The Pilbara’s Riches

Paul Cunningham explores Western Australia’s vast flats fishing potential.

Most saltwater adventures along the Pilbara coastline begin months in advance, away from the water, with a highlighter in hand and a print-out of the tide predictions for the coming year. The lead-up to the neap tides and a few days after are coloured in green, and the lid of the pink highlighter comes off when the neap tides coincide with a weekend. This then gets pinned to a wall next to the marine charts, covered in scribbles, annotations and dirty fingermarks. The few days before these green shadings usually see a fly-tying night thrown in, with a few new ideas and creations produced plus a handful of the old faithfuls tied up. Fridays always seem to take forever until the ‘clunk’ of the towball being loaded is heard. From that point on, it’s time to truly escape. The Pilbara’s coastline is an extensive stretch of relatively low-lying land. There’s a scattering of small creeks and a few major rivers. Mangroves form most of the shorelines, and the handful of isolated islands, lying just offshore, are made of red boulders with a small sandy beach thrown in here and there. The ghost towns of the past can be found inland in the small hills and ranges and are shadowed by the dust and sounds of the iron ore mines churning up the dirt. Between the salt ponds, train lines crisscross the countryside and the hundreds of carriages towed behind the locomotives contain the dirt, ore and riches that hold the lives here together. I had the pleasure of living in this region for a few years and have made sure to make trips back to its delights since leaving. Its red dirt gets into every corner of the car and boat and right in under your skin. It’s truly a special place. The fly fishing is wild and untouched, the weather is hot and windy, and most of the time the flats are covered under metres of water. PILBARA ACCESS Large parcels of the Pilbara’s coastline are either owned by cattle stations or mining giants, so access to the fish-rich ocean is gained closer to the towns or at the mouths of a few of the bigger creeks and rivers. Google Earth is a godsend for accessing these waters as the tracks into the isolated creeks can easily be identified and navigated before you hit the dirt. The mud plains behind the mangroves are often a deceiving trap, with countless stories of multiple car boggings, hours spent under the sun digging, and expensive recovery expeditions. My rule of thumb is to never drive below the tide line, thus ensuring that if I do find myself stuck, there’s no pressure of a rising tide swallowing my way out of that place. Port Hedland offers launching facilities right in the heart of town and also out at Finucane Island, the latter suited to small to medium trailer boats. Access in and out of Finucane Island on the low of the spring tides will often see you surfing small waves across the sandbars back into the creek. Cape Kerauderen is another option 100 km further east of Port Hedland but it’s more renowned for its offshore fishing. Karratha has a good ramp but most boat owners opt to drive the 30 km out to the Dampier launching facilities. Dampier is a fantastic option for the travelling angler with 40 islands easily within reach of a reasonably sized tinny. I have spent many weekends in this area with the protection of the islands offering up options in all wind conditions. To the west, the Fortescue River is the gateway for the Montebellos, a chain of incredible, history rich islands, 80 km off the coastline. It’s truly a sport-fishing paradise out there with the biggest blue bastards I have ever seen calling its flats home (see FL#88, #97). PILBARA SEASONS The weather of this region is harsh in summer with temperatures consistently over 40 for November, December, January and February. It is a dry heat but when the water in the creeks is hitting 30 degrees you know it’s getting pretty hot. It’s common for at least one cyclone to form and make landfall in the first few months of the year. March sees the chance of a cyclone reaching the Pilbara’s shorelines somewhat reduced, but 2019 saw one arrive late. Another cyclone formed but dissipated offshore during early April and the combined rainfall of both really stirred up the inshore waters, leaving them murky for a month and making for some tough fishing. In saying that, April, May and June offer some of the best conditions on the water. Angler’s expectations are that the gusty winter southeasterly will make its presence known sometime during this period. The water temperatures begin to cool during the late autumn months with fewer big predatory fish on the shallower flats. My favourite encounter at this time of year involved standing on my paddleboard and seeing a pack of a dozen GTs make their way down the edge of an island. With no time to think before acting, I was in absolute disbelief watching them chase down a 1/0 crab fly. Having the biggest fish of the pack eat the fly had me gobsmacked, but somehow the 20 lb leader managed to hold throughout the long and heavily unbalanced fight. Seeing that 115 cm GT slide onto the deck of the SUP was the highlight of my fly fishing in the years I lived in the north. Another exciting aspect of the pending arrival of a cyclone is knowing that three to four weeks after it passes, the fish that call the inshore shoals home go berserk. As the sediment sinks and the water begins to clear, the feeding frenzy on anything and everything is just absurd. The sessions we’ve had on these reefs are permanently etched in my mind, with epic surface strikes, knuckle-dusting runs and surprise captures. Although the weather is postcard perfect during the winter months the cold flush of the southeast winter winds and lowering water temperatures slow down the action of the pelagic and inshore species. It’s still worth having a look in the skinny stuff but the numbers are certainly reduced. In August and September the ambient and water temperatures begin to rise. The billfish season kicks off with trailer boats easily within reach of some fantastic sailfish grounds. This is also the time to find the bigger GTs beginning to make their way back into the inshore waters. October and November see the prevailing southwest winds begin to blow and most of our time has been spent exploring the deeper holes of the creeks in search of the elusive Pilbara barramundi. When a window of light wind allows it, expect to be hot and exhausted walking the flats but this is a great time to encounter the best blue bastard fishing. Bigger fish seem to be more evident and sessions into the double digits can be expected. PILBARA TACTICS There is a lot of great looking water over the few days of the neap tides. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Begin your search at the mouths of the creeks and rivers at the bottom of the run-out of the tide. The clarity of water required to spot permit and blue bastards is the first thing to look for. Once you’ve found some clarity don’t be afraid to push right up into water only knee deep, and keep your landing net handy as you’ll often find mud crabs lurking in these same areas. As the tide changes and begins to push in, the fish will make their way through small gutters and along the edges of the sand spits. A difference of only 20 cm in depth is all that is required. This 2–3 hour window, as the water is pushing in, is the key time to find visibly feeding permit in these areas. Once the water has reached the base of the mangroves it’s time to begin searching for currents and areas that are holding bait. The eddies formed by small isolated rocky outcrops are great spots to start. When high tide is reached and depending on the water clarity, the rocky outcrops, overhangs and flooded mangroves of the islands are worth a look. Slowly make your way along these edges within casting range of the structure. Bluebone are also a key species in these areas and the telltale blue and green smudge make them a clear target. Getting them to eat is the hard part. Another key window of fishing time is the last few hours of the outgoing tide. Look for areas that hold pools of water rather than emptying out completely with the tide. These pools are often inaccessible by boat once the tide has bottomed out. We’ve found fish in these places, mostly blue bastards, feeding hard until there is barely any water over their backs. This makes them easy to spot, especially as you’re often on foot. Bastards hooked in this country can be a real challenge, with your line weaved between the weed and rocks, so get that rod up high. Choosing to wade or move around with an electric motor is up to you. The height advantage from the boat is great but getting on foot and chasing down a tailing fish is brilliant fun. Casts to feeding fish have to be close enough to be noticed. It’s often the fly sinking to the bottom that gets their attention. If they don’t react within a few seconds, get the fly clear, recast and go again. I recently had a big bastard catch my eye with its distinctive silver/grey smudge recognisable against the brown weed. I made my way to the fish and laid out a cast. It landed in the right spot, but got no response. I carefully retrieved the fly, laid out another cast and once again it was ignored. This happened several more times with only a slight follow giving me hope that this fish would eat. By this time the fish had moved towards me and was within a few metres of my rod tip. I had to take a few steps back and roll-cast the crab onto the fish’s nose before it finally ate. It was an aggressive fight with the first zigzag run seeing me weaving and shaking my rod tip through the weed clumps to free the line. Eventually I got my line clear and it was a great close-quarters battle, trying to turn the fish’s head, before I had it at my feet. Right as the leader got to my hands, it popped. I threw the rod, dived onto the fish and bear-hugged it to the ground. My brothers and I erupted in laughter as I stood up, now soaking wet and hugging the fish. Moments later another fish was spotted only a few metres away. Andrew made a cast and it was now his fish’s turn to have some fun. As I mentioned at the start, I am convinced that the Pilbara has some of the best saltwater fishing our country has to offer. It is truly a vast stretch of water with hundreds of square kilometres never having seen a fly fisher stalk its flats. If you are doing the Big Lap around Australia or find yourself living in the region for a stint, I urge you to get out and spend some time searching for its saltwater riches.

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