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February 10, 2012

Australia's Coral Coast

Fishing the Indian Ocean on the far side of Oz


Midway: Mining the Lumps
After a pleasant night in a lovely, shallow, sandy bay inside Berniar Island (also a great place for swimming), we trolled on northward, picking up several species of mackerel and some longtail tuna (the 10- to 20-pound tuna are widely called northern bluefin in Australia).

We picked up the lines and ran nearly two hours north and west (farther offshore) to some numbers Ben had been given; these held the promise of finding “lumps” on the bottom in 250 to 300 feet that should offer good jigging action.

For the most part, the seafloor off southwest Australia is rather like the Gulf of Mexico — a gently to moderately sloping bottom that’s uniformly pretty smooth. Any real structure would certainly be a gold mine for anglers. We didn’t find much structure, only slightly discernible bottom relief, but that was enough to produce some action.

Our first six bottomfish to the boat comprised six different species — red-throated emperor, pearl perch, pink snapper, gold-spot trevally, a coral trout and a dandy rankin cod (a species of grouper).

Yes, we ate very well that evening, at anchor near Carnarvon — the largest community midway between Shark Bay and Exmouth. Carnarvon sits at the Gascoyne River mouth. That’s one of the very few rivers on this arid stretch of Australian coast where rivers are dry beds most of the year. This larger river did have a bit of outflow — enough to create muddy estuarial water where the boat sat.

Knowing that drums and croakers around the world are fond of estuaries, before I joined the boys at dinner on the back deck, I baited a circle hook with a hunk of rib meat from one of the fish we’d cleaned earlier and left it to soak off the transom. I’d all but forgotten about it when the clicker sounded a short staccato alarm. I grabbed the rod, put the reel in gear to let the line come tight, and the circle hook did its work. Soon, I found myself hanging on and dipping the rod low when the fish ran under the boat, then hustling from corner to the next, until finally Tim pulled in through the tuna door a beautiful silvery mulloway, which seemed to me well over 20 pounds. Such drum — looking very much like their close relative, California’s white seabass — are ­considered a prized catch in this area.

Caught in the Open
The southwest coast of Australia gets its share of wind. Sure, there are calm days any time of the year, and March, April and May offer long stretches of nice weather. But wind is always a possibility.

Fortunately for us, the forecast for the next morning was light southwest winds all day — perfect for a long, 75-mile run up the coast to reefs near Coral Bay. But by midafternoon, we faced conditions very much at odds with the benign forecast. A due-north wind had started to build, and by nightfall, the Mandalay was running head-on into gale-force winds that had whipped the Indian Ocean into a frothing, confused, angry frenzy. And with the coast offering absolutely no protection from a northerly, there was nothing for it but to batten down and pound our way north in the blackness for another seven hours until we finally made Coral Bay where we could hide inside a fringing reef. That run, veterans Neil and Ben later assured me, was really tough, even for this windy region.

We hadn’t the time needed to begin to explore the waters around Exmouth by the time we made the area, and never did get into the excellent giant trevally action for which it’s known. Nor were we able to fish the huge fringing Ningaloo Reef. We did, however, find packs of good-size queenfish anxious to climb all over various lures, particularly Halco’s Hamma lure, when twitched hard to make it dart erratically.

Nor did we have the opportunity to run out to drop lines for billfish, which was a shame: Exmouth has recently become the newest hot spot among Australian billfish anglers. In addition to billfish, the area holds a great variety of game fish. Carter pointed out that Exmouth and the Gascoyne region represent a “crossover zone” where many warm-water species at the southern end of their range mix with many temperate species at the northern end of their range.

The Gulf of Exmouth is a vast body of water, and its ­extensive eastern side offers flats and shallows known to harbor bonefish, permit, golden and other trevallies, queenfish and more. Precious little serious effort has gone on here — though Halco recently teamed up with Australian fishing magazine Fishing World for an extended inshore adventure to better assess the potential of Exmouth’s extensive inshore fishery. (Read that account and see images at fishingworld.com.au/news/sneak-peek-amazing-exmouth.)

Even with all we did get to see and do, eight full days wasn’t nearly enough to truly explore and fish this area — offshore, nearshore and inshore.

The far side of Australia is a fascinating place for anglers with the means and sense of adventure to ­experience it.


Fishing the Far Side
Getting there: Fly into Perth for starters. We flew Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com). Along with its high ratings (airlinequality.com), ANZ has many flights from L.A. and San Francisco directly into Auckland, and offers nonstops to Perth from there. Fly up to Exmouth or Shark Bay from Perth via Skywest (skywest.com.au).

TIMING: For the calmest, most pleasant fishing, figure March, April and May. That’s normally a good time for many game fish, including billfish. Also, the Australian International Billfish Tournament is held in fall, this year March 19 to 23 (for information, visit egfc.com.au, site of the Exmouth Game Fishing Club). If you can take the seas — since October through February can be cob-rough — anglers will find the best black marlin fishing from spring through fall. October’s also a good month for baitballs and sailfish.

To book charters or get more information:

Coral Bay
Coral Bay Ocean Game Fishing Charters
Capt. Bernie Vale
www.mahimahicoralbay.com.au

Shark Bay
Dirk Hartog Island Lodge
Capt. Keiran Wardle
www.dirkhartogisland.com

Exmouth
On Strike Charters
Capt. Josh Bruymnzeel
www.onstrike.com.au

Reel Teaser Charters
Capt. Ross Newton
www.reelteaser­charters.com

True Blue Bones
Capt. Brett Wolf
www.truebluebonefish.com.au
(inshore: bonefish, permit, queenfish, etc.)

Tackle World Bluewater Exmouth
A large, impressively well-equipped tackle dealer run by and for serious enthusiasts, and a great source of information about fishing the area.
www.bluewater.net.au