The Wessels

Joshua Hutchins reports on a mothership adventure in Arnhem Land

Almost a year ago, while fly fishing for kingfish in Collingwood NZ, I noticed a flats style boat in the distance. While this wouldn’t be unusual in Australia, it seemed to be a novelty in the South Island. It certainly caught my attention and so, after a full day of fishing, I managed to catch up with the two guys on the boat. We spoke for half an hour about the kingfish, and that was the end of that. Two weeks later, back in Australia, I received a phone call. The guys I’d met in NZ — Al Simson, an Australian saltwater guide, and John Hanning, an avid fly fishing traveller — had teed up an invite for me to join them on a new venture, based around the Wessel Islands in the Northern Territory. While still on the phone I did a quick google search on ‘Phoenix One’, the boat, and viewed the Wessels on google maps… Wow, I had to go. LUXURY & STLYE Phoenix One is not just any old mother ship. This is a 120-foot luxury motor yacht, designed and built with no expense spared. This was going to be fly fishing in maximum comfort and style. Wanting to capture some of the experience on film, I invited fellow FlyLife contributor Tom Clancy to join in the fun. I’m not sure if he was also googling images when I called him, but he immediately agreed to join. Mid-July, Tom and I boarded our flights in Sydney and arrived at Gove early in the afternoon. Phoenix One was moored in Nhulunbuy harbour and we made our way straight on board. The accommodation, set for six guests, was spacious and elegant. A chef prepared our food for each meal, taking into account our preferences and tastes. The crew also served our pre-selected beverages — particularly satisfying after a long day’s fishing. We had plenty of space to roam around the boat, as well as a spa on the roof to relax and enjoy the stars. It was the ultimate live-aboard boating experience. Our guides and captain laid out the plan, and soon after dinner the engines fired up and we set sail for the Wessels with three purpose built fishing boats in tow. A beer in hand, and a stunning Top End sunset before us, the week was already looking good. A GROWING OBSESSION As a longtime trouty, I have grown to become almost obsessed with salt-water fly fishing. I don’t even mind copping the refrain, “I told you so,” from mates who knew I would eventually fall to the dark side. One thing that attracts me to saltwater fly, especially when heading on an Arnhem Land adventure such as this, is the variety of species on offer. One trip can provide opportunities to catch dozens of species, each requiring different flies, different retrieves and different conditions. It’s a never-ending learning experience and an exciting new challenge. But of course when the guides say there are species such as blue bastards and permit on offer, suddenly my focus narrows. The shallow-water sight-fisherman in me can’t resist these more challenging targets. BASTARDS Day one, we awoke to find Phoenix One moored at the outer-most point of the mainland. Our captain, Anthony Astill had motored through the night to get us straight into the fishing zone. The wind was blowing steadily so we found shelter behind some high cliffs and set our sights on a blue bastard or two. Two hook-ups ended with two fish lost to the rocks. That fish certainly lives up to its name. The afternoon was spent on a beautiful flat, ticking off a bunch of golden trevally and queenfish. We hadn’t even made it to the Wessels yet, and the experience was already amazing. The second morning I woke to the starting of the main engines. Anthony had decided to leave early to make it through ‘the hole in the wall’ — a small gap in the Wessels chain where we could pass through to the northern side. The current rips through this section and it was a stunning pass. At one stage our speed equalled the tidal flow and for a moment the whole world stood still. Popping out on the other side, the beauty and remoteness was breathtaking. Untouched white beaches, clear-water creeks, and areas of high flow between island passes — everything looked so fishy. NT PERMIT With Al Simson as our guide, we set off in search of permit. As soon as the sun was high enough we made our way into a small bay encased with stunning white sandy flats. Immediately, we spotted two large permit and even managed to get a follow, but no eat. Again, an hour later, more shots at permit, but no result. The wind was up that day and it wasn’t making things easy. The next day, with Lee Younan-Wise as our guide, we followed a similar plan and eventually made our way back to yesterday’s flat. Drifting with the breeze to our backs we began searching for fish. It wasn’t long before two permit came and said hello. They inspected the fly, but spooked. “Josh, take a look at that,” said Lee, pointing towards a dark school of fish in the distance. “They’re permit,” we said simultaneously as we drew closer. Lee’s voice was much more measured than mine. I laid a cast towards the school and one fish immediately came out to inspect the fly. It didn’t eat. Seconds later another began to follow…“Yes, you’re tight on a permit!" Lee called as the fish ate and took off away from the school. There is always a rush of adrenalin when I’m connected to a fish, but an additional level of stress kicks in when it’s a fish that you really want. I landed the permit, a beautiful ‘anak’. I have caught several blochii’s before but I was very happy to add this new species to the list. And to make it even better, after another lap of the flat we rediscovered what we thought was the same school of permit. But as we approached, a large cloud covered the area and the school became difficult to see. “Lee, I think that might be the school there,” I said, pointing at a faint smudge in the distance. Having only guessed at their location I made the cast, and to my surprise, before the fly had even sunk down, I was connected to another fish. Permit number two. With the lack of beer on board, I threw back a celebratory Red Bull. I may have regretted it later, but at the time — with sugar, caffeine and two permit landed — it was a great feeling. BARRADISE It was a strange realisation for me that barramundi were so close to the flats along the Wessel Islands chain. It seems as though it should be obvious — Arnhem Land and barra go hand in hand — but when you are casting to a tailing permit or golden trevally and then suddenly stumble upon a creek mouth with barramundi cruising around in clear water, you know the fun is about to start. One afternoon, Al, Tom and I found ourselves in a particularly beautiful creek, with only a small collection of mangroves at the end of a clear and sandy flat. “This looks like barra territory,” Al said as we moved towards the mangroves. And then, just like a magician, he must have willed them to appear and we spotted the first fish. I cut the heavy crab off my line and exchanged it for a Pink Thing, but after neglecting to add some heavier ‘bite-tippet’ my first connection was cut off by an 80 cm barra that made quick work of 20 lb leader. Round two and I added a short length of 40 lb to the end and resumed looking for barra. The next fish hit the fly right amongst the mangroves, and what seemed like ten jumps later through a web of sticks, the fly popped. The closer we looked, the more barra we saw. Often getting so close I could bow-and-arrow cast right under the canopy of the mangroves after spotting each individual fish. It was a highlight of the trip, landing these fish in such a unique and intimate way. That evening, our barra talk got the other clients all fired up, and the next day they found another system with 80–100 cm barra, and everyone had a ball. ALMOST TOO GOOD Everyone I spoke to in the lead up to this trip told me to expect to catch a lot of queenfish. And they were right. I absolutely love catching queenies on fly. They pull hard, they eat poppers, and they jump high. What more could you want in a sportsfish? If there was current, there was bait, and if there was bait, there were queenies, trevally and mackerel. Often a day would start on the pelagics, waiting for the sun to come up before heading to the flats. Somedays it was hard to pull us away from the pelagics. And in one particular session we had giant trevally, turrum, Spanish mackerel and queenfish on just about every cast for hours on end. At one point I was hooked up to a 90 cm queenfish and three GTs in excess of 35 kg came and mauled my fish. Al managed to get a fly in front of them, but the hook didn’t stick. It was fly fishing mayhem, and I loved it. Trevally and queenfish would often sneak up on us on the flats too, forcing a quick change of rods. This was a nice break from the intensity of seeking out permit. And for a change of scenery, the coral trout were often lurking along the rock ledges close by. I am generally not one to kill my fish but a few fresh coral trout and mackerel, cooked and served with a crisp white wine make a perfect ending to the day. I know I have so much more to experience in Australian saltwater fly fishing, but my week in the Wessels will be very hard to beat. The fishing is outstanding but you are also immersed in the raw and remote wilderness of Australia’s far northern coastline. Wild crocs, eagles diving for mullet, untouched white sand beaches — all the while cruising along in luxury aboard Phoenix One. Having the mothership move to new locations and flats each day gave a constant sense of new adventure and exploration. And on the final day, just when I thought we’d come close to hitting all the spots, Anthony, our captain, pointed out another chain of islands even further in the distance. “Come back again Josh and let’s see what is on those flats. I doubt they have ever seen a fly rod.” Say no more… JH & TC fished the Wessel Islands aboard Phoenix One courtesy of Waterline Charters (waterlinecharters.com)

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