bit of line back and some normality. Then a sudden change in the fish’s behaviour signaled a shark was on its tail, and again we faced disaster. Sheez! Cranking on the reel and applying as much pressure as I could, the fish turned, and I retrieved enough line for Tiger to grab the leader and deftly net the fish. We’d beaten snags and sharks, and we had our permit! A good day had turned into a never-to-be-forgotten day; a day to be savoured and retold over pre-dinner drinks on the front deck.
After searching the flats most other days, the usual thing on the way back to the mothership was to pull out the 12 weight and go to the points and reefs looking for fast-paced queenfish and trevally action. The queenfish are particularly big, pull hard, take line, jump and are great to catch. The brassie trevally are dogged beasts with long runs, and they never give up. It’s exciting and visual fishing.
With other species caught on the fly including golden trevally, giant trevally, barramundi, mangrove jack, a Spanish mackerel, coral trout, and numerous tropical cod species, the Wessels trip produced and produced. It’s a wild and remote place with amazing scenery and white sand flats that go on forever. It’s beautiful and the fishing is fantastic.
After all the pre-trip planning and research and the COVID delays, my hopes for the trip were more than realised, and the fears never eventuated. Even with the poorer weather we sometimes experienced, the Wessels trip had given me more than what it said on the box. Although I’ve been home for some time in southern winter fog and rain, I’m recalling the adventures, the fish, the wildlife and the fantastic crew and guests on Wildcard, and I find myself smiling. I think I will be for some time.
Yes, as I said at the beginning, angling travel is definitely the best travel.
I took a 9 weight, and this was fine for the flats, although a 10 weight may be better to handle more breeze and the weighted flies if the wind is up. A 12 weight is a must for the big pelagics. I was lucky and could borrow one from a friend, but they can also be hired aboard if your rod collection doesn’t run to these cannons.
Rods break, reels are put to the test and fly lines can get shredded on rocks or even cut in half. It’s prudent to carry some backups as insurance. While the boat has some hire rods, it’s an isolated place with no shops so you don’t want to be left without a rod if the worst happens.
You also need plenty of leader material, especially in the 20lb for permit and 30lb for blue bastards. There is a lot of leader changing, depending on which species you encounter across the flats.
In terms of flies, crab and shrimp patterns reign supreme on the flats, while big brush flies were used for the queenies and trevally. We mainly tied on white flexo crabs for the permit but a white shrimp fly was also very good. Large brush flies in black were popular with the queenfish but other colours also worked. I recommend taking a few brush flies because as tough as they are, they get hammered and shredded as the big queenies fight each other to grab the fly. Take a few flies such as Pink Things and Barra Bunnies, etc. for the mangrove jacks and barramundi, and don’t forget some heavier leader as a bite tippet – barra are not kind to light leaders. (Always best to double check in with Aussie Fly Fisher re flies, gear and other requirements if you decide to go.)
As a final suggestion, it can be a bit windy (it is saltwater fishing!) and the flies are weighted. So, if you are a stream trout fisher like me and not used to casting these larger rods and heavy flies, especially into a breeze, a bit of practice before going would really pay off.