Back in Gladstone

Joshua Hutchins explores more Queensland saltwater options

I first made contact with Justin Nye around two years ago. Justin had recently kicked off his guided fishing business in Gladstone and was excited to show it to the world. At the time, all I knew of Gladstone was a thriving industrial area — the aluminium smelter, natural gas production and large port. It didn’t come to mind as a bucket list fly fishing destination. But with reports of permit, goldies and GTs on the flats, big barra in the river and nearby lake, and a plethora of queenfish, I was ready to change my mind. All I needed was some spare time. I carved out some dates and got ready for a visit. Weather Bomb Not every trip turns out the way you plan. Fly fishers are at the mercy of the weather, the tides and of course, the fish themselves. And this was particularly true of my time in Gladstone. Justin’s text flashed up on my phone only a few days before my flight: “Josh, the conditions have been perfect all month, but next week we are in for some shocking weather.” Ever the optimist, along with the non-refundable flights for my family to join me, I decided to go along anyway. But Justin was right — the weather was terrible — and the visit turned into more of a family holiday than a fishing trip. On the days we attempted to check out the area’s estuary options, low barometers, high winds and cool temperatures made it tough, but a few barra and tarpon kept the rods bent during the day. The bad weather meant we never touched the saltwater options, so it was clear I would have to return. The Flying V That time came in September last year when I managed to squeeze in a two-and-a-half day rendezvous trip to Gladdy. I arrived late in the afternoon and we hit the water first thing the next morning. This time, conditions were good, and the flats looked beautiful: clean white sand with clear emerald water and plenty of areas to explore. We started the day looking for blue bastards and tuskies around some shallow rubbly areas. The calm water and strong glare made it tough to sneak in on the fish, and despite several shots our prey weren’t biting. Fortunately some school mackerel kept us amused on the way to the second flat, and then, it was game time. We slowly drifted the flats and it wasn’t long before we saw our first permit. “Justin, GT coming our way,” I said. “No mate, that’s a huge Perm,” Justin replied. And he wasn’t talking about a big 80s hairstyle. To my astonishment, I realised he was right. It was the biggest permit I’d ever seen. “That thing is a metre long!” There were two of them, and they were tracking our way. I placed the cast, and one began to follow. I held my breath. And waited. And waited. But the fish wouldn’t eat. Thus began the pattern of the day: very large permit chasing the flies but refusing to have a bite. We saw singles, doubles, and even a few schools of 10 to 20 at a time. It was torture. And the one consistent thing was that these fish were very big! That evening, my sleep was disrupted by nightmares of monstrous per-mit that didn’t have mouths. I couldn’t wait for the next day. Once again, we hit the water early and were greeted with another beautiful day. Waiting for the sun to rise we went in search of queenfish, although the mackerel were our more willing participants. But soon it was time to get back to the stunning flats. As the sun got higher, the wind gained strength but it was still a very fishable day. Justin had us staking-out a prime position on the flat and we soon encountered two pairs of permit. One of the pairs even gave us five to six fly changes, several follows, but once again, no eats. With a 10-weight in hand and my 12-weight on the deck, line pulled off and ready to go, I then witnessed the most outrageous two minutes of my fly fishing life. A hundred metres down the flat we saw five large black shapes moving quickly in the shape of a flying V. It sounds too good to be true but a perfect V formation of fish was coming straight towards us. “They’re Longies!” Justin called, referring to longtail tuna. “Are you sure?” I yelled back, “they look like GTs,” as I threw down my 10-weight to pick up the 12. Things were about to get crazy… Justin now had a better view: “It’s a large GT, with four large longtails following behind.” I made the cast to the front of the pack. There was no time to think, and suddenly a 30 kg GT consumed my Brush-fly. I stopped breathing. “You ripper, we are on!” But, (there’s always a ‘but’), in my haste at the hook-up, I hadn’t noticed that the running line on my 12-weight had gathered around the top of the electric motor. “Justin! Quick! I need your help!” It was too late. 30 kg of GT was full swing into its maiden run and the leader could only hold on for so long. It pains me to say, the fish broke free. I was gutted. The GT disappeared and the tuna dispersed. I couldn’t believe it. After all that time waiting, our moment had come, and then left, all within 30 seconds. But there was no time to grieve. It was time to try again. “Josh, tie another fly on – quick,” called Justin, as I pulled myself out of my emotional black hole. “The tuna are coming back.” It was enough to snap me into gear. The tuna had made a wide berth of the flat, circled around, then gathered together again and were heading straight for us. I barely had enough time to re-tie a fly. Those 60 seconds took years off my life due to stress, but the moment the fly touched the water, the tuna connected. “I’m on!” I said, “And this is insane!” The tuna made its way straight to the backing. We landed that fish and it made everything worthwhile. I’d gone from the depths of despair to the heights of joy, all within a crazy two minutes, in two-and-a-half feet of water. Big Barra Not only were my trips to Gladstone a chance to build an awesome new friendship with Justin, I was also gaining a connection to the beautiful places we fished. And those monstrous permit were still haunting my dreams. So, in April this year I decided to head back for four days with another of our guides, Mickey Finn. We arrived at Gladstone airport, and the familiarity set in… “It’s looking a little windy the next couple of days,” Justin mused, “so we might chase some barramundi to start with, if that’s ok.” “Fine by us,” we chorused. Mickey was hoping to catch his first barra on fly. “We’ll keep an eye on the wind, but we should hit the flats by day two or day three.” I still had a permit to catch. The first morning rolled around and we made our way to Lake Awoonga. The lake, a short drive from our accommodation, is a consistent year-round option for barramundi. Not long into the session I landed a plump barra on a surface popper and then missed a few other nudges. “Time to try something else,” Justin said, as the wind grew stronger. We reloaded the boat and headed to the saltwater estuary section of the Boyne River. Launching straight off the rocks into the river, Justin said we were in with a good chance of a large barra. I could tell Mickey was excited. Minutes into the fishing I landed a beautiful fish of around 60 cm, and soon after Mickey landed his first barra on fly. We were happy with these catches but still hoping for a big one. Despite this, I suddenly decided it was a good time for a ten-minute nap. Whether it was the lack of sleep or the heat of the day, I’m not normally one to sit down when there is fishing to be done, but I felt wrecked. After the power nap and some Coca-Cola to put my energy back in the game, I picked up my rod and started to cast again. First cast, nothing; second cast, there it was! My second retrieve was met with a shunting stop, immediately followed by a powerful pull of the line. By this point Mickey and Justin had turned to the back of the boat as a metre plus of barramundi leapt clear of the water. “Whooaoaoaoh!” we all exhaled in unison. And then the nerves crept in. I had to get this fish. A few more powerful runs, half-hearted jumps and then we managed to land it. What a relief! 103 cm. It was a very good day to not be fishing the flats. The following day’s forecast was for similar weather, so we stayed with that plan, hoping to get Mickey a big barra. But when the moment arrived, one final jump at the boat and the fly came free. “Noooo!” we moaned, like a pack of howling dogs. Mickey’s language got a bit more colourful. “Hey Mickey, I managed to film that last jump in slow-mo. You can even see the fly leaving its mouth.” Surprisingly Mickey wasn’t interested in seeing my footage. Clouds & Queenies We made it to the flats on day three, but sadly as the wind dropped the cloud made up for it. Any saltwater flats fisher would know that the two greatest enemies are too much cloud and too much wind. We were hoping to catch a lucky break. Whenever the clouds parted for long enough to spot a GT or golden trevally we would be ready for the shot, and another cloud would come along. When that cloud cleared we’d see the target fish right next to the boat. It was frustrating to say the least, but there was little that we could do. Our second day on the flats arrived, but by this time, our perfectly planned tides had since departed. The permit didn’t show and despite my mind constantly trying to recreate the flying-V of fly fishing, the moment didn’t come. We amused ourselves with some smaller flats fish, and it was eventually time to head back to the airport to make our flight. But timing is everything. And well-laid travel plans will always come second to the chance of a good catch. We were already running late as we started to make our way off the flat. As we began the journey home I called my wife, but during that call noticed baitfish being sprayed in all directions on the far side of the flat. “Bub, I will call you back, but can you please do me a favour? Can you see if there are any later flights tonight out of Gladstone?” I didn’t tell her that I was forgoing family time for a fish, but she knows I can’t resist a good opportunity. I hung up and by that time we were confronted by queenfish mauling bait in all directions on the edge of the flat. “You’re going to miss your flight,” said Justin. “All good, Anna is onto that,” I replied, sounding far too confident as both Mickey and I reached for our fly rods. We totally missed our flight, but it was definitely worth it. Anna rebooked our flights for later that evening, and Mickey and I felt satisfied in what could have been a tough trip, given the weather conditions. With a variety of species on offer and dreams of monster permit, I know it won’t be long till I’ll be back in Gladstone. Saltwater fly fishing can be tainted by unpredictable weather or tough conditions, but the rewards are ever, ever so sweet.

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