Jinxed in Exmouth

Rob Sloane gets back into the salt

It’s a long time since I did a serious saltwater mission, but a long-standing invitation from Brett Wolf saw me back on the Exmouth flats in August. It’s not the ideal time of year, with water temperatures at their coolest, but when you live in Tasmania and your life revolves around the trout-fishing season and magazine deadlines, mid to late winter is the time to head north. Virgin’s direct flights from Hobart to Perth clinched the deal, with Libby adding Margaret River (down south) to our itinerary — wine and fly fishing, WA-style. Permit, bonefish, giant trevally and billfish dominate the boat-based guiding agenda in Exmouth, though I was quite looking forward to feeling sand under my feet and getting back to my saltwater roots. We really hadn’t given much thought to the fishing, content to reminisce about our earliest trips here when Brett was first scoping the fishery. Cabins at the Ningaloo Lighthouse with a hired four-wheel-drive and dodgy banana boat back then were a far cry from the Wolf’s sophisticated guiding outfit these days. A BAD START As it turned out, everything was wrong this time — too windy, too cold, bad tides. Well, I figured that just had to be guide talk; although Brett greeting us at Learmonth airport wearing a beanie and fleece, having been blown off the water, was not a good sign. Traa dy liooar as my mother would say — time enough. With swimming, snorkelling and sun- baking in mind, a day or two on the Ningaloo beaches with an 8-weight in hand could hardly be a bad outcome for us. “Don’t go too early,” was Brett’s sage advice at breakfast next morning. “The water will be freezing, barely 18 degrees. Too cold to swim or wade in that. Maybe after lunch a few fish will move in when the flats warm up, but it’s a high tide around midday… Good luck with that.” Eighteen degrees sounded like a warm bath to me, and a forecast maximum of 26 had beach written all over it. We set off in good spirits, until the girl at the Ningaloo roadside Ranger Station told me we could get a discount if we had a Seniors Card. I don’t think she heard what I said she could do with her discount card as my window went up and I pointed a finger skywards. An ominous red-brown cloud hovering over our chosen destination and trailing out to sea beyond the booming reef-break turned out to be a swathe of airborne red dirt. Lucky we had our buffs. At least the wind was offshore and we had the vast beach to ourselves. I did wade (up to my nipples) and we did swim, though the lunch we’d sourced at the bakery was the highlight of the day for me. Fish did show up in the late afternoon, and the wind dropped out, but I wasted a lot of time proving that mullet don’t eat Clousers. That was until one turned into a giant herring and reminded me what backing looks like, several times. Damn, it would have been a bonefish if it hadn’t started doing crazy acrobatic jumps. TURTLE TOUR Brett was still dubious about taking the boat out next day, but clad in thermals and waterproofs we launched at Tantabiddi and headed south in a shower of spray. “It’s not like you to stand on the wet side of the boat,” he laughed, when we arrived at a series of spectacular flats. Spectacular for their lack of fish. Despite my protests Brett handed me a 10-weight with a heavy sinking head and even heavier Gotcha. “You will need it to get to the bottom with this much water over the flats.” He laughed again when I pulled up my sleeve to remind him that I was born with 3-weight arms. The highlight of the morning came when we anchored up for lunch, downed a few Boags Draughts and tucked into a platter of Exmouth prawns. Brett is a dedicated sight-fishing guide, no question, though many of his cohort apparently spend more money on pilchards than they do on boat fuel. That said, the scraps from our prawn-fest soon attracted interest. First some brightly coloured fusiliers (GT tucker), then a shark on patrol, sniffing out a feed. Soon some larger splashes caught my interest — evidently spangled emperor from an adjacent patch of reef. I had the rod ready in a flash. “Cast towards the reef, let it sink to the bottom, then don’t move it. If there’s an emperor down there the line will just draw tight.” “Are you serious; don’t move the fly at all?” I never imagined that a Gotcha fished deep on a ‘do nothing’ retrieve would produce the first fish of the day within minutes of me making my first cast. Who knew? But when the guide started to produce rocks from under the centre console and hurl them at the shark, I had the feeling that the prawn lunch and anchorage had been well rehearsed. With another Gotcha and heavier leader tied on (don’t ask), the next thing I remember was two huge fish materialising from the depths at the back of the boat — all gold and stripes and puffed-up lips. With the guide’s mouth open like those golden trevally and about to say something, my first instinct was to flip the fly out. “Oh no,” was all Brett said. All went well with my supercharged goldie heading off into open water and Brett promptly pulling the anchor and giving chase on the electric with another rock in hand. But it was never going to end well, and when the trevally bolted back towards the coral I couldn’t stop it, even with the 10-weight. It wouldn’t have been a legitimate capture anyway — a prawn sandwich feeder caught on a do-nothing cast with a do-nothing retrieve. Back drifting the flats, our short afternoon session failed to deliver any identifiable targets, while Libby on camera duty finished reading the rest of her novel. The skipper-turned-tour -guide then made numerous detours to show her three feeding dolphins (those mullet again), one impressive dugong and a plethora of performing turtles. “Perhaps there is good money in turtle tours,” Brett said with one of those silly giggles. TURNING THE TIDE “I know what’s wrong,” Libby sternly confided over a breakfast coffee in Exmouth on the morning of our last full day. “That new camera has jinxed us. I’m sick of all this stuff we’ve been lugging up and down those beaches. Forget about the article, leave all the gear behind. Just bring one rod and a few flies and let’s enjoy our last day.” She was right. What did we have to lose? With the wind swinging more northerly and forecast to strengthen, there would be very few places within the designated fishing zones that were sheltered enough to fish anyway, and we still had to tick-off snorkelling at Turquoise Bay. Opting to fish first and snorkel later when the shallows warmed up, we travelled light and made for a protected headland where Libby nestled herself under the shelter of some dunes and I went for a wander with the fly rod. Two tips from Brett were planted firmly in my mind. ‘Anything will eat a Gotcha’ had my fly choice sorted, and ‘they’re mullet if the school rises up near the surface’ would save me from a lot of wasted casts and another sore arm. You can guess what happened next. I wasn’t far round the point with a strong current running when I spotted a grey patch hugging the bottom and moving steadily into the wind. A couple of twitches timed just right and I was fully connected to a decent golden trevally. Whoohoo. The metaphorical tide had turned. Despite the wind and waves, im-mersed waist deep in Ningaloo blue, those target species now seemed quite obvious. Casting was awkward but the broken surface disguised some clumsy presentations and the tidal current helped sweep the Gotcha nicely into the strike zone. Even with teeth chattering in the wind-chill it was an exhilarating session and I completely lost track of time. With no reason to go back for the camera assistant I’m sure I could have kept fishing until sunset, though perhaps no one would believe the fun I was having. But suddenly she appeared on the distant point, arms waving. Of course, I’d forgotten lunch! But as it turned out she’d had a disturbing encounter with a rabid dingo, alone on the beach, and had to pack up her things and head for the water. I was miles away. Next round the point came not a dingo but a mangy bearded hippie, talking like Arnold Schwarzenegger and brandishing a filleting knife. Apparently he’d been tossing lures in the distance, seen a mermaid in distress, and run to her defence. I’m not sure he was happy to see me… Back on the more sheltered beach with the dingo long gone, our bakery lunch was interrupted by yet another suspicious blue/grey smudge way out across the shimmering flats. “Is that moving?” I asked, through a mouth filled with apple turnover and far too much whipped cream. It was. I grabbed the rod and was soon on again. At least I was happy to have a witness this time. Not a huge trevally — Brett would call it a rat — but still more than a handful in shallow water on an 8-weight. If only we had the camera. But wait, Libby remembered the phone in her bag and clicked into photographer mode. “Jeez, you can’t use that. If I tell Brad we ditched the new camera and took pictures on the iPhone he’ll kill me!’’ With the jinx long forgotten we managed to beach one more ‘rat’ trevally and a not-so-giant herring before heading back just in time to snorkel the Drift Loop at Turquoise Bay. It had been a momentous outing and a reminder of simpler days in earlier times, when everything about saltwater fly fishing in Australia evoked a sense of sheer delight and undiscovered mystery. Back at the car park Lib’s lure-tossing hippie raced over from his dilapidated camper to greet us, with knife in one hand and what looked like a flounder in the other. On closer inspection it was an A4-sized trevally, completely coated in sand. “Thurdy centemeter. Eed eez thurdy centemeter,” he kept repeating. He was obviously on a budget and badly in need of a feed. (We opted for Brett’s barbecued beef fillet doused in Simone’s blue cheese sauce, washed down with a bottle of WA’s best red.) TICK YOUR BOXES The lighthouse, the visitors centre, the whale watching, the turtle tour, the reef snorkelling, the sun baking, the skinny dipping — yes, we did tick a lot of boxes in five days. As for all the permit, bonefish, sailfish, giant trevally and cobia — maybe next time. And I am thinking those pesky beach mullet might take a little sand-flea imitation on a do-nothing retrieve… If you are planning to venture up that way, Brett Wolf is the best sight-fishing guide in the business and his trout fishing sympathies make the transition easy for recent converts. Plan well ahead and seek his advice on the best times and tides to suit the species you are after. I’m not sure if he offers a seniors discount but there’s no harm in asking.

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