East Cape

Joshua Hutchins explores the Queensland coast from Lockhart to Port Douglas.

Each time I fly home I’m reminded of how unique and beautiful our coastline is. Australia is one of the few places in the world where you can travel to a remote beach and walk for miles along the flats without seeing another soul. Sandy beaches, gin clear water and for much of the country, a warm climate. But it’s easy to forget what’s in our own backyard. For the fly anger, locations such as the Seychelles, Cuba, Bahamas and Christmas Island are thrust upon us as the must-fish destinations for our bucket list. We dream of picturesque locations with abundant fishing and are ready to sign on the dotted line. But some of the best fly fishing — dare I say — in the world, is right under our noses. Without the long-haul flight. Australia’s coastline is huge and largely remote. And even as a local, there are so many parts I am yet to explore. So when Nick Milford, from East Coast Angling in Port Douglas, started chatting about a trip along the East Coast of Cape York Peninsula, I didn’t need much convincing. After some further research — drooling over satellite maps and Google Earth — and hearing stories of past adventures around the Claremont Isles, Lizard Island and the many sand cays inside the Great Barrier Reef, I was ready to pack my bag. Although this was an exploratory trip, Nick wasn’t going in blind. He had spent years travelling the area and researching the fishing on offer. If the weather was on our side, the trip had potential to be spectacular. Our half-Aussie, half-American crew met in Cairns. After dinner, sleep, a re-pack and transit to our charter flight, we were ready to go. There is nothing like a flight over the week’s fishing grounds to build anticipation. Flying north over the coastal flats had our hearts racing in excitement as we looked forward to the week ahead. We landed in Lockhart, transferred to the mothership, digested the briefing and we were on our way. With a stunning sunset and tangibly high morale, we all retreated to our cabins, excited for the following day. Hungry Permit I woke to the sound of the anchor dropping. Savannah, our mothership, had steamed north all night. As the smell of coffee slowly filled the air, everyone began to stir. Fishing boats were fluttering at the back of Savannah and guides were prepping for the day. With any flats trip, good sunlight is key, along with low wind. So far, the day looked good. Breakfast, final rigging, one more coffee and we were ready to go. Three tenders set off for different flats along the mainland, to explore and report back at the end of the day. The flats were beautiful to begin with, but then I launched the drone to scout for likely water. They went from beautiful to stunning. White smooth sand ridges as far as we could see. We hadn’t even cast a rod and we already had permit on the brain. Lee Younan-Wise and I jumped out of the boat and began to wade down the shallow flat. Barely five minutes had passed before I said, “Lee I think that might be fish there,” while casting in their direction. “Yes, it’s permit!” we said simultaneously, as my fly came in for landing. I didn’t even have time to complete the first retrieve before an East Coast permit was in full flight. Whenever I catch a good fish on the first day, I begin to worry. It’s normally the only thing we see all trip, or the beginning of an epic session. I was hoping for the latter. Permit continued to work their way in with the tide, cruising through the channels as we tried to intercept them coming over and along the sand bar edges. Throwing white Alphlexo Crab flies, we finished the day with half a dozen permit. These fish were hungry, and most didn’t require any of the usual permit games to get an eat. That turned out to be the story of the week. Find permit, throw a crab nearby and enjoy the success. BB Battles Jako Lucas’s film Glorious Bastards, set in the Australian Wessel Islands, recently toured the globe, adding to the buzz about our permit and blue bastard offerings. Needless to say, the Americans on our East Coast trip were very keen to get their hands on some BBs. Flynn, Ian, Pete, Mick and I set off next day to see what we could find. Unlike the mainland flats of the first day, we were exploring some different territory — a large sand cay with rubble edge lining on one side — perfect terrain for some Aussie BBs. We decided to walk to the far end of the flat and make our way back with the rising tide and the sun assisted from our backs. “Damn, there goes one,” Flynn pointed out as we made our way through shallower water and completed the walk to the top of the island. Returning on the same route, it seemed everything was now in our favour. Blue bastard tails started popping out from no more than a foot of water. Pete was first. He cast, it ate, he lifted the rod, we explained strip-striking. Next… Ian tangled with a few that had slightly more picky taste in flies, but it wasn’t long before he landed his first BB. Pete cast again, it ate, he strip-struck, it ran, it didn’t stop, then the fly popped. Poor Pete, he was beginning to feel the pain of these feisty fish. A few golden trevally passed the time, while the BBs got smarter. Pete didn’t see his redemption that day, but it didn’t take long. He eventually landed his first blue bastard — suitably earning their name. Exploring new areas rarely equals instant success. It can take time to work out the fish’s movements over certain tides and where they’ll be throughout the day. On this occasion we decided to return to the same flats the next day to leverage our newfound knowledge. As we built up our learnings, we doubled our success. And our satisfaction. GIANT TREVALLY Although it’s hard to choose — I love variety — my favourite fly target is a shallow-water GT. No chum, no teasers, just patient endurance, waiting for the right moment. Their aggressive nature, brute strength and explosive eats are hard to beat. Add shallow water and you’ve got yourself a party. Nick had printed satellite maps of each fishing location and that helped us plan the most likely species for each day. His knowledge, along with tidal charts and the logical predictions of fish behaviour, helped us prepare for the most likely ‘hot spots’ of tide for particular species. Building on this knowledge each day, I would set myself some goals. And I desperately wanted to get into some GTs. I knew that the best way to do that is to be prepared, and not let a GT encounter surprise you. As a result, I carried my 12-weight all day, line stripped out, ready to go. I have found that permit, blue bastards and golden trevally give me much more time to swap rods, so I carry the #12, and have the #9 or #10 strapped to my bag for a quick changeover when needed. The reverse situation just leaves you with fly fishing flats mayhem, as you watch a GT zoom past while you try to grab your 12-weight. And nobody needs that kind of stress in their life. Often the crew would wade the inside flats and I would scout the more likely GT locations: slightly deeper flats, closer to the drop-off. Several flats gave me two to four good shots at GTs and others just the one or two. But I was always prepared. Eats, captures, rejections, bent hooks, break-offs, and running out of line to strip when a GT nearly ate my rod tip on one occasion. Cloud made some of the opportunities tough, but setting that goal and waiting for the moment made for some satisfying GT encounters, and let’s be honest, the Great Barrier Reef has no shortage of GTs. Foul Weather Towards the middle of our week the weather got tough. It was windy, really windy, and cloudy with a touch of rain. These conditions are not conducive to sight fishing, but I didn’t come to the middle of nowhere to sit on the mothership and drink tea. I remember standing with horizontal rain belting against my chest as I laid out cast upon cast to monstrous tailing bump-headed parrotfish. By that point of the day I was the only one stupid enough to still be fishing. Deep down I knew it was a long shot, but seeing the size of those fish in the shallows made the pain worth it. And it’s an experience I won’t forget, leaving me with a crazy goal for the next round. The weather got even more insane, so we made our way south. Coming into this trip, I had an idealistic image of walking along remote sand cays, looking out onto pristine waters, fishing under clear sunny skies. Although that normally only happens on the brochure, eventually that dream became a reality. The clouds cleared, the wind eased, and everyone’s spirits ascended once again. Saltwater Heaven on Earth By this stage we had moved the mothership further south, getting ready to land in Port Douglas. The morning tide was still a little high, so we scouted around the edges of some likely flats and waited out the right depth of water to begin wading. I threw the drone in the air to take some images and couldn’t believe my eyes. The flats were lit up under the sun and the perfect sand cay drew us in, like a flight controller to the runway. It was one of the most beautiful locations I have ever witnessed. So good, that we spent the last two days there. Permit, some of the biggest blue bastards I have seen, GTs and more. Why does every trip end this way and make it so hard to leave! On the final day, as our mothership steamed towards Port Douglas, Nick and I debriefed on the trip. We couldn’t go past the endless beauty of each location and the secret spots that were still waiting to be uncovered. North East Cape York to Port Douglas is a lot of water to cover, and we barely scraped the surface of the opportunities available. As the sun set on our final day, and we sat drinking beers on the back of Savannah, we both agreed that the East Cape York of Australia was not too far off a fly-fishing paradise, here in our very own backyard.

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