Josh shows well-known American angler Oliver White around some northern Australian saltwater.
2020 has been a year to remember: drought, bushfires, floods, and just to top it off, a global pandemic. And with a blanket ban on almost all international travel, plus a significant amount of domestic travel, the collective twitch to explore, adventure and wander freely, is at an all-time high.
Like a retired sports star who loves to look back on their glory days, or an old married couple reflecting on photos from their wedding, it’s times like these when we can’t explore, that we most need to remember when we could!
While 2019 was filled with trips to the USA, Greenland, Mongolia, the Pacific, New Zealand and Argentina, it was a journey on Aussie shores which I remember most gratefully.
Oliver White is an American guide, lodge owner, entrepreneur, global wanderer and family man, and someone I look up to in the industry. I first met him at a US trade show and, hearing that despite all his travels, he’d never fished in Australia, I’d invited him to join an exploration trip to the Wessel Islands in the Northern Territory. But sadly, Ollie couldn’t make it.
Not to be deterred, and staunchly proud of my local waters, I went back with the offer of a trip and we managed to coordinate a visit for June 2019. Ollie arranged a YETI photo shoot while he was here, and I had almost a fortnight to show him the fishing.
Hosting a well-known angler in your own backyard is exciting, but also stressful! I had unashamedly talked up Australian flyfishing, and now it was time to deliver.
The plan was to spend a week aboard the Phoenix One Mothership exploring the Wessel Islands, with a few days in the lead up fishing with my mate, Justin Nye, at Gladstone Fly & Sportfishing. While we were open to any species which might swim into fly range, three were front of mind: T.Anak permit, blue bastards and T.Blochii permit.
Greatness in Gladstone
With his long beard and flyfishing luggage, it wasn’t hard to find Ollie at Sydney Airport. Being his first trip to Australia, I gave Ollie a whirlwind tour of Sydney’s best. Breakfast and coffee by the Harbour Bridge, a quick look at the Opera House, and we were done. It was back to the airport and a flight north.
I’ve fished the Gladstone area a few times with Justin, but the permit have always eluded us. This time, the weather looked good and we were feeling optimistic. I always enjoy fleeing north for the winter, but as we stepped off the plane and were hit with the north Queensland warmth, it felt particularly good.
After Ollie slept off some jet lag, and I slept off life with two toddlers, day one was upon us. It was time to hit the flats. The wind was calm but high cloud created a lot of glare, meaning every fish we saw was last minute and too late. We did see some permit though, and plenty of them.
Day two greeted us with similar conditions and we squinted our way through the morning. But eventually the clouds parted, and our confidence began to build.
Earlier in the day, Ollie had prophetically mentioned that, “A good trip is made up of a few great moments.” It wasn’t always about the quantity, but how rich the quality.
And one of those great moments was soon to be upon us. As the clouds cleared, the glory began. Ollie hooked a large golden trevally cruising with a stingray in shallow water along the flats. Sadly, the hook pulled on that fish. Then, only minutes later, we found the same stingray and it was, once again, carrying another fish, in even shallower water. While initially disinterested, after a quick fly change, it followed Ollie’s fly all the way to the boat and this one didn’t pull the hook: a PB golden trevally. Things were looking up.
We continued down the flats and ran into several schools of Anak permit. Initially in pods of four to six fish, this rose at times to groups of ten to twenty. The glare, however, continued and anytime we had the boat near them, they just wouldn’t eat. Common permit behaviour, but still frustrating when the opportunity is almost there.
We anchored the boat and decided to approach the permit on foot. Ollie threw a crab fly into a school of twenty permit and at the last moment came tight on a great fish.
When you want a fish so bad, the fight is always nerve-wracking. But while I was holding my breath, Ollie was calm as could be. Justin did the honours landing the fish, and that feeling you get when a permit comes to hand consumed us all.
Anak permit are endemic to Australia, and generally, a tough fish to catch. Having one on the board so soon was a great achievement. Maybe I hadn’t talked up our fishing too much after all.
Day three was plagued by the cloud again and so, sunburnt but satisfied, we left early to head north. Gladdy delivered exactly what we had hoped for: small moments of greatness, and exactly the fish we wanted.
Wessels, BBs & Wind
I have fished the Wessel Islands many times now, and rate it as one of the most special places on earth. But, like many great saltwater locations, the fishing isn’t always predictable or easy.
The mothership, and our home for the next week, was departing from Gove with direct flights from either Darwin or Cairns. Ollie and I had made our way to the latter and it was soon time to board our final flight to Gove.
Gove airport is on the outskirts of Nhulunbuy, NT and when the plane doors opened, we were greeted with even warmer temperatures than the ones we’d just left.
Despite having fished the Wessels lots of times, I am always excited to arrive. And my enthusiasm was even greater for the group of anglers with us, experiencing it for the first time.
All our gear made it, and we loaded it into the car for a short ride to the boat. We boarded the ship and happily unpacked, as glasses were filled, canapes served, and Phoenix One made its way to the Islands. Our excited chatter was punctuated with tales of blue bastards and permit – both the ones that got away, and those that still sit on the laptop or phone home-screens. Eventually, we went to bed.
The next morning as breakfast is served, it’s hard to not notice where you are. Surrounded by endless flats, with not a single sign of human life. It’s a remoteness you remember, and long for, back in the busyness of everyday life. And it brings a quiet and solitude that is becoming harder and harder to find.
I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad idea to check the weather before a trip you’re already committed to, but in this case we did. Good weather for the first day, horrible for the middle, then coming good again to finish. Oh well, at the very least, I knew the beer would be cold, and the view spectacular.
On day one, the excitement was booming. The boats were packed, and Ollie and I jumped onboard. The sun was shining – important when fishing the flats – putting everyone, anglers and guides, in a good mood.
We were fishing with Declan Williams, a young, super fishy, guide, and he got us onto the action straight away.
Ollie ticked off his first blue bastard in minutes. The feat possibly loses some of its prestige when it happens too quickly, but we weren’t complaining! I followed up with the first permit of the trip, then Ollie with another BB. Not long after I claimed a further blue bastard, and while I’d like to think it was from pure skill, the catch came while blind dredging a shallow channel, casting from the back of the boat. That is a first for me.
It was a fine start, but the day ended up finishing how the next three days began: Lots of wind and plenty of cloud. But still, a great first day with moments of excellent fishing.
Over the next few days, the weather followed the pre-trip forecast, but we kept our spirits high. We still caught permit and we still caught blue bastards. Much to the surprise and humour of Ollie and the guides, I continued my blind fishing streak with a quality tusk fish in the pouring rain, and even a permit from a dark patch of weed. To my credit, I had seen fish in the respective locations before, and with the cloud killing our vision, just pressed on casting when nothing was happening. But to tick off a permit, blue bastard, and tuskie while blind casting, shows just how good a fishery this is.
I want every trip to be perfect, but that is not always the case. Ollie by this stage had been unlucky on the permit: hooking three and losing them all.
The weather eventually came back in our favour. I managed to land a solid tuskie, sight-fished on the sand, and we encountered a few more permit.
Then the final day came. We desperately wanted Ollie to catch a permit. The mother ship steamed most of the night and we were now in the midst of a whole new area of flats. Ollie and I, along with our guide for the day, Lee Younan-Wise, were now on a one-track mission. Ollie had to catch a Wessels permit, and we set out to make it happen.
Of course, this was the day that everything was all over the flats. We ignored the first few golden trevally and queenfish, but eventually succumbed to a few. It’s hard to ignore big cruising queenfish in shallow gin-clear water.
Eventually a few permit came our way, but nothing wanted to play.
We snuck into a small bay, not much bigger than a football field. There was a small flat in the middle and we had seen the odd permit there before. The tide was flat and full, but being neap tides, most of the bay was still exposed.
And there she was. A single permit, feeding away happily on a small area of the bay. Tailing, but in 2-3 feet of water, she wasn’t breaking the surface. Ollie is always inconceivably calm, and Lee has the same facial expression for the full spectrum of human emotion, so I guess that left me to be the outwardly nervous one.
Ollie made the cast, and it was a good one. The fish ate, and just like the script said, he landed that beautiful Wessels Permit. Even Lee may have mustered a smile.
It is easy to assume that booking a trip to a ‘destination location’ means the fishing will be great. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the sun is shining, the wind is low, and even the difficult fish show a blind eye to a terrible cast. But Oliver’s quote continues to ring true: “A good trip is made up of a few great moments.”
We caught all the species on our wish list, but there were times the fishing was tough. The week produced over 20 blue bastards and six permit, but they were successes amidst lots of losses and bad luck. Great moments made greater by the frustration and perseverance it took to get there.
Needless to say, we made our way back to Cairns satisfied and content. On the flight, I pitched a future trip. There were still barramundi, Murray cod… the list goes on. But for now, we’ll just keep looking at that fish on our home-screen and dream of wandering once again.