The Salmon Run

Leon Normore is introduced to salmon fishing, Western Australian style

Western Australian salmon (Arripis truttaceus) are nothing like your traditional northern hemisphere salmon; in fact they are more closely related to the sea-perch family of fishes. They are, however, also a great sports fish. With a powerful forked tail and body that is shaped like a torpedo, these fish will gladly smash a fly, rip a fly-line off your spool and dig into your backing. What stuck out in my mind the first time I held one in my hands was its substantial girth. It was nearly as thick through the back as deep through the body! Indeed, they are a fine-looking fish. They have a white belly that transitions into a grey lateral side which then blends into a striking blue-green, almost leopard patterned camouflage print on the back. With large scales and a bright golden eye that matches the colour of the pectoral fins, it truly is a beautiful species. Western Australian salmon have an annual migration route around the southwest corner of Australia. Their path extends up the west coast, generally culminating around the end of summer, in March or April. The city of Perth, or Rottnest Island just 20 km further west off the coast from Perth, marks an arbitrary northern limit where the salmon sometimes reach. The extent of this migration varies from year to year, and in the first three years I spent in Western Australia (2012–2014) there wasn’t much talk of these schooling marauders. But 2015 was a spectacular year with the salmon sticking around the Perth metro area for several months. SALMON FIELD DAY Then came 2016. Early reports had salmon showing up in early March. The local fly fishing club, Saltwater Flyrodders of Western Australia, had planned their April field day to focus on the salmon in Cockburn Sound, just 20 km south of Perth. While most of the participating members took to boats, I had a go from the beach. After walking the beaches for a couple of hours without a sign, a call went out when a single fisherman, throwing poppers only a few hundred metres away, came up tight on a lively WA salmon. Next thing I knew, schools of salmon were busting up all along the beach, but sadly just beyond the range of my fly. Along with the schools of salmon came a swarm of fishermen from the nearby jetty, throwing lures and poppers. It was madness. The raucous crowd went into a feverish pitch as salmon came to the beach hand over fist! It felt like I was at a Grand Final or a World Cup soccer match, expecting somebody to break out a vuvuzela any second! One guy ran past me, looked at my rod and said, “Fly… Man, you’re gonna have some fun here today!” This lightened up my spirits a bit and I tried my best double haul to get the fly a little further off the beach without snagging any of my new supportive fishing buddies. But it was to no avail; the schools were hanging out just beyond my casting limits. I did see a couple of shadows dart into the shallows but I couldn’t get a follow on my fly. Eventually I got caught up in the popper frenzy that I had become engulfed in, and devious thoughts began to enter my mind… Maybe I should run home, grab the kids and a beach caster, come back and join in the popper casting fun. I’ll blame the moment of weakness on the kids. SALMON OFF THE BEACH So I slowly reel up and begin walking past the masses of successful conventional fishermen — a walk of shame of sorts… A distant kilometre from the insanity, I notice some action at the shoreline just ahead of me. Incredibly, salmon are pushing bait literally up on to the sand! My momentary shock is followed quickly by pulling the fly out of the cork and stripping off a few handfuls of line. I get my Clouser in amongst the chaos and all I can see is open mouths climbing over the top of each other to annihilate my fly. Sweet! I’m hooked up first cast! My 10-weight is bent to the handle as this unfamiliar salmon creates a trail of white water out the distance of my fly-line. I gradually get him back in and under control but still have that rubber-kneed feeling when you think you are going to lose that special first fish. It could be a bream or it could be a sailfish — the first of any species is always a special moment. Eventually the rubber knees change to a feeling of elation as I tail this beautiful specimen. It is a solid 12-pound fish. I am keeping this one for the pot. I need to find out if the abuse this fish receives as table fare is justified or not. It’s not, but I am not hard to please. After the adrenaline rush subsides slightly, I realise this massive school is still swimming along the beach well within casting range. Should I quickly run to the ute, drive home to get the kids and come back… No. One more cast… Bang it’s on and the fight begins again. You never forget these days! I put some muscle on this one and really work the 10-weight. Eventually I get it to shore and quickly release it. Okay, now it’s time to get the kids… One last cast… The salmon are absolutely ferocious, racing each other to the fly; it’s almost not fair! On again and this time I really put the brakes on, but I go a little too heavy and I bust off my 20 pound test… Okay, really, this is the last cast… I’m on to my fourth fish in as many casts and as quickly as possible I get the fish in and release it. I finally bite the bullet and leave with an endless supply of hangry (hungry and angry) fish swimming only a few metres off the beach. GRAB THE KIDS So now I’m off on a slow jog to get back to the vehicle, calling the wife to tell her the fishing is crazy and to make sure the boys are ready to go in 30 minutes. I tear into the house, grab the boys and a lucky friend who has materialised out of thin air, and head back down. Oh yes, I did grab the beach caster and a few poppers. We get back down and the moment has passed. It was a long shot, I know, but sometimes you just have to go for it. We still give it a try but all we get are comments from the stragglers who have been here all morning: “You should have been here earlier, it was incredible!” We catch up with fellow Flyrodders at the Woodman Point Café at the end of the day and it sounds like everybody has been into some good fish. I load the boys up with ice cream and the day is complete. Or is it? I keep thinking about Rob’s article from the Winter 2015 issue, ‘20 years of FlyLife’… one sentence in particular struck a chord… “It seems that if your father is mad keen and puts you off for life (like my boys)…” That sentence really alarmed me! Is that possible? It really got me thinking, and that’s a monumental task. Can I really drive the boys away from fly fishing? I’m not taking any chances and that has really stuck with me, so I keep the fly fishing to a minimum with the boys and only break it out when either they ask to, or if we are within 100 km of Exmouth. All rules change in Exmouth (see FlyLife #80). Five years ago I would have been offended to pick up a conventional rod, whereas now I am more inclined to flick a few lures or bait a line if it can get the kids interested. Case in point during a camping trip with a bunch of families down to the southwest coast of WA this winter. We took a four wheel drive track through the old growth Karri forest near Pemberton, across the Yeagerup inland dune fields and out to the wild west coast where the Warren River meets the sea. An absolutely magical part of this country. I flailed around in the surf with my fly rod of course, but the beach casters were the ticket that day with a steady stream of WA salmon getting hooked up. It was a team effort from kids and adults alike to get these fish to the beach. For some of the kids it was their first fish on a rod. Fly or not, that was a special session that will stick with them and with me for a long time. This may not be the proper juncture to espouse the finer points of ganged hooks but it may just be to keep an open mind and a relaxed approach when getting kids involved in fly fishing. BOAT-BASED SALMON Another great option for targeting WA salmon is from a boat. With schools moving so rapidly, sometimes this is the only way to go — chase the birds, find the bust-ups and get positioned to throw some flies into the mayhem! I had the opportunity to get out for a day with Flyrodder club member Dave Bailey. It was early July, which is generally late in the season for salmon, but schools were still found in some of the local hotspots. We first hung around the islands off Cockburn Sound to give the pink snapper a go as the sun came up. Wasn’t long before Dave was on to a beauty snapper. Very impressive fish, but we were looking for salmon! Next stop was the ‘Brothel’. Wasn’t long before we saw fish schooling around the shoals. It is quite spectacular to have such a great sportfish on your doorstep, fishing with the city skyline on the horizon. I also found it pretty remarkable dodging the waves and the other boats to get a crack at these fish swimming in tight to the offshore reefs. I only came up tight on one fish but Dave as always showed his fly fishing proficiency by getting a couple of nice salmon boat-side. Yes, the salmon season in WA last year was phenomenal — a bumper crop. They even made the local news, with schools of fish interrupting paddleboard sessions in the Swan River. We can only hope this becomes the norm rather than a rarity…

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