On November 26th my wife and I took a 2 hour flight from Cairns north to Bamaga where we were met by Greg Bethune, captain of the Tropic Paradise, a 62 foot aluminum catamaran custom designed for mother ship fishing trips. We traveled a short distance past 15 foot high termite hills to the seaside village of Seisia where the Tropic Paradise was moored to the local pier. Multiple sings on the beach adjacent to the pier had crocodile warnings and recommended against going into the water. Welcome to Australia.
We boarded the Tropic Paradise and discovered that we were two of the only 3 passengers. The third passenger was PPAPAYA Bob… and avid fly fisherman from Florida who had taken the Barrier Reef trip last year. Beside Greg Bethune, there were 5 other crew consisting of chef, two guides (Peter and Shane), and two mother ship crew (Naomi and Lou). We departed about lunchtime and made Duggong Island by nightfall. The rough weather prompted all to vote on anchoring in the Lee of the Island that night rather than slogging it all the way out to the reef. Dropping a jig from the stern of the mother ship to the bottom resulted in a hook-up with a probable Narrow barred Mackerel as it bit through the 60 lb mono after a short fight. That seemed to shut down the bite so we ate dinner and went to bed after setting up our spinning and fly-rods. I brought a fairly stout two piece spinning rod called the “Tuna Sniper” wed to a Stella 20000 reel. This is what Betsy used for much of the trip. I brought a 10 wt JC rod with Abel #3 BG Reel (old style, full cage), 11 wt 3 pc JC rod with Tibor Riptide reel, 12 wt Sealevel Extreme 8’ rod with Abel 4.5 BG reel, 14 wt Sea Level Extreme rod with Abel Super 12 W. As it turned out, most fish including the largest were taken on the 10 wt rod with a sinking head and intermediate running line.
The mother ship towed 4 skiffs. Two ere 17 foot panga like boats and two were center console runabouts with goof electronics. We spent much of the first morning catching Narrow barred Mackerel (“Spaniards”), as well as a few Coral Trout and GT’s with poppers. I caught a few smallish trout with the fly rod, nothing spectacular. The Mackerel were all taken on trolled plugs. After lunch Betsy and I went ashore with floating lines and small flies to look for bonefish, jacks etc. A few casts along the shore produced two Golden Trevally to about 5 lbs. We then went around to the shallow reef side of the island and spotted a school of about 5 large, tailing fish. Several casts with small baitfish flies were met with indifference and only disturbed the school. While the fish were regrouping I switched to a crab fly. When the fish started tailing again the fly was avidly taken on the first cast. It took off on a medium slow but powerful run of about 50 yards. After a few shorter runs we beached it. It turned out to be a good sized “Blue Bastard” or Sweetlips. The closest thing that we have in North America to this is probably a redfish.
That evening we traveled through more rough weather to a small island about 15 miles inside the main reef and the next morning we reached the Great Barrier Reef. The wind was still up and there were rain squalls but the water was calm behind the reef and the fishing was great. I had the best luck with fly rod fishing the channels between reef patches where schools of fusiliers (most prevalent baitfish) were schooled up. I caught Red Bass to 15 lbs, a large Coral trout of about 18 lbs, a Narrow barred Mackerel of about 25-30 lbs, a few large Mac Tuna and multiple Shark Mackerel to about 15 lbs. I hooked up and got cut off by two large GT’s., but I did manage to land a few small GT’s of about 10 lbs and several other types of trevally.
The fourth morning we awoke to gorgeous weather with no real wind. The reef was covered with glassy clear water making spotting fish easier. We took two trips outside the reef to fish for Dogtooth and got into them on the second trip. Peter was able to meter the fish hanging around a pinnacle about ¼ mile outside the main reef. One of the boats managed 2 smallish Doggies on trolled plugs. We decided to drift over the pinnacle letting the fly line sink about 40 to 50 feet before stripping in. This resulted in one hook up followed by a fairly blistering run of about 100 yards followed by the line suddenly going slack. The 20 lb tippet broke just below the Bimini despite relatively light drag setting on the reel. A lot of authors talk about getting “finned” by the Dogtooth. Anyway, I think I’ll try 40 lb tippet the next time, if there ever is a next time.
In any case, the Great Barrier Reef is an awesome place to fish (and snorkel). We were in a rarely visited part of the reef at the northern end of the York Peninsula. As a matter of fact, we never saw another boat while we were on the Main reef.
Things learned on the trip. Bring some crab flies, everything eats them near shore. Bring 4 – 5 sinking heads and 4 -5 float heads matched to 10-12 wt rod. Bring lots of pre-tied single strand 50-60 lb wire bite tippets about 6” in length. The wire gets bent up after just one fish, and the fish don’t seem to like bent wire bite tippets. The Narrow barred Mackerel have a mouth identical to that of a Wahoo, and will cut any monofilament. So, I fished with a wire tippet most of the time. You can get away with 60 lb mono bite for the other species, but the Spaniards hung around most of the places that we fished. A Spro type swivel attached to one end makes it easy to attach to your class tippet monofilament. I used 80 lb spro swivels which can easily slide through guides (not that they needed to on a bite tippet), etc. Thankfully most reef cut-offs occurred on the tippet, not on the fly line. However, I did lose several fly lines to the reef. This nearly always occurred when I let the line sink a little too far, causing a hang-up. On future trips I would probably fish with more 40 lb class tippet to improve landing chances with the larger GT’s and Coral Trout and definitely with the doggies (at least until I got the hang of these fish). Flies needn’t be huge. I tied many more large flies then I needed. The only place where a large fly seemed best was with the Dogtooth Tuna. A fly on a 3/0 or 4/0 hook, tied clouser style with bright colors and flash did the job for other species.
Another technique that might be advantageous for the flyrodder would be to get some baitfish (with sabikis, etc) and cart them a few miles inside the reef and use them for chum to attract fish to the boat. There are lots of fish in this area where the depth is about 100 feet. I discovered this when I let my fly sink down 60 to 70 feet and brought it back, large Spaniards and even one very large trevally camp up following but not striking the fly. I think a little well placed live chum would have kept the fish near the boat and turned them on enough to more readily take the fly. The deeper water MIGHT improve one’s chances of landing a large GT.