Word and images Luke Ryan
Two mates, 12 days and some of WA’s most remote islands and reefs. But would there be any fish?
The West Australian coastline offers not only some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, but also the best sport fishing; the entire coast is absolutely teeming with next-level spots. But when April rolls around there’s only one direction I want to head: north. After a quick prayer to the cyclone gods, I make the run each year from Perth during the new moon searching for anything big. The lead up to the new moon means big tides and big fish, after all, more run, more fun!
This trip was going to be a pure camping adventure, living out of swags on far-flung islands off the coast and tackling epic fish all day, everyday. At least that was the plan. This year I was restricting the trip to 12 days and two locations: the Montebello Islands and the remote islands off Exmouth. I was also restricting my passenger intake, given the boat was chockers full of swags, food and gear. Add to the mix the plethora of tackle I needed to realise my vision of wrestling tropical monsters, plus the fact I like plenty of space when I fish, and I could only take one person; my mate Wooman.
Now, if that sounds like a weird name for a bloke to you, you’d be absolutely right. Occasionally people call him Andrew, but more often he answers to Wooman thanks to his relentless and ridiculously enthusiastic habit of “wooing” when landing big fish. Wooman is also quite handy on the deck of the boat, which won him his place on the trip.
Our plan was to first hit the Montebello Islands, a seriously remote location for which preparation and planning are vital; you’re on your own out there so need to be ready for anything. We would then target the game fishing wonderland of Exmouth, exploring the remote islands that surround the area and maybe venturing wide off the continental shelf in search of billfish, because why not.
Departure night came a knockin’ and the stoke factor set in as I watched the last set of traffic lights disappearing in Wooman’s rear view mirror. It is a fair old drive up the coast road, almost 2000km, in fact, and despite the car’s temperature gauge sitting in the red as we reached the Pilbara we eventually arrived at the Fortescue Roadhouse. And weren’t we great customers, smashing our credit cards with more than 1000L of fuel to last us the duration of the trip. Filled up and frothing, we were finally ready to hit the water.
INTO THE WILD
Launching the boat was a task in itself as there were no actual facilities, just a gap between the mangroves and a sloped, pebbly bank – and that was after we’d traversed a river on the drive in, timing it perfectly with the tides to make it across. This ain’t Kansas.
Once we finally pulled away from the river mouth and set the autopilot to our destination, we were on our way. The weather was as perfect as our moods; a complete glass off and not a breath of wind. With a solid 46nm run ahead of us, we settled in for a couple of hours’ cruising.
Now, you can’t just rock up and decide you’re going to set up camp anywhere, there are specific islands where you’re allowed to camp and others you should definitely steer clear of. The Montebellos was the sight of three nuclear weapons tests by the British army in the 1950s, and although safe to visit now, there are still signposts and warnings around the test sites. In those locations it’s recommended to stay no longer than an hour and to avoid disturbing anything under the ground’s surface. We figured it best to set up camp well away from the blast zones; who knows what could be lurking around out there and I wasn’t keen on some radioactive sasquatch stumbling into our camp at night. Given the size of the tides at the time – there was an average of three meters of tidal movement – it was essential to find a base camp where there was no chance we’d awake to the sight of my fiberglass boat high and dry. We found the perfect spot tucked away in our own little private bay with a sandy beach and enough space to set up camp.
Once unloaded, the boat was much happier, which is to say it no longer looked like it was ready to sink. We had a few hours to kill after setting up camp so we cruised over to a few of the nearby breaks. The water was still glassy, and as we headed through the passage in the reef I had one of those moments were you just have to take a step back and soak it all in. It was truly spectacular.
The target on both our minds was GT. Wooman was first up, and as the conditions were so good I was able to position the boat right up close to the reef. After a couple of long casts into the money zone it was beginning to seem like nobody was home, so I told Woo one more cast then we’d move to the other side of the reef. He was using a Nature Boys Surfish with a slow rolling action, and as he retrieved the lure back into sight a GT chased it right out of the wash, smacking it a number of times before absolutely demolishing it. The fish wasn’t anything huge, around the 15-17kg mark, but the take was something special.
Between keeping the boat in the right position and looking back at Wooman, I managed to see the exact moment the fish came head and shoulders out of the water. If only I had my camera ready! The area was pretty shallow so the fight was quite intense, manoeuvring the boat to keep the line angled in the right position to draw the fish out. Needless to say there was a fair amount of “wooing” going on once the fish was on the deck, but after a couple pictures it was back in the water for someone else to catch another day.
This opened the floodgates for an epic afternoon. I managed to land a similar sized fish not too far from where Wooman got his, but the water in this location was really shallow so even though the fish weren’t huge, considerable care had to be taken when hooked up. If the fish took too much angle it could easily bust us on the reef.
We suddenly noticed a frantic commotion about half a mile behind the reef, with big splashes and hundreds of birds smashing the water. As you can imagine, we couldn’t get there quickly enough. The sound of the bust up was amazing, the most hectic feeding frenzy I have ever seen. A throng of different species absolutely carved up this bait ball: tunas, mackerel and trevally all cooperating as a large school to devour the baitfish. The bust-up was so thick that I turned the engine off and we just sat with the school of fish swarming around the boat. Some kinda paradise. We spent what we had left of the afternoon following the bait until the time came to head back to camp and make a plan for the next day’s fishing.
With a huge amount of fuel on board we knew we could explore further than we ever had before. Over the past few years we’d heard whisper of a seamount named Rankin Bank, located 40nm north of the island group. The stories people told had us frothing to get out there and experience the location for ourselves. It would be a long trip that would drink plenty of fuel, but we knew the weather was going to be perfect yet again so decided to commit to the long haul. You only YOLO once, after all.
BANKIN’ ON RANKIN
We departed early the next morning in the glamour weather we’d predicted. We pumped some tunes and watched school upon school of flying fish break the surface for pretty much the whole trip. Seeing so much activity I was chomping at the bit to get into it; I had a feeling this was going to be epic.
The ground was relatively flat for the majority of the drive until we got within three miles of the seamount, which is when the Simrad really started to light up. The amount of spots I marked on the sounder was crazy, and by the time we reached the destination I had way more spots marked than we would ever have been able to fish in one day. A good problem to have.
Our first drop was in 23m of water on a nice ledge that looked absolutely loaded on the sounder. The water was so clear we could make out the ledges on the bottom. It was an instant double hook up of coronation trout – some nice sized ones at that. They really are a spectacular looking fish. We copped a solid hook up each and every drop after that; the slightest flick of a jig resulted in something absolutely demolishing it. And with the water being so shallow, the fish really put up some fantastic fights.
And it wasn’t just coronation trout; we managed to land a few red bass and some stunning bluefin trevally, all on the light PE2/3 outfits. But with bigger fish to fry, we moved out to deeper water on the northern side of the seamount to see if we could find any monsters lurking on the drop off. Sure enough, the first drop we made had wahoo buzzing our lures at the side of the boat. We dropped some slightly longer, fast pitch-style jigs in the hope of hooking up and sure enough, first drop my jig got smashed. I am generally not a fan of using wire so I guess it was a 50/50 chance of landing the fish, but I was able to keep the angle and the line tight for the whole fight. The fish took a crazy amount of line and we had to chase it down to gain some back – the speed and power wahoo have is amazing. The rest of the day was nothing but constant action on the jigs, but oddly enough this epic spot didn’t dish us up a single Rankin.
It was lucky we had those couple of awesome sessions, because over the next three days we encountered some really tough fishing. The water had turned green and the currents had churned up a heap of weed, making the top water fishing almost non-existent. The jigging was still good but there’s only so much jigging to be had each day, and after losing almost half our jig bags to getting sharked or busted off we were ready to call it quits and make the move to Exmouth. It took us all day to pack up and head back to shore then drive north, but when we arrived in Exmouth that afternoon our hopes were high for the next five days of fishing.
We decided to base ourselves on Serrurier Island, also known as Long Island, roughly 30nm from the tip of the cape. There are a number of islands and exposed reefs close by that offer some fantastic fishing, leaving our options wide open. I have fished this area extensively over the years and have hundreds of spots marked, so there was no need to go looking for new ground.
We spent a decent amount of time over the next few days looking for GTs, and managed to work out a pattern of where the fish would be at certain parts of the tide. We also noticed the fish were sitting in areas where you generally wouldn’t look, as a lot of the fish we hooked were in super shallow, calm water. I managed to hook a number of decent sized fish in the shallow stuff, but the majority of them got the better of me. Wooman managed to land a few nice GTs, although none of them were overly big.
The water was nice and clean and the top water fishing was significantly better than our pervious location. Most of the islands we fished were holding good amounts of bait and plenty of predators followed. Camping on Long Island was really awesome, too. We literally woke up in the morning, rolled out of bed and into the boat and were fishing within five minutes. The weather stayed sexy for us, too, so all in all we were pumped on this location.
Our final two days were spent looking for billfish. During March and April the waters off Exmouth get invaded with small black marlin at 20-80kg. As there were only two of us fishing we limited the amount of rods we had in the water, running just two at a time with two teasers off each corner. I relied heavily on the autopilot to keep the boat in the correct position while trolling, and once hooked onto a fish we were able to get the gear in a lot quicker.
OUT WITH A BANG
The morning of the last day was fantastic; slightly overcast with a 10-15 knot wind chop. There was a high tide around midday, so we decided to fish some canyons south of Tantabiddi where we had done well in the past. Immediately after the boat passed the deep drop off a fish smashed the long rigger. I was up first and started putting some hurt on the fish, which was a small but acrobatic marlin of around 40kg. It put on a great show but played kinda dirty, putting a nice big scratch in the side of my wrap. Take that.
The bite continued after that first fish, and in the space of 10 minutes we had another four up on our lures. It was madness. I had barely gotten the line back into the outrigger before the rubber band popped and another fish was tail walking out the back of the boat. We ended up raising six fish, hooking five and landing two for the day. Not a bad way to end a trip.
As we headed home we were well and truly buggered. Remote adventures like this are not easy by any stretch, but this trip was proof of the fact if you put in the effort you can be rewarded with a truly spectacular experience.