As far as fishing destinations go, Western Australia has it all. If you’re keen to catch a range of species from sailfish to salmon, bream to bonefish, or wahoo to whiting, then WA is the right place for you.
I was first introduced to Western Australia’s fish-rich waters by my late mate Hal Harvey, a West Australian fishing legend who passed away last year. I have spent a lot of time fishing there, including at Berkley River Lodge, the Kimberley region from Mitchell River Falls to Broome, the Montebello Islands, Exmouth and surrounds, Dirk Hartog Island, Shark Bay, Steep Point, the Abrolhos Islands, Perth, Rottnest Island, Dunsborough, and as far south as Pemberton. So I thought I had it pretty much covered.
Then I met the Tate family, of Tate’s Tackle World Esperance. They told me about their little town and its 500km of pristine beaches, the nearby Recherche Archipelago’s 105 islands, and stories of huge fish in big numbers.
With great anticipation, I organised a six-day trip to this beautiful part of the world.
Esperance is a long way from Perth (730km east-south-east, to be precise), which makes it a long way from anywhere. It’s a beautiful little town in the Goldfields-Esperance region of Western Australia and is home to just over 10,000 people. The French are credited with making first landfall here in 1792 while sheltering from a storm, with the town named after a French ship, the Esperance, which is French for hope.
BRIMMING WITH BREAM
On our first day in town, our hosts suggested a short drive to a nearby lake to chase some southern black bream. We drove about an hour, did a bit of bush bashing, and ended up on the shoreline of a beautiful, well-timbered lake.
The plan was to fish bait and the boys told me we were a sure thing. I was a little nervous … if I had a dollar for every ‘sure thing’ that never eventuated, I would be a wealthy man. Having caught bream around Australia, I reckon I’ve got a pretty good handle on them, but I always take local advice and asked the boys what was the best rig to use.
Bream anglers around the country will now cringe, just like I did, when the boys handed me a double paternoster tied with 20-pound mono (I refused the 30), two size-four long-shank hooks topped off with a 1oz spoon sinker. It was like nothing I had ever used, but the boys assured me it was the go.
And they were right! For the next three hours, we caught around 80 of the fattest bream I have ever seen, up to a whopping 42cm. It was a bite per cast, a capture every second bite, with several double-headers on the paternoster rig. I cannot remember a bream session anywhere near as full-on. And, amazingly, I never got snagged, didn’t get a rig tangle and never lost a hook. Just goes to show – always trust local knowledge.
FISH IN ABUNDANCE
Recherche Archipelago’s incredible island group was stunning to see from town, so I just couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with it on the water. With 105 islands and over 1200 obstacles to navigate around, it sounded like a fisherman’s paradise. Plenty of structure means lots of great places for fish to call home, plus the added benefit of 105 windbreaks. There’s nothing like the shelter of a large rocky island on a windy day offshore.
To say the fishing was good would be an understatement. We started fishing bait in around 20m of water and landed a host of amazing fish, some of which I had never heard of. The fox fish was one of them – an unassuming orange fish around 45cm in length that was estimated at around 50-years of age. Needless to say, they all went back into the water.
We moved a little closer to one of the islands and, at the first drop, we were on, battling fish of epic proportions. First, a beautiful blue groper, followed by one of the biggest queen snapper (blue morwong) I had ever seen.
And then I noticed a lot of birds, and it looked like they were feeding. We drove over in what was now a fairly serious sea and cast 100g Gomoku jigs into the action. A few winds and we were all on into a mixed school of striped and bluefin tuna.
Could this day get any better? Well, yes, and it did.
After smacking a heap of tuna we decided we needed respite from the ocean’s fury and snuck into the glass-calm waters in the lee of a nearby island. For a change of pace, we decided to try a spot of micro jigging. It has become really trendy in recent years and basically means vertical jigging with metal lures that weigh much less than conventional jigs – hence the name ‘micro’ jigging.
I dropped an 80g white Gomoku to the bottom as we drifted over a small lump in 12m of water. Lift, drop, flutter, lift, drop, flutter, lift … bang. I was on and it was a serious fish. My rod buckled, my heart pounded, and I got a serious workout. Several times during the battle I knew I was pushing my Fins braid to the limit, but I just had to get this fish away from the reef. Finally, I turned its head, and as I looked over the gunwale for colour I detected a faint neon blue glow … another queen snapper, this time on a jig.
The skipper suggested a small move to shallower water, as this session was all about variety and trying new things. I could clearly see the seabed in 5m of water and the jigs were getting slammed as soon as they hit the bottom! On occasion, they didn’t even make the bottom.
The fish we caught here simply blew my mind. I had never even seen a harlequin fish, let alone caught one, and then to do it on a jig not once, but three times … I was lost for words.
The final fish of the day was even more mind-blowing – one of the best-looking cool-water fish I have ever seen: a blue devil fish of serious proportions on a jig. Time to head in – it was starting to get weird!
The Esperance area is famous for its Australian salmon run that starts in February or March. I have seen footage and heard stories about schools of up to 50 tonnes of monster blackback salmon moving in on local beaches, with excited anglers literally catching a fish per cast for hours on end. We were a bit early, but we were still hopeful.
When we woke, we were greeted by 30-knot winds and had to change our plans. Once again, we were blessed with the support of local knowledge: Rob Tate assessed the situation and worked out that there was a 100m area where we would be protected by a natural rock formation. 500km of beach and we were pigeonholed into 100m.
The view as we reached the peak of the mainland before descending onto the beach was breathtaking, and I soon spotted a black school of fish moving through the breakers. I felt like a kid at Christmas!
First cast, we had a follow and it wasn’t long before our Storm So-Run lures produced salmon to 3.6kg. We were fishing a little pocket behind a natural rock wall giving us protection from the elements. Burley was used to lure the fish closer and when the bite slowed, we went to pilchard baits fished on gang hooks.
Every time we hooked up, we noticed a monster salmon following the hooked fish toward the beach. This fish was at least 10 pounds and had a distinctive scar on its left flank. This fish was no dummy – it ignored our lures and would not take a fresh pilchard on ganged hooks. It didn’t get to 10 pounds in weight by being silly …
With the fish swimming around in front of me in ankle-deep water, I ran up the beach to re-rig, as I was certain the fish could see my leader and ganged hooks through the gin-clear water. My new rig: 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a single 4/0 suicide hook that I buried in the bait. When I got back, that brute of a salmon was still patrolling at arms-length from the shoreline. I cast my pillie metres from it – the fish turned and swallowed it whole.
The fight was epic and took us over 100m up the beach. When I finally beached it, the hook pulled, but Tatey was quick with his hands and the monster salmon was ours. We could clearly see the wound on its left flank, so there was no doubt that this was the same fish that had eluded us for over 15 minutes. Ten-pound Aussie salmon are trophy fish, but this one was soon on its way, heading back into the surf to harass future anglers.
The team at Tate’s Tackle World had organised Goodwin McCarthy Helicopters to take us fishing on our final morning in town. The plan was simple: fly chopper along the hundreds of kilometres of coastline to gain a bird’s eye view of the beaches, find fish, land chopper on beach, catch the fish. What a great plan.
We had only been in the air for about 10 minutes when we saw a massive black patch moving on the edge of the breakers. I looked at pilot Brian with an expression of excitement on my face. He nodded once and said the word I wanted to hear: “salmon.”
As we got lower we could see the mass of fish moving through the water. At first just the shape of the blob changed, but then we could pinpoint individual fish. We estimated one school to be in excess of 20 tonnes, but it could have been 50 … it was just massive. I took a quick clip on my phone that I uploaded to Facebook that night (facebook.com/ifishtv). Within 24 hours it had over one million views, and Perth news even ran a two-minute story the following night.
We landed on the sand, got our gear together and started casting. It was the best beach fishing session I have ever had, and I have had a few pearlers. At one stage, the black mass was pushed right onto the beach by a pod of hungry dolphins. Thousands of 6kg salmon at our feet and ripe for the picking. We caught them cast after cast on Storm Gomoku jigs, Storm So-Run minnows, Williamson hard bodies and poppers.
The longest fish we caught measured over 80cm, which is a fair old salmon, and the biggest I have ever caught. Incredibly, they all seemed to be out of the same mould – every fish was a beast and they all fought hard.
By 11am we had caught and released more salmon than any sane person’s biceps could be expected to handle. We packed up and took the awesome scenic flight back to town, spotting big schools of salmon the entire way.
When people hear ‘helifishing’ they generally think “not for me, too expensive,” but it really isn’t all that bad if you share the cost with a small group and consider it a ‘trip of a lifetime’. I think you may be surprised if you do the maths – and the rewards are just out of this world.
I have to admit that I could not have pinpointed Esperance on a map just a week earlier. It’s a long way from Perth and is so far off everyone’s radar … well, let me give you a tip: get it on your radar and start planning a trip to Esperance. It’s one of the coolest places I have ever visited (and I get around a fair bit). The people are just awesome, the beaches pristine and the fishing – what can I say? 11 out of 10! Hope to see you there.