Crab & Prawn Eaters

Craig Rist applies some flats fly logic on the Whitsunday Coast of Queensland

One, two, and then three broad flat tails could be seen waving together in unison as we slowly motored up to one of the many shallow mangrove lined bays along the Whitsunday Coast. “Yep, those blue bastard’s are still here,” I said to Simon who had just joined me for seven days on a road trip north to test out my new poling skiff project. Prior to Simon’s arrival I had already found and caught fish here the day before, on big heavy crabs using a very slow crawl along the bottom. I was keen to see if the same crab fly and technique would work for Simon the very next day. The morning sun was still quite low, so we decided to wait for the tide to push in a little more before poling over the shallow rocky reef to reach these fish. I assured Simon they were not going anywhere. With the thick cloud cover overhead limiting our vision, we resisted the urge to wade the flats on foot and risk spooking any unseen fish. The sight of tails pushing through the surface always quickens my pulse, and the same questions go through my head — what species are they and what are they feeding on? That’s what I love most about saltwater fly fishing: it makes me want to learn all I can about a target species, the types of food they eat and, most importantly, what fly I can use to catch them. I had no idea what the blue bastards were eating in this bay, but with a mix of rock and mud there was a very good chance these fish would encounter crabs. This had been my thought process yesterday, and it seemed to work for me. With a push of the pole I glided the skiff over the rocks with the rising tide. The incoming flow had covered the rocks but also the tails of the fish as well. They were still feeding there, somewhere — it was just a matter of finding them. The morning sun was still hidden behind a blanket of white cloud and the reflection on the water was far from perfect for sight fishing. On the positive side, our elevated positions while standing up on the poling and casting platforms meant we could still see at least 30 feet ahead of the skiff. A light breeze had also put a welcome ripple across the water to help conceal our movements in what was most likely going to be some very close encounters. It didn’t take long for one of these fish to materialise into Simon’s limited view. It came in from the 2 o’clock position and was already only 25 feet out. Simon managed to get the fly ahead of this fish but it was already far too close to the skiff and spooked as soon as it saw movement. We pushed further into the shallow bay and Simon had another shot but again the fish was way too close. Simon reset his line in the stripping basket and waited for the next opportunity. The next fish was feeding and moving much more slowly. Simon managed to spot this one at the very limit of his vision and was already casting by the time I had locked onto it. The heavy crab quickly dived to the bottom ahead of the fish. As it slowly approached, Simon used the same constant slow crawl I had told him about, and the fish responded by swimming onto his fly. I didn’t see the fish eat the fly, but then I didn’t have to, as Simon’s line-hand ripped the line back to set the hook. He was tight; the fish raced across the flats taking all the loose line from the basket and a few turns off the reel before slowing up. A typical stubborn fight followed before Simon had his first blue bastard safely in the net. Job done. Sticking with a good thing Simon was keen to return the favour and jumped up on the poling platform to put me onto one of these crab eaters. I tied on another one of my weighty 2/0 rubber-legged crab flies and climbed up onto the casting platform. I missed the first fish swimming across the bow, 30 feet out, simply because I misjudged the cast, which fell short. The next fish came in at 1 o’clock, making the cast and interception much easier. In water less than a metre deep the big crab hit the bottom within a couple of seconds and the sink-tip fly line made sure it stayed there. I quickly tucked the rod under my arm to use the same slow double hand retrieve, maintaining a pause-free crawl along the bottom. These blue bastards were definitely not living up to their name this week because as soon as they saw that crab crawling along the bottom they were onto it. I watched my crab disappear into those rubber lips and immediately quickened the retrieve to set the hook. After a long run I decided to finish the fight standing in thigh-deep water away from the skiff to remove any chance of breaking the leader on the outboard, transducer or trim tabs. Plus it’s much easier to keep the fish in the water between those grip-and-grin shots. Simon went on to catch one more before we simply ran out of fish to cast to. We had definitely found some blue bastards that were on the chew. Who knows, next time they may well live up to their reputation. Prawn time With blues firmly ticked off our bucket list it was time to keep exploring other bays and flats in search of permit or golden trevally. On Google Maps we could see flats out from several creek mouths that had potential, but we really didn’t know. Like all road trips it can be the tips and hints you hear from the locals that turn things around in very short time. There is absolutely no substitute for time spent on the water with bait, lures or flies to understand a system. So when I bumped into an old sea- dog at the boat ramp I was going to shut up and listen to what he had to say. Thirty minutes later I had a much better appreciation of the area and with stories of schools of big golden trevally feeding over a distant creek mouth flat, I now had somewhere to point the new skiff. After an hour of punching through some fairly rough seas we finally arrived at the location that best matched the description from my old sea-dog mate. By now the tide was more than halfway in. The wind had stirred up the water, making it a little off-colour, and thick cloud killed any chance of seeing into the water. Not the crystal clear flats I had imagined. Then from nowhere, the unmistakable forked tail of a golden trevally broke through the waves. My leader was already rigged with the same 2/0 crab and I made the cast as soon as Simon had me within range. I led the big golden and fished the crab out, but it refused the fly outright before moving several metres to begin tailing again. Then there were two more goldens tailing, and more behind those tails. Time after time they simply refused the crab, even when it was stripped out from under them. It was time to change to another likely food source, the prawn. In the months leading up to this trip I had tied a couple of experimental prawn flies using clear electrical heat-shrink and a glass rattle. There was no better time than now to tie one on, but after a couple of casts it was obvious this fly was just not getting down to the bottom where these fish were feeding. To rectify this I tied in a small size-000 ball sinker into the perfection loop connecting the fly. This did the trick, making the prawn fly dive to the bottom where I could now strip it out past the nose of a tailing golden. I finally got a fish to eat the fly only to have the hook pull. Then the tails disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, leaving me fishless for the day. TAKE TWO The next morning we were on that flat just as the tide had turned to make its way in. This was a totally different day — we had blue skies, clear water and light winds — it was perfect. In fact it was almost too calm, with the sound of water lapping against the chines of the hull seeming to echo across the flats. As a precaution I wrapped a tarp around the bow to stop this unwanted noise pushing fish away. With the skiff now in stealth mode, Simon poled us onto the flats. We could see into the water 100 feet all around us and if a fin poked through this glass calm surface we were going to see it from a long way off. With the tide out we could easily see which part of the flats were going to fill first, so we parked up and waited for the fish to move in. An hour had soon passed, with nothing, not even a stingray. Then 200 metres away on the edge of the flats a big forked tail started waving at us. That’s what we had been waiting for. Simon quickly poled me into range where one fish became two as a pair of big golden trevally made their way across the flat, stopping every few metres to bury their heads into the sand to suck out something that was obviously worth exposing themselves for in such skinny water. I covered the lead fish by a metre with the same heat-shrink prawn and sinker combination. I gave the fly a couple of strips to bounce it back out of the sand and the big trevally raced over and ate it before the other fish had even noticed it. When I set the hook, the big golden turned on the power with a long run across the flats. This fish fought hard all the way back to the skiff where it slogged it out on a short line until it finally started to roll over for a quick net shot. During my fight Simon had already located another couple of fish tailing nearby so we quickly regrouped and changed jobs. I was back on the pole and it was Simon’s turn to deliver a weighted prawn to the next one. The goldens were feeding hard with whole tails up in the air as though they didn’t have a care in the world. I pushed the skiff closer until Simon was ready to make the cast. The prawn dropped down to the sand in front of them and he was on in seconds. As expected, another solid fight followed with Simon and I enjoying every moment of the whole flats fishing experience, where teamwork and the right fly can really produce results. Lots of fish we target on fly over the flats feed on prawns or crabs or both at some stage, so it makes a lot of sense to have a good selection of sizes, colours and weights to suit the waterways and target species on our northern and southern flats. What fly to use and how to fish it is something we all pick up along the way, through sharing our experiences and time on the water. For me, I really enjoy the challenge of creating flies that not only look like the real thing but can also be effectively fished at the required depth, be it on top or glued to the bottom, in the hope that the odds turn back in my favour.

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