The Great Escape

Joshua Hutchins swaps lockdown for a campout at Cape York

The feeling was almost eerie. Instead of a traffic queue with cars wedged in front of each other, vying for a spot, we drove straight up to our terminal. In place of harried passengers rushing to check in, there was barely a person in sight. Even the loudspeaker was unnervingly quiet. This was not the airport I remembered. And yet, it’s July 2020 and everything about this year has been different. Just two weeks prior I’d been chatting to my mate Ben ‘Not So’ Bright in Weipa and there was talk that the borders may soon be reopening. He mentioned he was going permit fishing in late July, and, pending border restrictions, asked if I wanted to join him. After spending time catching barramundi with Ben in October, he didn’t need to ask me twice. “Let’s do it.” Without any international or interstate travel since February, I couldn’t have been more excited. Nervously checking the news in the lead up to the trip, the day had finally arrived. The Queensland and New South Wales border was open, and I was pumped to take my first trip since Covid-19 had hit Australia four to five months before. I didn’t realise at the time just how narrow a window my northern adventure would involve. Boarding the plane, I was handed a facemask and hand wipes. I wore my facemask the entire trip, as the lady next to me apparently missed the coronavirus memo and coughed all the way to Cairns. In what would normally be a standard trip, touching down in Queensland felt like an undeserved freedom. I had made it. Police waited for us at the gate: “G’day, where are you from? Can I please see your border pass and driver’s licence?” “I’m from the Blue Mountains in NSW.” I handed over my documents and waited with bated breath. The cop inspected my licence and yelled across to his superior, “Just double checking, who can’t we let in today?” “All Victorians and NSW hot spots cannot enter,” he called back. The cop took another look at my details and stared up at me. I managed a half smile, trying to look friendly to cover my nervousness. “Ok, you’re good to go.” He ushered me through, and I exhaled. The process felt worse than entering another country with the wrong visa. I gathered my bags, walked out of the airport and felt the overwhelming warmth of the northern Queensland sun. In the middle of winter, and the midst of a global pandemic, it was good to be back. After a quick stop over, I loaded back on the plane and headed to my final destination: Weipa, Cape York. PLAN A Ben picked me up from Weipa airport, and things immediately felt great. Despite going through the same QLD restrictions, the Cape hadn’t experienced cases of coronavirus, and the hot sun was melting away my winter and lockdown blues. It was going to be a great week. Ben had a plan in mind. Well perhaps not a plan, but at least a starting point: pack the boat with enough food and fuel for a week’s worth of fly fishing and go with the flow. That sounded good to me. Packing our gear the night before, Ben asked, “Got any particular targets in mind?” “I’d love a quality anak permit, but I am just happy to be here.” “We’ll get a few of those,” he said. I was pleased with his confidence. We hit the road early. Ben had organised a local contact to look after his 4WD and trailer for the week, after we launched and set off in search of sunshine and fish. Plan A became the flats. If the sun was out and the water clear, we hoped to look for permit or goldens. After some slight distractions along the way — mainly catching other fish — we made it to the first flat. Barely minutes in, a school of permit swam past. No luck. Not so long after, another, still no bites. Then, a school of tailing permit caught our eye. The fly went in and a large golden trevally came out. Not exactly the one I was hoping for, but the southern lockdown blues had all but disappeared already. Further cruising around the flats revealed more permit and goldens, and I was eventually connected to my first permit of the trip. Trying to avoid the wind, I was crouched low behind the gunnel of the boat and didn’t notice that the clippers around my neck had wrapped on the reel during my retrieve. Long story short, that first permit didn’t end in a photo. We hit the beach that night, camping in little stretchers provided by Ben. I may have lost my first permit, but I slept well knowing we had another five days to go. The next day, things seemed too easy. We returned to the scene of yesterday’s crime, slightly earlier in the tide cycle, and found permit schools tailing in the shallows. I jumped out of the boat and waded on foot towards the fish. First cast was a follow and rejection, and the next resulted in the first permit of the trip. Catching any permit is an emotional moment, but after the past six months of fire, floods and flu, I could have cried holding that fish. It’s funny what makes us fly fishers tick. Cape York is one of the most incredible areas I’ve fished around the globe. But don’t be fooled, the weather is not always there to pat you on the back and make you feel good about yourself. Most of the days from then on were cloudy and windy. PLAN B Cloud is often the killer of flats-fishing joy. I am not too worried about the wind, but if there isn’t enough light to see the fish, things become hard. So, with the cloud cover only increasing, we decided to abandon the flats and head into the Cape rivers. Plan B, however, was hardly a second-rate option. Barra after barra, jack after jack, queenie after queenie. It proved to be productive and I’d never seen so many fish in one area. At one stage we nearly went 20 casts for 20 mangrove jack. It didn’t seem to matter what we tied on — Pink Things, Gold Bombers, Black Deceivers — they all claimed plenty of fish. And when the jacks slowed down, a slightly longer sinking of the fly and the barra joined in. One morning we made our way up the river in search of new ground for the trip, and the first fish we encountered was a 96-cm barra swimming close to the surface. Ben made the cast and was greeted with an energetic fight. It was first class fishing all round. PLAN C Tuna are fun, but often treated as the early morning ‘easy’ option to warm up the day. Ben and I had noticed birds on the horizon each morning and, along with them, tuna busting up on bait. We had ignored them for a few days but finally gave in to the temptation. After our beachside coffee, we set off to see what was there. “Yep it’s tuna.” These little mack tuna weren’t fussy. A 1/0 Surf Candy of any colour got the bite. Casts that led the school, followed by a fast strip, had reels screaming. But it was what followed that stuck in our minds. “Josh, I might be seeing things, but I am near certain that dolphin had a huge longy (longtail tuna) on the back of it.” “Really? Let’s see if we can track it down!” I replied. We located the small pod of dolphins and yep, Ben was right. I’d barely had time to ID the huge tuna before Ben had already cast and hooked up. A long fight and plenty of tuna headshakes later, a 17 kg longtail hit the deck. “Now that’s a proper longtail!” said Ben. His biggest to date. In all Ben’s years living, fishing and guiding in the area, he’d never seen anything go down like that. “It’s captures like this that keep me coming back,” he said. Cape York was delivering the goods. THE SUN Despite the catch cry, ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next,’ there were entire days when the sun didn’t break through the clouds. I remember reaching for my raincoat as a storm passed over the Cape. “Isn’t it meant to be dry season?” The weather had a mind of its own. That particular day was dark cloud with few opportunities to sight-fish for permit. I was keen to get some more though, so we took a chance in the afternoon and hoped to find some tailing fish. Slowly and patiently, we worked our way along the flats. We’d often see the fish too late with the lack of light. Eventually we parked on a sandy point and waited and watched. The sun poked its head out for a brief moment in time. “I swear I just saw a tail over there,” called Ben pointing towards the suspected permit. Another cloud came over, so we waited for it to pass. It would have been ten minutes but felt like an entire day. The light finally started to show again, and I saw another tail pop up in the shallows. We narrowed our attention as Ben slowly crept into position. “Yep there they are!” I called, as half a dozen large permit tails popped up along the beachfront. I was rigged up with a Dingo Crab — a fun, new and effective pattern from Chris Bygrave in Airlie Beach. The crab fly went out, and a permit locked on, following for several metres before throwing its tail and half its body into the air as I felt the line come tight. It’s such a satisfying feeling to know you’ve hooked up to a big permit. And to then land it along a remote beach, even better. FOREVER GRATEFUL The random circumstance of an out-of-the-blue phone call with Ben, had led to one of my best trips in recent times. Camping out each night, using the boat as a base and the beach as our home, was even more liberating after months of lockdown. Permit, golden trevally, tuna, barra, jacks, queenfish and everything in between. It was a trip of many options. We made our way back to our starting point, into the town of Weipa. By the very next morning Victoria was in complete lockdown and NSW was soon to be blocked from Queensland again. Somehow, I’d made it happen in the perfect window and felt very grateful to have experienced it. Sincere thanks to Ben Bright, for sharing such a special place during a tumultuous time. I’ll never forget it.

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