Curious Cunning Bastards

Peter Morse reflects on a recent encounter with blue bastards in Western Australia

The port of Dampier and the nearby town of Karratha are around 1700 kilometres north of Perth. These towns are major centres for the Pilbara mining industry. This is also where the whole blue bastard fishery began back in 2001 (FL#30 Sweet Things). In May this year a group of us towed four boats from Perth for a two-week trip that was to be centred on this species. I fished with Tony Ong and Steve Bradbury, two dedicated Perth fly fishers who had put in five days on the flats there in May 2018, with considerable success. It’s a pretty safe bet that any destination with names like Flying Foam Passage and Sea Ripple Passage is going to be windy. For three days it blew a cold easterly at 30 knots gusting to 40. On one day the Dampier Harbour Authority issued a wind alert for all vessels and a red dust haze blew in from the iron ore mines. Our first week involved spring tides, which meant high water during the day, and a lot of looking. We arrived early on day one at a mangrove rimmed bay to catch the second half of the rising tide, with just enough sun in the sky to see the bottom. It was relatively sheltered and under the right conditions could have been sensational. With the morning sun behind us, we drifted into the bay using the electric motor to adjust position. Peering hard into the slightly murky water we spotted five fish but saw them too late to get a fly to any of them with any sort of chance, before they spooked off. Towards the end of the drift Tony said, “Look behind us,” and a rod length away there was a pod of five curious BBs following us. Curious, cunning, bastards… DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY As it is for most flats fish, undoubtedly the best angle of presentation is from head-on, and I suspect BBs are quite myopic, or just very focused. I’ve never seen one go out of its way any distance to hunt down a fly. They want the fly served up on the bottom in front of them in about a dinner plate sized area, and in the least threatening way possible. During the first week, with deeper, cooler, discoloured water and windy conditions, we had a real challenge on our hands. We were seeing the fish late, and casts had to be short, quick, accurate, yet delicate. But the flies needed to be heavy to get down quickly; a real witch’s brew of casting challenges. With the fish barely moving most of the time, and seemingly not prepared to move until spooked, it was fishing that required an ‘A’ game. Like most fish, BBs invariably respond in only one way when they are attacked by the fly — they flee. Casting beyond them and bringing the fly back into their path across the substrate to intercept them is asking for problems. This approach can work, but only if the fly is stationary, or moving away from them by the time their paths intersect. You need the fly to be on your side of their track to be able to move it. Casting beyond them, then dragging the fly quickly across the surface into their path, then stopping and sinking it onto them, worked several times — a strip and sink presentation. They can be very touchy bastards… We did get some perfectly good head-on shots at stationary fish, and provided they weren’t spooked by the ‘plop’, and provided the boat didn’t drift onto them, and provided that fish wasn’t being just a moody bastard, we were successful. BBs usually need some kind of strip tease to get a reaction, but in the prevailing conditions we just didn’t have that luxury. Some of our very close presentations worked out, but if the fish saw the fly and didn’t eat, and didn’t spook, the possibility of a bite plummeted by the second as they sensed something was not quite right. They’re such suspicious bastards… A head-on shot that catches the fish’s attention within the first few slow short strips, and then induces a follow, is the ideal. It then becomes a matter of not moving the fly so fast that it won’t follow, not going so slow that it loses interest, and stopping it at the right time to get that bite, and repeating if it doesn’t. Sometimes it feels like you’re hypnotising them into eating the fly. It’s a gripping and very finely balanced game. THE LONGEST SILENCE Late in the day on a falling tide we did find a classic scenario, the kind we envision when we think of perfect flats fishing — a big pale blue fish feeding out on a clean, almost white substrate. It was stirring up the bottom in 60 cm of water. Tony threw a long cast into the wind to the fish’s near side and caught its attention without spooking it — always a great moment when you say to yourself, “Here we go.” We have our own blue bastard variation of Thomas McGuane’s ‘longest silence.’ From the moment the fish decides to follow the fly, everyone watching stops, holding their breath as the slow tease begins. Tony worked the retrieve and the fish tracked the fly for perhaps six metres — it’s as gripping for spectators as it is for the angler, and it usually ends in profanities or loud exclamations of “YES!” The terrible decision point comes when the fish has followed the fly and you know at any moment it is going to sense the boat, and you have to stop the slow teasing retrieve — or maybe not. In this case the boat was drifting away but the fish was still coming closer and closer as Tony tried to induce a strike — to ‘feed’ the fish. We were standing, watching, as mesmerised by the moment as the fish was by the fly. Hovering, head down over the shrimp, the fish was unable to resist any longer. The body language changed, its gills flared and there was a puff of sand — “YES!!!” With clean water all around the fish headed for the mangroves and surged into the shallows on its side, several feet short of the still high and dry mangrove roots. It beached itself, flapped in the shallows, found traction again, and surged off confused and disorientated. Silly bastard… MIXED SUCCESS During the days of strong winds and big tides we fished a couple of sheltered bays not too far from the boat ramp. These had classic inshore blue bastard substrates, with a mix of rock, sandy mud and weed at just the right depth. In this sort of slightly murky water a big flash from a feeding fish as it turns is a real blessing. The flash can be mistaken for the underside of a stingray flap, but just take the shot anyway. A tailing fish is also a bonus, as both these visible offerings signal a feeding BB rather than just a moocher. We did catch fish and several were memorable. We found some cruising, not in mid-water but certainly off the bottom, and these fell to a shrimp pattern presented at their depth and stripped in front of them. On one fish, Steve had the back of the boat and a BB appeared at about 5 o’clock and 30 feet out coming right at us. The wind was strong on his right shoulder and the only possible cast was an off-shoulder roll cast, which he executed perfectly with one attempt and the fish grabbed the fly without hesitation. That’s when all that casting tuition and practice pays dividends. As the wind eased over the next few days the tides reverted to neaps and several things swung in our favour — less movement between high and low water, low water during the middle of the day, and cleaner water. The very best of BB fishing is when they’re out over white sand and you can clearly see them, sometimes from two full fly lines away. Islands of the Dampier Archipelago have many shallow bays and some great sandy flats and we went looking for these habitats. At Rosemary Island on a falling tide we had some long-range shots at feeding fish out over white sand. True to their nature they provided us with a range of refusals. One diverted around the fly to resume its feeding — had it seen the leader? The water was clean and many fish were lying among sparse clumps of weed. Steve picked up a lovely big BB that had us all holding our breath as it slinked around a weed clump and found the fly waiting for it on the other side. STRANDED Along the inside of Legendre Island are some magnificent flats, and on a fast falling tide we found some big BBs feeding hard in wadeable water. Tony hunted one big fish in the shallows for ten minutes using his favourite shrimp pattern, and must have presented this fly to it perfectly at least a dozen times before muttering, “What a bastard, I need to change.” I’d decided to try a crab and two casts later the same fish tailed on a Jono Makim spun deer-hair pattern and was duly landed. Tony changed to a crab and caught the next fish, and then I got another on the same Makim crab. Unfortunately all of this had distracted us and we were trapped by the tide. With deep water a kilometre away we spent the next 6 hours into the dark waiting for the tide to come back in! We were there again the next day and I had a lovely big fish follow a crab fly to that point where the boat might become an issue, but when I stopped the retrieve a small wrasse of some sort shot in front of the BB and attacked the crab. Of course the BB spooked as though it had been woken from a bad dream. On another occasion I threw a perfect intercepting cast 6 feet ahead of a BB that was clearly following a subtle contour. It swam right over the top of my fly — one that had been scoffed by two fish the previous day in this same place — then just a few feet further on it went head down to root something out of the bottom. A second presentation was equally ignored. We were glad it didn’t eat, because we only just made it out on that tide! ENIGMATIC BASTARDS Sport these days is run by ‘stats’, so it’s interesting to reflect on our results. We finished the trip with 16 BBs landed on our boat. We had bites from and lost five other fish, something you don’t expect with those big rubbery lips. We estimated that over the 11 days we had really good shots at probably 40 fish, and shots that held some possibility at around another 40 fish. We figure we saw around 160 BBs and that gave us an average of seeing around 15 fish a day, and of course some days were much better than others. The more you think you’re getting to know these enigmatic fish, the less you seem to know them. They’re very addictive with their wide ranging behaviour and the long visual presentation windows you can get at them. They’re a fish that will rarely be caught when blind casting. You can have a pretty good idea of where and when they’ll be in certain locations, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll co-operate. For all the world they look like a big stupid flats plodder, but there’s plenty going on. Like all fishing, you sometimes get it right and think you’ve broken the back of these enigmas, but then the next day it’s back to a different kind of bastardry. For further reading see Pilbara Blues in FlyLife #88.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.