Cax’s Conversion

Leon Normore makes the annual pilgrimage to Exmouth

Originally coming from freshwater beginnings myself, it is always a pleasure to introduce an experienced fly fisher to the salt. This was just the case with this year’s Exmouth Boneheads trip, organised by the Saltwater Flyrodders of Western Australia — the 20th milestone for this most eagerly anticipated fly-fishing excursion on the WA calendar. Sharing the 1200 km journey to fly-fishing nirvana this year was saltwater newcomer Cathal ‘Cax’ Duddy. And being my first year to bring a boat to Exmouth, Cax slotted in perfectly as my deckie for most of the week. The trials and tribulations of a new boat owner warrant a separate article! Breaking up the long drive, we opted to stay at one of my favourite WA station campgrounds, the Wooramel Riverside Retreat, located around two-thirds of the way to our destination, allowing a mid-day arrival at Exmouth on the Saturday. With the glassy waters of Exmouth Gulf beckoning as we drove past, we quickly unloaded our gear at our Exmouth Escape accommodation and went back near Learmonth jetty to beach-launch the ‘Endorphin’ into the west side of the Gulf. The Endorphin is a 4.5-metre centre console, fibreglass boat with a 40 HP Yammy. My venture into boating is shared with my mate Shane, to split the amount of money that goes into the proverbial hole in the ocean, but also to have someone to remind me to put the plugs in, attach the safety lanyard, etc, etc… FIRST BATH The Endorphin’s first bath in Exmouth waters was absolutely magical! Conditions could not have been better, with next to no wind, and with the new prop I’d installed before the trip we were up doing 24 knots and quickly making our way to the inner islands in the bottom of the Gulf. We fished a reef edge as the tide moved in and Cax caught his first Exmouth fish, a beautifully coloured tuskfish. A couple more small specimens came aboard, including a spectacular little coral trout with vibrant turquoise spots, before Cax’s first decent saltwater fish entered our fishing window. This window was short and sharp, as a massive queenfish appeared right at the head of the boat, darting back and forth in hot pursuit of prey. Quick and unexpected, Cax was introduced to the attention and speed required to tackle the larger saltwater predators. The fish was never subjected to a fly before it disappeared into the shallows. We skirted a couple of the southern islands, and happy with seeing a few fish and having everything functioning on the boat, we made a beeline back to our launch site. With Sunday marking the official beginning of Boneheads, there was much discussion Saturday night, especially with an earlier group of Flyrodders who opted for the Boneheads deluxe version and came up a week earlier. Weather, tides and tall tales were scrutinised to decide the plan for Day 1. EXMOUTH GULF Eventually the wind won out with it looking like the last decent day for the rest of the week, so we took full advantage of these light winds and decided to launch from the Exmouth marina and head directly across the Gulf. A little bumpier than expected, the Endorphin performed well on the 29 km across to Y Island. It didn’t take long before a lively school of queenies and goldies found us, and Cax was getting to experience some ferocious saltwater takes. Strip strike! Yes it’s hard, but a necessary evil when transitioning to the salt. This little session quickly solidified the value of the strip strike, as multiple strips were rewarded with a hook-up, sometimes nearly boat-side. I also quickly learned that double hook-ups as the wind blows you onshore can rapidly reduce the length of your fly line with a quick wrap or seven around your motor! Only lost the tip of the line — at least now I can cast a full line! Exploring, more than anything else, and conscious of the wind getting up late in the day, we cruised down the western side of Tent Island before catching up with a couple of other Flyrodders — Mick Small and another inductee, Russel Hanley. One of the best fish of the day was a spectacular-looking diamond trevally picked up by Mick on the eastern side of the Gulf. We made our way back across early, quite happy with a few fish landed and many miles sliding beneath the boat. NINGALOO REEF The next day brought some stronger easterlies that would continue for the rest of the week, so we headed to the Ningaloo side to check some of the passages out through the reef. What a cracker of a day; Cax was introduced to his backing multiple times as he hooked into some nice gold-spot trevally in the 70 cm range. We also got destroyed on the 20-pound test, so we upped it to 30, only to get busted off on that as well! Lots of new species for the day — spotted rock cod, yellowtail scad, thicklip trevally, and Cax has surely entered the Guinness book of world records for the smoothest flute fish on fly! The following day we were partly wind bound and partly discombobulated with the electrics on the boat, so we had a very late start, opting for a shore-based venture on the Ningaloo side. I decided to give the Spey rod a try for this particular session and was very pleasantly surprised when early on in the afternoon I tested the bend in the rod with a nice little golden trevally around 50 cm. My double-handed technique is not the traditional one. I typically start with a nice roll cast to get the Scandi head sorted out before completing an overhead cast to get the running line out. Using the Loop Scandi selection allows quick head changes to select the correct line for the conditions. I do, however, prefer the floating line when wading to assist with line management. We spent a good time walking the shoreline, finding some serious tidal currents that swept to the south like a raging river. But what looked like excellent water with a strong running tide failed to produce any fish. Running low on flies from yesterday’s activities I put on a particularly large bonefish fly that I’d tied for a previous trip, and we started to work our way back to the ute. I wasn’t really thinking about bonefish, just wanted something heavier to get the fly down a little deeper. Next thing I knew, I was into a good fish, something that had the power to put a real bend in the double hander. It took a while to get it in close, thinking it was a good queenfish or goldy, but then I realised I was on to a bloody bonefish! I have travelled halfway around the planet and been skunked by these bastards, and when you least expect it! Knees wobbly, breathing arrested, I gently nursed the bonefish in during the final stages of the fight with Cax coming over to see what all the fuss was about. I finally got the bonefish in with a big cheer and it was a beauty, coming in at 69 cm. The wind dropped out completely and we were witness to an amazing sunset going down over Ningaloo Reef as the full moon came up over the Cape Range. MORSE ON BOARD Mid-week I was lucky enough to have Peter Morse on board the Endorphin for a day. It was a great learning experience on everything from boat handling to fish fighting 101. We scouted Ningaloo Reef, taking our time through the Mangrove sanctuary zone, just to appreciate why this place was created and to watch a few fish without the self-imposed fishing pressure. Eventually we got out of the sanctuary zones and Pete scored first with a nice gold-spot trevally before getting busted off on something big. We realised what the something big may have been when on a subsequent fish, a massive run was followed up with a large remora coming to the boat. We can only surmise that the remora took Pete’s fly and quickly retreated to its nice cosy home, then requiring some major pressure on Pete’s part to pluck it back off the shark. All in all, it was a wonderful day, learning and exploring the Ningaloo Reef, and it even ended up with a feed of fresh fish to make up some ceviche for the sunset beers. BEACH LAUNCHING With north-easterlies forecast for the next couple of days, Cax and I stayed on the Ningaloo side. Checking out the beach launch options the following day was interesting. Putting in on some really high tides was a challenge, but retrieving on the low was even more so. We scouted the shoreline, spotting some decent size tuskfish but they were motoring along and not interested in flies. We eventually got into some more gold-spot trevally but being conscious of the very low tides, we retreated early. We were also thinking about the impending dump of rain, which had the potential to flood roads back to Perth. While there can be worse places to be stranded, many people in the group were playing it safe, cutting the trip short and leaving the next day to make it back home. With the bulk of the rain holding off for an extra day we decided to hold tight and just trim one day off our trip, returning Saturday instead of Sunday. With Friday being our last day on the water, we tried desperately to get back into Exmouth Gulf. We went for the beach launch option at Learmonth Jetty but the easterly wind made a mess of getting off the beach, so we checked out the marina before finally concluding that our only option was back on the beautiful Ningaloo Reef side. CAN OF WORMS We ended our trip with some decent spangled emperor and the most magnificent coronation trout I have ever seen. The stark contrast of the bright yellow outer margin on all the fins, particularly the lunate tail, with the dark background covered by vivid pink and purple spots, was incredible. We pushed through the following day and made the drive all the way back to Perth with only a handful of water crossings. Reliving the trip and his introduction to saltwater fly fishing, Cax suggested that he might have opened a can of worms! Indeed he did, a very deep and dark can that will keep him coming back again and again. I do love my freshwater fly-fishing and can’t wait to get back to Newfoundland and Labrador to tackle some wild Atlantic salmon, but the complete mystery as to what may attack your fly next in the salt, is what intrigues me most of all.

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