The Gibb River Road

Simon Penn tackles sooty grunter in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region.

Known colloquially as ‘The Gibb’, the Gibb River Road is one of Australia’s great off-road drives, and while it’s perhaps not the frontier country that it once was, it still presents plenty of challenges — and plenty of opportunities for fly fishers.
Originally a cattle stock route, it traverses 660 km through the expansive plains and craggy ranges of the vast Kimberley region of Western Australia, from near Derby at the south-west end through to Wyndham and Kununurra in the north-east, near the Northern Territory border. Cattle stations still line the route, many now run by the Aboriginal traditional owners, and straying stock means drivers need to be wary. The remarkable landscape is harsh and rugged, from the angular rock outcrops to the flint-hard road surface. The sharp stones take their toll on car tyres, and bone-rattling corrugations form in the dust on the surface.
The only smoothness is to be found in the waterways that meander through the landscape, sliding gently through their curves and bends during the winter dry season, but in the summer wet season becoming swollen torrents that over time have carved out spectacular gorges.
We’ve made the Gibb pilgrimage a handful of times, both the full length to take in locations such as El Questro Station, Emma Gorge and the picturesque Pentecost River crossing, as well as sorties part-way up and back from the southern end to features such as Windjana Gorge, Bell Gorge and Tunnel Creek.

A dry wet season
Following one of the driest ‘wet’ seasons on record we headed back in April last year. With so many points of interest along the route and a limited window, you can either pay a cursory visit to a lot of spots, or get to know a few really well. This time around we chose the latter. At that time of the year the tourist season is just starting and the access roads and campgrounds are only just reopening following the wet season, so traffic is minimal and the road condition is about as good as it gets with few wheels yet to travel its surface.
It’s 220 km of highway from home in Broome before turning onto the Gibb just short of Derby. Then another 330 km, and after missing the unmarked turn-off the first time, we head towards Barnett River Gorge by crawling across the narrow, rock-strewn track that wends across the plains of tall grass.
The land is on Gibb River Station, which belongs to the local Ngarinyin people who offer free camping and request only that you look after the place in return. After taking one of the turn-offs labelled ‘camping’, we arrive at a clearing under a towering ancient boab tree. It’s deserted, so we set up a campsite.
Barely 100 metres away down a gently sloping embankment is a slow-flowing creek. Lined by pandanus palms and paperbark trees, on the downstream side it widens and deepens between sandy banks, and to the upstream side it shallows and becomes rocky. The waterways in this part of the Gibb are a long way from salt water and the main target for an angler is the sooty grunter.
The fish here are western sooty grunter, Hephaestus jenkinsi, one of many sub-species of sooties around the northern half of the country. At first glance they look drab and unremarkable, but their subtle colouring ranges through olive green, gold, bronze and brown, with a dark rear edge on each scale across the flank and back. They’re also well armoured with small, sharp teeth behind fleshy lips, spiny fins, and spiked and serrated gill plate edges that cut fingers easily. Being so far from the salt also means the water is free of saltwater crocodiles and ideal for wading.
After a hasty unpack of some fishing gear and finding a clearing in the vegetation, exploratory casts along the bankside cover with a Gurgler fly attract repeated plopping surface strikes in the silty water, with one nice sooty grunter plus a handful of small ones brought to hand. A nice start that bodes well for coming days.
In the evening we sit around a campfire that flickers off the glossy trunk of the big boab and watch the far distant horizon where lightning is beginning to flash in the low cloud. As we watch, the cloud builds and builds, looming larger and more threatening on the skyline as the lightning becomes more frequent and more violent. Is it heading towards us? We start to plan what to do if the sizeable storm does reach us. But as we continue to watch it all gradually slides to the west and recedes from view without us so much as hearing a clap of thunder. Later that evening a cool breeze rises and some light rain falls but that’s all the weather we experience.

Tackling Sooties
The following day is spent hiking up the Barnett River from below the campsite. I’ve brought two 5-weight rods along on the trip. The first is a standard 9-ft, fast-action carbon fibre rod. The second is a 7-ft fibreglass rod that cost less than $100 delivered to my door. I take the fibreglass rod. Partly because the shorter length could be handy for casting in confined spaces and under overhanging vegetation, but mostly because it’ll probably be more fun. And that’s what sooty grunter fishing is about.
The fly-line is a matching tropical floater to deal with 40-degree daytime temperatures. The leader is a standard 9-footer, tapering to 12 lb fluorocarbon to cope with a bit of abrasion from rocks, logs and little teeth.
I’m not sure that a dedicated sooty grunter fly exists, so my fly box holds a motley selection of bream, bass, trout and even bonefish flies — from small foam Gurglers, Poppers and Chernobyl Ants, to bass and bream Vampires, Woolly and Fuzzle Bugger variants and even Crazy Charlies. Most are tied on size 2 and 4 hooks, and aside from the surface flies, mostly have either bead chain or small dumbbell eyes.
For the next few kilometres, as we hike and wade the Barnett River, the terrain varies between deep broad pools that prove largely fishless and shallower stretches where fish are plentiful and can be found by casting alongside the banks to undercuts and under overhanging vegetation, or sight cast in more open stretches as they mill in rock pools. Often flies cast around cover, both surface flies and weighted patterns, will be hit by a fish darting out before a retrieve is even begun. The rest of the time a slow twitchy retrieve will rarely be refused, while surface flies work best slowly blooped or crawled across the surface. The fish in shallow open water are generally skittish and a fly landing nearby will often spook them, but providing the cast isn’t too agricultural they’ll usually turn, charge back and eat aggressively once the retrieve starts.
The waterway follows the standard pattern of pools, riffles and runs, and the fish can be found in all the usual places. Most of the small pools will hold a larger fish and a number of smaller ones, and at times it’s a challenge to target the bigger fish. Spangled perch inhabit the same water, are striking to look at with their orange flecks, and eat just as aggressively as sooties, but just don’t grow to any size. Freshwater cobbler are occasionally seen sitting in the bottom of pools but show no interest in a fly. In other waters off the Gibb further to the north-east and where saltwater becomes an influence, sooty grunter will cohabit with other angling targets such as archerfish and barramundi.
It’s not easy going with long stretches of clambering over boulders, alternating with climbing under and over logs on the sandy riverbank, and while the water’s at a manageable level now, there’s ample evidence of how ferocious Kimberley waterways can become during wet season floods, with broken logs and big clumps of grass and vegetation lodged metres up in trees and rock ledges. Eventually we reach Barnett River Gorge, where the river widens and deepens considerably and towering rock walls emerge from the water. From here the fishing falls away and it’s time to stash the rod, enjoy the scenery and cool off in the deep, dark water.
Weird tucker
Some observations. In FL#86 Craig Rist wrote about sooty grunter eating berries falling from bankside trees. Well I can go one better in the ‘sooties eating peculiar stuff’ stakes. One fish I caught pooped out two of the long segments from a pandanus nut. They’re clearly opportunistic, omnivorous feeders, happy to supplement their diet with a wide variety of items that fall into the water. I also noticed them congregating at times under fig trees and assume they’d also eat the fruit from these as it falls into the water. As for a fly that replicates a pandanus nut, I didn’t even try since they were generally happy with my other offerings.
There’s also an uncommon variation in sooty grunter where some will develop very large, fleshy lips. Most of the references I found online say this develops in mature fish, but I caught examples of quite small fish that had already developed blubberlips. Interestingly, while they’re an uncommon catch, on occasions when I’ve caught one example in a particular pool, I’ll often then catch others from the same location with the trait.

Manning Gorge
After a few days of blissful solitude we break camp and head the 30 km to Mt Barnett Roadhouse and nearby Manning Gorge campsite. It’s Good Friday and the first day of operation for the coming tourist season. The roadhouse is perhaps the best equipped on the length of the Gibb and the nearby paid campsite has toilets and showers. It sits on the banks of Manning Creek, a tributary of the Barnett River, and has a popular swimming beach in front of the campsite that draws cowboys and cowgirls from nearby cattle stations to lounge on the sand, tinnies in hand, or take to the water after stripping off their RM Williams whilst leaving dusty Akubras still perched atop heads. We find an unobtrusive, shady spot nestled into the bush and set up a campsite.
The main attraction here for tourists is to hike the overland shortcut to Manning Gorge with its waterfall and deep swimming hole. But we prefer the road less travelled and so instead follow the meandering creek upstream through the gorge itself. Again the going is often difficult with stretches of rock-crawling interspersed with soft river sand. But once again the sooties are plentiful, with most stretches holding a bigger fish or two and numbers of smaller ones.
It’s deeply satisfying to spend the day slowly working upstream, placing a cast into a pocket here, under an overhanging pandanus there, and spotting cruising fish everywhere, all between the great walls of layered red rock that rise on both sides of the gorge. The delicacy and precision of the fishing is in stark contrast to the magnitude and magnificence of this timeless landscape which is capable of instilling great awe in those who embrace it.
Adding to the mystique is the ancient rock art we encounter at intervals that bears witness to the Aboriginal people who have passed here since ancient times, from patterns of concentric circles inscribed in ochre to faded Gwion (Bradshaw) figures. Again we pass a few days in these pursuits before breaking camp and heading home.
I haven’t talked about Mt Hart Station with its serene campsite alongside the Barker River and access to intimate Mt Matthew Gorge, and the delight of hiking and casting its intermittent pools, runs and small waterfalls. And nearby Annie Creek Gorge where a small rivulet runs through shaded grassland where concealed pools hold plenty of eager sooties. Or easily accessible Galvans Gorge with parking at the roadside and a short hike to where a waterfall tumbles into a waterhole shaded by overhanging pandanus and fig trees that cling to the rocks, where an ancient Wandjina spirit painted in ochre keeps watch and where fat sooty grunter fin near the surface enjoying the shade and waiting for ripe figs to drop. Or all the other gorges, creeks and rivers. Not even the homemade scones at Ellenbrae Station. But you get the idea.

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