The success of the golden trevally fishery at Hervey Bay has inspired further exploration of Queensland's flats-fishing potential. As Peter Morse confirms, the word at Hinchinbrook is PERMIT!
Through magazines, videos, the internet and books, fly fishers can live a vicarious life. We read so much that we become familiar, by proxy, with fish that we have never caught and places we have never visited.
We know that the bonefish is Lefty Kreh's favourite, and we know how he would go about catching them. We know how Dave Whitlock catches bass and what Flip Pallot and his mate Dozer do to catch sailfish on fly in Central America. Many U.S. fish are more familiar to us here, in the downunder part of the world, than our own species. We yearn to discover a bonefishery and we hoot and holler when a 3 kilo tarpon leaves the water because it's a tarpon, and Flip and Billy catch them.
Of all saltwater fly fishing experiences, one species keeps popping up in the must-do basket of our northern friends-the permit. We read stories of how these are IT-the most difficult and challenging species in the world of flats fishing. We read about how the doyen of permit fishermen, Del Brown, has caught almost 300 in his life and how these fish have become a passion of his. We read about trips to Yucatan where an angler might cast to 30 permit and consider it a success to have had one look at his fly let alone having one eat it. They sound tough!
Perhaps we spend too much time dreaming about their fish and not enough time looking for our own. This is one reason why the Hervey Bay golden trevally fishery is such a historical milestone for fly fishers in this country. At tournaments like last year's event at Hervey Bay, it's the quiet drinks in dark comers where the real work is done. When Queensland guides Peter Haynes and Steve Jeston kept mentioning fish on the flats up north, the word was PERMIT.
Steve mostly works the Hinchinbrook Channel and Lucinda at the southern entrance to the channel. A few weeks after the tournament I got a call from Steve who told me he'd started looking closely at the flats in his area and he'd found fish everywhere-GT's, goldies, big queenfish, and permit all mixed in together - tails popping up, heads down rooting in the sand - the whole shebang.
While all this was going on, John Haenke and I were trying to get a second Wildfish TV series together. When SBS gave us the 'green light' Steve Jeston was one of the first I called. Dates were set and an invitation went out to 'Fish' Philliskirk from Cairns to join us at Hinchinbrook.
We arrived in Townsville in early December and drove north through Ingham and on to the Seymour Hotel where Steve lodges his clients. It's a classic old pub in the middle of a cane field. At the end of a good (or bad) days fishing you can get drunk here, just you and your mates and no other drunks to worry about.
On our first afternoon the tide was all wrong for the main flats area. We all wanted to fish, so we went looking elsewhere. The flats Steve took us to were south of Lucinda and on the incoming tide the water was clear enough for us to see fish - and there were fish everywhere. Most of them were big mullet but from a distance there were enough 'unidentifiables' to make wading very attractive. The big problem with wading in this part of the world, particularly at this time of the year, is the box jellyfish. Stings from these frightening creatures can simply be avoided by wearing long pants. Without giving them too much of a gratuitous plug, the lightweight Columbia longs are simply brilliant.
I waded the shallowest part of the sand bank where the water was some 40 cm deep. Fish Philliskirk concentrated on the deeper channel between the bank and the shore. I threw a cast into a school of big mullet milling around on the edge of deeper water and immediately hooked up a trevally, GT model around 2 kilos. I released it and went back to looking.
There are many different types of flats in the Hinchinbrook area. Those along the beach have finer sand than those in the channel itself. This is crocodile country so wading is a calculated risk.
Soon after, I saw a fish tailing only six metres away. A quick cast, but it disappeared. I walked on and saw three more shapes-tails just breaking the surface - not big fish, at around 40 cm, but they looked like the right species. They showed absolutely no interest in the fly and seemed to disappear into thin water-they were behaving like the right species. I'm not prepared to swear on a stack of bibles that these were permit, they may have been goldies, or some other species of trevally, but I would sure like to get another crack at them.
Post-mortem at the end of the day and we had all seen plenty of fish - we all agreed there was considerable life and activity on these flats.
November and December can produce gorgeous mornings in this part of the world - it's still and clear before the humidity starts to climb - perfect for spotting tailing fish. The flats that Steve had chosen to fish were coarse sand with very little weed. Through the falling tide we had a good look for food available to any of the larger species but saw very little - some crabs and holes in the sand but seemingly nothing to attract numbers of feeding fish. There were plenty of large blue-tailed mullet on the flats (some looked to be 5 kilos) and lots of suck holes that hadn't been made by stingrays. In the glassy calm morning we waited for something to happen.
"There's tails," said Steve. Thirty metres away there were ripples on the surface and the faintest tips of yellow tails showed in the morning sun - then more tails with more of the tail showing. I thought they were tailing golden trevally - from my reading I assumed that permit tails were black. There were at least six fish working a gutter between two sand banks.
We stalked them, got close enough and three flies landed amongst the tails. The slowest time in the world is the time it takes for a fly to reach the bottom amongst tailing fish. Not even Einstein could figure out why that time went so slowly. We waited, then twitched ... there were no swirls or bow waves of fleeing fish, they just disappeared.
We waited, looking hard for more tails or even the faintest swirl. After a minute or so they reappeared - Steve had several tailing fish in front of him, I had mine, and Fish had his, but again they were a long cast away for an accurate and delicate presentation. We didn't see them again.
Off in the distance on another part of the flat we could see all sorts of activity. We splashed our way over to find a forest of tails in several clumps. Sometimes they came right out of the water, at other times just the tips or a swirl showed. The water was totally glassed off, so we could see the slightest movement.
We pounded those fish with flies for half an hour using a variety of patterns from Clousers to crabs and shrimps. The fish were wary but did not leave the flat - they just kept moving away from us. When the tide bottomed out and the flow ceased, the tails disappeared.
The permit's mouth tells a lot about how they feed - the tongue is hard and the throat has a set of crunchers that would make short work of molluscs and crustaceans.
When the incoming tide began to flow, the tails reappeared on the leading edge of the sandbank. I could see the fish clearly from, where I was and they looked like golden trevally. One fish turned to follow a small brown and white Clouser but the fly wasn't on the bottom. In an effort to avoid spooking the fish I had gone to a fly with bead-chain (not lead) eyes. The lighter touchdown was certainly more effective but in the tidal flow and with water over a metre deep, by the time the fly reached the spot the fish had gone. This really was tough fishing.
We ended the day without any fish - slime on our hands but feeling as though we had accomplished something. Back at the Seymour Hotel we took out our frustrations on the pool table and the Wild Turkey as we held a council of war. I felt that a big part of the problem was that we were making too much wading noise. There were five of us walking through the water, including John with the camera and Gavin the sound man. A more stealthy approach, longer leaders with lighter tippets (mine was out to 3 m with 6 kg tippet already), and a good rummage through our fly boxes for some long forgotten goodies, would rekindle our hopes for the next day.
The weather was identical the following morning but we were there an hour earlier and the tide was smaller. We waited for the tails to show. Huge blue-tailed mullet worked the shallows (these could very well be our bonefish substitute). I had a follow from one on a very small shrimp pattern, and had a small mullet pick a green crab fly off the bottom - the fly must have looked like a piece of scum. We spread out to keep the wading noise down.
It wasn't long before the action began as tips of tails, bow-waves and swirls appeared on the surface - if it hadn't been so calm it would have been very difficult to see these subtle signs. Soon there were fish working right in front of us but every time we moved towards them they just moved away. Philliskirk had a small group tailing in front of him and I watched as he made a good cast. Then, unbelievably, I saw him strike. He was hooked up!
"It's a goldie," said Fish. We didn't care, it was a fish and it had been tailing in front of him and that was all that mattered. It bolted for deeper water around 200 metres away but was turned before it could get there and arced back and forth across the flat clearing everything else out of the way. Slowly, Fish worked it back in to the shallows, putting on plenty of pressure through the 1O-weight rod. The fish came closer and Steve called out, "It's a bloody permit!"
It still looked like a goldie to me with its yellow fins but on its next pass, there it was, clearly a permit, around 6 kilos.
The Australian permit is not the same species as that found in the Caribbean and Central America but if you showed an Aussie permit to Del Brown he would recognise that these two are very close cousins. Its head shape is similar and the feeding habits are likely to be the same. The huge, bulbous forehead has four nostrils and I suspect that much of this area consists of olfactory capacity.
Philliskirk's permit had been feeding on small black mussels - they must sniff them out of the sand like a pig on truffles. He caught it on a small yabby pattern that he tied himself.
These fish are apparently very common along the Queensland coastline. They're known as snub-nosed dart, oyster crackers, and pumpkin head trevally.
Bait fishermen using yabbies regularly catch them along the coastal beaches. They've been caught on fly in this country by several other anglers, notably in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the west, Danny O'Sullivan tells me his good mate Neil Hamaguchi catches them around the family pearl farm near Broome.
One anecdotal story I heard from Sid Boshammer was of the beach netters on Fraser Island hauling in a school that yielded 5 tonnes of permit that ranged in size up to 18 kilos. They managed 30 cents a kilo from the pet food industry. There's still plenty of work to do!