Pilbara Blues

John Robertson shares the rewards and frustrations of targeting ‘blue bastards’ in Western Australia

The fish moves over to the fly slowly, watching and waiting. Tiny twitch, puff of sand, and it tips over on the fly. Keeping contact is hard with the movement of the waves. Does it have the fly? Gentle pulling back on the fly line and watching intently… the gills flare as the fly is pulled past those rubber lips. A strip strike as tension comes tight; the ‘blue bastard’ shakes its head to dislodge the fly; another pull to let it know it’s hooked. The fish wakes up and tears off across the shallows as the fly line sings through the guides, followed by the backing. Success! But this is not always the way it plays out. I haven’t mentioned the five casts to get that successful take, or the spooked fish prior to that magic moment. Every summer in the Pilbara, these frustrating but rewarding fish (Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus, now officially recognised as the ‘blue bastard’, a new species of sweetlip) push hard into the many rocky and sandy flats of the islands. I have learnt a lot when targeting these beautiful fish, a subtle species that defies the typical smash-and-grab style of so many other saltwater fly-eaters. By categorising some of the common situations encountered, I hope to share some of these hard-earned lessons. Millers Typically you will come across these fish on the bottom of low tide, as they sit in a channel or hole waiting for the tidal ‘push’ before they head up onto the flats. If you find a school of blue bastards not moving with purpose and seemingly just ‘milling’ around, my advice is to leave them. Let them be; your best option here is to move slowly away and ensure your presence is not noticed. Wait for the tide and these fish will transform from millers to shallow-water tailers! If you really must throw a fly at the moment, be subtle, pick out a fish at the edge of the milling group, and sometimes you might get the take. Travellers These fish show up at any stage of the tide, but are more common around the second half of the push and over the high tide change. They are opportunistic even though they have typically fed well already; they are called travellers because they are not in active feeding mode. I have found travellers swimming near the surface, in mid-water or on the bottom, but the common trait is that they are moving rather quickly and don’t appear to be foraging. These are low percentage fish but they are still worth a shot. Lead the fish well, do the vector calculus on wind, tide, boat movement (unless wading), fish movement and depth of water to work out how to get the fly on the bottom before the fish passes over it. Once on the bottom, with the fish approaching, apply subtle movement to create some puffs of sand to gain attention. Move with the fish and try again if it ignores your first offer. I’ve found that flies with more contrast against the bottom work well in these situations, whereas other fish behaviours demand flies that are more subtle in colour. If the fish does tip, be very patient: travellers can be notorious for sitting on a fly, probably because they are already well fed. SCHOOLERS These are the fish that were millers, but have now moved up onto the flats and are feeding as a school. These are frustrating fish to target because they move erratically and the lead fish changes constantly. I have come across schoolers when wading during the tidal push. Patience is crucial here, as you have to watch the fish carefully. The most successful approach I have found involves landing a fly not too close to the group when they all stop to feed, then carefully trying to get one fish’s attention when it lifts up from tailing on that latest tasty morsel. This can be the definition of frustration, when you cast to the wrong side of where they choose to go next, or when they turn and come towards you. Slowly backing away can sometimes work, but in the shallow water they see the line, rod, shadow, or something doesn’t feel right and they decide to move off. Don’t waste time chasing schoolers if you think they are spooked — unlike solo fish that bolt, schoolers move off a few metres and then appear to start behaving normally again. Trust me, once they know you are there, it doesn’t matter how much you try to persuade them, they are not going to give you that ‘oh so satisfying’ eat. SHALLOW WATER TAILERS These fish are the pinnacle of blue bastard fishing, but this should not be interpreted as easy. When the tide pushes in and you are wading the flats, seeing a glistening tail appear from knee-deep water in the morning light gets the adrenaline going, sometimes too much. Relax, take a nice deep breath, there could be more fish between you and that tailer in the distance. These fish are actively feeding, but in shallow water they are on edge. The shallowness of the water that they will push up into is truly amazing for the size of the fish, but on the first of the flooding tide the tasty treats on which they feed are exposed and vulnerable, so it makes sense that they are pushing up as far and as hard as they can. All your skill and perseverance is needed here. Some more nice deep breaths and watch the fish carefully. A bit of wind chop or silt can be helpful here, as crystal clear and calm water only adds to their flighty behaviour. Your fly needs to land not too close (not on their heads!) but close enough to get their attention, requiring the most delicate placement, even if it’s with a 1/0 VGDC with dumbbell eyes! The presentation is crucial — we aren’t trying to grab attention and slap the fly down as we might do with a queenfish — it needs to be subtle with the minimum splash possible. Maybe a fly without heavy eyes will work better, but in strong current it may not stay on the bottom — it is always good to experiment. You can be a bit bolder on the retrieve with these fish as in shallow water the fly won’t lift, and getting their attention is critical. I have found that a floating line with a clear intermediate tip and fluorocarbon leader will help keep the fly on the bottom. When these fish home in on a fly, they will eat. Watch carefully for those subtle signs, and keep contact with your fly. The fight with a shallow-water tailer is first class, as they power off across the flat. My tip with tailers is to follow them and wait for the right moment to cast, making sure the fly-line will not be anywhere near their line of sight. Long leaders are essential. This waiting can really mess with your mind as the fish travels away from you, tailing, or approaches you directly, while you are trying to position yourself perpendicular to its travel so you can make the cast — and get that subtle landing. I’ve had mornings when I’ve hit fish on the head, or spooked them with the line or rod on the false cast, or when landing the fly, and I am sure on more than one occasion I just wasn’t holding my tongue right. Many a rum has been sipped while reminiscing about those fish that didn’t eat. Then it all comes together, and you see those deep purple hues of a large fish as it tilts and sucks in that fly. You load up and feel a deep satisfaction, and laugh at all those frustrating misses that helped to make this fish so much more worthy. Deep Water FEEDERS Deep water is a relative term and I’m talking anything more than chest deep. These fish are not in the vanguard of the feeders, or are found mid-tide in bays and along rock shelves feeding happily. If you are in the boat on the electric, slow down! Relax, it’s not a speeding tuna or queeny where you only get one shot at the fish. Move away and watch, compose yourself, and plan your approach. Make sure the boat won’t be in the line of travel of the fish, and do your vector equation again. I find a keel-weighted fly great in these situations, to get it down quickly and help keep it on the bottom. I have also at times jumped out of the boat and into the shallows or even onto dry land to make the cast. These fish are not in a rush like the others. Lay that fly in front of them. If they don’t notice it, wait for them to move on and then bring your fly in — don’t rip it in — the best way to spook a blue bastard is a crab travelling 100 mph in mid-water. These fish will quite often follow a slowly moved fly all the way to the rod tip before eating, or just as readily suck it down as soon as it lands. Once hooked they don’t typically scream off like shallow-water fish; instead they do a lot of head shaking and you will need to apply plenty of pressure to keep that hook in, before they surge off into the depths. My preferred flies for all situations are VGDC Merkins. For deeper water a keel weight is added, and for the shallows I’ve been experimenting with tungsten weights to achieve the same sink rate with less splash. Keep a variety of colours on hand, and don’t be afraid to change to one with more contrast if the fish aren’t noticing your fly, or to a more subtle colour if the fish are flighty.

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