My final 3 weeks in Exmouth didn’t quite follow the weather pattern of the preceding weeks. The first large swell of the year coincided with spring tides and high winds to colour up the water to an extent the gulf was blown out for weeks. Fortunately before that happened I managed to get a couple of great fishing days in with Craig.
The first day was one of pristine sunshine as I’d come to expect in Exmouth. We set off mid morning with a plan to chase blue bastards and permit in the bottom of the gulf. Bastards get their name by the fact they have a very unpredictable feeding pattern changing direction more often than your typical patience can manage. When we launched conditions were absolutely ideal with just enough wind to ripple the surface letting us see into the marine world below. It didn’t take long before we saw the first fish, a good sized blue bastard. These fish feed on crabs and other crustaceans nestled amongst the various nooks and crannies on the bottom. As we quickly found out though, they can be rather spooky. Craig was first up but the fish spooked from the heavy crab pattern landing. Interestingly though it only moved over a couple metres and started feeding again. Unfortunately the next cast was too close. It didn’t take long to find the next fish especially since they stand out incredibly well against the bottom and in good conditions can be seen from a long way away. I was on strike this time, first cast spooked the fish but again he came back feeding. Next cast I snagged up on the bottom and told Craig to have a cast…
Suffice to say I learned my lesson as he soon had the first fish to hand and a cracker it was too.
After this we went on to spot and spook a few more bastards, spook a couple of permit and break off on a shark. We did land some small queenies but they don’t count as being big enough for this report. The following day we decided to chase bonefish on the Ningaloo side of the cape. I’d seen bones hanging out regularly in one bay so we went there first and were greeted instantly by the sight of a group of bones feeding and moving slowly. Conditions were almost ideal with very little wind, high sun and multiple schools being found. For the life of us though we just could not touch them, every cast would either spook the fish or be completely ignored, it was frustrating but perhaps these fish have been seeing too many flies recently. They are certainly in a very accessible spot for anyone with a pair of polaroids from boat or bank. It didn’t take long for the wind to whip up and make bonefishing nearly impossible so we started targetting feeding rays and pulled up small blue trevally after small blue trevally followed by small goldens and Craig even pinned a remora.
A couple days after fishing with Craig the swell, the tides and the wind all came at once destroying fishing prospects in the gulf. My aim for the last couple weeks was to try and nail a metre long queenie but with the change in weather I was largely limited to the Ningaloo side so in an effort to spice things up I spent a few days chucking poppers at sharks.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d cast plenty of clousers in front of the small blacktip and lemon sharks that cruise the flats but every single time I’d witnessed them spook. It was Craig that said they react really well to poppers which immediately triggered a bit of curiosity in my brain. Seeing a 3 to 5′ long fish nailing a popper, “that’s got to be some sight” I thought. It was. Imagine walking along the shoreline, seeing a very large (in relation to most fish you see) dark shape swimming along the flat. You crouch down. Pick you point to cast to to intercept the fish’s path. You wait until the shark gets closers, then strip it, “bloop”, “bloop” goes the popper and the shark keys in on it. Before you know it the sharks has exploded at the popper on the surface with a massive burst of speed sending water in every which direction as your heart thumps. I managed this a couple of times but never managed a hookup. I would have loved to land one to see these amazing creatures up close but those takes were enough for some serious entertainment!
Early during one of the popper days, I saw a shovelnose shark with a few interesting looking shapes following it. I couldn’t see what they were in the slightly coloured water so I snipped off the popper and tied on a small size two tan gotcha. I cast in front of the shark and stripped the gotcha in small pops across the sand. Much to my amazement he sped up and chomped down on the fly! What pursued was a battle with a very large fish which after about 10 or 15 mins snapped my rod clean in the butt section. The instant that happened, I had to grab the line and hand lining immediately broke the leader. For reference, the fish was a larger version of this:
Eventually the weather cleared up right towards the end of my trip and this time Jono once again offered to take me out for a couple days. The forecast was calm and sunny and the plan was to try and catch a milkfish. Milkfish are incredibly hard to catch as unlike most target species they feed on algae and microscopic invertebrates. Jono put it to me saying milkfish are about the hardest thing you can catch on a fly. The trick was to be able to cast well, accurately and far with good presentation and then just hope that one eats your fly. The first thing we saw beyond the reef was a couple of small tuna busting so a clouser was tied on and almost immediately snipped off when Jono shouted “MILKFISH!” The adrenaline started to pump, the secret fly was tied on and we were both casting into the middle of a school of milkies passing by. Nothing happened. Now I realised the game!
It’s all about seeing the school of fish a long way off; a large yet subtle surface disturbance caused by bow waves pushed up by each fish and massive tails slashing through the surface. The boat gets positioned ahead of the school, you cast and you just hope that one will eat. You get one shot, the fly has to be at the right height as the school passes, too high or too low in the water and you’re not in the game. It’s a game that leaves your heart in your mouth as you see these large fish cruising past ignoring your fly one after the other and then “BANG!” Jono was on. It was a superb moment, Jono had a huge grin and I was stoked for him. His fish ran off, jumped twice and on its next run let go of the hook. It was just one of those things you can’t control. We were both gutted, getting a milky in the boat would have been great but it gave a spark of renewed confidence and we went in search of more. On this day we found school after school of feeding milkies, sometimes truly enormous schools of very big fish, I’d never seen anything like it. In the midst of one school passing the boat I found my fly in exactly the right spot. The line tightened, I got the fish onto the reel and the fight was on. To say I was stoked was an understatement, there was lots of shouting, “yes’s”, “woops”, you know, happy noises and relief! These fish are absolutely nuts on the end of your line, long very fast runs and lots of stamina. I had my fish within 50′ of the boat a couple times and witnessed multiple backing runs, a couple jumps and then a shark appeared from nowhere and scoffed him. The bugger left me with a bitten off leader and a pool of red before my eyes. It was fairly devastating yet an amazing sight but oh how I would have loved to see a milkfish on the boat!
Here’s one from Jono’s Exmouth Fly Fishing site:
Later in the day as the sun began to fall we started to see less and less milkfish but on the run back saw a number of large Goldens feeding hard slurping down amongst weed patches on the surface. A clouser was tied on, cast in front and immediately on. What a stark contrast to fishing for milkies. The first fish bricked me busting me off in the coral. There’s not much you can do when a big fish decides to run down in 9m of water. The next fish did exactly the same thing although it may have been sharked as we did see a shark blasting around on the surface and other fish scampering, who knows but either way it was off. The sun was now below the horizon so the executive decision was taken to head back in. As I was reeling in something absolutely slammed my fly and tore off. I’ve never seen the backing get out there so fast, it was incredible but it eventually popped the 40lb butt section of my leader. The fish never stopped running. Don’t know what it was, Jono reckons a mackerel of some sort, all I know is it was stupidly quick.
The following day we went out to chase milkies again but came across a stiff Northerly breeze which made sight fishing very difficult. We saw limited milkies but they weren’t feeding. We had to retire to the inner lagoon but even then couldn’t see much at high tide and given the weather conditions we called it quits fairly quickly.
The next day was my final day in Exmouth, I had largely decided not to fish instead taking time to clean out my car, pack away all my things and make sure airport transfers etc were susses out. The afternoon weather was looking great, sunny, next to no wind but my rod was packed away. Much to my surprise Jono gave me a shout and asked if I fancied nailing a tuna before going home… guess my response! I was pretty excited, I always get excited with the prospect of fishing and even more so with new kinds of fishing although my excitement took a slight drop when we spoke to another charter operator just outside the marina who announced he’d seen no birds and no tuna. Suffice to say this turned out to be absolute bollocks as we found the first bust up only a mile from the marina. Let me set the scene for tuna fishing. You’re standing up at the bow, line already stripped off at your feet, about 10′ of fly line outside the rod tip, the boat races towards the bust up, the engine slowed as you get near and you wait and wait and wait “CAST!” at which you belt out the furthest, quickest cast you can right into the bust up and strip the fly as quickly as possible with a double handed retrieve. Occasionally the fish are spooked by the boat or already moved on but when you get it right a fish will nail it. A tuna bust up really is a sight to behold, imagine seeing seabirds hovering above the water, diving, squawking and then seeing huge splashes at the water. You see fish just tearing through baitfish all over the surface in a feeding frenzy, it gets the adrenaline pumping like nobodys’ business.
I had a few bum casts that dropped the flies short which resulted in no hookups but when we got it right boy was it fun! I hooked up 4 fish, losing three and snapping a really nice fish off right at the boat. Jono caught a brilliant shot of one fish popping off:
In the same time Jono had one fish in the boat and popped off on another. After 4 dropped fish my left arm was getting tired (I’m used to holding the rod in my right!) and I was really starting to believe it wasn’t going to happen. A stiff southerly breeze was whipping up, white caps were starting to form and it was fast becoming time to get the hell out of there. As we turned the boat around, heading back towards the marina the biggest bust up started to form right in front of us. I was told this was my last shot, make it count, no need to tell me twice! The boat came into position, fish busting everywhere in front of us, I let a cast rip, Jono did the same, strip strip, I’m on, strip, Jono’s on. Another double hookup for the day!
These things run hard, they’re incredibly fast and powerful fish which don’t like coming to the boat. Expect to see a lot of backing and have a pretty tired arm by the time you land them! I was almost comical playing these fish with the reel handle on the wrong side but I eventually managed to land my first longtail tuna with the help of Jono showing me how to beat the tuna by winding in 6″ at a time, lift and wind, lift and wind and always give them maximum strain against they’re swimming direction, keep changing angles.
What an epic 3 days to finish off my spell in Exmouth! The fishing was incredible, in particular I will not forget the sight of all those milkfish tails lazily cutting through the surface, it’s the stuff dreams are made of and I now have unfinished business with them! The longtails provided outrageously fast and furious action and to have that just on your doorstep only a mile from the marina is simply amazing. I really need to thank both Craig and Jono for their hospitality, great fishing and great banter and beers shared during my trip. Thanks guys! I hope we can meet again sometime in the not too distant future.
I’m now signing off from Exmouth very content with myself and enjoying every minute of reliving almost every aspect of the trip in my head.