Exmouth Adventure

by Greg Milner

Editor's Note: How can you not read about twelve Australian blokes who travel with a mere 95 fishing rods over 1,300 kilometers on a nine day trip and fish frisky saltwater in a three metre boat?

We welcome this kind of piece as a look at fishing Worldwide. Don't be bashful. Toss your own trip on the barbie! Submissions do not have to be in English; we read several languages as does most of our rapidly growing international audience.

North West Cape is a long way from anywhere, on a road that goes nowhere else. Even if you happen to live in Perth, it's still 15 hours or so of serious, tedious towing.

You'd sooner fly, but the excess baggage on a 1.5 tonne sportfishing boat can be a bit off-putting. So for anybody with a bent for bent rods and big water, and the kind of wallet that shrinks in fear from $1,000-a-day charter boats, it's drive yourself or don't go.

Exmouth isn't the kind of place you just drop in to, a diversion of sorts, just to see what it's like. Unless you've got a spare couple of days up your sleeve.

When you make the final turn-off at Minilya roadhouse on North West Coastal Highway and head west and north, there's that psychological illusion that a cold beer and a warm bed at Norcape Lodge are just around the corner. It is, but the corner is still more than 200 kilometers away.

At least it's bitumen all the way. And when you finally, thankfully and stiffly emerge from the car after 1300 kilometers of unbroken driving, there's a town there, with hot showers, shady trees, petrol stations, fresh food and most of the other touches of civilization. Like drive-in liquor stores. And caravan parks. And video rental. All this on the very edge of fishing heaven.

Which is more than can be said for most of the recognized fishing hotspots on the WA (Ed: Western Australia) coast. Gnaraloo, Quobba, Cape Cuvier, Steep Point, Warra etc. Terrific fishing, all of them. But carting everything from generators to drinking water and extra fuel over tracks designed and built by the same people who make corrugated iron roofing sheets tends to take the gloss off things a little. Comfort is not a headline item at these places.

That's not to say Exmouth would put the Mirage at Port Douglas in the shade. But in a run-down, tatty-at-the-edges, low-rent kind of way, it's got that warm and relaxed feeling about it.

For 25 years it was the support town for the US naval communications base named after the late Harold Holt. Now, the place must have something going for it if Uncle Sam was prepared to send thousands of sailors there to Rest and Recreate for all those years, mustn't it?

Just kidding there. For many of the poor young lads from the bright lights of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it must've been something of a culture shock. You're posting me WHERE, Admiral?? You mean, NOT Hawaii??

The only bright lights in Exmouth were the ones at the top of VLF radio masts that helped keep the Pentagon in touch with the American submarine fleet strung out around the earth. However, if they happened to like fishing (or grew to like it, as many of them did), a tour of duty at Exmouth could have been a lot worse.

Exmouth has sold itself for several years as the headquarters of serious big game fishing on the western side of the continent. The continental shelf wanders by just a couple of kilometers off the western side of the Cape, so you don't have to bounce around for hours before you actually get to do any fishing.

Launch at Tantabiddy, inside Ningaloo Reef about 35 kilometers from Exmouth on the other side of the peninsula, and you can be out in turn-your-sounder-off deep water in 25 minutes. Better still, it's only 25 minutes to get back again; less chance of being caught by a sudden change of weather, and a fuel bill that won't give you a heart attack.

The marlin haven't been caught in the size and numbers they have off the eastern coast, but then, by comparison, there aren't exactly thousands of boats trying to catch them, either.

But unless you have a particularly masochistic streak and just love trolling for hours in a small boat while having your vital organs rearranged by each successive thump into the chop, you don't drive all that way just for marlin. There are plenty of other fish in this part of the world, a lot less water between them, and more untouched fishing grounds than you could wave an Ugly Stik at.

Twelve men, five boats, and nine days away from home. Our trip had been planned for six months. If anything, we were over-prepared. Hell, between us we had 95 rods and reels. Ninety-bloody-five! So there was a high sense of anticipation as Ron D'Raine, John 'Pole' Mokrzycki and I towed "Polecat" out of Perth on a perfect May morning.

You take your chances with the weather, even as far north as North West Cape. Annoyingly, the Cape forms the dividing point between two weather 'regions' arbitrarily decided by the Bureau of Meteorology. And you never know which region the Cape is going to fall into.

The farther north we drove, the more the perfect May morning turned into a foul May afternoon. By the time we pulled up at Norcape Lodge, on the beach at Exmouth the following morning, a bitterly cold desert easterly was beating Exmouth Gulf into a dirty gray-brown froth.

"Yair, pity, that," drooled the guy at the service station, as we filled the fuel tanks in five boats varying in size from three meters to five and half. "Been like this for ten days straight. Probably sort itself out in a few days."

A few days!? My fishing mates were unimpressed.

"Bugger THAT!" Craig 'Noddy' Radford hissed. "I haven't driven 15 bloody hours to leave the boat on the bloody trailer!"

He was referring, in an oblique kind of way, to The Fisherman's Formula, a rough guide to which all fishers refer when they are confronted with unfavorable fishing conditions. Simply, it can be expressed as follows:

(D + C) divided by T = F, where D is distance traveled, C is cost of trip, T is time allowed in days (in this case seven), and F is fishability.

Obviously, when the sum of D and C are high, and T is low, F will almost invariably be high enough to make keen fishermen venture out into otherwise stay-at-home-and-watch-the-football weather.

We launched at Tantabiddy that afternoon, and headed out through North Passage. It was rough, uncomfortable, and cold. A couple of times, our lures managed to avoid floating islands of weed long enough to entice a few small tuna. We headed back, and regrouped at the bar of Norcape Lodge.

The next day wasn't much better. That night we pored over charts of the area. The weather outlook was a little healthier, and we were keen to try anywhere but the back of Ningaloo Reef. True, it's easy to get to, and in a stiff easterly, with the swell down, is well protected...but that also means it gets a hammering by everyone from local charter boat operators to once-a-year tourists.

Slightly east of north from the tip of the Cape are the long, low shapes of North Muiron and South Muiron Islands. With the southern tip only about ten nautical miles off shore, they're easily reachable in fair weather by most boats. By the next morning the wind had dropped to no more than a low howl. The three smaller boats stayed in close, tossing lead-head jigs for trevally around North West Reef, right on the tip of the Cape. But it was enough for the two biggest boats (including Polecat) to head north. Our destination was the extremely narrow and fishy-looking passage between the two islands, where the tide rushes through at up to six knots and the Spanish mackerel try to leap into the boat. That's what the guy at the service station told us, anyway.

Polecat made it to the southern end of South Muiron Island before Murphy's Law (Marine Amendments 1989, Subsection 2 (1a)) took effect. This subsection dictates that just when things are looking up, something must go wrong.

Polecat's Evinrude 120 had an asthma attack. Wheezing along on three cylinders, she would do no more than four knots. Sigh.

In the lee of the island, we were in no danger. It was still early, the wind was dropping, the sun was shining, and help was just a radio call away. But we weren't going anywhere. Taking our chance while the motor could still turn its prop, we anchored up to wait the day out while the other crew got into the real action, then came back to shepherd us home.

At the southern tip of South Muiron Island the bottom shoals up quickly from more than 20 meters to less than five, and the Indian Ocean rollers throw their glistening, foaming shoulders against the coral reef in a never-ending display of brute force. It can be lethally dangerous. Only a couple of months later at exactly this spot, two mates were tossed from their six metre boat by a wave that snuck up on them. One swam to shore. They found the remains of his friend a few days later. Only his lower torso and legs were left, the rest presumably taken by the big tiger sharks that regards these waters as home. But today, there was no sign of nasty waves.

It's funny how things turn out. Subsection 2 (1b) of Murphy's Law (Marine Amendments 1989) dictates that you fish where you can.

There wasn't so much as a sniff of fish on the sounder. Not that we needed a sounder. The water was only eight meters deep, and we could see the bottom. We burleyed up anyway, and casually floated a couple of pilchards out the back, while we tried to figure out what was wrong with the motor.

Still nothing on the surface after five minutes. So we put another floater out the back, and dropped three lines to the bottom. Six rods, and the water was slick with burley. Still nothing. Ron took a little 2kg spinning outfit up on the foredeck and started casting a small popper towards the shore. I sat down in the cabin and started fixing sandwiches. Pole got out the video camera, and recorded several minutes of not very much happening. Complete with the kind of commentary that turns anybody who wasn't there rigid with boredom.

Fingers greasy with chicken fat, I fossicked around for a radio to listen to the football, and passed Ron a freshly-baked lamington layered with fresh cream.

Well. Bedlam comes in many forms. In our case it was triggered with a fraction of a second of ratchet noise. We must have looked ridiculous; frozen in mid-sentence, mid-cast, mid-mouthful-of-chicken-sandwich, we hung there too surprised to move. The ratchet went off again, only it was on another rod, then another one went off, then another, and before you could gang-hook a pilchard, the floaters were being plaited by pirouetting mackerel, bodies bounced off each other, and somewhere in the melee a half eaten chook sandwich flew through the air and got squashed on the deck.

And Ron, bless his heart, held on grimly to a rod in each hand, and the lamington between his teeth. With the fish going in opposite directions, his cries of excitement were liberally laced with magic words. At least, we thought they were. It was hard to tell, partly because his voice was effectively muffled by the sock-like lamington, and partly because we were doubled over with laughter at the sight of the fresh cream rapidly spreading itself over his contorted face.

It was like that for two or three hours without a break. The others, having ventured several miles farther north, caught next to nothing. Murphy's Law.

We correctly guessed the engine's aversion to revs as a fuel feed problem. It was easily remedied with a new fuel hose. Now we were ready to venture wide.

Three days after we arrived, the stiff desert easterly which had buffeted the area for more than a week finally blew itself out to literally nothing. On a sea the color and clarity of Nicole Kidman's eyes and the texture of oiled slate, we headed 25 nautical miles north, past the Muiron Islands to Peak Island.

Actually, it's more a sandy outcrop than an island, rising suddenly out of deep water to a point barely a hundred meters long and fifty wide.

For miles around it, flocks of sea birds swooped and dived into the water, a sight to excite any sportfishermen. For where birds are working on the surface, fish are invariably doing the same just beneath it, slashing through schools of bait and leaving the scraps for the flyers to fight over. In all directions, the oily-smooth surface boiled. It was so calm that Hal Harvey and Kevin Hatten had followed us up in their three metre Brooker dinghy.

By 10am the sub-tropical sun already had enough bite to sear the backs of our necks, but we didn't care.

Hour after amazing hour, we could barely troll a lure or rigged garfish bait for more than a few minutes before it was inhaled by hungry turrum, bludger trevally or tuna, or mutilated by the razor sharp teeth of Spanish mackerel. The mackerel we kept for the dinner table, the trevally and tuna we let go.

From deeper water, 'Noddy' Radford radioed of bigger things; sailfish, slapping at the gardies trolled on outriggers just meters from the boat, as if teasing the men, daring them to try harder.

Eventually they did, and we raced over to capture the fight on video and stills. But it was a disappointing performance. The fish only half-heartedly lifted its head out of the water a couple of times, and the 40kg, 2 metre specimen was subdued rapidly on Brad Davis' 10kg standup gear. That's what happens when you whip a camera out. Brad tagged the weary battler, and gripped the bill tightly as they swam it alongside for a few meters before the tail fluttered a couple of times, the predatory head shook briefly, as a boxer would after a surprise roundhouse punch to the temple, and the great fish disappeared below the surface.

In a little cove on the south side of the island, we stared down into 5 meters of aquarium-clear green, and watched platoons of fat, 3kg spangled emperor chase little Rapala lures or sniff whole pilchards, sometimes snatching the bait to end up as juicy, thick white fillets in the icebox.

The temperature gauge in the sounder indicated 27 degree water, so warm we could barely wash the sweat off when we gingerly dipped our toes in the shallows at the beach. A three metre hammerhead lurking not far off shore made anything more adventurous a calculated risk.

It went on for three full days like that. More perfect fishing conditions have yet to be invented. They always have to end, those fabulous fishing trips. Necessarily so. If it went on too long, even Nirvana would begin to pall.

We didn't need GPS to find our way back in the dusk. The lights on the towers at the tip of the Cape beckoned as brightly as any guardian angel, even from 25 miles out. On a sea of glass turned liquid gold in the sunset, you might imagine that heaven had it by a nose. But it'd be a photo finish.

Later Editor's Note: Always willing to help with a little vocabulary, Greg explains ...

"Berley" is indeed "chum", a foul mixture of just about anything you can throw together, although usually taking the form of fish frames, discarded bait and yesterday's offal.

"Lamington" is a particularly Australian pastry...a square piece of cake, covered in chocolate icing and grated coconut, usually topped with rich whipped cream. It is generally guaranteed to provoke strikes just as you fill your mouth with one.

Similarly, "chook" is Australian for chicken, and equally revered for provoking strikes halfway through a mouthful.