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A Gulf Between Two States

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Fishing the northeast and northwest coasts of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Queensland and the Northern Territory are equally blessed with magnificent slices of coastline, especially those northern fringes in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There’s a multitude of sportfishing options in a remote and unspoilt maritime playground, and pro guide Tim O’Reilly knows some of the best.

Mental images of the Gulf of Carpentaria usually include meander ing rivers full of sediment flowing into a shallow, muddy and mangroveencrusted bay.

The two northerly coasts of the Gulf are vastly different to most of the southern coastal area. Long, white, sandy beaches, studded with rocky outcrops and reefs, run right the way up each coastline. Green- and bluehued creeks with crystal-clear headwaters and coastal wetlands typify these stretches.

Some of Australia’s greatest all-round sportfishing comes from this stretch of coast, where intense wet-season rains link a vast network of creeks, rivers and wetlands, all interconnected in times of flood. When floodwaters recede, the landscape is left dotted with a multitude of pools, ponds, lagoons and billabongs for the dry season. Even a quick glance at a topographic map shows just how many tiny waterholes and rivulets are scattered throughout the region.

The Queensland side of the coast is predominately Aboriginal freehold land and National Park, except around the Weipa township and mining leases. This restricts places to launch boats, but adventurous anglers can find their way into true wilderness areas from certain access points. Fishing for saratoga, sooty grunter and barramundi can be excellent in the upstream reaches of all the systems heading north.

Sight casting to these fish is one of life’s true pleasures. It’s hard to match watching a big old saratoga bow wave towards a surface lure before snatching it and taking to the air. Or spotting a huge barra next to a tree, tail fanning in the shade, and wondering what cast to make. It is an artform of patience and precision when casting into the pools, which are invariably covered in vegetation of some sort. Landing fish in such devilish country is sometimes impossible.

From the Kendell, Kirke, Love, Archer,
Watson, Ward, Embley, Hay, Pennefather, Wenlock, Ducie, Dalhunty, Skarden, Jackson, Macdonald, Doubouy and Cottrell Rivers and up to the Jardine, there’s a lot packed into a small stretch of coastline.

Crocodile caution needs to be taken as they are thick in the area, as are pigs, snakes, spiders and plenty of other stuff to do you harm. Be very cautious hiking into unknown areas and have a clear plan for returning. Try and avoid October to December if at all possible, as dehydration, excessive heat and a lack of clean, fresh water are extra threats.

Sportfishing along this coastline is made easier during the northern dry season when high-pressure systems in the south push dry, east and southeast breezes across the Gulf for a relatively consistent 6-8 month period, allowing the predictability needed for a few mothership operations.

Throughout the neap tides, much of the coastline can be sight cast from the shore. A wading species list like queenfish, GT, barra, giant herring, tarpon, blue salmon, Tuskfish, Golden Trevally and permit is very possible from multiple locations. Fly fisherman in particular favour this stretch of coast as it usually allows them to cast in the morning with the sun at their back and light winds blowing across their shoulder.

Moving into the estuaries and downstream stretches of these systems, shallow sand, rockbars and log jams become issues. Most are tricky to navigate in their midstream and downstream reaches, and running in and out with tides is usually a feature of many of the smaller systems.

Fishing the last push of the run-out and the first push of the run-in tides is usually most productive.

Further offshore, the coastline has proven hugely productive for a range of species. From plentiful Northern Bluefin tuna schools through to marlin, sailfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia and trevally species, much of this fishing action is still relatively close to shore. Trailer boats can quite easily access contour lines, patches of reef and shoals to find themselves world-class light-tackle fishing, especially out of Weipa.

The use of jigs, vibes and soft plastics in this fishery is very productive and allows fisherman the chance to cover a lot of ground efficiently. As usual, finding bait is one of the core ingredients to finding hungry fish. Intersecting currents and pressure points across shallow reefs help concentrate both predators and prey.

Anglers are spoilt for choice along this coastline. There are so many scenarios and species of fish to target on all sorts of gear. Anyone armed with a good light spin stick, an overhead and an 8-10 weight fly outfit is set to take part in exceptional lighttackle sportfishing.

Punctuated by large shallow bays, this stretch of coastline is a myriad of tiny inlets, creeks, and long sandy stretches of often white sand. It’s very remote country, except for Nhulunbuy and Groote Island, which both have decent sized townships and communities. The coast is predominately indigenous freehold land, so access permits and permission are required.

Heading north, this stretch includes the top half of Groote Island and surrounding islands. It also includes the top of Blue Mud Bay, which can provide exceptional barra fishing under certain circumstances and prolific shallow-water reef fishing in the surrounding waters.

The top end of Groote and the tiny island and reef chains surrounding it make a fishing nirvana. All the north Australian iconic species are found, from sailfish and Red Emperor to big fingermark and nannygai – not to forget all sorts of hungry pelagics patrolling the islands and rocky outcrops spread around.

Contour lines on the chart can again be used to find fish. A quiet day trolling for mackerel or sailfish can easily turn into a productive afternoon on reef species along these contours.

Dropping vertical jigs and plastics down into sounder life is a consistent way of hooking up out wide.

Heading back to the coast, there’s a string of indigenous outstations for a few hundred kilometres stretching north. Not too many boats visit the area of quite exposed coast, however the shallow bays punctuating the shoreline provide some stunning sanctuaries and prime habitat for inshore sportfishing.

The clarity of water at times needs to be seen to be believed. Long beaches and flats during neap tides with the right light conditions can look like sparkling jewels under sunlight. So many places look tempting for a dip, but a croc might swim past at any moment.

There are actually plenty of crayfish along this stretch of coast, however most free divers are too sensible to jump in after them. Walking along rocky shores at night is one way to spear or net crays as they wander the shallows, feeding on the bottom, often very close to the tide line.

This is one of the less-explored areas of the Australian coast by fly fisherman. Besides being hard to get to, it can be a little tricky fishing in the prevailing dry-season breeze.

In the shallow reef country, anglers might come across fingermark, trevally, cobia, sweetlip, stripies, coral trout and big flowery cod. Some of the shallow coastal rock areas can also produce mangrove-jack, providing amazing sight-cast potential.

Fish such as permit, Tuskfish and blue bastards exist in these areas but can be hard to fool and hard to get a fly in front of. Other species, like queenies, little trevallies and various small mackerel are definitely not hard to trick and will keep a fly rod bent all day long on occasions.

The piece of coastline stretching for 100km north towards Yirrkala is complete with pure white sandy beaches and crystal-clear shallow bays. A smattering of tiny islands are just off the coast. They’re all desolate rock outcrops, yet complete with fringing reefs and a plethora of fish species swimming round them.

Access greatly improves for fisherman to the north around Nhulunbuy. Mining in the area and a well-serviced township makes this area popular with both visitors and locals, and boat ownership is almost mandatory.

Some of the islands, headlands, granite outcrops, beaches and reef patches heading towards the English Company Islands makes this top northwest section something special. It is a captivating piece of coastline and the prevailing winds can make the journey pleasant heading up, but slightly uncomfortable heading back.

The reef and blue-water fishing around the area make it worthwhile.

Despite the Gulf which separates the two coastlines, there’s a huge commonality of fish species, climate, rainfall distribution and ecological make-up. Both areas contain bauxite and mineral deposits, leading to the red cliffs. Both areas are rich in natural resources supporting strong tribal and clan groups. This legacy lives on with both areas still strongly governed by traditional owners.

An interesting 10 years lies ahead, mainly in the form of access and the onset of cultural and fishing tourism. Recreational fishing in both states is heavily supported, but the Northern Territory seems more progressive in supporting the recreational-fishing sector, and a little way ahead in terms of negotiated access with traditional owners.

For ticking off sportfishing species in a fairly confined area, these two coastlines provide some of the best diversity Australia has to offer. Having multiple-plan fishing days are inevitable, especially when the fishing is at its best. Finding a mudcrab, a mackerel, a fingermark, a mangrove jack and a barra in the esky at the end of the day is very possible.
Does life get any better?

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