How to

Small Boat Camping

Heading to a hot spot in your boat and then setting up a camp means you can enjoy top fishing as well as experience the great outdoors. PETER Zeroni reports.

WE motored slowly along the mangrove-lined edge of a pristine little creek located on the south side of Melville Island. The neap tides ensured the water clarity was excellent and our expectations were sky-high. It had been a year since we’d last fished this creek – located 80km north-east of Gunn Point, itself another 40km away from our home town of Darwin. The second cast of the morning resulted in a missed strike. Damon Gore, up on the forward casting deck, said: “Watch this Pete …” His next cast into the snag pile got well and truly hammered. “I’m on!” he exclaimed as his rod loaded under the pressure of a good fish. I carefully slipped the Suzuki from neutral into reverse gear (so as not to catapult Damo off the front) and moved Barraddiction away from the edge to clear the fish from any obstructions. With Damon’s two thumbs locking the spool the fish came out with us. Seconds later a chrome barra exploded from the water with Damo’s Halco Scorpion clearly visible in its bucket-shaped mouth. With no camera in hand my mind still went “click” and that airborne barra framed against a spectacular backdrop is now forever imprinted on my brain. In time the mental image will not stay as sharp as if it had been taken on my Nikon, but then again it won’t ever get lost in a sea of pics saved on a hard-drive somewhere.

In another minute or so a solid barra was safely in the net, resulting in smiles all-round. At that moment Damon and I exchanged a look … the one that says all the effort getting to this point had been well and truly worth it. The early morning launch, followed by the long sea crossing from the mainland to the islands, in a boat heavily weighed down with fuel, camping gear, ice, food and fishing tackle, now all seemed a distant memory – as the deck was now clear having dropped all the gear off at the campsite an hour before hitting the creek. Like a footy team which has made it to a grand final we had done all the hard work preparing for this trip and getting to this very point. Now it was time to grab some destiny and make all the effort pay off.

Planning & preparation
Like those heading to Mecca, a small band of Darwin fishos make annual pilgrimages to fish the south-side of the magnificent Bathurst and Melville Islands, collectively referred to as the Tiwi  Islands. It is indeed a privilege to be able to fish the inshore waters surrounding the islands.  However, those wishing to do so first need to seek permission from the traditional owners of the islands; this can be obtained by applying to the Tiwi Land Council for a fishing permit.

On any fishing trip, whether it be a half day run around the bay or a four-day trip to a remote location, good preparation is paramount not only to maximise the chances of angling success, but to ensure that such trips are both enjoyable and safe. Obviously the more remote you plan to go, the more you need to prepare. The chances of receiving assistance should something go wrong are markedly less in remote areas, particularly in the short-term. This means ensuring that you have at a very minimum all the mandated safety gear applying to your local area, plus additional items such as nautical charts, EPIRBs, a VHF radio and even a satellite phone (which you can hire from a variety of outlets). Equally important is letting responsible individuals and/or maritime organisations know of your trip intentions and when you should be back. In addition to all of the above, having some mates do the trip along side you in a second boat is the way to go. Were something to go amiss in your boat, or in theirs, the rendering of assistance is likely to be measured in minutes rather than hours (and possibly days) while you wait for a search aircraft to find your position and a surface rescue vessel to reach you.     

All trip planning starts with picking a location where you would like to go. The next step is then to determine if it’s actually feasible (i.e. a good idea) given what resources you have at your disposal (i.e. the capability of your boat, car and trailer). Like they say, you can drive any boat anywhere … on the right day. However experience has taught most of us that it never takes very long for the right day to turn into a wrong one when the weather gods become restless. Thus common sense needs to prevail at all times when deciding on the capabilities of your rig as well as your own skills and experience as a skipper because – and make no mistake here – the safety of those travelling aboard your vessel is 100 per cent your responsibility. If you’re planning to head out to a new location for the first time, it is invaluable to seek out those who have done the trip before as they will have first hand experience and should be able to pass on some good advice.

Finally, you need to be confident in all your equipment, particularly the integrity of your hull, the outboard on the back, and your car and trailer if towing over longer distances and rough terrain. It is wise to try and time a motor service a week or two in advance of going on a big trip to ensure that your outboard motor and electrics are working as they should. Also try and take your boat out for a run after the service, or if time doesn’t permit, run your motor at home. On one occasion I recall being stranded at a Darwin ramp on a planned half-day trip after my motor had been serviced the day before. The problem in the end was pretty straight forward – a cross threaded seal on the new water separator which was sucking air therefore preventing pressurisation of the fuel line. This resulted in the motor starting but repeatedly cutting out due to insufficient fuel flow. Now when I get my boat home after a service I always put the ear muffs on the motor and run it just to check that everything is in order. It’s always much better to discover there’s a problem with your donk on your driveway at home rather than out on the water.
On long trips working out how much fuel to take is a critical component. On my usual day trips around Darwin, I know that my 4.8m plate alloy rig – powered by a 90hp Suzuki four-stroke with over 1500 hours of faultless service logged – will get around 2km for every 1 litre of petrol burned. This is based on the practice of starting every trip with the 100 litre underfloor tank full and setting the trip odometer on the GPS unit to zero. Back at the ramp if we’ve travelled 100km for a given trip, then you can bet that when re-fuelling at the servo on the way home my tank is going to take around 50 litres give or take a litre. When my boat is fully weighed down with additional fuel (up to 8 x 20 litre jerry cans), camping and other gear for an extended trip, then the scenario changes and I only get around 1.7 km/litre. However once we’ve reached the camp site and off-loaded most of the fuel and extra gear, then she’ll be back to her fighting weight and thus I can return to my usual 2:1 ratio calculations. Along with having enough fuel, it is important that it remains in a useable condition i.e. free of water. This is where having a water separator/filter on your fuel line is mandatory, as is ensuring that fuel tanks and containers are kept full until ready for use to minimise the effects of condensation. Of course having your fuel containers stowed and secured appropriately when travelling is par for the course.

Any commentary regarding fuel and boats would be incomplete without finishing off with the golden rule of fuel allocation – One third to get there and two thirds to get home. The two-thirds allocation for the return leg in effect means you have an extra third set aside for contingency purposes – especially needed when the weather goes pear-shaped and previous fuel economy calculations go right out the window.

Tidal considerations
Up in the Top End, along with the weather, one of the other critical factors to consider is the amount of tidal movement you’ll be encountering on your trip. This is important for both deciding when and where you’ll be fishing to target particular species, and for the purposes of being able to launch, retrieve and moor your boat (as well as for general navigation purposes). Get the tides wrong up here and you could be spending 6-8 hours aboard your boat parked high and dry on a mud or sand bank … which is less fun under a tropical sun than mowing a 5 acre block with a small Victa hand mower. Get it really wrong on spring tides and you could be waiting a week or more before going home. When mooring your boat overnight you need to be very mindful of where the water will be when you wake up in the morning as on most trips our boats end up dry on the sand at some stage. Thus you need to ensure that motors are fully trimmed up as are transducers so they are not damaged when the boats rest on their hulls. Also you need to keep a good distance between moored vessels so when they swing on the tide change they don’t collect each other. Lastly, given we fish in croc country, if possible we never want to wade out too far to retrieve a boat at anchor, particularly in the dark. Thus I use my spare 100 foot anchor rope, a couple of additional anchors, a mooring buoy, two large solid stainless steel rings and a couple of shackles to set-up a loop system for mooring at night. By pulling on the rope – on what becomes a big pulley system – I can move my boat out to the mooring buoy and back across a distance of 50 feet. This set-up helps to keep the boat out in deeper water thus lessening the time it is parked up on the sand while awaiting the tide to come back in … and importantly it keeps you out of the water and away from lurking crocs.

After a long day of fishing it is good to be able to get off the boats to unwind, and then enjoy a meal of fresh-caught tucker while sitting around the camp fire talking crap with your mates (according to some it’s the real reason why we go on extended trips – just ask my missus). Then with a full belly it’s time to climb into the mozzie dome to get a good night’s sleep on a stable surface that’s not going to rock like the hull of a small boat at anchor. Mind you, skippers never seem to sleep too well away from their vessels (nor on them for that matter) as their “dreams” are often punctuated with pessimistic thoughts of dragged anchors, unpredicted thunderstorms and the like.

Other unpleasant dreams for parties sleeping in proximity of the water’s edge in northern Australia can take the form of waking up to a noise out the front of your mozzie dome and staring straight into the eyes of a big croc checking you out through the thin mesh. Not a great thought but always a possibility. To lessen the risk of attracting crocs never clean fish at your camp – this is just asking for trouble. Fish should be processed well away, and if we’re camping in a particularly croc-friendly location, then often we also set up our food storage, preparation and eating area well away from where we sleep. After all, one croc in the wrong spot can ruin your day, so it’s best to try and plan to keep campers and mud geckos well away from each other, particularly at night when catching some zeds without a sentry posted.

With regards to camping on the Tiwi  Islands, those looking to do so will also need to obtain a separate camping permit available from either the Amateur Fishermans Association of the NT (AFANT) or the Tiwi Land Council itself. As mentioned earlier, it is indeed a privilege to be allowed to fish around these islands and mainland anglers need to be mindful that they are visitors in other people’s country. Thus fishos need to be respectful at all times and abide by the conditions of their permits. Lastly, these trips aren’t about coming home with bag limits filled for all those aboard, rather it’s about experiencing fishing in an amazing and wild environment … and taking a few fish to share with your family.
While considerable effort is required to plan and execute an extended small boat trip of your own in the waters of our tropical north, or even in remote areas down south, the rewards can be very satisfying, both in terms of fishing remote and often plentiful waters, as well as just spending time in beautiful pristine country. With good planning and preparation such trips can be undertaken safely and the memories and shared experiences will last you a lifetime.

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