Diamonds ’n’ stones

Warren Steptoe | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 5
Just look at the current as an 8-metre tidal run boils past one of Shoalwater Bay’s “stones.”
When it comes to sport fishing hot spots, northern Queensland has two of the best in the world.

The Coral Sea is one of the world’s last great marine wildernesses. It is a vast area off the north Queensland coast that offers a variety of adrenaline-inducing options for sports fishing devotees. A little further south is Shoalwater Bay, another magnet for people who don’t mind going out of their way to experience the thrills that chasing muscular finned adversaries can generate. And linking them both is Nomad Sportfishing, a charter operator with specific expertise in both areas.

Such is the reputation of Nomad Sportfishing – and both locations – that sports fishing aficionados from around the world regard Shoalwater Bay GTs and Coral Sea dogtooth tuna as two of the most sought-after prizes in the sport. Popper and jigging fans literally line up for berths, and even travel-worn fishing writers sit up and take notice when the possibility of a visit to either area is raised. And so it was that Nomad Sportfishing’s Damon Olsen called a while back to enquire if I’d like to accompany him on a double-barrelled assignment seemingly guaranteed to have my reels screaming and my arms aching.

The first of our destinations, the Diamond Islets, is a rarely visited and probably never before sport-fished location way out in the Coral Sea. And it’s a particularly aptly-named location, given the promise of hungry and athletic monster doggies that were said to lurk there.

Our introduction to what the fishing was going to be like at the Diamond Islets came right at the outset when a 40kg dogtooth tuna crash-tackled a stick bait surface lure right at the back of Saltaire, one of two sportfishers operating from Nomad’s luxury mothership, Odyssey. In a precious few seconds, 30-odd bucks worth of lure was converted to a tangled mass of splinters and twisted metal mere metres from the transom. Then the action really heated up and glowed red hot for the rest of the week!

Having been to the Coral Sea with Nomad previously, I can say that the average size of dogtooth frequenting the islets is a little smaller than other locations, at around 30-40kg. Bigger ones are certainly there, as I could tell each time a fit, healthy man was summarily slammed against the cockpit covering board by an unstoppable monster. But the sheer volume of ‘more manageable’ 30-40kg fish around the islets is still outstanding.


Amongst all fishing disciplines, both deepwater jigging and casting poppers (although these days the term “poppers” loosely covers various surface lures, including the aforementioned “stick baits”) are about the most physical of all and it’s no joke that true devotees work out for months prior to a big trip. It’s significant, then, that on the Diamond Islets trip, some of the fittest of them were still occasionally seen retreating from the cockpit sweat-faced and with trembling muscles in need of a break.

As Damon and his crew have explored the Coral Sea, pioneering sports fishing in the region, remote reef complexes like Kenn, Frederick, Flinders, Marion and Bugatti have all entered sport fishing parlance as hot spots equal to anything around the world. But then they discovered the Diamond Islets …

Drop-offs around the islets are generally steeper and deeper than anywhere else and one wall beside East Diamond Islet is a literal jaw-dropper. Lurking in its submerged cliff lines are ravening hordes of dogtooth, while only a couple of hundred metres away breaking surf pounds on the islet’s reef edge.

From Hamilton Island airport, and with our floatplane’s airspeed indicator reading 150 knots, it took over an hour and a half before the greenish blob that was East Diamond Islet, where Nomad’s luxury mother ship Odyssey anchored for the week, swam out of the endless indigo.

Within minutes of lifting off, we passed over the northern end of famous Whitehaven Beach, where the brilliant white sand against the livid turquoise lacework of Hill Inlet primed us for a spectacular flight. Shortly afterward came more stunningly beautiful aerial views of the Hook and Hardy Reef complex, before the sea beneath our wings turned deep blue and stayed that way. It would easily have been worth coming just for the flight – let alone the spectacular fishing that awaited our arrival.

The only disappointment – if, indeed, that’s the right word – about fishing the Diamond Islets is that, all things considered, there are fewer giant trevally than elsewhere in the Coral Sea. Some impressive specimens were caught there, but it was the numbers and consistent size of the dogtooth tuna that made the Diamond Islets something special.


Over a cold one at the end of my sojourn out amongst the islets, Damon quietly opined that despite finding any number of places out in the Coral Sea that have literally put them on the GT map, Shoalwater Bay was without doubt the GT capital of the world.

Situated approximately midway up the Queensland coast, halfway between Gladstone and Mackay, Shoalwater Bay is unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, as a military training area since the 1960s, it is pretty much inaccessible by road unless you happen to be travelling in some form of armoured vehicle. Secondly, it is known for its tremendous tidal variations – in fact, Alan Lucas’ cruising handbook, Cruising the Coral Coast suggests avoiding the place altogether “because of the extreme tides and consequent extreme currents …” His suggested alternative passage passes well to the east amongst several small island groups, before heading straight for Mackay.

But from a boating and fishing point of view, Shoalwater Bay is also known for the fact that it is littered with more rocks, bommies and submerged reefs than pretty much anywhere else I’ve been – hence the reference to ‘rocks’ at the start of this article.

Tidal variations in the bay reach 8.5 metres, creating currents and swirls of more than 3 knots amongst an absolute jumble of islands, islets and various other assorted chunks of jutting rock. Just inland, a mountainous topography features several 500-metre peaks, although along the coastline itself, massive rocky headlands are interspersed with mangrove wetlands fed by numerous tidal creeks and inlets.

Since it’s a military area, the surrounding countryside is maintained in relatively pristine condition. The mountains and mangroves that make up much of the area act as an enormous food factory, pumping huge quantities of nutrients into the ecosystem. And atop this thriving, vibrant food chain sits the giant trevally.

The GT’s preferred habitat is rips formed around submerged structure by current carrying ample amounts of food. And so for GTs, Shoalwater Bay is the perfect place to live. In fact, they thrive in population densities that are nothing short of amazing. And below them in the food chain pecking order is a similarly dense population of ‘lesser’ sportfish, such as the high-flying queenfish, smaller trevallies of many species and several varieties of tuna.

To fish Shoalwater Bay, Nomad Sportfishing leaves its two game fishers, Nomad and Saltaire, back in port and fishes exclusively from its Kevlacat Flycaster dories. They make a lot of sense in an area where the threat of damaging larger craft is all too real. Besides which, the little Kevlacats are actually better fishing platforms up here.


GT fishing is never for the faint-hearted, particularly when using surface lures. No matter whether it’s a monstrous blooping popper making enough racket and shifting enough water to pull GTs in from miles away, or the slightly easier on aching backs and arms stickbaits, the way GTs take surface lures is never less than spectacular – and the moments that follow are as close as fishing gets to a full contact sport.

Typically, your guide puts the dory in position for a cast; often enough a hair-raisingly precarious position, given the current-generated pressure waves moving the boat about underfoot – and your proximity to uncompromisingly hard rock. A GT bite is typically akin to someone dropping a large-sized motor vehicle in the water – immediately followed by even more brutal action.

Over a thousand dollar’s worth of Shimano Stella or Daiwa Saltiga then groans in protest from drag settings you could easily tow said motor vehicle with, but you can’t hear any of that over the gasping breaths of a happy angler stretched across the casting pulpit. By then, the dory’s being backed away as fast as its screaming outboard and ventilating propeller can go, with the intent of towing the GT towards clearer water. Not that things always work out that way, despite reels loaded with 80 and even 130lb gel spun lines.

People pay thousands of dollars and wait anxiously on lists to do this stuff and the reason is basically simple – it’s some of the best fishing fun there is; no, make that some of the best fun there is, full stop!

And potential GT hunters be warned; it’s highly addictive and has been likened to the adrenaline rush that participants experience in extreme sports. Come to think of it, being hooked up to a GT or doggie is an extreme sport.

Unsurprisingly, some of Nomad’s crew members could be described as addicts themselves. Captain Damon Olsen’s flybridge enthusiasm is the stuff of legend and, having fished with him many times since he was a hyper-keen fishing club junior, I can tell you that’s nothing compared to when he’s down at water level fishing himself. Still, his first mate and right-hand man, Tim Baker is almost certainly a worse case.

South African-born Tim grew up fishing GTs with surf gear in his teens, before migrating out here to take on a pivotal role in the think tank that keeps Nomad Sportfishing at the cutting edge of tackle and technique development. Out in the Coral Sea, they have the sheer numbers of fish in sizes sufficient to break things often enough to foster a near-vertical learning curve.

I haven’t heard from Damon for a while now, but I’m sure even as you read this he has discovered yet another phenomenal fishing spot that absolutely demands my presence. I’ll keep you posted …

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