Frothin’ in Exmouth

How does a guy go from never chucking a fly at a saltwater species to landing two sailfish in one day and also being a part of a double sailfish hook-up, all on fly? Let me set the scene.

I chased my wife to Perth for work in the summer of 2012 and immediately joined the Saltwater Flyrodders of Western Australia. The first big saltwater fishing experience was Boneheads 2013 and I was lucky enough to share accommodations with Craig ‘Noddy’ Radford and his son Adam. What happened over the course of that week changed my fly fishing trajectory. With the help of Noddy and the likes of Peter Morse, Steve Bradbury and Tony Ong, I had my saltwater-fly eyes opened and was blown away by the variety of species and the various techniques used to catch them. For a guy who spent all his life fishing for Atlantic salmon on the pristine rivers of Newfoundland and Labrador on the east coast of Canada, fly fishing was now jacked up to a whole new level!

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Immediately following the Boneheads 2013 trip I wrote a little unpublished article titled, ‘A Saltwater Awakening’ and promptly sent it off to Canada to tell my fishing mates about this saltwater fly fishing heaven. Then comes Boneheads 2014. Dates are set for the first week in September. With 2014 being my 40th year on this planet, I throw a teaser to my mates back home to see who is game for the fly fishing adventure of a lifetime. And who should bite? My fly fishing partner in crime is Chris Patey, an emergency Doc from St Anthony, Newfoundland. I have known Chris since I was a foetus and we have had many memorable fly fishing adventures on the wild rivers of Labrador.

BONEHEADS 2014
Finally the day comes and Chris lands in Perth, delayed due to thunderstorms. We hit the road that night in a torrential downpour and start heading north. We stop at a remote beach partway to Exmouth and I introduce Chris to swags and the camp oven. Without a fly in the water, he is already hooked! We stop at Heron Point, near Learmonth Airport the next day to give Chris his first glimpse of the beautiful Exmouth waters. The tide is falling and the wind is light. We catch a few small tuskfish and a nice flathead, and Chris is acutely aware that we are in an extraordinary place!

We then proceed to our home away from home, ‘Exmouth Escape Resort’ and meet our fly fishing brethren. Saltwater fly fishing legend Peter Morse is facilitating the week’s event, the 15th annual Boneheads trip. I introduce Chris to the gang. With fishing butterflies starting to grow, we get Boneheads 2014 started with a day shore-based, followed by five days with a guide and the last day back on the shore.

Our very first stop of the day is near the Jurabi turtle area and while setting up our rods and putting on our wading boots, I notice a whale breach offshore. I bring this to Chris’s attention and then we both see a billfish come out of the water three times! Foreshadowing perhaps? We are both buzzing with anticipation.

Our inexperience is quite apparent in our first location selection: we head down to Pilgramana and manage to catch a few small tuskfish and a trumpet fish. We meet up with fellow Bonehead and roomy for the week, Graham Hird, and he suggests going to Oyster Bay near Northeast Cape. We oblige and follow him up. Graham takes the beach to the south and we go for the rocks. I get into the first big fish of the trip. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it is the strongest fish I have ever hooked and has my backing out in seconds. I end up pulling the hook, but shortly after, Chris is hooked up! I’m so excited I turn my camera on and off six times while trying to get some video! Chris is fighting this thing hard when suddenly he gets the fish’s head turned and starts gaining line. This is when I notice that his fish has been sharked. He looks at me in disbelief, “Whaddaya mean I was sharked?” completely unaware of the concept! We end up with enough Spanish mackerel for sushi that night and the trip is off and running!

In the evenings the Boneheads generally run through fishing reports and discuss general tips, weather and tide conditions. So when we hear the word ‘epic’ from a seasoned saltwater fly fishing veteran like Dave Bell, regarding Chris’ Spaniard from shore we know, as we say in Newfoundland, that we are “in the fat!”

SHARING THE PASSION
Then we meet our guide for the week. Allan Donald from Fly Fishing Frontiers is taking us out on 1 Last Cast, a 6.2 m custom built fly fishing vessel with a 115 HP Yammy. Being from the rum nation of Newfoundland and Labrador we offer Allan some of our Screech rum and begin to discuss our game plans for the week. We both immediately get a good vibe from Allan and we know that his motto ‘Sharing the passion’ is the real deal!

Monday morning arrives and we head to Tandabiddi boat ramp and decide to skip levels A through Y and go for the big guns, the billfish, right off the bat. We get out to 50 m water depth before Allan sets us up on the whole process for targeting billfish. On the starboard side we have a speedy bird followed by a daisy chain and on the port side we have a pusher or skirt surrounding a belly flap. The belly flap lies a metre or two back behind the daisy chain.

Billfishing really is a team sport and you need a good skipper to quarterback the whole affair. When you first see a bill flying through the water at one of these teasers, it is all systems go! Daisy chain, check… bring belly flap closer to boat and then in very quick succession, put the boat in neutral, pluck the belly flap out and replace with a well delivered fly. Sounds easy, right!

PANDEMONIUM
We spend four hours teasing then suddenly pandemonium breaks out… a striped marlin is on to us… this sets in motion a series of events that will soon become second nature. I pull the daisy chain, Allan teases the fish closer then shouts to put the engine in neutral. Simultaneously Chris launches a great cast into the zone and the striped marlin eyeballs his fly but no takes! Seeing the electric blue pectoral fins of this majestic fish just blows us both away… the trip as far as I’m concerned is already a complete success! We are happy to sit in the afterglow of this entire event but Allan has other ideas and we quickly put the teasers back in.

I am on deck for the next fish and I’m a little apprehensive, maybe even a little scared! After another two hours we are back into adrenalin alley with another billfish attacking the belly flap! Go team go, daisy chain, belly flap, neutral, the cast… the sailfish takes the fly and instinct takes over with a trout strike, feeling just a touch of the fish before the fly heads in my direction. After a couple of choice words I try to get the fly back out and everything ends in a coiled mass just behind the boat. The sailfish is hot though and he manoeuvres his way through the tangled mess and grabs the fly! He hits so hard that the rod is momentarily plucked from my hands. After some fancy juggling and some kind words from Allan, (“Don’t lose my rod mate!”) I get the rod back under control but the hook hasn’t set, again! The sailfish is still determined and the third hit sinks in! I am on to my first sailfish.

At this point I go from scared to petrified… The drag is so tight and the fish is so strong, I’m afraid it will pull the rod from my hands.

Forty-five minutes later, we have our first sailfish in and we are all happy chappies. Chris manages to raise a black and another sailfish, but no more takers. We go back that night on Cloud 9. This ends up being the first sailfish in the 15-year history of Boneheads, although I must give a shout out to Albert and Delwin who also bagged sailfish on the day, as well as Morsie who got a nice black marlin on fly as well.

EXMOUTH GULF
With a sailfish under our belt, we are happy to explore the Exmouth Gulf for the next couple of days and target a few other species. That deserves an article of its own but I have to relate a few highlights… like when a mangrove jack I was fighting was ambushed by a massive cod and somehow the jack squirted out and I was onto the cod by itself! Unfortunately the cod had different ideas and promptly bricked me off as I tried to straight stick it. The boys back at the nightly meeting weren’t too sure about my use of bait for fly fishing.

Another highlight came in the gap between the Murion Islands when Al lured in a Spanish mackerel with a hookless popper. The fish came four feet out of the water right at the edge of the boat before going directly onto Chris’ fly! We had wire traces on, thanks to Allan, and Chris managed to see his backing for the first time, while we also had something to feed the family. Bonus! Another highlight would be the crazy queenie session where we were sight casting to cruising fish with back-to-back double hook-ups!

PACK ATTACK
Even though inside the gulf was hopping, we are again drawn like a moth to flame, back out at the billfish on day four. It is Chris’ turn… no pressure! Five minutes into the day we have a sail up… our well-oiled team goes into action, Chris delivers a great cast but the fly is refused. We continue on a few more hours and then we get the “Pack Attack!” We go through our routine, boat is in neutral, teasers are out, Chris’ fly is in the water. I see another sail up on my side of the boat and in a moment of Zen (or possibly stupidity), time goes into slow motion… I pick up the spare rod, strip off a few handfuls of line and cast a ‘Peak of the Night’ over my left shoulder right on top of an eager sailfish that immediately laps it up! Unfortunately Chris loses his but I manage to get mine in.

Next day Al shows up with photographer Krystle Westwood. This is our last day with Fly Fishing Frontiers, Chris is on deck, no sails yet, no pressure… We spend four hours teasing and we are beginning to think Krystle is a jinxer when we see another bill slashing through the water. Man your stations! This time the sail is on the daisy chain, something new for us, but we quickly transition to the belly flap and Chris is securely on to the sailfish. After an hour and five minutes, Al finally gets a hold of the bill! Krystle does a wonderful job with the camera and the entire crew is beaming. Chris has to jump overboard to cool his spinning brain and is quickly followed by Al and myself, leaving Krystle to man the boat!

With this crescendo of fly fishing reaching sickening heights, I am happy to call it a day… but Al has other ideas. Before I know it, I’m on to another sail! This one is absolutely glowing! It looks as if a blue mirror is flying around our boat. I try to horse it in so we can appreciate these incredible colours. The 12-weight rod I’m using has a different idea and snaps off just above the first join! Chris quickly takes the reel and team Newfoundland is on in full force. We gradually get the casting line back and nearly have the sailfish within grasp when the remainder of the rod explodes into four more pieces! Al goes for the leader, the sail goes under the boat, Al passes the line to me, I get the head turned around and Al grabs the bill! Shock… disbelief…A little bit sick…

What else can possibly happen? Completely satiated, we are happy to call it a day again, but not Al. Can you believe Chris hooks up another sail! I’m at the stern of the boat thinking I’m taking a video (still a bit shell-shocked) and Chris is at the bow playing his sail. Al cranks up our anthem for the trip, Sun Dream by Rufus, and we all go into a very special place. It’s difficult to put in words really. Chris looks back at Krystle and sees ‘FROTHIN’ on her hat. “I don’t know what the hell that means, but I’m doin it!”

Thanks to my wife for allowing me to emancipate my parental responsibilities (and letting me go fishing), thanks to the entire Boneheads team, thanks to Morsie, thanks to Krystle and especially thanks to Allan Donald of Fly Fishing Frontiers. A trip that will not be replicated anytime soon.

From FlyLife Issue 78