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February 10, 2012

Australia's Coral Coast

Fishing the Indian Ocean on the far side of Oz

When fishing’s so hot that a major tackle manufacturer has to call from the ship to have more lures sent up the coast via next-day air to replace all those lost in the first two days of fishing, that speaks volumes.
After encountering sizzling action out of Shark Bay, off Australia’s far side — its Indian Ocean coast (aka the coral coast or Gascoyne region) — that was the dilemma faced by Ben Patrick, owner of Australia’s popular Halco lures.
I was one of six other anglers joining Ben, among them Halco’s marketing and product-development manager Tim Carter, and Ben’s dad, Neil — who brought Halco to prominence and has for decades been an International Game Fish Association trustee. By the end of our second day of fishing within a short run of the coast, we had lost countless Roosta Popper lures to narrow-barred Spanish mackerel and Laser Pro diving plugs to rapacious wahoo. Even wire traces were bitten off or occasionally bitten through; Ben added more premade traces to the lure order as well.

On the second evening, aboard Ben’s 48-foot custom convertible, Mandalay, we sat at anchor in tranquil Turtle Bay, feasting on fresh wahoo (and calamari, thanks to squid attracted to the boat’s underwater Aqualuma blue lights). After dinner, Doug Nilsen called home to report in. Doug, co-owner of Accurate Fishing Products along with his brother David, also on board, were joined by their VP of sales and marketing, Ben Secrest. Before signing off, Doug handed his iPhone to Secrest for a quick hello. Since I happened to be sitting in the salon and working on my laptop, I jotted down Secrest’s comment to Doug’s wife verbatim: “Kate — you know I’ve fished a lot of places, but I’ve never seen anything like what I saw yesterday or today. It was crazy!”

Trident-Missile Launches
Everyone knows about Australia’s fabulous and famous Great Barrier Reef, but most American anglers — and quite a few Aussies — know little about the remote and mostly uninhabited coral coast of southwest Australia. I wanted to see how worthwhile the area might be as a new option for ­adventurous anglers looking for something different.

We started our trip at Shark Bay/Denham, to which we flew from Perth, about 400 miles south. There, aboard the Mandalay, Ben and Neil waited, ready to cast off. (While it does boast a small airport, Denham — with population numbering in three digits — held little else of interest to us.)

After an overnight at Turtle Bay (eating fresh pink snapper — actually a very large species of porgy — we’d caught an hour earlier), we cast small poppers to shark mackerel before breakfast. These sharkies were great fun and, as it turned out, a mere warm-up for what was to come.

Our first surprise of the day was the weather: The ­forecast had called for clear and sunny, but things started out calm, gray and drizzly. (This was far from the only weather surprise in store on this trip, but more on that later.)

We put out four Laser Pro deep-diving plugs of various sizes and colors, and started hooking fish at once. Most of the action came from Spaniards, as Australians call their narrow-barred mackerel, similar to the Atlantic’s king ­mackerel but with faint bars on their sides and a particularly badass disposition. The species is found throughout the IndoPacific region. We hooked one or two every so often, then suddenly all the rods were going off at once. I mentioned to Ben that, with the fish concentrated, it might be worth making a drift to throw poppers.

We did just that and, in short order, chaos reigned. Shouts of amazement arose from bow and stern as mackerel, attacking our Roosta Poppers from below, vaulted far above the surface. We’d see no telltale precursor to such Trident-missile launches; they could happen at any moment, and it was seldom long on any cast before they did, inevitably producing a chorus of cheers. More often than not, the mackerel missed the lure, but it mattered little; just seeing the high-flying, gravity-defying predators was its own reward.

More astounding still was the rare sight, as the morning went on, of dozens of Spaniards simultaneously erupting from the calm water over a large area, chasing down baitfish. Every angler stopped, mouth agape, at seeing so many freejumping torpedoes up to 40 pounds or so.

Over the course of the morning, we managed to release more narrow-barred mackerel than anyone could keep track of, but lost many to sharks as well. We also “released” a frighteningly large number of poppers during the melee, with all the bite-offs, break-offs and sharks.

Small Blacks Near Shore

When the action finally slowed, we headed farther offshore in the afternoon to troll for marlin. We didn’t have to run far before putting out trolling lures; black marlin often patrol these waters within a few miles of shore. If we’d been after big blues in particular, a run of 40 miles or so to the 3,000foot zone would have been called for.

But we were looking for blacks since, in recent years, the whole nearshore coast from Shark Bay north to Exmouth and beyond has been a hotbed of activity for small black marlin, with 100- to 150-pound fish offering a fabulous lighttackle fishery Down Under in late spring through fall.

However, the black fishery often sees wide swings from season to season in ­availability; that’s the case for many other pelagic targets in these waters — blues, stripes, sails and yellowfin — so it can be hot for a season or two, then turn cold. Unfortunately, that day and, in fact, most of the season last year (unlike the outstanding fishing in 2010) proved a bit slim on the marlin-pickins’ side. Outside of raising a pair of sails, we didn’t see any billfish that afternoon.

Wahoo All Around
The next day we’d put on some miles, continuing our journey up the coast, keeping in mind that we had to reach Exmouth (to fly out), nearly 300 miles north of Shark Bay, on the eighth day.

But first, we couldn’t pass up the chance to have one more go with the Spaniards just after sunup if they proved to be as thick as the morning before. At first, it appeared we were in luck. Initial casts brought macks blasting from the water. But things proved different this morning. For one thing, bright sun had replaced yesterday’s overcast, low ceiling.

Plus there were the sharks.

We’re talking big sharks, of the 10-foot, bad-boy sort — at least one tiger plus bulls and other whalers. We knew we wouldn’t stand much chance of getting any mackerel to the boat and, indeed, saw some smashing (literally and figuratively) attacks on hooked fish. Some sharks even keyed in to the loud bloops made by the biggest Roosta Poppers and followed them to the boat. All of this served to remind me that it ain’t called Shark Bay for nothing.

We headed north to Dorrie Island, where our next big surprise awaited. The drop-off just outside the island proved to be wahoo city. Replacing the topwater strikes of Spaniards were slashing attacks by wahoo on trolled lures — Halco Laser Pros, Max wobbling plugs and the ­globally popular Giant Tremblers. More often than not, when one rod went off, so did all four, and for at least a bit, a marvelous mayhem ensued.

While yesterday’s fishing had decimated our supply of poppers, today we had to raid much of our diving-lure supply. Even though we fished fairly heavy braid and wire leaders, bite-offs and sharkings aplenty kept us rerigging. Minus those lost to sharks and three ’hoo we kept (to 50 pounds), we released more wahoo than we had count of.