A Double Header in the Land Down Under – 2002
by Dan Blanton
Fish is his name and he knows how to play the angling game… Yes indeed, Captain Alan (Fish) Philiskirk knows his fly-fishing game in the Weipa region of the Gulf of Carpentaria better than anyone. I can’t tell you how many folks from here, Australia and elsewhere urged me to spend some time with Fish, owner and operator of Fish’s Fly & Sportfishing guide service, when I visited the Land Down Under. His reputation as a top gun captain is stunning. Rod Harrison put it this way: “There’s Fish, daylight and then nothing…”
A little history about your host
Captain Alan Philiskirk has been guiding full time since 1990. He first operated a 56-foot, long range sportfising boat in Fiji for two years under contract to Ocean Pacific Club out of Suva. Fish returned to Australia in 1992 and guided in Papua New Guinea for Papuan black bass for four years with Dean Butler. He also guided some around the Northern Territory. Also to his credit, Fish spent time steering fly fishers around the northeast coast of Ozland, the Cairns and the Hichinbrook area until 1998 when he started guiding out of Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula. He and Peter Morse, AKA “Morsie”, were also partners in a mothership operation called Wildfish Flyfishing Expeditions. In 2001 Fish started Fish’s Fly & Sportfishing operation based in Weipa. Indeed, Captain Philiskirk has remarkable credentials.
The guys behind it all
It was Morsie, one of Australia’s leading outdoor writers and a brilliant fly angler, who actually arranged my trip to Weipa and several days of fly-fishing with Fish back in 2002. I would be sharing the boat and angling time with Morsie and Doug Flinn of Queanbeyan NSW, Australia. Despite the fact we often took turns on the casting deck, we all caught more than our share of critters on fly. We also got our butts kicked by some of those critters but more on that later…
The fishing program/operation
Fish runs three boats and his operation can handle from one to eight anglers. Fish skippers one boat and on the 2002 trip, his Captains Brendan Rolt and Duane Jay mastered the other two. Fish’s guides are excellent and they, like Fish, are skilled seaman. All three boats are superb, center-console types which handle the variety of waters fished brilliantly.
Fish and crew pick you up at the hotel each morning and it’s only a short drive to the marina and boat ramp. From there the run to the fishing grounds can range from minutes to an hour or so, depending the game plan. You’ll be fishing bays and rivers (the Embley, Hey and Mission) for barramundi, jacks, snapper, giant herring, oxeye herring and others, the estuaries for similar species including queenies, flats for permit and trevally, offshore for pelagics the like of those mentioned in game one, and various reef structure and channel markers. Trust me, you won’t want for lack of action or diversity and you’ll get a full day of tossing flies and yanking on big, mean critters.
Like game one, game two provided us more great action than can be properly chronicled in this short space. We caught lots and varied species each day and considering three of us were sharing the boat, often taking turns, our individual tallies were impressive.
One highlight that shines occurred one afternoon while drifting a shallow flat a little south of Wooldrum Point. Water depth was six or seven feet and birds were diving and big fish were exploding here and there on the surface. It looked like we were being bombarded. All three of us were casting in different directions when Morsie and I both hooked up with big, fast fish. Backing raced off our reels, glowing pink in the afternoon sunlight and it was the over-and-under and around-the-boat drill but we both managed to bring them to hand. Morsie’s was a big, glowing queenfish and mine was a deep, broad-shouldered GT. The variety of species that roam and ravage bait on these flats is amazing.
Then there was the afternoon channel marker slugfests each day. Fish would hold the boat up-tide of a channel marker, the fish, mostly trevally, would hold deep and down-current of it. Using LC-13 lead core shooting heads and a variety of flies we’d cast close to the marker, count down to about 20 and then we’d try to get the fly back. This was a “give no line” contest and doubles were frequent. We’d win some and we’d loose some and we tested the mettle of our fly rods with torturous bends. We managed GTs, teatree trevally, golden trevally, snappers and others. We also got “gropered” on several occasions when we’d hook a two or three-pounder only to have it inhaled by a broad-shouldered grouper or some other deep denizen. Some of those beasts that ate us off were the size of oil drums. You didn’t stand a chance with anything less than an 11-weight and a 12-weight might have been better!
Once when running across Albatross Bay we ran upon a huge school of brown-colored bait (they looked like small jacks to me) pinned against the surface with big fish crashing all around and through them. Thinking we were done for the day, I had put my rod back into it’s Rigged ‘N Ready rod bag. Big mistake! Morsie was right on them with a fly, though, and he hooked a beaut of a GT that wrung a gallon of sweat out of him before the deed was done.
The best day of game two for me, though, was the last day. We’d headed north to a shallow shoal off a point, anchored up and started chumming by tossing chunks of pilchards overboard and also by chopping it up in a special chum-chopper that slipped into a bracket on the skiff’s transom. It worked like one of those veggie choppers. Within a few minutes the burly had Spanish Mackerel (same as our king mackerel) the size of torpedoes nailing our flies. Fish would also tease them with a hookless surface plug and one nailed the plug about 20 feet from the skiff and launched itself 15 feet in the air, soaring over the skiff lengthwise above our heads, its eyeball locked on us, plug hanging from the corner of its mouth. What a sight! I did managed to land a couple to about 30-pounds, but these big, hot fish kicked our butts – big time! We were using 12 to 20 inches of 50-pound TYGer Wire for bite leaders and while this is great wire, I did managed to get bitten off once by a Spanish with the girth of a redwood stump. They’d take the fly from behind, jaws agape and over-run the class leader, biting it off; they’d streak in so fast from the side and so close to the boat that 20-pound leaders would pop like thread, a result of no line stretch and over-zealous hook sets. I had one bite off the bend of a 4/0 Tiemco 811S. I didn’t even feel the fish when it exploded on my Sar-Mul-Mac. I set, felt nothing, figured I’d missed it and upon inspection of the fly, found no bend. I couldn’t have done a better job with bolt cutters. These big Spanish are like big Wahoo and have teeth and jaws that work like a pair of super tin snips.
The one that got away…
The best fish of that session was hooked by Doug Flinn. It ate a blue and white Sar-Mul-Mac tied on a 4/0 Mustad 7195 tuna hook – one tough hook. Doug fought the fish long, hard and brilliantly and we got a good look at it a couple of times. We all agreed it was 60-plus-pounds. About 45 minutes into the fight and near the close, the hook opened just enough to drop the fish. Talk about disappointment. Those fish slammed us. Believe it or not, the next day, one of Fish’s other guides took his clients to the same spot and got into a repeat of our action and one of the anglers got yanked out of the boat by a big Spanish. I would have loved to have seen that one.
Indeed, Australia’s wonderful Gulf of Carpentaria is a marine fly-rodder’s heaven, particularly if like me, you love variety and diversity. I fell in love with the place and I made a return trip for another double header in 2004.