Mickey finds more than he expected around Mackay.
Everyone has a unicorn fish, one they’ll chase as hard as they possibly can – even though at some point, it seems like actually catching one is impossible. My unicorn fish is a permit. I’ve been chasing permit every chance I get, which as a trout guide who lives about 1000 miles south of the nearest flat, isn’t anywhere near as often as I’d like.
Having this winter off because of COVID turned into a blessing in some ways. I got to hit the road and add another chance to make a permit happen. A call came from Josh Hutchins to be in North Queensland (a two-day drive from my home or a short flight in regular times), so I packed up and left immediately. Josh was already up there, on his way back from a week in Weipa. With border closures threatening and time slipping away, Josh decided to stay up north, and I bolted to meet him in time.
The new plan was to chase tuskies, barra and hopefully, a permit. I fluked the timing, got across just before they shut the border to NSW, and we started off in Airlie Beach with our mates Matt and Jimmy chasing tuskies and barra. After a few hard but fun days fishing, I did get a monster barra from my kayak, but the tuskies eluded us – just. We had a blast hurtling over flats in Matty’s boat and nearly tipping Jimmy’s over on a barra dam. And just hanging with mates in Northern Queensland’s endless summer while it was snowing at home in southern Australia, was priceless.
Our next stop was a little further south at Mackay, with Paul from Mackay Fly & Sport Fishing. I’d never met Paul or visited the Mackay region. However, we’d had a few chats on the phone about plastic boats, barra dams and permit flats, and he was as keen as I was to go and get it done. You could tell from the phone calls that Paul was a classic straight-shooting, hospitable Aussie, and this was confirmed in the flesh. Paul moved up to Mackay a few years ago to hopefully make the permit there work after guiding for years down in Hervey Bay. Paul catches barra in the local dams like it’s going out of style, plus tuskies and golden trevally on the flats, as well as his beloved brown bastards (a close relation of the blue bastard) not to mention tuna, mackerel and monster GTs. There are a lot of options out of his new base and it’s easy to organise a trip.
Being a large regional town, Mackay is a simple proposition to drive or fly too, and it has everything you need to make a last minute trip work.
Josh and I met Paul and went straight to the river, five minutes from his house, chasing local sooty grunter and barra, and chatting about the plan for the next day. It would be tuskies in the morning, and permit for the following two days… weather permitting. I was so excited and distracted by the possibility of a permit, I missed a good barra and several topwater sooty grunter eats. Even so, it was relaxing to be down by the river having a chat after a few big days offshore further north.
Our tuskie day began almost perfectly. We nailed a nice golden trevally on a deep point as we made our way to the flats at one of Paul’s many ‘just in case’ spots. It was my first golden and an absolute tank of a fish, so I was understandably happy going into a full day on the flats. We then chased tuskies until we went blue-blind. (Tuskies glow an iridescent blue on the flats.) They’re the ultimate version of a trigger fish in their feeding and fighting habits – they call them blue tractors up there.
We had plenty of shots at these fish as the tide rose over the rocky rubble where they forage for crabs. Tuskies are slow feeders, and an obvious enough fish to spot in shallow water. However, they have a wonderfully neurotic, almost bipolar personality which can make them spook at the slightest hint of fly-line or electric motor… but then they’ll rush four metres to absolutely destroy a crab you hadn’t thought landed close enough.
Josh was on point for the tuskies. He was keen for a big brawler and I was looking forward to watching him succeed. However, all poor Josh seemed to find were those neurotic fish! One tuskie looked at his fly, then went in the opposite direction and stuck its head in a rock, playing the toddler’s game of, ‘I can’t see you so therefore I’m invisible.’
The Mackay flats are extremely varied, so I was geared up in case we saw a permit and had to make a quick shot. I had 16lb on instead of the customary tuskie-pulling 25lb or 30lb leader, and a lighter crab I’d stolen from Josh’s box.
After seeing a lot of fish, not one of which was keen to play ball, we found a blue blob that seemed pretty happy. Because of the angle the boat was on when we spotted it, and the way the tuskie was coming at us, it made sense for me to take a shot from the back. Even so, as my crab landed, I looked around at the coral country this fish was working in and thought that perhaps 16lb was not the best idea. I was super lucky though, this tuskie was angry, came straight over to the fly and mauled it. All my trigger fish training elsewhere paid off and after a few tense moments, I had another first.
The way this week was shaping up and knowing we had two full days of glamour weather on permit flats coming up I was, needless to say, extremely excited.
I’ve chased permit relentlessly whenever I’m up north, but something always seems to go wrong. The weather, the fish – and more often, my terrible casts – would leave me a broken man after a permit trip. However, I could feel the luck on the south-east wind when we woke to clear skies the next day.
When we arrived at the designated flat, there were blue salmon absolutely everywhere. They’re an awesome species which maul flies, run, jump and do everything you want. The salmon are a fantastic fallback option for Paul on a cloudy day, being extremely visible like the tuskies. While blue salmon ain’t no permit, ignoring them was hard. In fact ignoring them proved impossible – Josh and I had to take it in turns to catch a few to get them out of our system!
But as soon as we saw our first ‘mooning’ permit, we quickly forgot the blues and Paul went straight into highly-focused permit mode.
That first permit day, I had more shots than I’d had on all my other days chasing them combined. I even had one big boy break from a school, dip on my fly (at this point I was having a mild heart attack), but I didn’t hook up. I was stoked just to see that many fish.
After a lot more shots and maybe one more small permit coming over to hopefully attack the fly, then spooking at the last second, we lost the light and headed in. No permit, but I had a massive smile knowing we’d be doing it all again the next day.
Unfortunately for Josh, he had to head back to the freezing cold south. He’d already been up in Queensland for a week longer, slaying permit in the remote Weipa region, so I didn’t feel too bad for him! We had a beer at the airport and chatted about what a rad road trip we’d had together. Hanging with mates, sleeping on beaches, catching fish and generally loving life. Josh’s parting words as they called his flight and we downed our last beer were, “Get it done tomorrow Mickey, get a permit.”
I think Paul is up there as one of the most enthusiastic guys I’ve ever met. He’s hospitable, knowledgeable and fishes so damn hard, he puts most of us to shame. Paul was at the ramp way before the tide to get some exploring done before the tide came in and the permit would be moving up. I arrived to a rare and almost total glass out; usually there’s some breeze around. We saw tuna, whales, more tuskies and brown bastards.
It’s always a pleasure exploring new areas. Mackay is a region with huge fly potential the locals have realised for years, and Paul is working tirelessly to develop options. Eventually, fish started to move onto the flats with the tide, and we were ready with crab flies. At first, the only movement came from some very large queenfish that refused our permit flies – as they had every right to! But we weren’t going to ditch our permit gear in case we saw one. Then the salmon came onto the flat in swarms, milling, feeding and generally looking extremely catchable; we ignored them like proper laser-focused permit dudes.
It was a different day with no camouflaging breeze and a later tide. We decided to stake up and wait, have lunch early and chat about the likelihood of having to throw down our chicken wraps at any moment to take a shot. I was exactly half-way through lunch when we saw the first ‘mooning’ permit. After throwing down the food (almost as if pre-ordained) and getting in position, it was clear the school was bee-lining up a channel, mooning every few metres to give us a handy indicator of their direction.
It took a couple casts to lead the school just right and at the correct angle, but as soon as I did, we saw the lead fish peel off and slam my Flexo Crab. As soon as I set the hook, I immediately refused to believe it was a permit (not wanting to jinx myself) and instead was running with an insane story that a salmon must have been with the school and choked the fly. After three runs and seeing it twice, it obviously was a permit and the first one I’d ever hooked. When we worked that beautiful foot-long disc of pure permit silver into the net, I felt about 5 years’ worth of pent-up tension release.
Paul and I celebrated and relaxed. I had a beer and went for a swim. Then, with the supreme confidence of anglers who’ve set a goal and achieved it, we figured we’d go exploring. We thought it would be fun to catch a goldie and maybe have a shot at a tuskies – see if we could get the ‘slam’. Paul was keen to show me a few more flats he’d been working on.
What happened next beggars’ belief. When you see a single permit and think it’s a GT, you’re in a special place; when you see schools of these monsters swimming at the boat, you’re in Nirvana. As we drifted onto the next flat, three fish spooked which were easily the biggest permit I’d clapped eyes on. We had three drifts down this ‘Flat of Giants,’ each time coming steadily closer to the sandbar at the edge (just think drifting a bay for trout with a drogue). On the first two drifts we saw fish cruising midwater, or hard on the bottom in really deep stuff, and we couldn’t get a clean shot. We had a little interest from a couple of presentations, but it was fleeting.
At this point I was happy just to see these fish. I’d caught that permit earlier and the pressure was off. We were just two guys on a flat casting at monster permit for fun. It was the first time I’d felt relaxed chasing permit: able to watch them without losing my mind, and to focus on what they were actually doing. At this stage of the tide they seemed to be milling, making wide passes off the drop-off. Then, on the third drift, the tide had risen.
As we drifted past a hole in a freshly submerged sand-spit, eight or so monster permit were head-down bum-up, blitzing the bottom. I’d gotten my permit and was more than happy, but Paul still had me on point, keen for me to get another, and he was on the backup rod. The fish were in a deepish hole that had opened to the main channel and they were super preoccupied while feeding, so I felt comfortable landing the fly close. I dropped the Flexo Crab a couple feet from the busy fish watched it sink. Then, to my absolute horror, realised my line was wrapped round the electric motor. It took all my powers of concentration, to look down and undo the loops. I called the problem to Paul as I did it and he got his fly in ASAP. As I got free, I stripped once, looked up at the same time and saw a dream permit tailing like it was trying to dig to the centre of the earth with my fly. I felt the weight, stuck the hook, and the fish took off at a million miles an hour. I think the screams of “I’M ON!” are still reverberating around the Mackay hinterland!
The only problem was that when the permit took off, it wrapped Paul’s line around mine as it went. We both freaked out and thought the worst would happen, but it wasn’t Paul’s first rodeo – he free-spooled, his line magically untangled from mine, and the fish was clear and away on my reel in three seconds flat… and into the backing in the next three. That fish cleared my reel 5 times. I’ve never been connected to something with so much energy and staying power. I was in a state of suspended animation, I really couldn’t believe what was happening. Paul’s best permit is around 90cm (3 foot) and he instantly called this one as just as big. We settled into a rhythm, fighting the fish like we’d been fishing together for 3 years, not 3 days. We didn’t have to make any tough calls or have any more heart-stoppers, we just fought it clean on the flat as we moved towards a spit to land it.
Even when you’re doing everything you can to be calm and composed fighting a fish of lifetime, even when you’re talking yourself down, reminding yourself that it’s not landed yet and there’s a long way to go, you can hear the voice way back in your head saying this is happening. I was chatting with a mate, who was talking with another mate, who reckons this is particularly the case with permit. After trying for so long to hook one, when you eventually do, your mind goes into overdrive. You remember every detail more vividly and the fish is all the more powerful because of it. When that fish hit the net, that voice took over. I’ve never been a quiet guy, but when we landed a 98 centimetre permit that afternoon, I wouldn’t be surprised if my mates back home in the Snowy Mountains heard me!
To catch that fish topped of what was the greatest day of my life. To have Paul by my side on the run home singing ‘Oh Mickey You’re So Fine’ at the top of his lungs just made it more perfect.
All through winter 2020, during what was a weird and difficult time, my mates made it what it was, and I will be forever grateful to all of them.
FLYSTREAM FACTS: MACKAY
Mackay is situated about a 1000km north of Brisbane, well within the North Queensland region. It’s a short connecting flight from Brisbane, or a committed two-day drive from the Snowy Mountains. I fished for three days with Paul Dolan from Mackay Fly and Sports Fishing which was the perfect amount of time to chase what we wanted. Needless to say, permit aren’t easy, so booking a few days over a decent weather and tide window is your best chance at a shot. However, there are plenty of options if you’re not into chasing permit or if any of your flats days get blown out. There are other flats options, like the armies of blue salmon at the right time of year, and the ever-present crab-hunting tuskies; both species being a great fallback in less than ideal conditions. There are also species like tuna and queenfish at different times of year in the channels and around the islands.
The barra dams are an ever-reliable option. Even though winter is traditionally slow, Paul still pulls some epic numbers of these of fish in the cooler months, with sight-fishing in weed-beds the pinnacle of this action. There are also options for barra and sooty grunter in the local rivers on poppers in the evening. During the warmer months, the termite falls on these rivers put trout streams to shame.
If you’re planning a DIY road trip, the barra dams and estuaries are easily accessible with small boats, but the outer channels and reefs are best explored in something bigger. In terms of gear, I mainly fished my ever reliable 9 weight but had everything from an 8 to a 12 weight on hand: you can run into a lot of different species out there. I got most of my fish on a full floating line, but I’d have an intermediate tip and a full sink handy to take advantage of all situations, as well as tippet in 16lb, 25lb, 40lb and 80lb.