In the past five to 10 years, Australian saltwater fly fishing has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. More and more, trout-only fly guys like me, as well as conventional anglers, are exploring the country’s many saltwater options.
I was a slow starter in saltwater fly fishing but I‘ve made up for lost time. In the past two years I’ve fly fished in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia. But I might have found my nirvana in the west. I headed over to Exmouth in September to check out Fly Fishing Frontiers’ inaugural LOOP Saltwater Fly Festival, and while I was there flicked a few flies around.
From Perth, it’s a two-hour flight to Learmonth. A 30-minute drive gets you to downtown Exmouth. The town has a range of charter providers for fly and conventional fishermen, as well as many shore-based DIY options.
The variety is insane: clearwater flats within Exmouth Gulf, heritage-listed Ningaloo beaches and spectacular bluewater islands offer an array of fishing adventures. This is the place to add a few new saltwater species to your hit list: bonefish, permit, queenies, GTs and other pelagics – and it’s a world-class spot for marlin and sailfish. Yep, if you’re a bucket list fisherman this place is your blue heaven.
Like most of the rest of Australia, Exmouth endured a bastard winter this year, cold and wet. Because of this the flats were a little tougher than usual. Although there were plenty of fish around, they didn’t show up until well into the week. When they did, it was a feeding frenzy – with our flies in the middle!
The highlight was the abundant schools of large tailing golden trevally. We often found ourselves in the midst of swarms of the things, making the fishing almost too easy. The excitement of casting at feeding fish and mayhem-inducing double hook-ups is hard to beat. Clouser, Gotcha or crab style flies – it didn’t seem to matter to these garbage-guts goldens. Whether out in the gulf or on the Ningaloo flats, it was addictive stuff.
Hell-bent on scoring a GT, I headed off by myself one afternoon. Allan Donald from Fly Fishing Frontiers dropped me off and I headed along the flat. Within minutes, three large nurse sharks were swimming towards me, with a giant trevally escorting the armada.
No sooner had the fly landed in the zone, with barely any time to retrieve, I was hooked up – great fun on my eight-weight rod and light leader. Thirty minutes later, another one came down the beach, living dangerously in front of a large shark. Fish will usually follow a large stingray or shark to collect any food they flick up – the smart ones don’t swim in front!
Then the damn thing suddenly took a major detour, completely avoiding me. It wasn’t spooked, but somehow had become aware of my presence. I’d wandered a fair distance from Allan and the guys when I heard yelling across the flats. I waded over as fast as I could to check out the commotion. Allan was waving like a maniac – Andy Summers was hooked up to something big! “It’s a giant milkfish, but I’ve nearly run out of … damn!” he cursed as the line came loose and the fish broke free. Andy retrieved nearly 400m of backing and fly line, which showed how far the fish had taken him in 60 seconds.
“That thing has stamina,” he said. While Andy took the loss well, Allan and I were manic. Milkies are like a bonefish on steroids, and these fish were 30-40lb. Usually weed-eaters, it’s hard to get them to consume a fly, but that didn’t stop us trying.
As the days went on, the water temperature made it tough for some species, but things eventually looked up. Steve Bradbury of Perth landed a big permit, and more flats species started to show up. The large GT continued to school and the milkies continued to taunt us whenever they could.
Trolling around all day in the big blue isn’t my idea of time well spent. Sight fishing is where it’s at for me. But the last time I was in Exmouth, one of my mates landed a 50kg black marlin, so we gave it a crack. After hours of trolling around trying to tease up a fish, the sight of one eventually committing to the fly after crossing over from the teaser was truly spectacular. We didn’t hook up and all I could think of was: “I wonder what’s going on at the flats right now”. That said it shows just how diverse the Exmouth fishery is.
Several boats participated in the fly festival’s Blue Water category. A standout was Eddy Lawler, of Peak Sportfishing, who claimed a black marlin record during the week and put several other impressive catches to the tally. A few days after the festival, he even bagged a grand slam – blue marlin, black marlin, sailfish – in a single day.
CLOUDS ROLL IN
On my final day in Exmouth, I joined Ben Knight from Ningaloo Sportfishing. The wind had finally dropped, but the clouds rolled in like a thick blanket covering the whole gulf.
“There goes our flats fishing,” I muttered, but Ben remained confident, assuring me he had a good back-up plan for queenfish and trevally.
We launched the boat from the beach in the gulf and set off to the far side. As we cruised along, the water was like glass, and the cloud remained thick. I’ve never seen so many whales in my life – appearing in every direction, they were almost a hazard.
The tide was dead low when we arrived, so we set up, waiting on some movement. The air temperature was warmer than the past few days. Almost like clockwork, the tide moved, bait stirred and the fish followed suit. We had several close calls with large brassie trevally, but couldn’t get any to commit to the fly.
Finally the queenfish arrived and I realised how spoilt I’d been the year before by the huge numbers of large queenies eating anything in their path. This time it had taken me the whole trip, but I was finally connected! They pull hard and their skilful acrobatics make them a top sporting fish. Ben may have never seen anyone so excited to land a queenfish.
I’ve been lucky enough to fish plenty of amazing locations. Some I tick off the list, and feel no need to return; others, like Exmouth, tug at my fly-fishing heart. With an ever-growing list of saltwater species to conquer in this beautiful and diverse fishery, I know I’ll be back next year.