Boneheads & Berley

This year’s ‘Boneheads’ in Exmouth, Western Australia, challenged my fly fishing roots. Is using berley stepping away from the traditional fly fishing protocol; is it crossing the line into a grey area or is it simply just a way to catch more fish on fly in the salt? While I have not been steadfast to the no berley rule, having successfully, and enjoyably, targeted kingie rats off the west end of Rottnest Island and pink snapper on Five Fathom Bank, it wasn’t a method that I was overly anxious to adopt. Maybe it’s my freshwater background; maybe it’s my belief that the artificial fly means artificial everything, or maybe it’s just my preference to actually see what I consider the most important part of fly fishing — the take. But this year’s gathering of like-minded fly fisher folk at the Saltwater Flyrodders annual pilgrimage to the tropical waters of Exmouth may have opened Pandora’s box… This year I coaxed Andy Ireland — another unsuspecting Newfoundlander and lifelong fly fishing friend — to this fly fishing haven only to be baffled by a perfect storm of bad saltwater fly fishing mojo, cooler than expected waters, unpredictable winds and no bloody fish. We had been planning and organising this trip for more than a year in advance. Plenty of time to regale him about the 199 species the Boneheads have caught over the past fifteen years, the realistic potential to not actually know what kind of fish you are hooked up to, and the potential to knock off some of the most coveted targets of fly fishers the world over — bonefish, permit, bastards, GTs and even billfish! TEMPTING FATE Eventually the time came and Andy arrived in Perth for the 1200 km ride to Exmouth. Another opportunity to get an earful about how great the fishing would be! We’ll catch queenfish for belly flaps on the Saturday… nope… catch sailfish with our belly flaps on the Sunday… nope. After three days in the pristine waters of Exmouth and nothing to show for it, Andy took matters into his own hands and put the fishing gods on the line. Now it must be said that the more experienced among us were managing some decent captures, with longtail tuna, giant herring and golden trevally making it to the evening round-table discussions. But destined to decide his own fate, Andy tempted the gods by declaring that if he came all the way to this goddamn place and didn’t catch a fish, he would quit fly fishing! Where’s a Charlie Court cod when you need one? So the bar had been raised. We did have our chances with the longtail tuna. Frustrating bastards! Skipper Mick Small had us into a number of bust-ups but unfortunately they were always small schools and they would never stay up for long. Andy did get a chance to feel the power of a longtail, but just long enough to get into his backing before the hook pulled. Did I say they were frustrating bastards? After spending the entire afternoon burning fuel with no reward, Glenn Edwards and Graeme Hird called us on the radio to find the whereabouts of these ghostly tuna. We gave them the coordinates, then watched dumbfounded as Glenn steamed out directly into the biggest bust-up of the day and Graeme was onto a nice long-tail right off the bat! We did have the pleasure of watching Graeme abuse his fibreglass blue bastard rod and bring a beautiful longtail into the boat. We also had our chances with the sailfish. One wind window allowed Mick to take us in his 470 Top Ender out into the deeper waters off the Ningaloo Reef side in search of billfish. Launching from Tantabiddi boat ramp it took close to an hour to get into a prime fishing area. Once there I immediately suggested that we go with 30-minute rotations. Andy started on the fly rod, I was on the teaser and Mick was on the wheel. I also suggested a practice session with each rotation to iron out all the kinks that were sure to pop up when dealing with billfish. So we began our first rotation with me pretending to have a sailfish on the teaser. I slowly brought in the teaser, calmly explaining to Andy to pull in the daisy chain, get his rod ready, take his time… As the teaser neared the boat I noticed a sailfish bill break the surface of the water… My voice went up several octaves and I screamed, “There’s one there!” Holy fudge, this was real! We quickly got our act together.Mick put the boat in neutral, I called for the cast while plucking out the teaser. Amazingly, Andy who has never cast a fly at a sailfish, ironed out kink-one in no time flat… He’s a left-hander and we had him set up on the port side of the boat! He cast over his right shoulder and managed to get the fly into the sailfish’s periphery. The sailfish did a searching loop and finally honed in on the fly. Could this be happening? But no, the sailfish eyeballed the fly and disappeared into the depths. Still a pretty big buzz! We teased up another two sailfish for the day, the last one on the daisy chain, but nothing was hot enough to get another cast. On the way back in we saw a massive manta ray come completely out of the water with a full summersault and once again realised that these rare glimpses of extraordinary natural wonders are a big part of the reason why we were here in the first place. LONG TOM SAVIOUR So we were back to Andy’s lifeline and the potential to quit fly fishing for ever. This was starting to get painful. We headed back to the bottom of the gulf. On approaching a small island, our spirits were lifted by a sickle-shaped tail moving fastidiously on the surface. We got one shot at the permit but no takers, so we stopped at the island to do some shore-based fishing. I headed for the last known sighting of the permit while Andy and Mick hit the mangroves. It wasn’t long before I heard Andy yelling! He finally had the monkey off his back but he was not sure what had attacked his fly and was not too keen to get the hook out. Andy’s first fish was a nice toothy long-tom. Then, as is the case, once you conquer your contract with the gods, the floodgates open — well, somewhat… Andy then hooked up to a nice little trevally that showed him the incredible power of these salt- water fish. Mick and I also picked up a few different species so we were all pretty happy with getting on the board. That self-imposed pressure was alleviated slightly and we could get back to enjoying the fishing. But there is really never any way to please a fly fisherman. Really? Come on! So with Andy’s fly fishing future securely retained, now we wanted to focus on a decent fish. The kind of fish that makes a trip; the kind of fish that wins the prize rod that Peter Morse kindly offers up on behalf of Sage each year. Thus far, there was no person running away with that prize. Not that this trip is ever strictly a competition, it is more the icing on the cake and the most meritorious capture takes into consideration the species, the skill level of the angler and the circumstances of capture, in boat vs shore-based for example. As it happens, a shore-based angler did take the title this year. Diarmuid (Dee) O’Laoghaire managed to sight-cast to an 84 cm golden trevally while walking the reef side of the peninsula. He spotted the goldie feeding in a metre of water and made his second shot count before landing this magnificent fish — congratulations Dee! AND SO TO BERLEY So we were still looking for a decent fish of our own, and through the evening discussions we learned of some success with the aforementioned berley. What the hell; the second last day we hit the tackle shop and bagged up on the mulies. The staff were having a field day giving us stick about fly fishing with berley but there was no stopping the berley train! We headed for the reef side but the northeast wind didn’t allow us to get out to the reef; we stayed close and trimmed the shore until the wind dropped back. Then we joined a couple of boats out near a small passage through the reef. We set up our berley and waited, throwing a few prospective casts towards the reef. Just when I was starting to lose faith in this berley business I saw some serious shadows cruising near the back of the boat. All hands were casting now and I was lucky enough to hook up first. After a hard struggle I got a nice 75 cm gold- spot trevally to the boat. Now it was Andy and Mick’s turn. It didn’t take Mick long, and this was a beast. Mick was putting some serious hurt on this fish with his fibreglass rod, but there was no holding it back and it bust the leader. No time to ponder, straight away Andy was on; again another good fish! But these fish were not easily turned and to Andy’s despair this one headed straight into the reef. We experienced a hot bite for the rest of the afternoon, catching a wide variety of species from coral trout to red-throat emperor to gold-saddle goatfish. It was an unforgettable experience and pretty much saved our fishing for the week. So… to berley or not to berley? It doesn’t seem to be much of a question anymore. I am not planning to berley up every day of the week but it definitely has its place. It is another potential bow in your quiver and can certainly save the day when the fishing gods have other plans.

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