By Daryl Bartho
OVER a couple of beers way back in August 2005 a good mate of mine suggested I join him and a few other guys on a bit of a paddling trip up the rugged North West coast of Australia. At the time I was over in Perth paddling the Avon Descent, a river kayak race from Northam to Bayswater, some 124km over two days. I was already shattered from two long days of paddling, but the thought of a bit more paddling while getting to fish some of Australia’s most remote reefs made the decision really easy. I would be joining some of Australia’s most accomplished watermen on a 600km odyssey from Carnarvon up to Exemouth.
Over the next two weeks I experienced some of the most amazing paddling, fishing and spearfishing the planet has to offer. We were accompanied by two fishing vessels as we paddled approximately 60km per day. Thankfully we had a few days to chill, which, in my case, were spent chasing mackies (’cuda in SA), wahoo and other pelagics.
After that trip in 2005 my good mate Ash Nesbit decided that the trip should become an annual fixture in our diaries, but instead of paddling 600km, we would set up a base camp to fish and spearfish to our hearts’ content. We did five trips after the first trip in 2005 exploring the remote islands and deserted beaches the North West coast has to offer.
The weather in August across there is very similar to Durban’s, with the water a comfortable 23°C. However big swell is always a problem with the big frontal systems that work their way up from further south.
I hadn’t been back to WA for a couple of years since, so when Ash asked me if I would join him on a charter from Geraldton all the way up to the Montebello Islands this year I just had to convince my dear wife that it was going to be a good idea. Ash is captain of a 70ft aluminium power catamaran called Silverado. It is the ideal live aboard for fishing and diving trips to the remote areas of NW Aussie.
Leaving my wife and two young daughters, aged two years and five weeks respectively was never going to be easy, but the thought of screaming reels and blue water helped!
Ash had a client who wanted to take his family on a fishing holiday around the Montebello Islands and he thought it would be a good opportunity for me to do some scouting for possible charters in the future.
My aim is to try get a few guys together next year for a few weeks of solid fishing aboard a luxury mothership. The North West has everything any waterman could ever dream of — endless fishing opportunities, some of the best waves and world class diving.
Packing for this kind of trip is always tricky; it’s easy to get carried away and end up at the airport check-in with a bag weighing 47kg! Fortunately I already had a quiver of rods and a heap of tackle over in Perth so it was just a case of putting together some ’cuda spoons and couple of new ’cuda dusters after a quick stop at Pulsator Lures.
I had also called Ben Patrick from Halco Australia two weeks prior to the trip and he very generously put together a large selection of lures for us, including their new Slidog stick bait and Laser Pro 190 XXD.
The Australians fish slightly differently for their ’cuda/Spanish mackerel compared to the way we do it here in KwaZulu-Natal. Very few of the guys rig mackerel and baits like we do here along our North Coast. They mostly use linked hooks with large garfish/halfbeaks as bait or simply troll for them with bibbed lures such as Halco Laser Pros and Sorcerers.
I’m a sucker for whipping when it comes to targeting ’cuda and this is the main reason I have entrusted my Kingfisher Ski Whipper with 9” KP to Ash in Perth. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to convince Ash to go and catch some slimy mackerel a few months before our trip so that we always have decent bait and don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on sardines and gardies.
Eventually the day of departure arrived. I said goodbye to my wife and two kids, took a quick eight hour flight across to Perth, drove five hours up the Great Northern Highway to Geraldton.
Once we got there we had to patiently wait six hours for Reece Baker to arrive on a bus from Onslo, so we only left the Gero Harbour after midnight. Finally we travelled 16 hours all the way up to Cape St Crique on the southern tip of Dorre Island.
Bernier and Dorre Island both form part of the Shark Bay World Heritage Site and are home to some of the world’s most endangered mammals. The islands are each approximately 30km long, with a small gap separating them. If the swell is under 3m then it is possible to pass through the gap from the Shark Bay side, but you definitely don’t want to be caught in the gap with any swell over 3m; I can vouch for this after experiencing it firsthand.
The fishing on the western edges of these islands is unbelievable! Huge wahoo congregate in the slightly deeper water from 30-50m and can be a menace when you’re trolling high speed lures. Places like Low Point and the Gap proving to be some of the better areas when targeting these speedsters.
The ’cuda seem to prefer the slightly shallower waters closer to the islands and we targeted them in 12-30m. There are hundreds of yellowspot and golden trevally along the many ledges and you can literally catch a fish every drop of the jig. The bigger ’cuda and wahoo seem to hang around the many feeding shoals of skipjack and longtail tuna that smash the smaller baitfish along the steep island structure.
I’ve had some of my favourite spearfishing in this area while targeting the abundant baldchin groper that frequent the shallower 5-20m water.
The ocean wildlife is wonderful and a few years back we were fortunate to have a few manatees swim around us for about 40 minutes near the Gap. We have not had too many issues with shark predation in the past, but I must admit that this year I saw a definite increase in shark activity and we had a good number of ’cuda taxed.
There are also plenty of massive brindle bass that continually patrol the main ledges in search of a feed. On many occasions I nearly messed my wetsuit when these giants swam up to me, usually from my blind spot!
This year I also noticed an abundance of big chanos chanos (milkfish) that were congregating on the multiple scum lines not far from the shore. On the first dive of the trip we were surrounded by them and had some 25-35kg GTs cruising around as well.
We hooked quite a few decent ’cuda while testing out the new Laser Pro 190XXD and Reece caught a 20kg-plus fish on the chrome purple lure not ten minutes after we put them out.
I was amazed at how stable the Laser Pro 190XXD was when it was pulled behind Silverado at 13 knots with a massive prop wash. Ben Patrick told me they have spent a huge amount of time and money perfecting the design of the new bib, and the speeds at which we pulled them — and their performance — showed they’ve got it right.
We managed to get a ’cuda on almost every bait we pulled, but the bigger 30kg fish still eluded us. A few big fish bit through the no.7 wire we used, but I wasn’t convinced any of them was over the magical 30kg number.
Next stop was Barrow Island which entailed another 15 hours travelling further north. Along the way we decided to stop in at one of the many drop offs with scattered bombies around midday.
There were red emperor and coral trout everywhere. As Dave Lewington was descending to the ledge below him a large silver flash caught his eye; to his right cruised a 30kg-plus ’cuda! He took aim and delivered a perfect shot which saw him getting towed around for about 15 minutes. Luckily the large ’cuda towed him almost directly to Silverado which was anchored about 600m north of us. Mike Dowson was following him closely in the plastic tender boat and was a bit apprehensive when the 33kg ’cuda was handed up to him to load; the fish’s head looked positively prehistoric!
We had a lot of fun that evening catching and releasing spangled emperors up to 5kg on light tackle on the northern end of the island where Ash decided we would anchor up for the night.
A couple of days later we found ourselves in the many channels of the Montebello Islands. Some days we had to try to evade the ’cuda and we couldn’t even get a bottom bait to hit the floor without being smashed by the hundreds of 8-12kg fish. Anything flashy would get smoked, and I had a quiet laugh at the guys using a bit of flash on their bottom hooks because even if they did hit the bottom, inevitably they would get bitten off on the retrieve.
I was suitably impressed at how effective slow pitch jigging was, and the guys landed numerous impressive Rankin cod (very similar to our yellowbelly just a different colour), kingies and large red emperor.
We also spent a bit of time catching squid on the weed banks and caught some massive crayfish for the pot.
What I also found very interesting was that in the 1950s the British military conducted three nuclear weapons tests in this archipelago. These days the area is part of a Marine Protected Area with demarcated “no take” zones, and you would never imagine that any kind of bombing had ever taken place there.
After three weeks aboard Silverado it was going to be very difficult getting back to normal working life. Waking up before sunrise, having a cup of coffee from freshly ground beans and having pretty much the whole day to terrorise fish — what more could anybody ever ask for? Lucky for me I’m not stuck behind a desk and computer all day.
I did miss my wife and kids terribly, but I’m already planning the trip there next year. If you’re interested in going on the trip of a lifetime then get hold of me as spots will fill up very quickly once we have the dates and travel plan sorted!
For further details email Daryl Bartho <firstname.lastname@example.org>.