Geoff Thomas
Geoff Thomas on fishing

Geoff Thomas: Fish galore at remote coastal spot

Brett Wolf holds the queenfish before releasing it.
Photo / Geoff Thomas
Brett Wolf holds the queenfish before releasing it. Photo / Geoff Thomas

We arrived in the lovely little town of Exmouth with considerable trepidation, after flying from Perth early on a Monday morning. The jet was packed with blokes all dressed in overalls and boots as they headed off to work in the mines up the West Australian coast.

Mining is big business in WA. It is big business in Oz. And the towns and communities in the remote country exist on mining. Tourism is a strong second in coastal spots such as Exmouth. We met a young fellow in the bar who worked for an international oil and gas company, and was responsible for the "royalties in the regions" programme. That meant he had a cheque book with $50 million to spend in the local community. For Exmouth that meant a new school and a new game-fishing clubhouse, just like that. Bring on mining.

You can catch a lot of fish here. It is serious country. A peninsula juts out between a giant bay called the Exmouth Gulf and the Ningaloo Reef on the Indian Ocean side.

Outside the reef, you can troll for marlin, sailfish, mahi-mahi, Spanish mackerel, different tunas and a host of other toothy tropical critters.

On the inside, you can cast lures for queenfish, giant trevally, other members of the trevally family of many different hues, giant herrings and other shiny sport fish, or bottom dunk for meat fish such as coral trout and red emperor - all the while watching out for dugongs, the giant sea cows which graze on underwater grasses, and 4m tiger sharks as they hunt for turtles.

We have whale-watching at Kaikoura, but here the national pastime - which draws 300,000 tourists a year to a town of about 2000 - is watching, and diving with, whale sharks.

These spotted giants, the largest fish in the sea, visit the waters outside the reef every winter and the tourist boats offer a slick operation where a whale shark connection is guaranteed.

The area is divided into many marine and national parks and is waiting for World Heritage status, but there are many places where tourists can camp by the beach and fish from beach-launched boats.

In the marina at Exmouth, a fleet of huge charter vessels sits alongside commercial prawn boats, and the main business is taking parties out to deep water where they drop baits to the bottom and fill their eskies with fillets to take home.

Each person is allowed to take 20kg of fillets out of the district and for a family of five from Perth that is 100kg of filleted, frozen fish.

Our guide, Brett Wolf, mutters about sustainability and how such fishing activity should be limited, but it also points to how remote and rich the fishery is. He would like to see more emphasis on light-tackle sport fishing and is happy that more small, fast charter boats are being put on the water for this type of tourist fishing.

We went for a drive around the top of the cape, passing a military-looking settlement which the Americans built during the Cold War to service the radio base where a series of metal towers, which are higher than the Eiffel Tower, stretch towards the clouds.

Their function, it seems, is to bounce low-frequency radio transmissions into the sea, providing the base for the network of communications servicing the American Pacific submarine fleet.

The Americans now pay the Australians to operate the facility and they handed the accommodation facilities, which are quite considerable, over to their hosts. The officers' houses have since been turned into a residential subdivision.

The single road passes the lighthouse at the tip of the cape, then follows the coast past beach after beach, with camping grounds dotted at various points.

People come here for the warm water, the beaches, the snorkelling among coral reefs, watching wildlife - and the fishing. Every campground is dotted with small tinnies on trailers, for you don't have to go far to catch fish. A lot of people cast from the beach and do well.

Brett anchored his 5.5m Boston Whaler in 3m of water and, when a series of splashes just out of casting range raised the heartbeat, I stood up and powered out the fly line.

"Strip it in fast," said Brett. And the line suddenly jolted and a fish tore off.

A silver flash gleamed and Brett claimed it for a queenfish. These are lovely fish, like a cross between a trevally and a mackerel - a tough fighting fish on any tackle.

On the fly rod it felt good, but it was a small one of maybe 2kg and was soon at the net. Brett held it for a photo then slipped it back. The queenie was followed by trevally of different species and colouring, with golden trevally the most common.

Then a fish hit and took off like an express train. "Giant herring," said Brett.

A herring? I thought they were bait fish. But not here. These are not actually members of the herring family but just as the Australians incorrectly call our kahawai a salmon, so they call this long, sleek fighter a herring.

The name doesn't matter. These babies jump like a kahawai and pull like a good-sized trevally. And they don't give up. This one barely fit into the net but it was all length, with a set of teeth that ensured you kept your hands well away.

- Herald on Sunday

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