The Fitzroy Basin

The Fitzroy River flows right through the city of Rockhampton on the Central Queensland coast, draining a catchment of some 150,000 square kilometres. The major rivers that merge to create the Fitzroy are the Isaac, Dawson, Mackenzie, Connors, Nogoa and Comet. These eventually come together to create the largest river system on the east coast of the continent. The Fitzroy enters the ocean via Keppel Bay, 40 km downstream from Rockhampton. North of the Tropic of Capricorn, big rivers and big flood- plains mean barramundi, and usually lots of them. You could comfortably divide this region into three principle fisheries. There’s the freshwater tributaries of the catchment where saratoga reign, the exceptional barramundi and threadfin fishery of the saltwater system below the town barrage in the heart of Rockhampton, and the offshore fishery of the inner Great Barrier Reef which includes just about every kind of fishing you’d expect in this part of the world, from flats to bluewater. INLAND WATERWAYS My fondness for the inland waters of this region began back in the Wildfish days when Sid Boshammer took me on a road trip out to the Dawson weirs where we fished for saratoga. Every couple of years nowadays I set off on a northern road trip to teach fly-casting, to fish, to catch up with friends and family, and to reacquaint myself with some favourite places. The first leg of my trip usually involves a straight two-day drive to this part of the world via the inland route, reaching the first of the catchment towns, Taroom, on the head-waters of the Dawson. There are a lot of weirs on the rivers here — six on the Dawson and six on the Mackenzie alone — and it would take many months (even years) to explore the area. The fly fishing can be fantastic, especially for saratoga. The northern rivers of the system also have sooty grunter, and the entire system also has an indigenous species of yellowbelly. Although the waterways have been stocked with barramundi, the big floods that occur every few years tend to wash them downstream. Fishing subsurface flies up in the fresh will get you tied into some monster catfish as well, and these are aggressive. Many of the weirs are still heavily forested along the banks with Livistona palms and paperbarks, and there are remote waterholes, rich with fish and birdlife, and peaceful camping grounds that can have you feeling as though you are many miles from nowhere. What’s really special about the saratoga fishing on these waters is that the fish are comfortable cruising out in mid water, even with the sun high in the sky. This creates some brilliant sight fishing. These are primarily insect feeders, and although they mostly live along the lily pad fringed edges, they do wander the open water and search their way through rafts of leaf debris for insects, so sight casting for them is always on the cards. I suspect they’re more comfortable in the open here because there are fewer sea eagles than you’d find on waterways further north, and no crocs. Whatever the reason, these togas are happy cruisers and sight casting to them with surface or sub-surface flies is as good as freshwater fly fishing gets in this country. SALTWATER FISHERY The saltwater fishery really begins right in the heart of Rockhampton, below the first barrage that separates fresh from salt. This section of the river is in the heart of the city and is watched over by commuters on highway bridges, in high-rise buildings, waterfront cafes and restaurants, and is accessed by inner city boat ramps that can be as busy as the peak-hour traffic. It is a minefield of rock bars and deep channels, and with the barrage being the major obstacle to upstream migration, it holds a lot of fish. At low tide, when you can clearly see the extent of the rock bars, the ‘Rock’ in Rockhampton makes a lot of sense. Many barramundi and threadfin are caught right here in the middle of the city. But the city itself is 40 kilometres from the coast and once out of the rocky gorge the city is built on, the estuary opens up into a maze of mangrove systems that form the mouth of Keppel Bay. From a fly fishing perspective the water is usually discoloured, but the threadfin work the shoreline and gutters, showering bait, and the barras hang in all the usual places — rock bars, gutter mouths and eddies created by structure. There are extensive floodplains between Rocky and the mouth area and during the wet season the lagoons fill and the run-off from these provides classic ‘colour change’ fishing, especially once the barra season re-opens on the first of February, because this is where the big girls go to do their breeding and their post-spawn feeding. In 2015 all the waters of the Fitzroy system and north to Corio Bay, east to the Keppel Islands and south to the northern end of Curtis Island were closed to netting. Once the system has fully recovered, it’s going to provide barra and threadfin fishing that matches the best anywhere in the country. The threadfin population has made an instant recovery and the extensive mud flats in Keppel Bay provide some outstanding sight fishing on neap tides for threadies whenever the water runs cleaner. THE OFFSHORE FLATS For those who don’t know him, John Haenke directed and produced the Wildfish series shown on national television during the ’90s. Although his business for many years involved lugging a heavy camera around on his shoulder while watching others catch fish through the viewfinder, his deep and abiding passion has always been fishing, and fly fishing in particular — even more specifically, sight fishing. These days John mixes a lot of guiding with his diminished filming work, so ironically he continues to watch people fish. There’s a long running joke that John and his wife Peta move a little further north each year. Their latest move saw them pack up in Hervey Bay (after moving there from Pomona, after moving there from Noosa) and shifting camp to Rocky where John has been deeply involved in helping the town make the most of the new opportunities opened up by the netting ban. With the inland freshwater and saltwater estuarine fisheries at his disposal, John set off in search of offshore flats and bluewater fishing opportunities. With its offshore islands and reefs, this area is part of the annual north/south migrations of so many species — mackerel, tuna, and billfish are prolific at times and the channel between the coastal towns of Yeppoon and the Keppel Islands is a year-round fishery. The reefs and wrecks of the Capricorn Coast are also targeted for cobia, mackerel and trevally as well as reef species for those prepared to sink flies deep. But the flats are of the most interest to fly fishers and John has put in a lot of time looking for fish on these, and especially for permit. The top end of Curtis Island, the flats of the Keppels and the flats of Corio Bay and estuaries further north all have permit, golden trevally, big queenfish, blue salmon, GTs and other wanderers at various times. The winter months when the south-westerlies blow offshore is the prime time, although, as we found on a recent trip, cold snaps can shut things down tighter than a giant clam, and even though you might see fish, they just won’t bite. The flats are a real mix of substrates, some being pure firm sand; the kind of sterile looking habitat that seems to only hold food for stingrays and permit. We did find permit on the Curtis Island flats, but not in the numbers John had seen in the past, though we had our chances. John showed what a bit of local knowledge could do when he stepped up for a shot and with one cast got a fish. There are big queenfish on these sand flats, though they are not your foolish middling sized fish but clever things that have seen a lot. In winter when these fish are ‘cold’ they show up black on the back and are often stationary and can look like a stick in the water that you usually identify too late. They require long accurate casts with well-tied sparse flies with minimal flash, best drifted onto them before you begin your retrieve. You really earn these big queenfish. We saw a pod of the largest permit I’ve ever seen in one of the gutters off Corio Bay — genuine slabs in the high 20s and maybe nudging 30 pounds. The mouth of the bay is extensive and comprises a complex of sandbars and gutters leading to false entrances. Inside the bay the substrate is also very fishy with extensive yabby beds and softer sand, ideal for golden trevally on the right tide and blue salmon most of the time. Even small blue salmon make very short work of tippets tied for permit and goldies in these waters, raising that eternal conundrum of how to rig, what to tie on, and which rod to pick up. LOOKING FORWARD Although many of the fly-rod species available in the area were never subject to direct commercial netting pressure, there’s always by-catch, resulting in a deeply disturbed natural order within a system, from the estuary to offshore. But it has been shown in many places that once netting pressure comes off, recreational fisheries come alive almost overnight. On the back of this, so has the town of Rockhampton, as boat sales, tackle sales and visitor numbers climb. If it’s not already, there’s no doubt the Fitzroy Basin has the potential to become one of the most diverse fly fishing destinations on the east Australian coast.

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