Globetrotting Robin Howard gets up close and personal with the ‘crap fish’ down under.
When my very good friend Sarah Perrin suggested we take a trip, via mutual friends in Bahrain, and onto Perth to visit one of her good friends from her days working in a UK school, I hesitated. I travel internationally a lot, rod in hand, and had only just got back from a three-week trip fishing in the Russian tundra, for salmon. But Sarah was insistent, as it is not easy for a female fisho to get on the fishes, especially travelling solo.
Sarah with a nice threadfin!
In the end I agreed, on the proviso that we bolt Broome onto the end of the trip. This was to fulfil a long-term promise to one of my first-ever clients in the UK, Giles Tipping, that I would come out to the top end and spend some time with him, his lovely wife Leanne and their amazing brood, created a long time since I last saw him. Sarah was of course in favour, and so we booked the flights and made our plan: A week in Bahrain, a week in Perth, and two weeks in Broome.
Robin with an ambition realised - a barramundi!
Perth rather reminded me of a suburb of London. The sort of place where having the right car is more important than having a good time. Luckily, Steve Starling was on hand via Facebook to connect me to a guy called Robbie Riches. He was very much more our cup of tea and put us on to some great fishing from the shore, on the beaches around Lancelin and Wedge point. Smallish sharks, some cracking white spotted shovelnosed rays, and Sarah had two very hard-battling eagle rays on consecutive nights.
We left Perth to connect up with Giles in Broome, wondering if we weren’t leaving some of the better fishing behind. Giles had warned us up front that shore fishing from Broome was tough going, with the extreme tidal range. However, it turns out that Giles had perhaps already forgotten what it is to be an English sporting angler. Nine years in this glorious country and he is more happy to call himself Australian. And in Broome, we got a glimpse of why.
It began with complete madness. Giles had arranged for his very good fish-obsessed friend, Rudi Oberholzer, to take us out on board his most excellent 6m tinnie (see how I’m already getting the local lingo…). And on the morning we were picked up by Rudi, Neptune was kind, with light offshore winds.
He took us out to a patch of rock less than a 30-minute run from the slipway at Entrance Point, and here began the most incredible day afloat that either Sarah or myself have ever experienced. The bait shoals on the sounder were incredible. And feeding incredibly hard on the baitfish were endless queenfish and brassy tailed Trevally.
Feeding on these were dolphins (the mammal, not the fish) and big, big sharks. And possibly feeding on these, was one real brute of a grouper, that had absolutely zero fear of us or the boat. Not a place to fall in for sure.
Small blacktip shark like this were the Oz equivalent of UK dogfish
That was the last opportunity to get offshore, as weather and Rudi’s pressing engagement with some barramundi somewhere way in the interior meant no more chances. However, such is the Broome warmth and hospitality (or perhaps it is just Rudi’s warmth and hospitality, although I suspect not) that he put his smaller 3.75m tinny at Giles’ disposal, that he might show us some of the creek fishing.
With Giles acting as guide, we came to Willie Creek in the small boat. Giles headed off with the throw net (I tried it three times the previous night – it was clear you needed to have been in Oz long enough to have the twang before it becomes possible to master a throw net). I did something I do know a little bit about, and assembled my fly rod. Two incredibly sporting queenies in two casts later, and I was packing it down again to try something else.
Giles retuned with some live mullet, just as the tide lifted. An hour later, the first of four big threadfin was landed, and at least another four more were hooked and escaped. Threadfin are pretty awesome. On the 15-28g lure rods they really did demand some skills to prevent them getting to the safety of the mangrove roots. Impressive.
We got another crack at Willie Creek with the tinnie a couple of days later. But before that, Sarah and I had our first go without assistance. We felt confident enough to head down onto Cable beach, to see how we could do there, with the long heavy rods that had worked well in Perth being the tool of choice. And I am glad we had them. Using sardines wrapped in ghost cotton to prevent little creatures annihilating them, we began to amass a bit of a species count. First out was a club-nosed trevally. Then some small blacktip shark pups and a different salmon came to the sand, to be photographed and released. And then, a fish that I immediately had huge respect for, and which I would happily fish for on a daily basis… and this is one of what the locals call ‘crap fish’! Did you ever see such a beautiful creature as a whiptailed leopard ray?
A Penn Spinfisher 7500 is a very rugged reel that holds a good amount of line. I had it loaded with 300 metres of 28kg braid and this amazing fish had the drag changing tones as it got very warm with 70-yard runs before I could slow it and turn it. When eventually I beached the fish, I could hardly believe it was perhaps only 20kg. It had battled way above its weight. But happily, this was not to be my only experience of this creature.
Giles and Leanne had invited us along to a family afternoon at another creek, Baird, because family time in Broome would of course seem to have a fishy theme to it. The more we spent time here, the more we realised how it is that a town with a population of just 14,000 people could support four very well equipped tackle shops.
Another trip for crap fish saw Sarah’s reel, despite having a fairly stiff drag setting, absolutely screaming. I like to fish baits holding the rod, touch legering, and have tutored Sarah in this technique well. But this fish went from zero to screaming in zero seconds. The rest of the battle was less exciting, mind.
Following that, a fish that both Sarah and I have much experience with from our annual trip to Fuerteventura, in the Spanish controlled Canary Islands, a barracuda. But she was over the moon, as it ticked yet another Aussie species off her list.
Then, perhaps just 10 minutes later, I hooked a fish that tested me to the limit. Extremely fast runs, that I kept tightening the drag against, but yet it still kept running. I had over 150 yards of 28kg braid smoked off my spool in a single run. I could feel that it was a ray, the telltale pulses from its technique of flying through the water giving the game away. The only way I could prevent it spooling me completely was to go running along the sands, winding furiously. Then it came up against a submerged sandbar. I’m not sure if it felt comfortable here, or confused, or what. But it did stop running, which enabled me to get a bit more control. I was able to use a technique I hadn’t used since catching bronzies on the beach in Namibia, back in 2004.
Once it was swimming back up the tide towards me, I eased back on the power and, keeping much more gentle but very even pressure, persuaded it to swim back towards me, where Giles was waiting to grab the 80lb Berkley Big Game fluorocarbon leader. The fish would have had much more battle in it I am sure, but I wasn’t there to exhaust it to the point of death. I simply wanted to see it, feel it, have my picture taken with it. A few quick snaps, and with some effort I managed to flip it on its back, remove the hook, turn it back right way up, and slide it back into the water, where it stared at me for a few seconds before returning to the deeper channel with a few flaps of its enormous wings, that magnificent, incredibly long tail the last thing I saw of it.
The following day, it was back to Willie Creek with the tinnie, and Giles and his magical throw net. With the tide being that much more advanced, we did not have opportunity to fish the sandbars on the low for the queenfish. And with the mullet more difficult to locate I elected to fish just lures.
This queenfish fell to fly
As the tide flooded into the mangrove roots, we focused on a small side shoot of the main creek. I put on a Senko paddletail, in deep green, with a 10g wormer lead keeping the ‘bait’ as light as possible in the strongly flooding tide. And third cast, I hit a fish – a cracking threadfin salmon that showed itself, as they tend to do it seems, straightaway.
I managed to persuade it out of the roots and into the main channel. But, such is the cunning of these fish, even as I was running through my head the best angle on the boat to catch the sunlight on its magnificent flanks in the photo, it jumped clear of the water. It caught me so much by surprise that I didn’t manage to drop the rod down in time. The line went slack, and the destroyed paddle tail shot up the trace.
Stubbornly, I continued to fish the lures, as I watched Sarah and Giles land threadfin after threadfin, while I found that mangrove jacks were huge fans of my weedless lures.
One other fish, that I had messaged Giles I really wanted to catch, even before we left the UK, was the barramundi. With the tide dropping away, and the mangrove roots now devoid of threadfins, he motored the tinnie to a deeper hole close to the launch site.
“Here’s where you might get one,” he said, “but they are either on, or off…” Well, they were on. And this time they ignored the mullet baits, instead hitting a Zman Dieselx Shad, again fished weedless on my rod. At 57cm, it was a keeper, but we already had two cracking threadfin on ice. This chap behaved perfectly for the quick photo session, and was rewarded with a release, powering away strongly.
For the rest of the trip, Sarah and I were independent once more. We chased up on some marks that had been recommended and on one, we turned up armed with prawns to hopefully get some open beach threadfin. And they were there, in good numbers… just not interested in prawns.
Typical, as we had shed all the lures in favour of an easy walk through the sands. The catfish, on the other hand, were very happy for the prawns, and we carefully released over a dozen, plus one solitary immature blacktip shark. Further sessions on Cable Beach, with the tides building again, produced blacktips in plague proportions, plus a solitary young lemon shark for Sarah to put another tick on her hit list.
One further session, shore-based and unassisted, at Baird Creek, produced no less than three different stingrays for me, fishing heavy gear and sardines, while Sarah focused on the bream with light gear and prawns. Another smaller leopard whiptail, a grey stinger – also with an exceptionally long tail – and something very peculiar, a large brown stingray, that actually had some kind of fin along its tail.
They call these 'cod' in Australia
When stocking up on bits in one of the tackle shops later that day, I asked the proprietor about what species the grey and the brown might have been. “I don’t bloody know,” he said, “we don’t care about rays around here.” That’s Oz for you…