The Thin Red Line

Simon Penn explores the Dampier Peninsula

There’s a thin red line in the northwest corner of Australia that meanders its way from Broome to Cape Leveque along the remote Dampier Peninsula. It’s a road carved from the red dirt known locally as ‘pindan’ — a dirt so fine it’ll work its way deep into every crevice of your vehicle and still be coming back out months later. It’s also a dirt that forms fearsome corrugations that have a well-earned reputation for rattling apart cars, caravans, boats and trailers. And during the annual summer wet season, in the blink of an eye it can turn into a river of red slurry that becomes impassable for days, weeks and, in extreme years, even months at a time. But it’s also a road that provides access to a largely untouched coastline of great diversity and contrast, from spectacular turquoise waters and white beaches to green mangrove-lined bays, grey mudflats and red cliffs. It also serves on the eastern side as a jump-off to King Sound and the Buccaneer Archipelago with its 1000 islands, and the majestic and remote Kimberley coastline that stretches for 1200 km all the way to the Northern Territory. And for a fly fisher, the water lapping against this coastline is host to a who’s-who of desirable sportsfish from permit, blue bastards, barramundi and trevally inshore, to sailfish, mackerel and tuna out wider. BROOME & BEYOND Broome is the starting and finishing point for any trip north up the Dampier Peninsula, and it is a town of contrasts — a cosmopolitan regional centre and a simple country town, in equal parts. With a permanent population of about 16,000 that swells to more than double that during the idyllic winter dry season, it’s a well-known tourist destination with flights from Perth and some other capital cities, as well as limited seasonal flights from Singapore. At just over 200 km long, the Broome to Cape Leveque Road services about 1400 people living on the Dampier Peninsula in the many Aboriginal communities and outstations of varying sizes, as well as tourist destinations ranging from the relative luxury of Kooljaman at Cape Leveque and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, to caravan and camping locations such as Middle Lagoon. In between are many kilometres of uninhabited coastline, but apart from some free beachside camping at the southern end in places such as James Price Point, Quondong Point and Manari, be aware that most of the land belongs to someone and permission should be sought to enter. Living in Broome for the past dozen or more years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the Dampier Peninsula as my backyard. One of the greatest joys of living here is the simplicity of packing a swag or a tent, a weekend’s worth of supplies, a gas stove and as much camping gear as needed to meet your comfort requirements, hitching up a boat if you have one (and it’s by no means a requirement) and getting on the road. Within a couple of hours you can be sitting around a campfire under the stars with beverage in hand, overlooking the expanse of the Indian Ocean from a deserted beach. And of course, that last paragraph about packing the car also includes the fishing gear: an 8-weight outfit for walking and wading the long stretches of shoreline, a 10-weight that can do double-duty throwing heavier flies from shore or fishing from a boat inshore, and a 12-weight to tackle the beasts that swim a bit further out. Clousers, crabs and shrimp imitations, Deceivers and bigger baitfish styles such as Fat Boys or Flashy Profiles from 1/0 up to 6/0 will tempt pretty much everything swimming. Throw in some sailfish flies if you have the gumption to tackle them. Leader material from 60 lb down to 15 lb, and some single strand wire just for the mackerel, and you’re sorted. BEACHCOMBING After emerging from inside your swag or crawling from your tent onto the sand — or just strolling out the front door if you took up one of the more salubrious accommodation options — it’s time to greet the day. And what better way to do that than a morning walk with a fly rod in hand? While the Dampier Peninsula, and much of the Kimberley region for that matter, doesn’t have a lot of traditional flats fishing, there’s plenty of shoreline to walk, wade and cast. With its expansive continental shelf, the north-west of Australia experiences less swell than most of the coastline, but also far bigger tides. Tides can be in excess of 10 metres on the biggest springs and the water is in and out rapidly, which can discourage fish from spending much time in the shallows. This is also crocodile country, and while they’re uncommon, caution is always advised. With all of this in mind, wherever you find stretches of sandy beach you’ll likely find queenfish and trevally (mostly golden and brassy, but GTs, gold spots, bludgers and more are all possible) moving in schools in their smaller sizes, and more often alone or in pairs in their bigger sizes. Keep your eyes peeled and act fast to put a Clouser or similar fly in front of them as they’ll be moving quickly. Other possibilities include giant herring, bluenose salmon and whiting. Where the beaches are broken by stretches of rock or reef a fly sunk and worked around the structure can tempt out mangrove jacks, bream, striped perch, tuskfish, smaller coral trout and cod. Keep walking until you find a creek mouth, and permit become a possibility as they move in and out of the system with the tide — generally moving in with the water as it rises, and then back out as it falls. Here you’ll want all the experience and the patience you can muster. Where there’s more rubble and deeper water nearby, blue bastards will also move into mangrove-lined bays with the tide. SMALL BOATS If you’re looking to broaden your options then a boat will do that. The rough condition of the Broome to Cape Leveque Road lends itself to smaller aluminium trailer boats, but these can still open up access to an enormous range of opportunities, and while I’ve blown tyres and broken boat trailers, I’ve thankfully never had a failure catastrophic enough to strand me. If the corrugations aren’t enough reason for limiting the size and weight of your craft, then a further reason is that you’ll invariably be launching from the beach in most places. There are some rudimentary boat ramps in locations such as One Arm Point and Cygnet Bay, but the range of tidal movement means they can only be used for part of the time anyway. Beach launching needs some preparation and is ideally done in the company of a second vehicle in case a rescue is required, and at a bare minimum you’ll want a set of Maxtrax or similar recovery devices. When your vehicle’s at the water’s edge and not going anywhere, the panic creeps in at about the same rate as the tide — quickly! I’ve had a few close calls with the water lapping at the tyres and still advancing, but have always got out in the nick of time (touch wood), though not every vehicle’s as fortunate. But be prepared and act with caution, and you’ll be granted access to some incredible locations subjected to very little fishing pressure. Once on the water you can target the same inshore species mentioned earlier along the beaches, bays, creek mouths and rock bars. Barramundi also become a possibility inside the mangrove-lined creeks, sitting on snags or behind rockbars, and can be tempted with a weighted fly twitched on their noses. As you start to move offshore around the bombies, shoals and islands, the trevally get bigger and meaner, and you’ll find larger queenfish congregating in schools. In more open water, longtail and mackerel tuna can be found in big numbers during the cooler months, usually signalling their location by feeding on top and bringing in birds from far and wide. But as elsewhere, they can also be frustrating with their shyness around boats and ability to appear and disappear at random, especially for fly anglers who need to be closer and have a little longer to get a cast away. But once hooked up they can make a reel-drag sing like few other fish, with long runs followed by dogged circling under the boat. OFFSHORE As you move further offshore, few fish can match the acceleration of a big Spanish mackerel the moment it feels the bite of a hook. Drift a 6/0 Deceiver or Flashy Profile down over a reef then hit them with a hard strip-strike when you feel the eat, and you’ll have loose fly-line flailing around your ears as the fish explodes away. It took me some years of trying, to finally bring a Spanish mackerel of over a metre into the boat on a fly rod after losing them every which way — fly-line looping around the rod butt, the reel handle and underfoot, or creating birds’ nests that jam in the guides, all ending in a busted tippet and a lost fish. And they have serious teeth, so if you’re targeting them you’ll want a short length of single-strand wire as a bite tippet, and to take some care if you’re removing a hook from their mouth. Grey (broad-barred) mackerel don’t grow to quite the size of their narrow-barred cousins or have the same explosiveness but are still a great challenge on fly rods. Often found around bait balls or in big schools, they can be sight cast as they feed on top. Their teeth are also a little less serious though wire tippet is still recommended, but can decrease your catch rate. It’s probably a cliché to label cobia as ‘enigmatic’, but it does hold true. They’re harder to target and more often an incidental catch, but can appear around underwater structure, as well as riding with manta rays when you can find them. They can give you the fight of your life, or come in tamely before going barmy boatside. Broome is well established as a sailfish destination, and the same holds true for the coastline stretching north up the Dampier Peninsula. They can be found in big numbers and targeted on fly rods, but take more preparation and dedication than other fish if they’re to be successfully raised, hooked and caught. But there are few better locations to give this specialised form of fly fishing a try. Without going into the detail of targeting billfish on fly, suffice to say the FlyLife back catalogue has a wealth of information for anyone wanting to try. THE THINNING RED LINE The unforgiving nature of the Broome to Cape Leveque Road coupled with the growth in this region of Australia means there’s been a push over many years to make the Dampier Peninsula more accessible. This process started more than a decade ago when the northernmost half of the road was sealed, leaving a 90 km stretch of unforgiving pindan dirt road still remaining at the southern end. Because of its fearsome reputation, it’s stood as a barrier of sorts that has served as a deterrent to keep down the numbers of visitors making the trek — and therefore the fishing pressure. In its current state few folks are foolhardy enough to run the gauntlet of the corrugations without a 4WD or towing anything more than smaller trailer boats. Despite this, during the idyllic winter months when daytime temperatures hover around the high-20s and nights in the low-teens, and winds blow predominantly offshore, accommodation is often near capacity. However, work to bituminise the remaining stretch of dirt road began in 2018 and is due to be completed by the end of 2020, at a cost of $65 million. Once this is in place it will open the Dampier Peninsula up to many times more visitors, with bigger caravans and bigger boats, greatly increasing the pressure on the amenities, the environment, and of course the fishing. While the communities on the Dampier Peninsula will no longer suffer the isolation created by rough roads, how they’ll cope with the new pressures remains to be seen, as goes for the environment and other facilities. The thin red line will soon become a wide black line.

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