Harrison lists the things he wished he’d known the first time he headed north with a fly rod.
There’s something special about places where you’re casting to fish which may never have seen a fly. These wild locations are usually remote and sometimes hard to reach. Accessibility ranges from simple to near impossible; from straightforward QANTAS-Link flights, to bureaucratic lockouts blocking all visitors.
Northern Australia is full of these remote places. After years of trips up there, from lodge stays to DIY exploratory adventures with mates, the region is close to my heart. They’ve all been great experiences. And yet after each trip, I find myself reflecting on what I might have done better. Maybe I could have picked a week with more favourable tides, or brought along a spare 8 weight outfit, or carried enough water to comfortably see me through an all-day session!
It seems many Australian flyfishers choose Christmas Island for their first big saltwater trip. And that’s no surprise, given there’s so much information out there to help with preparation, organisation and what to pack for this trip of a lifetime. In the instant information age, punch ‘flyfishing Christmas Island’ into Google and a wealth of good articles and resources appear.
However, Northern Australia has nowhere near the same amount of quality advice, let alone information specifically about the flyfishing. While there are certainly some wonderful stories and articles by our top writers, when it comes to the basics, there is less to read. It’s this apparent gap which has motivated me to share the top things I’ve learnt as a flyfisher travelling to northern Australia.
Plan what sort of trip you want
Before you choose your northern destination, it’s handy to rank what species you want to target. Although most locations around northern Australia have access to all the tropical species, there are certainly fisheries that are better for one species than another. For example, you will stand a much better chance of great barramundi fishing in and around large estuaries. However, these large rivers mean blue mud and that is something you cannot walk through or over, so if you were hoping to walk the flats or along a beach spotting, you’ll be out of luck.
Having picked a location and the main species you want to target, you need to ensure your visit will coincide with the right tides. My personal preference is for neap tides (tides with little difference between high and low) building to the larger tides as the trip goes on, with a low tide around the middle of the day. These neap tides mean less tidal flow, so cleaner water which is important for sight fishing in areas that have blue mud mangrove banks.
Regarding the low tide, I want it around the middle of the day for two reasons. Firstly, a lot of northern species bite best around low tide when the baitfish are flushed out of the mangroves; so I don’t want to be running out of light at the end of the day just as the action is peaking! And secondly, for sight fishing, you want the sun to be at its highest point when the fish are at their most active.
Lastly, when planning your trip, choose your travelling companions wisely. For a range of reasons including accessibility, mud and crocs, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your mates in the confines of a boat, so make sure you’re all going to get along – it can be a long trip otherwise. Mates with similar abilities and enthusiasm are a good start.
Up here, your gear will be tested not just by the fish but by the conditions. You don’t want a reel seizing up or unreliable leader material. Leaders are something I’ve been paying more and more attention to as the trips have gone by. You want a leader material that is stiff yet still okay to tie knots with. Material that’s too soft and floppy can lack the ability to effectively turn over your fly. Paying that little extra for something that’s abrasion-resistant with stiffness, is well worth it.
Always bring a backup fly rod. There’s nothing more frustrating than breaking a rod when the nearest replacement is 500km away. Not only is a spare a good insurance policy, it can also be helpful to have a second rod rigged up differently.
Up north, it’s always possible you’ll hook something large enough to pull you way back into the mangroves or around a rock bar, wrecking your fly line. So it goes without saying that you should always carry an extra intermediate or floater or both. And make sure all your lines are ‘tropical’ rated – a cold-water line will melt in your hands.
Other fly line issues
Northern Australia is harsh on fly lines. The heat, salt and coarse sand can do serious damage even before a big cod has dragged your line through the mangroves. Your casting soon deteriorates as a result of a rough, dirty fly line, so make sure you carry some small towels dedicated to line cleaning and match these with some fly line dressing like Rio’s Agent X. You will notice the difference the next morning when your line shoots cleanly through your guides once again.
Some of the older-style protective shirts and pants tend to attract fly line to their buttons and loops. Most button-up shirts are fine and you won’t have any issues, but some can be quite frustrating as your fly line repeatedly catches on them. Go with shirts you know aren’t going to catch, or the modern solar shirts such as Simms Solar Flex or Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoodie.
Pack plenty of Clousers. Everything eats them! They work well in the bluewater for tuna, around rockbars for queenies, and beside muddy creek snags for barra and jacks. I always have plenty in every box ranging from size 2 – 2/0, mostly all white with a mix of pearl and silver flash. I would not head up north with any less than 15 white and another 5 with chartreuse over white.
With barra a prime target for many heading north, they’re worth a bit of extra information. Barra are not overly fussy when it comes to flies, so if you tie your own, you can get creative and have fun with your patterns. However two important considerations when choosing a barramundi fly are water clarity and water depth. In dirtier water, you’re going to want a bulkier, generally larger and more visible fly. My preference in dirty water caused by coastal blue mud is a flashy Gold Bomber-style fly or chartreuse and red Thing-style of fly.
Barra generally won’t move far to eat a fly or lure, so it’s important your offering is in the zone. If you are blind fishing deep snags or a deep channel, your fly is going to need some weight. Conversely, fishing a flat, you’ll want something that swims near the surface.
Which brings me to surface flies, and who doesn’t love surface eats! Basic all-white surface flies work for pelagics; however for barra, you want something with some colour and a maybe a flashy gold tail. On a recent trip, we were cruising a shallow blue mud flat when we spotted a nice barra laid up on the edge of the mangrove line. I quickly clipped off my fly and put on the Gurgler I’d been saving for this exact moment. I made a cast that landed a foot from the nose of the fish, then I began pulling the fly away from the barra just like a real baitfish. First pop and the fish moved slightly towards the fly, second pop another small movement, third pop and the fish charged the fly, stopped underneath and eyeballed it. A fourth pop and the fish followed, paused under the fly, then… BOOF! It was a sound and eat I will remember for the rest of my life.
Planning your day
If you are figuring out a new location, observe how the tide behaves and how it affects the environment. The mullet and crabs move with the tide and predators follow. Think about where the prey will hide at each stage of the tide, and where they travel as the tide rises and falls. Over the course of a trip, you can home in on these predator ‘hotspots’ and begin finding fish at each stage of the tide. Do remember that the tide is around an hour later each day.
Wind is also a big factor. On windy days, choose you location based on shelter. Too much wind from the wrong direction can prevent you going out wide chasing pelagics. It can push baitfish around, as well as dirtying the water as waves crash onto mud banks. You can waste a whole lot of time driving to a spot, only to find that a few hours of wind blowing directly onto a flat has ruined the sight fishing you expected.
Sort out your stripping and forget the trout strike
It wouldn’t be a saltwater story without reminding trout anglers to leave their setting technique at home! There are sound reasons to replace a trout lift with a strip-strike. With trout, you’re dealing with a fine gauge hook, light tippets, and a fish with a soft mouth. In the salt you are trying to stick a heavy gauge hook into a fish with a hard mouth and you normally have the tippet/ leader to match. When you trout lift, your rod bends, which is great for trout, but it doesn’t pack the punch to penetrate the jaw of most fish in the salt.
A good saltwater strip strike involves little or no slack in you line as you set the hook. This helps drive the hook home as the pressure is maximised right as you strip. When retrieving saltwater flies, I keep my rod tip in the water in anticipation and pointing towards the fly, thus limiting any slack in the line. This means when I do strip strike, the full strip is going into driving home the hook. When you have slack in your line, the first half of the strip is still picking up the slack and not working on getting the hook where it should be.
Look after yourself in the heat
This might seem obvious but there is nothing quite like the dripping, energy-sapping humidity of northern Australia during the build-up, wet season and run-off months. You will sweat out so much of what you drink during these months, so keep lots of water handy. I like to make up a half strength Gatorade/Powerade mix and fill a 5L cooler – under these conditions putting a few electrolytes back into your system doesn’t hurt.
A great next trip up north starts towards the end of your current trip. You might notice a particular fly works, or you needed more of a certain leader material as it was durable and tied well. This sort of information also applies to where you found fish and under what conditions?
Memory being what it is, it helps to make notes right after your trip about what you observed and would do differently next time. For most of us, it can be a year or more between trips up north, so having reliable notes to check will help make the next trip even better. All the more reason to head to this wonderful part of Australia as often as you can.
Keep up with Harrison’s adventures on Instagram @harrison_perrin