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Flat Eight - Fly Rod Treasures of the Tropics By Steve Starling
Steve Starling nominates his pick of the eight most eligible and desirable fly rod target species to be found on our shallow tropical flats, and offers some valuable tips on finding and catching them.
It's official. Aussie saltwater fly rodders need no longer drool enviously over American magazine stories about sight fishing the flats. We now have our own vibrant fly rod flats fishery!
Of course, our home-grown flats and the fish that inhabit them were around long before Noah backed his trailer down the boat ramp at Mount Ararat. It just took us a little while to wake up to what we had right under our noses and our rod tips. That level of awareness took a quantum leap forward during the 1990s as pioneers like Sid Boshammer, Steve Jeston, Greg Bethune and Dan O'Sullivan began exposing the calibre of world class fly fishing on tap in places like Hervey Bay, the Hinchinbrook Channel, Cape York and Broome's Eco Beach. No doubt others had done it all before, but the story hadn't spread. When the lid finally came off, there was a rush of gold strike proportions.
Our tropical and sub-tropical fly rod flats fishery is still very much in the developmental phase, with new locations, target species and techniques being added almost every week. These are truly exciting times!
One aspect of the local fishery that has quickly become obvious is the sheer variety of species on offer here. The Atlantic/Caribbean skinny water sight fishery is dominated by the famous 'big three'; bonefish, tarpon and permit. Second tier targets include red drum and weakfish (both members of the same croaker clan as our mulloway), barracuda, jack crevalle (an Atlantic trevally), black drum and various 'snappers'. Reading between the lines, however, shots at more than three or four of these species per day are unusual. It wouldn't be stretching things to claim that an angler can sometimes cover that many varieties in a single cast on the more productive Aussie flats.
Okay, our 'tarpon' are tiny scale models of the real thing and our shallow water bonefish remain a problematic proposition, at best, but any short list of the regular, viable opportunities likely to be encountered on flats such as those along the western side of Cape York Peninsula or around the islands off Gove and through the Kimberley still reads like a who's who of the piscatorial hit parade.
In selecting my candidates for our eight most desirable and eligible tropical flats targets to accompany this article, I was forced to leave out a bunch of potential contenders. Fish like giant trevally, milkfish, black spotted dart, barramundi, barracuda and even mullet didn't make the list, for various reasons.
The eight types I've honed it down to here represent the cream of the cream, at least in my book. Each is a wonderful sport fish in its own right, and there are literally times and places where it's feasible to make sight fishing shots at all eight of them in a single session! I seriously doubt if anyone has done it yet, but assembling a 'super grand slam' of these top eight tropical flats species in one day would be the fly rodding equivalent of a bowler taking every wicket in both innings of a test match. You could pretty much hang up your rod after that!
Initially, I toyed with the idea of rating these eight species using a precious metals and gemstones system, similar to that employed by some credit card companies and airline frequent flyer programs. You know the sort of thing - with silver, gold, diamond and platinum levels.
Clearly, the snub-nosed dart or Indo-Pacific permit fulfils the necessary criteria for platinum status, while our baby tarpon and school-sized queenies rather neatly fit the silver category. And the golden and diamond trevallies conveniently carry their ratings right up front in their names! But in the end, I decided it was all too subjective and didn't really mean a lot, anyway. One man's brick is another man's nugget, and where do you rank something like a nine kilo queenfish or a metre-plus giant herring on such an arbitrary scale? Like most keen fly rodders, I'd walk half a mile across broken coral to present a fly to such a fish!
The great thing about this pack of eight is that they can all be sight fished in shallow water, will each respond to the right fly on the right day, and are capable of turning on the kind of performance when hooked that leaves a dazed smile on your dial long after the line cuts and burns on your hands have healed. Yet, even in their larger sizes, each of these eight contenders remains a viable target on a No. 8 to No. 10 weight fly outfit and a six or eight kilo leader. That adds up to a unique and extremely appealing fishery.
None of these fish owes any apologies whatsoever to the high profile international contenders we read about in American mag's, either. I've caught plenty of bonefish at Christmas Island,and they are truly magnificent critters to catch on a fly rod, but I would rate the speed of a big diamond trevally hooked in thigh-deep water right up there alongside the hottest bone
and a five kilo giant herring will do things on the end of a fly line no bonefish has dreamt of!
As I mentioned earlier, we are still very much in the developmental stages of our tropical and sub-tropical shallow water fly rod fishery in this country. New locations, new strategies and even new target species are constantly being added to the list.
Eventually, enterprising Aussie swoffers may come up with fly patterns that will take milkfish and mega diamond-scale mullet on a reasonably regular basis, far away from the fish-feeding areas where they've developed a bread habit.
Who knows, we may even find catch-able quantities of bonefish on shallow flats at places like Dirk Hartog and Dorre Islands, off Shark Bay, or around Haggerstone Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. And those constant rumours of 10 kilo-plus tarpon may yet be proven correct, too. There are keen young (and not-so-young!) fly rodders out there right now attempting to find out.
In the meantime, we have at least eight world class, shallow water 'nine weight' fish capable of providing exceptional challenges and thrills for those who ply the inshore waters north of the 30th parallel with a long rod in hand and hope in their hearts.
Indo-Pacific Tarpon (Megalops cyprinoids)
COMMON NAMES: Tarpon, Indo-Pacific tarpon, ox-eye herring, herring. Closely related to the true tarpon of the Atlantic and Caribbean (M. atlanticus), but much smaller.
DISTRIBUTION: In Australian waters, these fish generally range from the far north coast of NSW around the northern half of the continent to Shark Bay in the west, although occasional specimens may be encountered further south at times. This species also occurs throughout the tropical and sub-tropical Pacific and South East Asia.
SIZE: Despite stories of larger specimens, evidence of Indo-Pacific tarpon weighing more than four kilos is hard to come by. They are common at weights from 700 grams to 1.5 kilos, although two to three kilo fish are abundant in some areas. Their maximum growth potential may be in the order of eight to 10 kilos, but fish of those dimensions are rare.
HABITS: Ox-eye herring range from the freshwater reaches of coastal rivers and lagoons through estuaries to inshore and offshore waters. They are sporadic visitors to shallow coastal flats and beaches, but common in river mouths and estuaries, where they are often seen 'rolling' and gulping air on the surface, leaving distinctive bubbles.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Tarpon lend themselves to a range of fly rod techniques. On the flats they respond well to small flies such as Deceivers, Clousers, Whistlers, Bongos and imitative shrimp or crab patterns. Despite appearances, when seen rolling on the surface they may actually be holding and feeding near the bottom. At such times, compact, weighted flies and sinking or sink-tip lines are useful. When hooked, tarpon are extremely powerful, energetic fighters with a propensity for spectacular jumps. Many are lost because of this. Tarpon also have hard, raspy jaws and the use of a shock tippet is advisable.
Queenfish (Scomberoides commersonnianus)
COMMON NAMES: Common queenfish, queenie, skinny fish, leatherskin. Several other queenfish species also occur in tropical shallows, but S. commersonnianus is by far the largest.
DISTRIBUTION: Queenfish range from the NSW/Queensland border area to at least Shark Bay in WA, but are more abundant in tropical waters. They are widespread in the tropical Indo-Pacific region.
SIZE: Any queenie over eight or nine kilos is an exceptional fish, although they have rarely been recorded to 15 or 16 kilos. Specimens from one to eight kilos are more common on the flats.
HABITS: Queenfish range all the way from freshwater rivers to offshore islands and reef systems. Schools of small fish are often found on flats. Larger specimens tend to make brief, high speed forays into shallow water pursuing bait; either singly or in small groups.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Small to middling queenies will readily eat most flies and presentations - in fact, it can be difficult to avoid them! Larger fish are more problematic and will often ignore small, imitative flies intended for fussier feeders. Large (2/0 to 6/0) Deceivers, Clousers and popping flies are best when targeting big queenies. These need to be presented quickly and accurately ahead of fast moving fish and worked briskly. Speed is an attack trigger. When hooked, larger specimens are capable of very fast, sustained runs, sudden direction changes and powerful jumps. Queenfish have hard, sharp-edged jaws and shock tippets are advisable.
Blue Salmon (Polydactylus sheridani)
COMMON NAMES: Blue threadfin, Sheridan's threadfin, blue salmon. This fish is a smaller relative of the golden or giant threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum) with less developed filaments ahead of its pectoral fins.
DISTRIBUTION: Southern Queensland (Hervey Bay) to perhaps Shark Bay, and also elsewhere in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. More common in tropical waters and less likely to be encountered in cooler, sub-tropical waters than the larger golden threadfin.
SIZE: Literature concerning the various threadfins speaks of very large specimens of both types discussed here. However, blue salmon of more than four kilos are virtually unknown in shallow, inshore Australian waters. Most of those encountered will run from one to three kilos.
HABITS: Blue salmon are mostly coastal and inshore fish that occasionally venture well upstream into estuaries. Large schools and smaller groups are common on tropical flats at times, especially later in the Dry Season.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Blue salmon can be incredibly aggressive and easy to hook at times, while ignoring all offerings on other occasions. The repeated presentation of small streamers and shrimp or crab patterns to briskly moving, non-feeding schools may eventually elicit a response. When feeding, they will respond to most offerings, including larger streamers and poppers. Hooked blue salmon are fast, strong and erratic and will often jump. Their jaws are abrasive and capable of badly chafing light tippets.
Golden Threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum)
COMMON NAMES: Giant threadfin, threadfin salmon, king salmon, golden salmon, Cooktown salmon, Burnett salmon and Rockhampton kingfish. This distinctive threadfin with its yellowish to gold fins and well-developed pectoral filaments or 'fingers' is the largest member of its family.
DISTRIBUTION: In Australia the giant or golden threadfin ranges from about Moreton Bay and Pumicestone Passage in southern Queensland to perhaps Shark Bay in the west. It also ranges widely through Asia, the Indo-Pacific and to East Africa.
SIZE: While much larger sizes are sometimes reported, threadfin in excess of 10 to 12 kilos are rare in Australian inshore waters. Nonetheless, the maximum growth potential of this species may well be in excess of 30 kilos! Fish to eight kilos are common in some areas.
HABITS: Giant or golden threadfin are usually encountered in lower estuaries and on adjacent flats or along tropical beaches. They often feed at the edges of distinct colour changes and may be active at times in muddied or turbid waters.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Threadfin can be an especially frustrating fly rod target. Pinpoint presentations with imitative shrimp or bait fish patterns are sometimes the only answer when these fish are in a fickle mood. Placing the fly literally on the threadie's nose or right alongside its eye and keeping it there for several seconds during the retrieve may elicit an instinctive grab. At other times they are more willing. Once hooked, threadfin are unpredictable, erratic fighters, frequently punctuating a seemingly lethargic performance with bursts of speed and energy. Their hard, rough jaws are capable of chafing through fine leaders over time.
Golden Trevally (Gnathadon speciosus)
COMMON NAMES: Golden trevally, goldie, golden, gold-barred jack. Although a dozen members of the large trevally clan may be encountered on the flats, the golden is the most common and keenly sought-after.
DISTRIBUTION: Golden trevally have a wide international distribution that extends from at least the Baja Peninsula in Mexico to the east coast of Africa. In Australia they range from the far north coast of NSW to about Geraldton or The Abrolhos in WA
SIZE: The largest golden trevally ever recorded have weighed in the order of 20 to 22 kilos, although they are rare over 16 kilos. Most goldens encountered on shallow flats run between one and nine kilos. Larger fish tend to be encountered further offshore, in deeper water.
HABITS: Golden trevally are found in estuaries and bays, along beaches and offshore over reefs, sand or gravel patches and around islands. While primarily a bottom feeder and forager, they will readily rise to the surface in pursuit of bait fish and prawns.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: In lightly fished areas, golden trevally respond well to a wide range of fly rod strategies and patterns. However, in harder fished waters or where single fish and small groups are more common than larger schools, long, relatively fine leaders, imitative flies and accurate presentations may still not be enough to ensure success. Once hooked, golden trevally are strong, dogged fighters. Their mouths and lips are soft and shock tippets are not required.
Giant Herring (Elops machnata)
COMMON NAMES: Giant herring, GH, springer, springer ladyfish, ladyfish, ten-pounder, pincushion fish and skipjack. The scientific name E. hawaiiiensis is given for this species in some literature. This Indo-Pacific fish is closely related to the Atlantic and Caribbean ladyfish (E. saurus), but grows considerably larger than its Atlantic cousin.
DISTRIBUTION: The giant herring has an extensive range in Australian waters, occasionally turning up as far south as Jervis Bay (NSW) in the east and Albany (WA) in the west. It is seasonally abundant in Perth's Swan River. However, it is more common from far northern NSW to about Kalbarri in WA. The same fish occurs as far east as Hawaii and possibly Mexico, and west to South Africa.
SIZE: The maximum growth potential of this species may be in the order of 15 kilos, although it is more commonly encountered at weights of one to six kilos.
HABITS: Giant herring will range well upstream in estuaries and coastal rivers at times, but are more abundant in lower estuary reaches, bays, harbours and inshore waters. They are sporadic visitors to the shallower flats, but regularly feed along channel edges and drop-offs along the outside of the flats.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Giant herring will hit a range of streamers and popping flies and will also respond to imitative shrimp, prawn and crab patterns, especially on the flats. Although capable of blistering speed, they sometimes prefer a deeper, slower retrieve that imitates an injured or dying bait fish. These fish are explosive performers when hooked and many win their freedom through their amazing leaps and direction changes. They have super hard mouths and extremely abrasive jaws that can quickly chafe through light tippets.
Diamond Trevally (Alectis indicus)
COMMON NAMES: Diamond trevally, mirror fish, Indian mirror fish and lookdown. This species should not be confused with the related pennant fish or African pompano (A. ciliaris), which has a more rounded forehead profile and is somewhat more heavily built.
DISTRIBUTION: Diamond trevally have an extensive range in tropical and sub-tropical waters throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Juveniles, with their extremely elongated dorsal and anal fin filaments, are sometimes found drifting with jellyfish well south of Sydney and Perth, although adults are more common from about Fraser Island to Shark Bay.
SIZE: While the diamond trevally is probably capable of exceeding 15 kilos, it is a very lightly-built fish and is more common in the one to five kilo range. Even specimens a metre in length are unlikely to top six kilos.
HABITS: Juvenile and sub-adult diamond trevally can turn up almost anywhere from the open ocean to coastal rivers, while larger specimens appear to be more common on flats, along beaches and over sand or mud bottoms in bays or between reefs. They are frequently encountered swimming above and behind feeding stingrays or shovelnose sharks.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: While sometimes a problematic target on conventional streamer flies, diamond trevally appear willing to take imitative shrimp, prawn and crab patterns, especially when these fish are hunting and feeding in close association with rays. When hooked, they have a blistering initial burst of speed and will invariably make a bee-line for deeper water before arcing and plugging. They lack the stamina of more robustly-built trevally and often succumb to exhaustion, making revival and release difficult. Their protractile mouths are soft and free of any features that might damage leaders.
Indo-Pacific Permit (Trachinotus blochii)
COMMON NAMES: Snub-nosed dart, oyster cracker, pumpkinhead, permit, longfin pompano or snub-nose pompano. This fish is closely related to the 'true' permit of Atlantic and Caribbean waters (T. falcatus) and also to several much smaller Australian 'dart'.
DISTRIBUTION: T. blochii is found as far afield as the Pacific coast of Mexico and South Africa. In Australia, it is mostly encountered from Moreton Island in south eastern Queensland to about Shark Bay or Kalbarri in WA, but is more common in tropical latitudes.
SIZE: Indo-Pacific permit or snub-nosed dart have been recorded to weights of at least 16 kilos, but may occasionally approach the size of their Atlantic cousins, which have been known to exceed 25 kilos. Most of those encountered on our flats run from one to eight kilos.
HABITS: Snub-nosed dart feed primarily on shellfish and crustaceans and may be found in large schools, smaller pods and even singly or in pairs along northern beaches, over inshore and offshore flats and around or inside tropical river mouths.
FLY FISHING TECHNIQUES: Indo-Pacific permit remain the most challenging and highly-prized of all our tropical flats' targets, and with good reason. On most occasions they are extremely difficult or even impossible to tempt with a fly. However, they sometimes become a more realistic prospect, and this transformation typically occurs as schools of permit use the very first flush of a making spring tide to move inshore over a flat or enter an estuary mouth to feed. At such times, imitative crab and shrimp patterns may be accepted. When hooked, permit are amazingly strong, punctuating bursts of sustained speed with dogged, side-on resistance and slugging. They have immense reserves of stamina. Despite possessing powerful crushing plates in their throats, the mouths and lips of these fish are soft and smooth, making shock tippets unnecessary.
This article was written by Steve Starling and originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Modern Fishing, and has been reproduced with permission.