Hunting the Flats

Piero Bertocchi profiles Top End guide Graeme Williams

Graeme cuts the motor as we near the mouth of a creek, right near a croc trap. Although the mirage of Darwin city is still in view across the vast harbour, this is a wild place. An absorbing silence suddenly replaces the reverberation of the motor. The ardent sun bears down unforgivingly and the humidity is all-pervading. A soft echoing call of a bar-shouldered dove breaks the silence, filtering its way through the thick mangroves. With the electric motor deployed he guides the boat through the mild current, carefully judging the depth whilst surveying his arcs for signs of fish. Graeme is in his element. Sight fishing on the flats in the Northern Territory estuaries has been Graeme Williams’s mainstay for the past 35 years — the last 20 based from Crab Claw Island Resort on Bynoe Harbour. Graeme cuts an interesting figure. In the classic ‘Territorian’ mould, he is an eclectic mix of bushman, hunter and modern thinker. He is tall, hefty and bristly — but don’t let the rough exterior fool you, there is more than meets the eye. A well-travelled angler, Graeme has fished both the trout and saltwater scene. He achieved a grand slam (permit, bonefish and tarpon in a day) in Belize and has won a number of local fly fishing competitions in partnership with his wife, Dorothee. Graeme has produced his own film — a fascinating documentary Images in a Northern Estuary. He is one of the Top End’s most senior guides and the NT guides association’s executive officer for many years. More impressively, on the ABC radio program ‘Tales from the Tinny’ he is referred to as ‘the stalwart’, being considered an authority on all things fly fishing in the Top End. ORIGINS Graeme grew up in Cooma, New South Wales. His father was a fly fisher; his brothers were fly fishers. As a kid growing up, Graeme just assumed that’s how everyone fished. As a young boy, Graeme just wanted to go along and do exactly the same. His first rod was a fly rod, and he was obsessed with trout, wildlife and environment, all of which emboldened him further into fly fishing. In the early days, Graeme and his brothers would cover vast distances looking for fish. Invariably they’d get a few, but when they returned, they’d find their old man had fish lined up in the boot and he’d only ever cover a few holes. Graeme’s father showed them the best way to catch a trout — first you had to find it, and once you’d found it you set yourself up to catch it. And it was this mindset that Graeme brought to the Territory. TOP END SIGHT FISHING Graeme moved to Darwin in 1986 to build a new fishing lodge, Barra Base, at Port Hurd on the Tiwi Islands (more on Barra Base later). He arrived in the Top End with very little knowledge on how to catch barramundi and other tropical species. A local angler by the name of Wayne Ross taught him how barra feed, what they eat, and where they lie. Armed with this knowledge and his natural inquisitiveness, in his spare time at Port Hurd, Graeme would find a quiet corner and watch the estuary to see what swam by. Interestingly, he noticed that just about every species swam past. These fish were coming off the very shallow water, but the idea of looking for fish in skinny water was a little scary as no one likes to get stuck on a falling tide. Gradually he worked his way up onto the shallows and found where fish would lie at certain stages of the tide, and this in essence inspired the concept of targeting barramundi, king threadfin and other species on the tropical flats. This was in the mid-1980s, when fly fishing for tropical species in the NT was a bit of a novelty. Those that did fly fish mainly focused on trevally and queenfish as these voracious pelagics would readily take flies. There were only a handful of conventional tackle guides operating in the Territory at the time, but no one would specifically go out looking to find fish on the flats. Intriguingly, Sage gave Graeme his first saltwater rod — a 10-weight. And from there, he just went looking. Building Barra Base Graeme had a large part in building and then later working as the head guide at Barra Base, one of the earliest and most iconic fishing lodges in Australia. Situated on the south-western coast of Bathurst Island, the smaller of the two Tiwi islands, and perfectly positioned on the foreshore, the base was blessed with an extensive panorama out to Port Hurd and the Timor Sea. The Barra Base concept involved a venture between some prominent local anglers, and through one of them, Graeme got a call up. Building Barra Base was an extraordinary feat of logistics and construction. In fourteen weeks, Graeme and a specialist team from his building company constructed the remote fishing lodge, requiring 350 tons of material and stores — all transported by boat as there was no airstrip or road access back in those days. The project just grew from there, and in hindsight it was a lot bigger and more popular than most anticipated. Eventually the original partners parted from the project, but Graeme stayed on to become involved in running the guiding business. Whilst working here, Graeme was able to consolidate his learning on tropical flats fishing and benefitted from visits by some famous anglers including Lefty Kreh, Rod Harrison and other prominent fly fishers from Australia and further abroad. More significantly, whilst working at Barra Base he became acquainted with Dorothee, who was a business partner and the lodge’s director of marketing and logistics. They would marry on Bathurst Island three years later. Formidable Team A Darwin local, Dorothee was a very keen angler before they met. Graeme taught Dorothee how to fly fish and, in time, they became a pretty good team. They did really well in competitions because Graeme was forced to lift his game just to try to keep one step ahead of her. But Graeme stresses that Dorothee is her own person and he respects her abilities immensely. Having earned a black belt in karate earlier in life, she had a natural ability to pick things up, and fly fishing came easily. Dorothee’s talents were recognised by some prominent anglers along the way. In particular, Peter Hayes was a big influence on their fly-casting, especially in terms of techniques for instructing others. Perhaps though, the greatest praise came from Lefty Kreh. The story goes that Lefty said Dorothee had ‘fish in her blood’ — a tribute to her fishing flair. Graeme is not surprised that Lefty made such a comment as Dorothee’s gregarious manner and passion for fly fishing is matched by her natural abilities. One wonders about their competitiveness when in the boat together, and whether Graeme has ever been outfished — something he would never admit. Dorothee always had the front of the boat during competitions, which became a bit of a pain if she kept pulling fish, as it meant Graeme would invariably be measuring and recording fish instead of catching them. On the other hand, from the back of the boat, Graeme would occasionally get his own back by putting a fly to a fish within half a second of Dorothee spotting it. Graeme, it seems, is a little more laid-back when it comes to fishing competitions, whereas Dorothee has a more spirited approach. BARRAMUNDI Graeme regards the barramundi as the NT’s most iconic sports fish. He admits this is purely because they are his mainstay, with clients generally wanting to target barramundi when visiting the Top End. Graeme has fished to countless barra and also king threadfin which inhabit the same waters. He rounds his guiding profile with other tropical species such as queenfish, trevally, mangrove jack and tuna. Graeme espouses that there are two casts for barramundi — the right one or the wrong one. After observing thousands of barra he says they have a pedantic attitude — if it’s not where the fish wants to eat it, it won’t. They won’t come from a metre away to eat a fly or to follow it. The barramundi is an ambush predator and if your fly doesn’t pass through their strike zone, they won’t respond. But if you can attract them, they will follow a fly for 50 feet or so, all the way to the boat, but first they need to be enticed. Whilst they don’t like getting hit, ideally you need to present the fly between 10 cm and 50 cm from the barra’s nose. And that’s the hard part — it requires great accuracy. The cast doesn’t need to be long, with textbook tight loops; it just needs to be quick and accurate. LESSONS OVER A LIFETIME Although Graeme was influenced by a few anglers on his journey, for the main he had to learn from scratch, including what types of lines, rods and gear suit the conditions. His favourite outfit for sight fishing the flats is a high quality 8 or 9 weight rod with a wet tip line. So what types of flies work best? Graeme openly admits that he does not have an affinity for tying flies. He is a great believer in generic patterns that most fish will eat. In the shallow systems, 1/0 and 2/0 Clousers with weed guards became a way of life, as did Deceiver and Bomber patterns with a bit of flash. More broadly, in the last 35 years of guiding, the most significant changes Graeme has observed relate to temperature. In the earlier days, he says you could expect the water temperature in the Top End in July, August and early September to drop down to 21–23°C. But in the last six or seven years he hasn’t seen the water temperature fall below 25°C. Graeme knows that water temperature has a critical effect on fish — he learnt this with trout. For barramundi, water temperatures between 25 and 30°C are ideal, with 29 being optimal. But once it rises above 32° they largely stop feeding. Graeme has observed temperatures of 33–34° on the flats in Bynoe Harbour and the fish completely shut down. He accepts this is not conclusive data, and only based on readings from his sounder, but there can be no doubt in his mind that things are changing. TROUT FISHING Interestingly, after all those years of salt water, Graeme willingly declares that he is a trout fisher. His origins were fly fishing for trout, and if there was only one activity he could do before he died, that would be it. Graeme has great admiration for the rivers of New Zealand, the lakes of Tasmania and waters of the Monaro district where he grew up. In closing, Graeme wanted to offer earnest thanks to all his clients and friends. He followed his passion in becoming a fishing guide, but what kept him going was not the fishing but the fact that he was always hunting. The measure of success for Graeme was not the client boating a fish, given the varying levels of angler ability on his boat. As a guide, his job was to put the client in a position where they could catch a fish. It was the excitement of the hunt that was most rewarding. For Graeme, his career became about hunting the flats.

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