Desert delight

Steve 'Starlo' Starling | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 3
Not a single boat on the horizon, nor a lone jet’s contrail etched across the blue bowl of the sky. Jo casts a lure at sunset from the Ningaloo shore in search of queenfish, trevally or a dozen other potential targets.
Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling visited Exmouth in WA to report on a trio of bluewater fishing tournaments, but couldn’t resist exploring the region’s many other charms…

For the last time, I admired the shimmering, opalescent hues of the golden trevally’s deep flanks. As my grip on the fish’s tail relaxed, it kicked away across the shallow sand flat into deeper water and disappeared.

Straightening from my crouch, I turned my head right to take in a kilometre-plus sweep of empty beach, curving north to meet the next low, scrubby point. South, to my left, lay a similar expanse of almost empty seascape, the lone figure moving upon it being that of my wife, Jo, wading and casting her lure 200m away. Far out to our west, a thin white line dancing on the shimmering sea marked the surf break of Ningaloo Reef’s outer edge. Apart from myself and Jo, no other sign of human existence could be detected in this broad expanse. Not a single boat on the horizon, nor a lone jet’s contrail etched across the blue bowl of the sky. Nothing.

By global standards, Western Australia is an empty space, at least in terms of people. Yet it’s chock-full of natural wonders. These span the topographic extremes: from deep Kimberley gorges to the wave-pounded granite islands of the chilly Bight. For me, however, there are few places that can match the majesty of those eerily quiet tracts where the desert slides into the sea.

Nowhere epitomises this wondrous desolation better than the Gascoyne region. Stretching between Kalbarri and Onslow, this area is the most sparsely populated in the entire wild west, with only 10,000 or so residents spread across nearly half-a-million square kilometres of mulga and spinifex country that’s dotted with just a handful of small towns. One of these is Exmouth, a tidy settlement constructed in 1964 to support the major naval communications facility then being constructed a few kilometres further up North West Cape.

When I first visited Exmouth in 1988, this small coastal port was being touted as the embryonic ‘Cairns of the West’, and game fishing was frequently cited as the catalyst that would ignite a spectacular boom in local fortunes. When I next called through a decade or so later, signs of expansion were certainly evident in the form of new buildings, improved roads and a recently completed marina facility, but the town itself remained modest in both size and nature. Personally, I was glad to see that the more grandiose predictions had failed to materialise.

Perhaps the most notable change that had taken place between my decade-spaced early visits was a discernible shift in the area’s promotional emphasis, from game fishing to eco-tourism: particularly whale and dolphin watching, diving and swimming with manta rays and whale sharks. Hand-in-flipper with this had come the creation of a complicated patchwork of marine reserves, sanctuary zones and special-use areas, all part of the expanded Ningaloo Marine Park.

Recreational fishing certainly hadn’t gone away in the years between my first and second visits, but it now sat on the sideline, as a sometimes uncomfortable bedfellow to these ‘greener’, non-extractive, eco-tourism pursuits, and its future appeared less certain than it had in 1988, when the main reason for most Exmouth visits was to drop a line and catch a feed of emperor, coral trout or cod.

Roll forward another decade or so and I’m pleased to report that the world of recreational fishing has not only learned to live with its new-age bedfellows, it has actually come to embrace the same sustainable mindset that underpins them. Today, game and sport fishing is mostly about ‘catch and release’, often in conjunction with scientific tagging programs intended to expand our knowledge of pelagic fish stocks. Even those anglers (like myself) who enjoy taking the odd fish for the table are now (mostly) happy to abide by much stricter bag and size limits, while carefully studying the charts to ensure we don’t inadvertently cast our lines into any sanctuary zones. After all, committed anglers make the best conservationists, simply because our beloved pastime depends on the maintenance of healthy fish numbers.

Although its emphasis and even its demo graphic has altered, fishing definitely remains an integral part of Exmouth’s blossoming tourism scene. The relatively expensive sport of offshore game fishing may have suffered serious setbacks during the recent global financial crisis, but it is slowly rebounding, albeit mostly from more modest boats these days, many of them trailerable craft.

HOLY GRAIL

Whether you fish from a trailer boat or a big cruiser, there are few more exciting destinations for game and sport fishers than the rich, blue seas off Exmouth. This remains one of the best locations in Australia (if not the world) for those who dream about achieving the ‘holy grail’ of catching a ‘super grand slam’ of billfish species in a single 24-hour period. Black, blue and striped marlin, Indo-Pacific sailfish and the mighty broadbill swordfish all hunt these waters in impressive numbers, and it’s one of those rare places on earth where all five piscatorial prizes could realistically be hooked on the same day by the same crew. And yes, it has been done.

But Exmouth’s offshore scene is not only about billfish. The region is also blessed with superb stocks of mackerel, tuna, trevally, cobia, dolphin fish (mahi-mahi), wahoo and half-a-dozen other line-peeling speedsters capable of quickening the pulse of any bluewater aficionado. No wonder the annual GAMEX tournament, staged in these waters every March for over 30 years, continues to be one of the most prestigious events of its kind on the Australian game fishing calendar, attracting contestants from across the country and around the globe.

FANTASTIC FLATS

Reef fishing for top-flight tropical table fish like emperor and coral trout also remains popular off Exmouth, although it’s increasingly being overshadowed by modern sport fishing efforts aimed at species with a higher ‘wow factor’ – and with a propensity for tearing large quantities of line from an angler’s reel when hooked.

This shift in emphasis from food to fun is epitomised by the relatively recent discovery of world-class ‘flats fishing’ on the abundant shallows inside Ningaloo Reef and throughout the vast Exmouth Gulf, to the south and east of the town. The development of these light-tackle inshore fisheries has added an entirely new dimension to this area’s already-rich list of angling attractions. Celebrated ‘skinny water’ targets include golden, giant and brassy trevally, queenfish, giant herring, milkfish, dart, permit and even ‘his highness and shyness’, the much-venerated bonefish. They’re all on offer here, and are already attracting significant national and international interest.

Perhaps the greatest thrill involved in this intoxicating style of inshore flats fishing is the chance it offers to ‘sight cast’ with lures and flies to plainly visible fish cruising in a couple of metres or less (sometimes much less!) of gin-clear water. There are few more exciting moments in angling than those tense seconds that stretch between carefully presenting a lure or fly ahead of a plainly visible fish and the ultimate take or rejection of your offering. When it all comes together and your line spring staut, the end or phin-pumping high generated is nothing short of addictive … which is why flats fishers keep coming back for more.

My wife Jo and I returned to Exmouth in March this year to cover a triple-header of offshore tournaments for various media outlets (see sidebar p129). Of course, we also found time to wet a line ourselves.

During a lay-day between the GAMEX and AIBT events, we were fortunate enough to be invited out with On Strike Charters aboard its luxuriously-appointed, 9m sport fisher. Late in the morning of that memorable day, Jo successfully battled and released her first billfish: a beautifully lit-up juvenile black marlin estimated at just over 20kg. As exciting as it was for Jo to encounter her first marlin, the truth is we had just as much fun throwing metal baitfish profile lures at the abundant schools of skipjack (striped tuna), mackerel tuna (kawa-kawa) and longtail tuna that were feeding voraciously on the surface under wheeling flocks of terns and other seabirds.

But for us, the real highlights of our stay in Exmouth were those idyllic hours spent walking the empty beaches and wading the silent flats south of Tantabiddy, on the western side of the Cape, flicking our small lures and flies into the turquoise shallows. Here we caught and released a string of bream, tarwhine, spangled emperor, small-to-middling trevally, little queen fish, barracuda, long toms, cod, bar-tailed flathead and various other species, rarely seeing another soul during our extended forays. This is the stuff we love most, the memories we will cherish longest, and the promise that will inevitably draw us back to Exmouth again and again in future years. It’s just that kind of place.

Tournament triple-header

My most recent visit to Exmouth in late March this year was timed to coincide with the most intensive two weeks of bluewater tournament fishing action this small town has ever experienced, thanks to a unique triple-header of events. Even the threat posed by the rather ironically-named Tropical Cyclone Lua, building over the Indian Ocean north-west of Exmouth, couldn’t dampen the palpable sense of excitement buzzing through the town when I arrived.

First cab off the rank was the annual GAMEX tournament. With a rich history spanning three decades, GAMEX is one of the more prestigious events on the annual Australian bluewater angling calendar.

This year’s GAMEX attracted a field of 72 boats crewed by 267 competing anglers from across the country and around the globe. The first day’s fishing was cancelled due to the inclement weather, but from that point on conditions slowly improved as TC Lua’s influence weakened.

Exmouth regulars actually rated the standard of fishing during this year’s GAMEX as below par, with many of the fish raised proving frustratingly unwilling to eat lures or baits. Nonetheless, 163 billfish were tagged during the event, a total made up of 60 sailfish, 98 black marlin, three blue marlin and two striped marlin. Many other species of fish and sharks were also tagged and a handful weighed in throughout the tournament, including two pending world records, four potential Australian records and four possible WA state records.

Champion Tag and Release Boat overall for GAMEX was Catch It, accounting for nine species on 11 different line classes to amass an impressive 4584.98 points. Champion Team Tag and Release Billfish for boats measuring 7m and longer was taken out by the crew of Blue Horizon, with 10 bills tagged. The smaller trailer boat division went to The Wench, with five successful marlin and sailfish releases. Champion Junior Angler was Cody Wright aboard Jig-a-Jig. Champion Senior Male was Luke Leech, while gun lady angler Sahra Pitman took out the Champion Female award.

After just a couple of days off, many of the same crews and a few fresh ones were back into the fray, this time competing in the three-day Australian International Billfish Tournament (AIBT), staged for the second year running off Exmouth. By now the weather was much better, although the 227 crew members aboard 62 competing boats quickly discovered that many of the region’s abundant billfish still appeared to be suffering from lock jaw. In the final wash-up, 107 billfish were tagged over the three days of the AIBT, comprising 50 sails, 55 blacks and two blues. Champion boat for the 2012 AIBT was Apothecary, narrowly edging out local charter boat, On Strike.

As if all of that excitement wasn’t enough for Exmouth, a round of the IGFA’s International Great Marlin Race was also run in conjunction with both GAMEX and this year’s AIBT. Two representatives from IGFA (the International Game Fish Association) made the long journey from the United States to Western Australia to promote and monitor this important leg of the race.

Four of the larger marlin caught during GAMEX and the AIBT were successfully fitted with archival satellite tags during the course of these back-to-back tournaments. Another six satellite tags have been placed in marlin off Exmouth since those events in late March and all 10 of these expensive, highly-sophisticated tags should break free, pop up to the surface and download their data 120 days or so after deployment, providing lots more information about the movements of these highly migratory game fish. The team whose marlin covered the greatest distance between tagging and pop-upwill also pick up a cheque for a cool $10,000!


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