25 Years of Saltwater Fly

Peter Morse looks back at the evolution of saltwater fly fishing in Australia.

The Australian saltwater fly fishing scene and FlyLife magazine have grown together as though joined at the waist. In the mid ’90s everything seemed right for both the sport and the magazine to take off. A few local magazines covered saltwater fly fishing with stories by Rod Harrison, Paul Barker and others. It was perhaps the ‘next big thing’ so the mags tolerated it, but the saltwater fly readership was very small. In terms of print content, our real source of thrills was US sportfishing magazines. Gordon Dunlop haunted inner city newsagencies flicking through every edition of every US fishing magazine to check it out for saltwater fly fishing content. Around the continent there were pockets of swoffers (as they were known — a Harroism), and most of us knew each other by name and had an inkling of what we were doing. Unbeknown to most though, the real action at the time was on the west coast. Ron Pearson can safely be considered the great pioneer of the sport in this country; Max Garth was a mate of his and Rod Harrison fished the west with Ron as well. Inspired by Ron and Max there was a big crew of WA swoffers from the ’70s on. Guys like Craig Radford, Simon Gilbert, Mike Roennfeldt, Hal Harvey, Jeff Grist and a host of others were fishing strictly IGFA leaders and tying some pretty neat white Deceivers before almost anyone on the east coast had even considered that saltwater fish might eat a fly. Because the conditions on that huge empty WA coastline can be so hostile, with few boat launch facilities, they chased pelagic species from the rocks, because that’s what they had plenty of, and 10 kg shark mackerel were pretty much standard fare. HERVEY BAY In the mid ’90s, when FlyLife first hit the newsstands, a lot was just starting to happen around the country. It was a fortuitous moment when Dean Butler and Sid Boshammer got into the golden trevally at Hervey Bay, but the background to Dean’s sight fishing goes back to the late ’80s when Lefty Kreh visited and experienced sight fishing for barras and threadfin out on Bathurst Island while fishing out of Graeme Williams’ Barra Base lodge. Dean was on that trip with Rod Harrison, and John Haenke filmed it. It wasn’t too long after Dean exposed the goldies of Hervey Bay that I took the Editor out onto those flats. I poled him on my new Aussie built ‘flats boat’ and Rob caught his first serious saltwater fish that day, a golden trevally. We can’t remember if he leapt overboard with excitement or because I’d given him such a crack on the head with the push pole as I leapt down off the poling platform and knocked him over the side. Now that’s a way to experience saltwater flats fishing for the first time! CONNECTIONS Up to that point there was only one fly fishing tournament in the country, the freshwater event in the billabongs of the Northern Territory. The NT had a small but flourishing community of swoffers and they had the water and the fish to go with it, but barramundi were always the main game. In retrospect, tournaments were very important events as they brought together fly fishers at a time when we didn’t know how many we were (not a lot) and all were seeking information and ideas on techniques and flies. Rod Harrison’s friendship with Lefty Kreh was for many of us a conduit of information direct from the centre of the saltwater fly fishing universe. Rod was generous with that information and his own unique skill-set was a big influence on many of us in those days. But in reality much of the early development was going on in a bit of localised vacuum. There was a lot of excitement around the Hervey Bay flats fishery and several tournaments brought together a number of fly fishers from north and south. Some were old salts and others yet to discover how it rolled in the briny, but it was a great stimulus for the sport. In one comp, to get away from the crowds on the flats, Fish Philliskirk and I took a Hewes Bonefisher on the long ride up to Rooneys Point to look for goldies on the inside flats. We came across these big black backed fast moving fish on the white sand flats that turned out to be longtail tuna, and another flats fly fishery was discovered. It was also a time when tropical-rated intermediate lines and Clouser Minnows changed much of what we did. Up until then it had been either floating lines that jammed in the guides from the heat, or fast sinking lines, either full length or shooting heads, and invariably with a white Deceiver tied on the end. Clousers changed things a great deal. In the west Col Roberts unearthed the sailfish fishery out of Broome and several fly-only tournaments resulted, again bringing together fly fishers from around the country. Prior to then, attempts to catch billfish on fly had been scarce, and scattered, with patchy results. After these tournaments, confidence levels rose as we began to understand how this should be done. In the south-east the commercial effort using floating traps for yellowtail kingfish and nets for salmon destroyed that pelagic fishery almost completely, and we almost lost entirely a species that had provided a year-round surface feeding target. Their comeback is a testament to good fisheries management, and has run parallel to the rise of saltwater fly fishing in the south-east, especially in the population centres. In the 80’s and 90’s it was very rare to see another boat fly fishing the salmon schools of Sydney Harbour; these days the swoffers will often outnumber others. The targets are mostly kingfish, and the participants all read FlyLife. But we don’t all have heavy fly rods, and boats, so wading for estuary fish with trout gear, for bream in particular, introduced many coastal fly fishers of all ages to the world of saltwater fly. The resistance to this great fishery by dyed in the wool trouties has never ceased to baffle me. There’s no question that fly fishing for bream, whiting and flathead must be far more difficult than trout, or the trout guys would be smashing ’em. But things were stirring elsewhere in a big way. Steve Starling and others wrote about Greg Bethune’s Seafaris operation on the remarkable, remote north-west coast of Cape York Peninsula. These writings exposed us to that fantastic sheltered inshore fishery. In terms of flats, beaches and inshore pelagics, it’s still world class, but back then it was a nirvana that seemed so remote. PERMIT Most significantly Greg caught a permit on a Clouser Minnow, and this was an historic moment for our sport. In time we learned that we’re blessed with not one but two species of these great flats fish, and in spite of some initial resistance, the wider world soon accepted that these are indeed worthy of the broader name ‘permit’. Greg’s clients racked up significant captures including catching these fish on floating crabs in the leaf littered tide lines of the rivers. Alan ‘Fish’ Philliskirk’s capture of an anak in the Hinchinbrook channel while fishing with Steve Jeston was caught on film for the Wildfish series, was written about in FlyLife and was another watershed moment. These captures stirred many fly fishers into action, and permit became the driver for so much of the development of fly fishing in this country. ‘Fish’ and I got our heads together, chartered Eclipse from Hervey Bay, and set up our own guiding operation based out of Weipa for a number of years, and the FlyLife crews were regular visitors. Although the species range was huge, queenfish big and small were our mainstay. These fish remain one of the more significant of our saltwater species, and to a trout fisherman from Tasmania, their ferocity, and their fight, was on another level altogether. We kept a log of the species we caught each trip, and as I recall the best was 54 in a week. Perhaps the highlight of our several years of operation was a five-way permit hookup with all of them landed. Fish ended up living in Weipa, where he still guides, and that remote Weipa fishery became the epicentre for saltwater fly fishing in Australia, producing some remarkable fishing over several decades, from flats to bluewater. Many southern fly fishers made annual trips and filled their boots on tuna, queenfish, mackerel and trevally, and the good ones and the lucky ones caught permit. The prestige of a few permit captures started people looking hard at the skinny water all around our tropical coastline. We pretty soon realised that on the flats, there’s probably more of them than most other species. Places that were once mere navigational hazards were soon viewed very differently. That willingness to explore the shallows has driven the development of most of our saltwater fly fishing in the 21st century. BASTARDS & BONEFISH At much the same time there was another event that had a huge impact on the saltwater fly scene in Australia. Air Pacific opened up a weekly route to Hawaii via Christmas Island, and what had once been a US$7,500 week on CI, overnight became an AU$3,000 week. The fishing was outstanding and hundreds of Aussie and New Zealand trout fishers discovered the flats, bonefish, and saltwater fly through annual trips there. Although many are CI addicts, enough have served their apprenticeships and expanded their horizons back to our coastline and to the challenges the flats of this wide brown land offer. New Caledonia deserves a mention as well, because it is a remarkable fishery for big bonefish that was first publicised in FlyLife. It’s also a very difficult fishery that has not become easier, but it led to the discovery of saltwater flats fishing by a particularly reputable Tasmanian trout guide, Brett Wolf, and this, in time, had its own significant impact. Right about now the internet also began to make its presence felt as a source of information and communication. The FlyLife forum had not been going long when the first Boneheads trip happened, and this event evolved out of forum conversations about bonefishing in Australia. It has become an annual event in WA, and in 2020 it will have its 20th anniversary. The group has caught 200 species in its time, and more than 100 swoffers have been through the ranks. It started on Dirk Hartog Island and although the emphasis remains the flats, time has moulded Boneheads into a fly-fishing free for all. The second Boneheads event was in Karratha and was put together by Point Samson resident Lance Christie. I fished there with Lance six months before that event and he introduced me to a fish on the flats that he’d not been able to catch. There’d been all sorts of speculation on the FlyLife forum as to what these “blue bastards of fish” were. Tuskies (blackspot tuskfish, aka bluebone) was the common thought, but they turned out to be something else altogether. In time, thanks to the astute observational skills and curiosity of Ben Bright of Weipa, they were discovered to be a new species, Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus — literally ‘blue bastard’. These are now a significant and unique flats species in this country and have also helped drive our flats exploration. The third Boneheads event was at the southern end of Ningaloo Reef at Gnaraloo Station south of Exmouth, and Ben Cranston, fishing with his dad Tony, caught a bonefish on fly. The fourth Boneheads was in Exmouth and apart from one event, at the Mackerel Islands, they’ve been there ever since. While numbers of bonefish have been caught by the group, permit captures have been far more significant. After his experiences chasing big bonefish in New Caledonia it was Brett Wolf, with his laser-beam eyes, who really put the bones (and eventually the permit) of the Ningaloo flats on the map. In this process, Brett, Ben Knight, and also the Boneheads guys have revealed just what a world-class flats fishery that entire area has. FLATS FLIES Along the east coast, the golden trevally of Hervey Bay and the flats of Cape York left an awful lot of skinny water in between that was just begging to be explored, and it was. Although permit, goldies, trevallies, queenfish and other members of the ‘bastard’ clan were the target, another creature turned up to torment fly fishers — the blackspot tuskfish — and these now carry the fly fishers cult banner. This Australia-wide focus on flats fishing has led to an indigenous evolution of flats flies, especially in the crab and shrimp based patterns. Our flats conditions and species have demanded a different approach. Stronger tidal currents and depth means more weight much of the time, and our flats fish eat different critters. Between the blackspot tuskfish, permits and bastards, fly designers and fly fishers have been kept busy developing the tools and techniques for these fisheries and FlyLife has been there for much of it. A big thumbs up to Chris Beech’s column in this magazine and to the local commercial tiers as well. Working with guides and anglers they produce some outstanding flies for local conditions and species, and they deserve our support. And in all of this the bluewater scene has been ticking along. Dean Butler has conquered the world of big game fly-fishing for billfish, the tuna family remain a staple species for many, and away from the flats, all the trevallies continue to burn drags and break rods. The once very small club of billfish on fly captures is now substantial, especially thanks to Broome, Kuala Rompin, the Hervey Bay juvenile black marlin and the development of the Exmouth bluewater fishery. Where once a decent saltwater rod, reel and line took a huge effort and a lot of cash to put together, now we’re overwhelmed with choice. So we’ve come a long way and the recent history of this sport is clearly recorded in the 99 previous editions of this magazine. Its quality has never wavered and as a regular contributor it’s been a privilege to see it evolve.

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