by Dan Blanton, Craig Smith and Terry Shultz
Our double header in the Land Down Under this past September, 2004 produced some of the toughest fishing seen in recent years. Most attribute it to Mother Nature and a ration of bad wind – wrong way wind, blowing hard out of the south-southwest most days. Fishing was also tougher for those of my group who had the least experience. Game one of the double header was with Carpentaria Seafaris aboard the Tropic Paradise, a mothership operation working the northern portion of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria is a self guided trip as noted in “Game One” of these articles. Couple tough conditions with the lack of “reading-water” experience/confidence and frustration can swell.
This notwithstanding, the action most of us experienced in both game one and two, was still above the benchmark for most other angling destinations world-wide, especially when it came to variety. For the majority, as it always is with me, this was not just a fishing trip – a numbers game – but rather an angling adventure that measured up on all counts. With the help of guides and owner/operator, Greg Bethune, everyone playing in game one caught fish every day, many of which were significant catches. Some accounted for as many as 26 new species of fish taken on fly during the course of our visit to Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria (see Craig Smith’s and Terry Shultz’s comments below). However, some days proved slow for everyone, even when being guided daily such as in Weipa, with Fish’s Fly & Sportfishing. Much of that had to do, again, with inexperience or just plain bad luck – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each day there were both broad smiles and a few frowns. Not everyone on the trip was satisfied with it’s final outcome. Most were. Mother nature didn’t deal us the best hand she could have, but that’s fishing, though – world wide! There were some “fender benders”, too, things that could have been done differently or at least improved upon, all of which have been discussed in detail with the operators and have since been corrected or implemented.
My wife Cindy and I enjoyed the trip to the fullest and Cindy especially appreciated Greg Bethune taking her and Debbie Remley on evening beach walks to spot kangaroos, crocs and bird life. Cindy is also back to college to get her fine arts degree and Greg teaching her how to do the Goy Taki, rice paper fish prints was a special treat for her.
The fishing for Cindy and me fishing ranged from dead slow to excellent and varied. Cindy managed to land her first ever longtail tuna, golden trevally, queenfish and several other flats species, including some brilliantly colored reef species. I managed to add a few more critters to my species list and to date I’ve caught 28 of the 54 possible Gulf of Carpentaria species available on fly. I especially enjoyed looking for big rays running not far off the beaches which would usually have a couple of nice cobia trailing them. Those cobia would move 30 feet to eat a Merkin crab fly. I’ve yet to get my first Ozo permit.
The longtail tuna fishing this trip was disappointing although I believe everyone of our group caught a few. It seemed there would be plenty of them around as we ran into a few large schools of them on the way down the Gulf to our starting point. We even caught a few from the Mother ship. However, weather conditions, mostly wind and cooler water temperatures, scattered what few schools of LTs there were, making for long runs and tough fishing. We encountered few Spanish mackerel, and only a few Mac tuna (similar to our false albacore). Again, incessant wind really hampered this fishing as well as the offshore trevally opportunities.
There were plenty of other species to catch though, as stated earlier and a highlight of the trip was that many of the group caught their first permit on a floating crab, cast and fished like a dry fly for a trout upon river current seams. We fished the flats and the rivers and caught plenty of varieties ranging from tarpon to diamond trevally and the flats proved productive almost every day, fished from a skiff or by wading – walking the beaches – sight fishing to cruising permit, trevally or queenfish. Some even fished off the back of the Tropic Paradise at night, catching a good number of scrappy tarpon (ox eye herring). I especially enjoyed fishing and exploring the rivers on a couple of afternoons with Jay Remley. We caught lots of tarpon, jacks, trevally, queenies and others – nothing huge but they were plenty strong enough to put a serious bend in an 8-weight.
In Weipa, we experienced about the same action: some days were fast and others slow and that bloody, wrong-way wind, made things tougher than normal. Still memorable catches were scored and I’d rate the time spent there with Fish Philliskirk and crew, a success by any standard. I added a couple of new species to my list while in Weipa.
Tackle used ranged from 8-weight to 11-weights, with my TFO, TiCr X 8-weight probably getting the most use for the flats and river sessions. A ten, Sage Xi2 was called upon to do the tuna work. Reels: I used the Nautilus 12 on the tuna and it performed extremely well. For all the rest, my main reel was a Redington Breakwater, 9/10 or 7/8. They were flawless! Lines: WF floaters to SA’s Streamer express, Rio’s DS 26 in 350 and 400 grains and of course T-14 when needed. Leaders were simple: straight 20 pound Berkley Big game with a bite of 30- to 50-pound mono or 30- to 50-pound TYGer wire.
We did experience some negatives with hotels and air travel but not to the point our trip was disrupted to any significant degree. I was probably more bothered by our hotel in Cairns splitting up my group, moving six of us to another hotel on our leg back from game one, than anyone else. A typical case of over-booking. The hotel they put us into was very nice and it was more a matter of principle and inconvenience with me than anything else.
The following are reports and comments from Craig Smith and Terry Shultz:
Craig Smith’s Report – 2004
Well, I survived Australia – and I think all the others in our group returned home safely with all limbs intact. For myself, I mean “survived” in a literal sense. Five days before our departure I could not get out of bed due to a relapse of an illness that had kept me down the first six months of the year. I nearly cancelled, making the decision to go just the day before our departure date. I only had about 50 percent of my strength but as the trip progressed my health steadily improved, despite eating some things that should have killed me. I was able to enjoy my Australian adventure but was glad to be home after three weeks away.
The fishing part of the trip consisted of six days fishing with Carpentaria Seafaris aboard the mothership, Tropic Paradise, and another five days with Fish’s Fly and Sportfishing out of Weipa, both on the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, fishing the Gulf of Carpentaria. Both operations were excellent. As Dan noted, the fishing was tough and it seems the wind was endless; but fish were caught and some pretty good ones at that. It was a trip were perseverance paid off and a bit of luck was welcome. We all had our up and down days but I think everyone caught a couple of real prizes.
Bill Nash and I fished together the entire trip and we had a good time – both of us pulling for the other guy, wishing him well. One of my fondest memories from the second day of the trip, was the smile on Bill’s face after taking a permit on a floating crab fly – a goal of his for the trip. I followed Bill a few minutes later with my own – the blunt-nosed permit sipping my fly off the surface like a big trout would. We were fishing out of a skiff named “Del Brown” and I felt like Del was with us that morning.
Other indelible images: Bill with a spinner shark on and leaping and twisting, his rod humping and bucking until it was landed; “the Jay and Debbie Show”, as a rod was nearly lost to a tuna; sight casting to longtail tuna and having one eat my fly 20 feet from the skiff; John Neaves on the burley line with a graphite rod bent into a U, the guide ducking the expected explosion, which didn’t happen; a barramundi bursting from the deep in a watery eruption, a red and white Whistler in it’s maw – a scene right of of the old “American Sportsman” show; the angler-frustrating cale cale trevally tearing into schools of micro bait that appeared like rain in reverse as they leapt from the water to escape the terror below; a big hammerhead shark coming up to check us out; a shark boring in on the big GT I had on (and boated) but racing off faster than it arrived, possibly to find another less formidable meal; big rays leaping from the water and crashing back with enormous splats; an Australian tarpon leaping into the boat and wrapping my line around Bill’s legs; a threadfin salmon dashing from the cover of the mangroves to smash a “Pink Thing”, nearly ripping the rod from my hand; leaping giant herring (ladyfish to us); my first flats fishing experiences, some productive, some not, and a lead core head coming back in tatters and shorter by a couple of feet, looking like a big Spanish mackerel or shark had flossed its teeth with it.
Other memories include sea snakes in various colors and patterns; sea turtles swimming by, popping their heads up for a look; all sorts of alien looking jelly fish; amazing and raucous bird life; huge fruit bats; weird little mud skippers emerging from the river and hopping up the ban;, crocs, geckoes, big butterflies with amazing colors; hospitable Aussies; great food and drink; sunrises, sunsets and moon rises and plates of mud crabs and sushi shared with companions on the upper deck of the Tropic Paradise. And finally, the following is a list of the species I caught on fly during my wonderful angling adventure:
Qeenfish (3 species according to our guide); Leatherskin; Estuary Cod; Tomato Cod; unidentified cod; Indo-Pacific Permit; Bludger Trevally; Giant Trevally; Golden Trevally; Cale Cale Trevally; Tea Leaf Trevally; Northern Swallowtail Dart; Wolf Herring; Ox Eye Herring (tarpon); Dog Mackerel; Spanish Mackerel; Barracuda; Longtail Tuna; Barramundi; Bream; Catfish; Blue Salmon; Threadfin Salmon and a Spanish Flag for a total of 26 species on fly – outstanding in my book!
For me it was a really enjoyable adventure (except for those long flights) and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
A note to Howard McKinney of Fishabout from
Howard, it has been about a month now since I returned from a truly wondrous, fabulous trip to northern Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria. I enjoyed it very much. So much so, that I would like to do it again, probably in March or April of 2006. Would you please let me know what the availability of space is at that time?
There were, as always, a few bumps. Probably the main one was that the fish weren’t always cooperative. In fact, I think much of the time they had lockjaw. But oh well, the ups certainly overshadowed the downs. I ended up catching 21 species on fly during the entire 11 days of fishing, including a 20-pound queenfish and a 10-pound giant herring (which some tell me is several pounds larger than the current world record). The self-guided aspect of the trip did not hit home completely until Mac and I were on our own and blundering. With this aspect, I believe Greg Bethune can do a few things to shore that up, like more tailboard coaching discussions the night before. But once he saw us floundering he took us out for the afternoon and showed himself to be the marvelous guide he is and he got us lots of and many good fish. It was great fishing with him! Also, of the three guides he had on board for alternates days of fishing with a guide, only one, Phil, was a truly effective guide. The others were fine fellows but mixed in their guiding skills. But, I will do this trip again; and with the skills I learned from this last trip, I’ll be better prepared for the self-guiding. Oh, yes, also thanks very much for insisting that I get that SA Tarpon Taper line. I put that line on a new Ross Canyon 6 and it worked like a dream, especially when I used Stan Pleskunas’ VLMD for line management.
I had one other bump that I quickly and easily overcame: When I got to the Menzies Hotel in Sydney, they had no record of my reservation, not even the reservation number I’d received from you. My guess is that when you made the reservation you and I were talking about two different hotels. It worked out, though, I got my room and all was fine. I also followed your advice in touring Sydney, hit the Rocks and the Opera House and had a good meal at Doyle’s Restaurant. I really enjoyed my time in Sydney as well as in Cairns.
All-in-all it was a great trip. The Weipa add-on was also terrific, even with continued occasional lockjaw from the fish. Alan Philliskirk’s guides were first rate – tops! I’ll be back!
Tight lines to you,