It's a simple enough puzzle to piece together if one understands fish migrations and seasons. Permit don't only live in the western Pacific, marlin are creatures of habit, milkfish frustrate more than just the Seychellois, and giant trevally inhabit all sorts of islands — even the big one we call a continent.
Then there’s the rest of the species: queenfish, small tarpon, barramundi, Murray cod, cobia, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, bonefish, blue bastards, tuna, bass, barracuda, golden trevally, jewfish, sailfish, brown and rainbow trout. Hell, there are even red stag here, though I’m sure New Zealand hunting operators would like to keep that tidbit under wraps. Australia has everything, but it took some digging to figure this out.
A “sheila”, I came prepared to start over, but the chauvinism never came and the fisheries never disappointed. I felt like I’d discovered buried treasure. In typical steelheader fashion, my favorite Australian fishery ended up being the one farthest from where I live: on the opposite coast near a small town called Exmouth, where whale shark tourism is thriving, hippy dreads are abundant, permit have mouths, and there are only three flats guides operating — the most established of them having been in business for just fifteen years. A place that is, quite possibly, one of the last places on earth where the fishing is as it may have been hundreds of years ago; an angler’s Disneyland, complete with rides in the mangroves, the flats, the surf, the gulf, and the blue-water.
My inbox lit up one sunny December day with an email from talented photographer, Nick Kelley. One year earlier, I’d had him and his girlfriend, Maddie Brenneman, over for dinner as they passed through Oz on a trip to New Zealand. When he asked if I wanted to team up to do some some fishing with the two of them as a “project for Yeti”, there was little resistance on my end. I put together an itinerary with Exmouth at the top of the list.
We were able to secure dates with flats guide, Allan Donald, as well as a day of marlin fishing with blue-water rockstar Eddy Lawler. Flying from Sydney to Perth, then Perth to Exmouth, we were met by Allan at the airport as he proceeded to be hammered by our questions about tides, wind, species, and access to the grocery store from where we were staying at the Exmouth Escape Resort. The answers were as they always are: tides looked good, wind looked like it could get gnarly, species were plentiful, the grocery store was just around the corner.
The next morning came soon. Allan dodged roos and emus on our way to the boat launch, his boat (specifically engineered for fly-fishers) in tow. I expressed my agenda for the day: get Maddie her first queenfish. It was Maddie’s fourth flats trip, her first being French Polynesia. Even the most seasoned of flats fishers fall apart as the yellow glow of an indo-Pacific permit closes in, let alone the nastiness of a hundred pound GT. Queenies, in my opinion, are the perfect fish. Big, aggressive, visible, fly-hungry, hard-pulling, aerial, and one of the most beautiful animals in the world, I couldn’t think of anything that would make me happier than to watch Maddie’s famous smile light up with the reflection of a queenfish’s sheen. We set out with that in mind.
The week went as so many flats trips do…We saw fish, but didn’t hook them. We had shots, but somehow missed. We caught fish, but nothing huge. I hooked a 300 pound blue marlin, and ‘ol Murphy put his law into full effect. And while poor Nick, I’m sure, was stressing about the lack of fish photos, Maddie and I were like two peas in a pod, complete with hilarity, girl talk, and the grand idea of going on a desert hike with a 2pm start time. Her enthusiasm for every animal we encountered brought me to life and, more than ever before, I wore the pride for my newfound home on my sleeve.
I always knew I was proud of what Australia had to offer. In my travels, I’d learned that the majority of North Americans (myself included) are relatively unaware of the incredible fishing we have here. Anglers passing through Sydney en route to New Zealand without extending their layovers, opera house tourists who never think to explore the harbour’s kingfish, parents visiting their children abroad without realizing that there’s great fishing just around the corner. Selfishly, I’d always delighted in having an entire continent to myself and a figurative handful of other fly fishermen. But now, aware of my eagerness to share the experience with like-minded people, I have no problem admitting the countless opportunities available to anglers willing to put in the time. We may not be able to prove it with endless photos of toothy beasts, however, that certainly doesn’t mean they’re not there. But who’re we kidding anyway? That’s fishing.
If you're heading to Exmouth, check out these guide operations:
Photos by Nick Kelley.