Extraordinary Exmouth

Steve 'Starlo' Starling | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 3
Jo Starling with a lovely little Exmouth wahoo… another species ticked off her personal ‘bucket list’.
The appeal of Exmounth, WA, extends far beyond its annual Gamex fishing tournament.

The town of Exmouth in Western Australia is a long, long way from anywhere – or 1270km north of Perth and 3366km southwest of Darwin, to be exact.

Located near the tip of North West Cape, the town itself was built from scratch during the mid-1960s to support the nearby US Navy communications centre. This period marked the height of Cold War tensions between America, its allies, and the Soviet bloc, and the massive transmission masts of the Harold E Holt communications centre had the potential to play a pivotal role should that Cold War suddenly turn hot. Those towering masts (some of them over 360m high) dominate the skyline of the northern Cape. They are amongst a handful of similar facilities scattered across the globe that are capable of communicating with submerged nuclear submarines. Should the order for those deadly subs to launch their inter-continental ballistic missiles and rain ‘mutually assured destruction’ upon the world have ever been given, it’s highly likely the signal to fire would have come from the very low frequency (VLF) towers at Exmouth. It’s certainly a sobering thought.

Happily, the Cold War has been largely relegated to history and the Yanks long ago handed the keys for the Harold E Holt station back to their Aussie hosts. Today, the towers and nearby solar observatory (designed to monitor solar storms that might affect radio transmissions) play a more benign role, although nearby Learmonth air force base remains an important joint defence facility and one of the few airports in Australia to share civil and military aviation operations.

Perhaps Exmouth’s isolation is one key to its prominence as a dream destination for anglers. Another must surely be the proximity of Ningaloo Reef, the second most important coral reef in Australia and one of the world’s longest coastal fringing reef systems. Finally, there are the deep, blue waters of the Indian Ocean itself. The continental shelf off Exmouth is relatively narrow, squeezing pelagic fish traffic into a thin and readily accessible marine highway that begins just outside the foaming surf of the Ningaloo reef break. Even a committee of keen sport fishers could not have cooked up a more fortuitous combination of natural factors.

Not surprisingly, recreational fishing is hugely important to Exmouth’s economy and no single event better epitomises that importance than the annual Gamex tournament. First staged as a relatively low-key affair way back in 1979, Gamex has grown dramatically in stature and popularity over the years to become one of the best-known and most-prestigious events on the Australian bluewater fishing calendar.

Like any angling competition with such a long history, Gamex has certainly experienced its highs and lows in terms of weather conditions and the quality of fishing on offer. However, the most recent Gamex will go down in the record books for a number of very positive reasons.

RECORDS SMASHED

The second week of March, 2013, saw the staging of the 34th annual Gamex tournament in those blue waters off Exmouth. According to many veterans of this prestigious event, the weather this year was the best ever experienced in the long history of the tournament, and provided quite a contrast to the previous year. In 2012 the presence of Tropical Cyclone Lua to the north created rough seas and patchy fishing results, especially early in the week when one fishing day had to be cancelled entirely due to safety concerns.

Taking full advantage of this year’s brilliant weather and sea conditions, a field of 73 boats raised a total of 761 billfish during the six days of the tournament, hooking 517 of these prized game fish. Tags were successfully placed in 246 billfish, a total made up of 155 black marlin, an impressive 37 blue marlin, 53 sailfish and one lone broadbill swordfish. Only two marlin were brought ashore to be weighed during this heavily catch-and-release-oriented competition, one of them a new Australian record blue of 354.5kg landed on 60kg tackle by Mark Mackay.

While these total numbers fell short of the very best catch figures Gamex has produced (well over 1000 fish hooked and more than 700 tagged in 2010, for example), the unusually high proportion of blue marlin in the catch statistics for 2013 was particularly noteworthy, and a clear reflection of the fact that more and more crews are now heading wider offshore to pull big lures and baits on heavy tackle in search of these revered game fish. Not that game fishers need to run super-wide off Exmouth to find marlin … in fact, many are hooked each year just beyond the reef break.

In addition to all of those marlin, sails, and swordfish, this year’s Gamex competitors once again landed a wide range of other sport fish and sharks including tuna, wahoo, mackerel, trevally, and cobia. The vast majority of these fish were also tagged and released, although some were brought ashore to be weighed, mainly for potential state, national, and world line-class records. However, nothing was wasted, with filleting, fish cleaning and cooking demonstrations regularly conducted at the Exmouth Game Fishing Club’s well-appointed headquarters beside the town’s marina, as well as several other nearby venues. The assembled crowds at all of these public displays delighted in sampling the ultra-fresh end products cooked up and beautifully presented by Club Marine’s own resident chef, Bart Beek.

Even that record blue marlin was put to good use. A team of club members swung into action the night it was weighed to fillet, portion, and bag the massive fish, with all of this prime seafood trucked straight to Perth for distribution to nursing homes and similar institutions. The organisers of Gamex place a massive emphasis on sustainability and only a tiny percentage of the fish caught are killed, which made isolated public criticism of the event by a few ill-informed observers particularly hard for most locals to stomach. Sadly, it seems the anti-fishing lobby is everywhere these days.

Two large hammerhead sharks were also taken on very light tackle during this year’s Gamex. Both hammers weighed in excess of 150kg. One was landed on 8kg line and the other, remarkably, on wispy-thin 4kg line. Both were pending world records at the time of writing.

As important as the fishing aspects of Gamex week are, the event’s positive impacts extend much further than the marina precinct, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy, attracting hundreds of visitors and providing a social focus for the entire town. With so few fish killed, very little wasted and such a positive story to tell, the future of Gamex seems assured.

BEYOND GAMEX

Of course, organised tournaments such as this are not for everyone, and there are 51 weeks of the year when Gamex is not on. Fortunately, there’s plenty on offer for visiting and local anglers alike during the rest of the year. In fact, it could easily be argued that Exmouth is one of the ‘fishiest’ towns in Australia.

Whether you prefer snorkelling with giant whale sharks and manta rays, walking the beautiful beaches and rock ledges with a rod in hand, or heading offshore in trailer and charter boats to chase tasty reef-dwelling species and line-peeling game fish, Exmouth really does have it all.

When I first travelled to this area in 1988, Exmouth was being widely touted as the potential ‘Cairns of the West’, with big game fishing identified as the primary engine that would drive a spectacular boom in local fortunes. When I next visited a decade 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. Just a year later, the region was devastated by tropical cyclone Vance, a Category 5 system that caused severe damage to at least 70 per cent of the town’s buildings and other structures.

Exmouth quickly bounced back from TC Vance’s impact and has continued to grow, although predictions about it becoming another Cairns never quite came to fruition. I suspect I’m not alone in being quietly happy about that fact.

GREEN SHIFT

One of the more notable and interesting transformations that took place through the ’90s, between my first and second visits to Exmouth, was a discernible shift in the area’s tourism marketing campaigns. I noticed a definite swing away from game fishing and towards eco-tourism: particularly an emphasis on snorkelling and diving with manta rays and whale sharks, whale-and dolphin-watching cruises and the like. This ‘green shift’ was also reflected in the creation of a relatively complicated network of marine reserves, sanctuary zones and special-use areas as 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’, nonextractive, eco-tourism pursuits, and its future appeared less certain than it had in 1988, when the main reason most visitors came to Exmouth was to drop a line and catch a feed of emperor, coral trout or cod.

Fast 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 newage 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 zoning 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.

The variety of angling opportunities on offer close to Exmouth is nothing short of staggering. Options run the full gamut from walking the beaches and rocks or wading the warm, shallow flats of the Exmouth Gulf and western coastline hunting spangled emperor, various trevally, bonefish, and permit on light spin or fly gear, all the way to heavy-tackle game fishing for giant blue marlin and broadbill swordfish out beyond the edge of the continental shelf.

Reef fishers are also well catered for, with coral trout, red emperor, norwest snapper, bluebone wrasse and a host of other delectable species on offer, although it pays to be on the ball and up to date concerning the often complex size and bag limits for these species, not to mention the intricacies of where you can and can’t drop a line within the vast marine park. Thankfully, detailed zoning maps are available free of charge from the region’s tackle shops and other outlets, and the friendly locals behind the counters at these establishments will happily help you work out the fine print.

Gamex week in March is rapidly developing into an annual fixture on my personal fishing calendar. As much as I look forward to the week of organised activities associated with this extremely well-run event, I also find myself daydreaming about those long, happy hours I know I’ll spend walking the empty beaches, wading the pristine flats or cruising the vast reef lagoon in a little tinnie, with a fly rod or light spinning outfit clutched in hand. Exmouth really is an extraordinary place.


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