Aliens Vs Desirables

Leighton Adem embarks on a mothership trip to the Wessel Islands

‘Hello, Aussie Fly Fisher, Josh Hutchins speaking.’ ‘Yes, I want to talk to you about the images you’ve been posting of the Wessel Islands in the Northern Territory. I’ve been studying the area for quite some time now and have identified clear evidence of an ancient alien civilisation…’ This was an actual conversation, albeit paraphrased, with a passionate fella on the phone one day. Josh recounts it to me as we cruise the flats of the Wessels on the hunt for permit, blue bastards and other ‘desirables’. The only aliens we identify are us, sticking out like sore thumbs amid an ancient landscape that appears untouched by anything other than time and the elements. I can see how one could draw such a conclusion though. When viewed from above, the chain of islands displays its distinct red bauxite foundations, weathered into symmetrical geometric patterns that radiate out, giving the appearance of an urban, engineered system. A desolate environment that quickly gives way to the organic shapes of the white-sanded shorelines and flats folding into the deep turquoise channels of the surrounding ocean. A fly angler’s paradise. Getting here also accentuates the sense of remoteness. Situated approximately 100 nautical miles from Nhulunbuy, off the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land, the Wessels is not a place where you just rent a tinny and whiz out for a quick fish. So when the opportunity came to jump aboard a mothership for a week, I grabbed it with both hands. Our ship, the Wildcard, is home to the extended Davey family. For 47 years they have been professionally fishing the waters of this region, in most recent times targeting Spanish mackerel. With direct permission from the Traditional Custodians and Land Owners to access the region’s tidal areas, an intimate knowledge of the Wessels and a freshly outfitted 22-metre ship, it’s the ideal way to explore the area. Jimmy Barwick, an experienced FNQ guide, and Micky Finn meet us on the harbour at Nhulunbuy along with Andy Congram. Andy, an accomplished fly fisher, lived in the Northern Territory for over ten years and knows the region’s saltwater species well. He and I are paired up for the week and excitedly chat as we throw down beers and fresh prawns on the foredeck, steaming out of port at sunset toward the islands. It’s an overnight trip, and after an extremely comfortable sleep, we wake to find ourselves anchored in a picturesque bay with golden trevally chasing iridescent garfish in the lee of the stern. An inviting group of sand flats reflects the first rays of the sun, just begging us to come and explore them. The light and wind are perfect, and the energy on the mothership is dialled up to eleven as we rig up rods and load gear onto the boats before zooming out to the flats. Andy and I are already high-fiving each other on the way out. To be here is magic enough, let alone the prospect of a whole week of epic fishing ahead. Tiger Davey — Bruce’s son — is driving our boat. He and Josh discuss which end of the bay to work the tide from, as we switch to the electric and enter the flats. It’s serious wet-your-pants material, with the fishiest looking water and perfect visibility. The tide is quite high, so we stick to the boat and patrol the edges of what will later become open sand flats and drainage channels where permit schools will likely be moving through to their favourite feeding grounds. We hook up a couple of smaller golden trevally and a dart before spotting a couple of sizeable permit tracking away from us. They disappear into a depression before we can get close enough for a shot. As we drift over some patchy reef and sand, from high up on his platform Tiger spots a deep blue smudge among the more defined rocks. ‘Bastard,’ he exclaims, adding ‘at eleven o’clock’ so we know he’s referring to a fish and not hurling insults at us. Andy is up front and quickly locates the dark shape, drifting almost imperceptibly along the bottom. It is down quite deep, and fortunately Andy had changed his Alphlexo for a heavier one not long before, so it sinks into the zone quickly as he delivers it not far from the fish in the direction it is travelling. ‘It’s on it,’ Josh interjects as the smudge turns and shows interest in the crab imitation. A slow draw maintains its interest, and another, and another before the line comes up tight and Andy strip-strikes into it. The bastard heads straight for the reef, living up to its name, as Andy tries to get the better of it and lead it back toward the boat and the shore. He jumps out into chest-deep water to give himself more flexibility in manoeuvring the solid fish and eventually brings it to hand on the beach, elated at getting his first substantial fish on the board. Drifting up the beach, we intercept some more permit in twos and threes, but they are on the move and difficult to put a fly in front of, coming straight at the boat. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m giving, having taken over the front deck. We spot a bastard out wide, and I manage to draw its attention with the same approach as Andy’s, feeling the weight of the sizeable fish as it eats and the slack takes up. Again it heads straight for the reef and peels off line. My knuckles rattle painfully on the spinning reel handle as I try to palm the fish back into submission with my initial drag set a little light for the occasion. But it’s too late and the bastard owns me all the way to the reef, pinging me off on the first sharp bit it can find. ‘Damn, damn damn,’ I’m thinking as the missed opportunity weighs in contradiction to the upbeat vibe I had only minutes earlier. After a long break since my last legitimate salt- water trip, there are more cobwebs to blow out than I thought. Andy kindly lets me keep the front deck and it isn’t long before two large anak permit swoop up beside us, emerging from the gloom of the channel, cruising parallel to the boat about 40 feet away. My first cast through the boat cops Tiger in the back of the head. My second lands slightly short but clearly still in their field of view, because one of them immediately turns on the sinking fly. I let the fly settle on the bottom, with the permit slowing down to take a closer look. A couple of very slow draws, its head goes down, tail up, and I’m on. I know it’s a solid permit as I feel its full weight. It too heads straight for the reef as it peels line off. ‘No, no, no, not this time,’ I tell myself as I watch the events play out in a carbon copy of the last fish, before pop! I reel in the slack line, the boat in complete silence, leaving me to my thoughts and hyper-analysis of my poor performance — yet another opportunity lost. We get a few more shots. Josh lands another solid bastard and a queenie, but with the tide draining low, we head back to the mothership to regroup and see how the others have gone. It’s immediately apparent they have had a great day, as they are frothing when we arrive. They found some significant schools of permit on the flats they were on, and managed to land quite a few of them. And this was just day one. We swap our groups around, but Andy and I stick with each other over the coming days, working up a comfortable interplay as we fish and support one another’s ups and downs. Wading the flats we both get dusted by big bastards on a double hook-up, at which point I up my bastard rig from 16 lb to 20 lb and don’t lose another one for the trip. I am with Jimmy when I finally find my groove, coming into the headland of an idyllic bay. We drop Andy and Micky on the beach and it’s not long before we hear them hollering up on a rocky outcrop and pointing at the water. ‘What? Croc, shark?’ — we’re not sure what the fuss is about. It turns out it is a massive permit that Andy estimates to be 80 cm plus, but it won’t eat his fly! Just then we spot the familiar blue-aqua smudge of a bastard cruising slowly over the white sand bottom. My eyes are dialled in now and my casting has improved. I deliver a heavy Fuzzle Shrimp in front of it, allowing just enough distance for the fly to sink. It makes a line straight for the fly, and after tempting it in with a draw, I’m on again, determined not to let this one get the better of me. It is a large fish and pulls hard, but the extra 4 lb makes the difference, in my head at least, and I steer the fish confidently back to shore after several feisty runs. Shortly after that, Andy is into a school of blochii permit and not long after that so am I, followed by Micky. There is no stopping us now! By the time the next day comes around Andy really has his groove on. We pick up the giveaway moon flashes as a school of permit feed their way down a submerged sandbar. Andy is out of the boat, wading to intercept them before the boat has even stopped. Dropping a fly in front of them, it isn’t long before he gets the eat, and all we can hear is hooting and hollering — an appropriate response for a man wearing a Howler Brothers cap. As he releases the fish and falls on his back into the shallows, he is grinning from ear to ear, clearly satisfied with his haul so far. The next few days see lots more permit caught by all, 19 in total. We add a massive brassy that Jimmy wrangles, and a few decent barra and other tropical species to round out the Top End slams. The goldies are also great fun in the quiet patches while riding backseat bandit in the boat. My frequent giggles are a dead giveaway to the others that I have another one on. Hey, I like catching fish of any kind, what can I say! Add to that some croc watching, perfect tropical weather, great food and a fantastic family vibe aboard the Wildcard, and our Territory experience is complete.

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