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Fingermark bream or golden snapper nearly look as good as they taste! This one smacked a gold Bomber intended for barra.

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Wading in tropical waters is a risky business. Box jellyfish, sharks and crocodiles are three very good reasons to keep your wits about you, even when fishing in clear, shallow water such as this.

For keen do-it-yourself anglers, few destinations compare to the fish-rich waters of western Cape York, as Andrew Mayo explains.

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This mangrove-fringed rocky shoreline turned on some enjoyable barra-on-popper action for the boys. A rising tide at sunset was prime time to hit the water. 74

ne more cast, I thought to myself... for the third time in a row. Pausing to scratch the sandfly bites on the back of my hand, I opened the bail arm and fired the minnow hard up against a lump of oyster-clad bauxite, 15m from the rock I was standing on. I clicked the bail arm over, wound up the slack and gave the rod tip a couple of quick flicks. Twitch, twitch, pause… Twitch, pause… Nothing. And so it went for the rest of the retrieve. “Come on!” I muttered, with growing frustration. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent barra sitting among those rocks in the murky water, picking off stray mullet in the rising tide. A solid hour of casting had only yielded two half-hearted surface hits from sub-legal rats. Barra can be cagey buggers at times, even in hot spots like Weipa, on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. Fortunately persistence paid off. One more cast and a couple of twitches were all it

took. Whoomph! And the gold Bomber was gone. It was as if the water itself had opened up and swallowed the lure. If you haven’t heard a barramundi’s trademark implosive strike, think of the sound that a bucket makes when you slap it on water — or perhaps the baritone rumble of an explosive underwater fart — and you’re getting close! Combine a surface hit from a barra with a haemorrhaging drag and life suddenly seems pretty good. The barra streaked off through the rocks, sending a thin rooster tail of spray into the air where the main line cut through the water, before launching into a series of violent, rattling headshakes. Thankfully, everything held. The barra paused momentarily, boiling and rolling on the surface, as it prepared to fire up the afterburners for another searing run. Stumbling through the shallows in hot pursuit, I gloomily surveyed the minefield of oysters between me and that lusty salty. In a bid to steer her out of enemy territory, I upped the pressure. It didn’t work.


Shallow-running, floating minnows are deadly on barra. 75


Braid spurted angrily from the little spinning reel as the barra took off on a second, faster run, parallel to shore and straight for a mess of oysters. Just when all appeared to be lost, the run ended. I could almost imagine the barra panting like an exhausted sprinter, wondering what to do next. It was all over. Thirty seconds later she was finning quietly in the shallows at my feet ready to be jaw gripped and released. At around 80cm, and taken in less than a metre of water, it was a neat fish and yet another reminder of the fun I’d been missing out on since I’d last cast a lure in Weipa waters. The sly croc that cruised by for a closer look provided a timely reminder of a different kind…

Return to the Cape I couldn’t believe nearly 17 years had passed since I first teamed up with my ol’ mate, Etienne de Celis, for a month of do-it-yourself fishing mayhem in Weipa, with mountain bikes as our sole mode of transport. We had so much fun on that initial pedal-powered trip in 1995 that we did it all over again four years later, as a reward for grinding through a uni degree. I penned a couple of magazine articles on the back of that second boys’ own adventure to the Cape. Looking back, I still rate the sessions I raved about in those features as some of the most memorable, exciting and satisfying fishing of my life. While I’ve enjoyed some brilliant mothership trips along the Cape’s west coast in the intervening years, I hadn’t set foot in Weipa itself since 1999. Fortunately that all changed last spring. This time ’round though, Etienne and I saved our pennies, left the bikes at home and hired a 4WD for a couple of weeks instead. We even convinced another mate, Steve Phillips, to come along for the ride and, hopefully, pin his first barra. A fish-eye view of prime barra water. Landing fish in country like this requires a cool head and a firm hand!

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Hot and Heavy Nothing prepares you for the heavy, tropical heat. Within minutes of stepping off the plane we were sporting sweat moustaches and stylish underarm wet patches, despite the relative cool of Weipa’s open air terminal. We grabbed our gear, which was already covered in a fine red dust, and loaded it into the tray of our 4WD, grunting at the weight. A quick word of advice for anglers who haven’t flown to a fishing destination recently: be prepared for a ‘no mercy’ approach towards excess baggage by airline staff these days. We learnt the hard way. The extra rod tube, spare sets of pliers and other ‘just in case’ clobber that we carted along cost us nearly $200 in excess baggage charges. The lead-lined cast net jammed into Etienne’s bag certainly didn’t help our cause! You’ve been warned. Next stop was the local camping ground, where we’d booked a self-contained cabin for our two-week stay. Despite the early start and long flight, everyone was itching for a fish. We unloaded as quickly as we could and hastily rigged up our rods, before piling back into the 4WD and barrelling off down a dusty, corrugated road. Our destination was a nondescript bauxite headland that had produced a heap of quality barra and jacks on our previous trips. Conditions looked promising; a rising tide, a few nervous mullet and a strong sou’ east breeze combined to create ideal barra luring water. During the next hour, we pinned a couple of smallish barra, and missed several others, alongside a motley assortment of estuary cod. It was an enjoyable introductory session, particularly for Steve, who landed his first-ever barra — a plucky, bass-sized fish around 40cm in length. Fresh from the water, with fins erect and eyes swivelling, chrome-plated salty barra are mighty handsome fish. They go surprisingly hard in shallow water, too. Even the small ones give you


Quality barra can be found in surprisingly shallow water on the Cape. Mayo lured this lovely 80cm fish from rock-studded water barely more than knee deep.

plenty of curry in tight country. If anyone ever tells you that barra are over rated, nod quietly in sage agreement — and then disregard anything that person ever says again! Barra rock.

Rock On Over the next week we had a ball flicking lures and live baits around the shallow rocky headlands. Sure, we had to work hard at times, but most days we encountered enough small to middling barra to keep us interested. A smattering of jacks, fingermark and queenfish added some variety to the scorecard and kept us guessing when we didn’t see the initial hit. As always, estuary cod were everywhere. Occasionally the action exceeded expectations. Like the time we spotted barra flashing and turning in a sandy, rock-littered gutter, whoomphing any mullet that passed within range. We had a 15 minute window before the flooding tide made us croc bait, but that was all we needed. Nearly every cast in that short session produced a bouncing, rattling barra. Hooking a fish was as simple as cranking your lure through the cloudy water swirling around the bauxite pinnacles. If the hooks fell out, another streak of silver would smack the

lure and take his mate’s place. It was even more fun than it sounds, if that’s possible! Despite being restricted to the rocks, we had a number of memorable big fish encounters during our trip. Unfortunately, not all of those

encounters went to plan. I still wince at the missed opportunity I had on a lunking shallow water barra, every bit of 10kg that inhaled an expensive Japanese minnow in murky, wind-chopped water. If I close my eyes I can

Live baiting is a great way to pin bigger-than-average fish. Mullet are the most commonly used livie and are relatively straightforward to catch once you get the hang of a cast net.

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Half the challenge of cast netting mullet on the flats is spotting them. It’s worth the effort though.

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Steve displays one of many turbo-charged, tail walking sharks the boys hooked after dark.

a great account on the light spin tackle we were using. If the deep, bowel-trembling ‘boofs’ echoing out from beneath the bridge were any indication, there were some genuine Barrasaurus rexes on the prowl most nights. This suspicion was confirmed by a string of brutal smash-and-grab shreddings. In amongst the barra, we pinned a couple of enigmatic threadfin salmon (well, Etienne did!) and a ridiculous number of their smaller cousins, blue salmon. We nailed some cracking tarpon and giant herring, too. After dark is also a great time to target denizens of the deep. We spent way too many evenings doing exactly that at the Evans Landing Wharf, hauling beasties on heavyweight GT spin gear. Sharks, cod and over-sized catfish were the most common customers. They all put a hefty curve in the rod and an ache in our backs.

still see that broad, grey back boiling in the water at my feet moments before the hooks pulled. Gaaargh! Etienne fared better with a stunning jack around 54cm that belted a slow-rolled plastic and gave him merry hell among the oysters, before being muscled to safety. We had several blistering hookups on unidentified hoodlums as well, only to have the hooks pull on each and every one. They were sharks… or so we told ourselves.

Night Moves As enjoyable as our daytime sessions were, the best fishing almost always occurred after dark. We spent countless nights luring barra from the unforgiving pylons of the Mission River Bridge, often well into the early hours of the morning. Most of the fish we hooked were in that energetic and acrobatic 3-6kg range, and gave Don’t overlook the night fishing when you head north. Estuary cod are one of many ooglies you’ll encounter after dark… and they come much bigger than this.

Great lures never stop catching fish. This fat, after-dark barra was one of many that couldn’t resist the charms of a venerable Rattlin’ Spot.

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but a couple of sessions we had on 15–30kg whalers were genuine standouts. Perhaps we fluked a turbo-charged strain, but those sharks treated us to some of the most incredible displays of piscatorial aerobatics I’ve ever seen. Upon feeling the hooks, the whalers would scream up from the depths and blast out of the water like cruise missiles. One particularly fired-up whaler leapt repeatedly at high speed, pretending to be a tail-walking black marlin, only to slam into the metal hull of an enormous ore carrier and stun itself, popping the leader in the process. As I said, we had some memorable sessions! In between hauling monsters from the deep, we enjoyed some brilliant light tackle action on big tarpon. They were hanging in the shadows adjacent to the pools of light cast by the wharf lights, picking off stray baitfish. The most effective way to hook one was to twitch a small soft plastic or bucktail jig through the shadows. Like the whalers, the tarpon put on a brilliant aerobatic display, cartwheeling through the air in a blur of silver and spray, and often throwing the hook. They’re one of many underrated tropical lure munchers that will turn your world upside down when you hook one for the first time.

What’s Old is New Again With the exception of scented soft plastics and some expensive Japanese minnows, our list of Weipa fish catchers resembled a 1993 Warren Steptoe fact box on barra luring. Nilsmaster Spearheads were as effective as ever, accounting for many of the 80cm-plus fish we pinned after dark among the bridge pylons. To my eyes, the Spearhead’s tight, shimmying action is still one of the best mullet imitations out there. Despite their relatively small size (80mm) they never seem to have any problems attracting bigger-than-average fish — just be sure to upgrade the trebles and split rings. Don’t go overboard though; you don’t want to kill the lure’s action.

Quality jacks take plenty of effort (and an ounce of luck) to land, particularly when hooked off the rocks. This 54cm red terror wolfed a slow-rolled soft plastic.

Watch your step. The work boots and jeans may look ridiculous, but they’re often a safety necessity when fishing from the rocks. In some places it’s like fishing on crumbly concrete laced with razor blades.

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often no more than a metre deep. In this situation, few tactics are more effective than twitching a floating, shallow-running minnow through the murk. The American-made gold Bomber is synonymous with the technique. The Bomber has plenty of competition nowadays, with much of it coming from wonderful locally-made fish catchers like Reidy’s B52 and Halco’s 120mm Laser Pro, among others. It’s great to see. Shallow Tactics Regardless of the lure you tie on, the technique is the same It’s worth remembering that most of the land-based luring on and almost always relies on shallow, murky water for success. offer around Weipa takes place in shallow, discoloured water, Flick your lure into likely looking water, be it a gutter or drain, or alongside a shallow rocky outcrop or Etienne prepares to release a fit little barra. bankside snag, and commence a slow, erratic retrieve with plenty of twitches and pauses. Like bream, barra often boof a lure as it rises through the water column or when it’s bobbing on the surface between twitches. Experiment with your retrieves, remembering that you can’t work a lure too slowly for ol’ bucket mouth. Best of all, the technique appeals to nearly every fish that swims in tropical waters, so expect to be belted by plenty of jacks, pikey bream and queenfish — and an endless stream of estuary cod — in between barra.

Even the Spearhead’s larger stablemate, the six-inch Invincible, earned its keep, fooling a couple of those frustratingly hard-to-hook threadfin salmon when all else failed. Barra found them difficult to resist, too. Age hadn’t wearied a 15 year-old Rattlin’ Spot either, which proved particularly deadly after dark.

Self Service Nothing beats catching fish off your own bat with a couple of mates, particularly in a place like Cape York. Sure, you tend to do it a lot harder fishing under your own steam than you would with a switched-on guide, but that simply heightens the sense of satisfaction when everything falls into place and you start nailing fish. A DIY trip to the Tip or the Top End can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. Plenty of people love the adventure of a long-haul, self-drive mission, while others with less time to spare will appreciate the benefits of flying in and hiring a 4WD like we did. Do your homework and you’ll have no problems coming up with an option that suits you and your budget. Think outside the square, too. Houseboats, for example, are becoming increasingly popular and are available in a range of fish-rich locations in northern Australia, including Weipa, Darwin and Hinchinbrook. Alternatively, you could hire a vehicle and a boat, and perhaps hook-up with a guide for a day or two. For the real nutters, there’s always the mountain bike option. Regardless of how you plan to do it, just do it!

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Calm, windless days like this are rare in Weipa. Even in late October, in the build-up to the wet season, it always seems to be blowing. The winds tend to ease as you drift closer to Christmas, replaced instead by an oppressive, enveloping humidity. Generally speaking though, wind of some description — whether it’s the tail end of the dry season sou’ easters or the afternoon nor’ west sea breezes in the build-up — is an ever-present reality in Weipa.

Many of the rocky headlands can only be accessed at low tide, and require a reasonable trek. The boys had more than one unpleasant wading experience when they were stranded by a rapidly rising tide. Crocs may not be as prevalent on the Cape as they are in the Top End or the Kimberley, but they are a very real danger.

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FishLife #2 - Cape Plenty