Whitsundays Escape

James Laverty gears up for a Great Barrier Reef fly-fishing charter

The allure of the Queensland sun and a vast blue ocean interspersed with islands, coral lagoons, sand flats and solitude, had me pretty excited. I could picture it. But it had been nearly 15 months since last venturing on a trip that involved an aeroplane (Colombian Kings FL#102), and at times I had wondered when I would get panda eyes and tanned calves again. I had read previously about bonefish around the Whitsunday Islands (FL#52), but what had me interested were reports from Luke Griffiths (Quest Angling Expeditions) in 2019 that one of his deckhands had received some nice finger-burns from an 8–9 lb bonefish, inadvertently captured on a hand-line some 100 km offshore on the Great Barrier Reef. Looking at the maps, it made sense, with Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays reef systems lying at a similar latitude to one of the most prominent bonefish destinations in the world — Poingam, in New Caledonia. We also knew that the chance of coming across giant trevally and a host of other reef species would undoubtedly give us plenty of options. Four days out from the trip, I received a message from Luke that I had been dreading. With forecast winds of 30–40 knots, it was going to be over before it started, unless something changed quickly. Scanning the wind apps and maps hourly, I kept convincing myself that the weather forecasters do get it wrong. I packed my bags and neatly arranged my fly boxes, at times thinking that it was probably pointless. One of the fundamental challenges when planning a trip is deciding when to go, and despite lining up the ideal moon phase and tides for the month, I was again at the mercy of the fishing gods. HELLO QUEENSLAND Then, with only 36 hours before we were due to fly out, I received a message from Luke, ‘We are back-on’, with 10–15 knots now predicted. Delighted, I got on the phone and rang Kiel Jones to share the news, and along with Mick Hurren we jumped on a flight the very next morning to Proserpine. It’s always a big decision when trying to pack light. Do I wear clothing appropriate for my departure destination, or arrival location? The answer for me is always the same, so despite the 6 degrees outside, on went the board shorts and sandals, supplemented by a jumper, back-pack, hat and sunnies, and after a 4 a.m. departure in Ballarat, I was finally away. The change of scenery and temperature after only 4 hours of flying time in Australia can be astounding at times. Goodbye Victoria, hello Queensland. 95% humidity and blazing sunshine had us spending a leisurely afternoon by the Airlie Beach esplanade pool, before heading back to our rooms to rig up lines, loops, and make final preparations. The following day we made our way to the Port of Airlie and boarded ‘Ghost’, a new 38-ft O’Brien game-fishing boat that would be our home for the next three days. We made the most of the light winds, taking the 2-hour journey through the Whitsunday Passage and offshore to the outer Barrier Reef. With the tide about to turn, we were met by the rest of the crew in a centre console sport-fisher, scoffed our fish burritos, threw on buffs, did a few ineffective stretches and hit the water. GT SET-UP It had been a while since last throwing a 12-weight, but the plan was clear. If we fished hard enough in the right locations, such as pressure points and channels, we would hopefully come across some GTs. The bonefish grounds were a little further afield, so for the time being, it was 6–8/0 Black & Tan Brush Flies and Double Barrel poppers that would inevitably work our forearms and backs into overtime for the rest of the afternoon. The plan was to cover a lot of water with a lot of casts, until we found them. We are not as young and fit as we used to be, and I would be the first to admit that this type of fly fishing, which relies on pure work rate, is a little more challenging than it seemed ten years ago. The rest of the set-up comprised a floating GT Taper 12-weight fly line, with an 8–9 ft section of 130 lb (1.20 mm) copolymer leader to the fly. Yes, 130 pounds. Chasing GTs off sand-flats with deep lagoons and not a lot of coral may be ideal, but I’ve been fortunate to experience enough big GTs around reefs to know that you do need all the advantages you can muster to prevent getting your leader cut like a hot knife through butter. It still doesn’t guarantee you will get the fish to hand, but plenty of times in PNG and French Polynesia around reefs, we’ve been fortunate to land GTs, only to find the 130 lb leader shredded and resembling a 30 lb inner core. I’ve heard people say that it’s not sporting, and the 80 lb core in the fly line will break before your leader does, so why fish any heavier? But here is the answer: you aren’t doing it for the breaking strain — it’s the abrasion resistance. Sometimes we need to fish 2X or 12 lb leader material to catch 4 lb smelting trout, or 3X, 9 lb leader for 2 lb bream in oyster leases. So when chasing 50 lb giant trevally around coral, I stick to 130 lb leader. It’s that simple. And it reduces the chances of a fish swimming around with a fly in its mouth and half a fly line in tow. THE WEAKEST LINK While I watched Kiel casting, his popper spraying up water with each short, sharp pull, I was contemplating some of the other things that can go wrong when chasing GTs around reefs — the knot to the fly for example. You can use a variety of loop knots, but Alex Filous (FL#79) introduced me to the brilliant Tie-Fast tool in Tahiti, which essentially enables you to do a backwards nail-knot on line up to 1.30 mm diameter. And it’s a knot that simply can’t come undone. The tag end of the line points back towards the leader itself, and the harder a fish pulls on the hook, the tighter the knot becomes. It’s bulletproof. A small perfection loop joining the other end of your leader to the fly- line is preferred, but it’s also important not to have your tag too long as it’s another catch-point where coral can drag and cut your line. Applying some UV resin to smooth over the knot provides some additional protection. However, the main weak links in the set-up are the factory loops that come with some fly lines. The 130 lb line simply slices through these loops when you have the pulling power of a big GT combined with a heavy drag setting. So don’t be reluctant to get out the scissors and put on a 100 lb factory braided loop, or make your own, which will be far more robust and, more importantly, more abrasion resistant to the force of a GT slicing 130 lb copolymer into your loop when you are locking down hard. Some manufacturers now supply braided loops for both ends of a new 12-weight fly line, which is excellent, and you simply finish them off by nail-knotting in four locations along the loop with 30 lb white braid, again finished with UV-resin. A word of warning, though — if you do buy braided loops that come with black heat-shrink to go over the nail knots, while it’s okay for the reel end, do not put the heat-shrink on the leader end. I’ve seen too many cases now, where a fish following the fly peels off and attacks the small amount of black heat shrink in front of it. Opportunity missed! FIST-FIGHT IN A PHONE BOOTH Taking turns at the bow of the sport-fisher, Kiel and I watched schools of fusiliers busting up on the surface each time we repositioned the boat a little closer to the reef, trying to get the right drift. With the current and wind against each other, and not wanting to get too close to the coral reef edges and walls, we kept working long casts, hoping for a GT to present itself. After fishing some great-looking water for the first few hours, and with the wind picking up, we hadn’t had a sniff. Then boom. As I lifted to re-cast, three wide-open mouths followed by dark backs and dorsal fins came out of the water at once, spray everywhere, frantically searching for the fly, which was now behind me. Finally, a pack of hungry GTs! With eyes on them now, moving right to left along the wash-out, I immediately re-laid the cast down in front, and the Brush Fly was smashed immediately. There was an instant sense of exhilaration and raw power as coils of line jumped from my feet and slapped onto the spool. With a fully-locked drag, the line was ripping out and I was soon onto my backing. As the skipper put the boat into reverse, I kept the rod angled low to the water and the GT headed straight for some coral. It was like a fist-fight in a phone booth. The first thirty seconds is critical, and I’m generally content with one of three outcomes. With the rod bending at the butt, it’s either going to be 1) break the rod, 2) straighten the hook, or 3) hope both don’t happen, and put enough pressure and angles on the fish to break its spirit early and land it. Thankfully, after a few laps of the sport-fisher and with the boys on the game boat coming over for a look, we managed to get the upper hand and tail the GT. It measured just over 100 centimetres, and the beers were cracked to end the day. Pure elation! WELCOME SURPRISE Waking up to the sound of water lapping on the hull of the boat, I headed out to the back deck to watch the sunrise. With the wind forecast to pick up during the day, we were moored in a sheltered lagoon, ready to explore some likely bonefish flats. As we scouted along at low tide we came across some stunning flats that looked perfect. Well, almost — the swell had increased significantly overnight with the wind, making the flats a little too deep to safely wade, even with the sun shining brightly above our shoulders. It was disappointing, but playing the cards we were dealt, skipper Luke dropped Kiel and I onto a nearby small coral island. Fishing on foot, we were soon into a range of great fish, including shark-mackerel, coral trout, juvenile Napoleon wrasse, red bass and various reef species, before having to pull the pin and head back towards the mainland a day early to shelter from the weather. Back in the Whitsunday Islands, the sun was still shining, and the following morning we were dropped off onto a large fringing sand-flat in a secluded bay. The backdrop of the island was simply stunning, and it wasn’t long before we sighted a familiar black and yellow tail and dorsal sickle breaking the surface. Permit! After an initial refusal on a shrimp, I changed up to the trusty white Alphlexo Crab, placed it in front of an approaching school, and moments later I was on. While the trip was cut short by the weather, this was indeed a welcome surprise, and a great way to end a wonderful journey to a destination that offers so many fly fishing options.

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