The Other Side

IF you’ve never witnessed a pack of psychotic GTs barrel out from behind a coral bommie, shoulder charging each other aside in a welter of spray, fins and pent up aggression, all in a mad effort to smash a blooping surface popper, well, you’re missing out on one of the defining images of modern sportfishing.

After seeing a fair amount of GT carnage during a recent trip to the very tip of Cape York, in far north Queensland, I’ve now got a fresh perspective on why so many fishos get fixated on poppering for these brutally tough tropical trevally.

I’ve been lucky enough to have hooked and caught plenty of decent GTs over the years. They are great fish whether you get them on the troll, on a fly or while casting jigs or minnows. On a big popper amid fringing coral reef and crystal clear water they are something else. More often than not you see the bastards before they hit. An ominous grey shape that engulfs your lure, creates a massive hole in the water and then disappears at a rate of knots back towards the reef, making your reel scream like a banshee.

It’s exciting stuff.
I wasn’t expecting serious GT action on this trip. In fact, I didn’t really know what to expect. My previous experience of Cape York focused almost exclusively on mothership expeditions down the west coast, an area dominated by long sandy beaches interspersed with clear-running rivers. This trip late last year was to the east coast of Cape York, more specifically to Albany Island, known locally as Pabaju, which is home to a lodge run by a relatively new operation under the name of CY Fishing Charters.

The northernmost section of the east coast of Cape York is perhaps best known for the massive Jackey Jackey system and also the Escape River, both of which got their names courtesy of the ill-fated expedition in 1848 by the explorer Edmund Kennedy.

We spent no time at all in the Jackey Jackey, which has got a well deserved reputation as being a tough and fickle fishery, and next to no time in the Escape. Just about the entire trip was spent some miles east and north of the mainland, fishing around a seemingly endless series of coral reef systems, islands and cays.

About eight years back I fished the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, east of the tip, with well-known Cape York charter operation Carpentaria Seafaris. The reef out there, more than 100 miles from land, was pretty bloody amazing, as was the fishing. I was really surprised – and delighted – to discover a similar level of fishing action at the closer-in reefs accessed by CY Fishing Charters.

We caught nice Spaniards, tuna, coral trout to 4kgs, various emperors and GTs ranging from little tackers to 60lb monsters during our five-day trip. The red bass and dogtooth encountered on my previous trip to the outer reef aboard the big mothership were notable in their absence (way too close-in for both species, I suspect) and obviously you don’t have access to the mega drop-offs into oceanic blue water; but for diversity of habitat and relative ease of access I was really impressed with what was on offer. We started fishing each day less than 20 minutes after leaving Albany Island, meaning you got plenty of time with your lures in the water.

Highlights during the trip included a number of mental GT sessions, a stack of solid trout on softies (seven-inch white Slams on 3/8 jigheads were the gun lures for me), some excellent poppering off one or other of the magnificent beaches, a few abortive sessions getting monstered by unstoppable black jew, productive troll and spin sessions for Spaniards, late arvo tuna frenzies and a couple of very enjoyable cray spearing expeditions.

All this while fishing out of comfortable Hooker boats – a 6.7m walkaround model called Black Label powered by a 225 E-TEC and a 6m rear console sportfisher (aptly named Gee Tee) with a 115 E-TEC on the transom – operated by professional guides led by the amiable and experienced Hamish, who runs the lodge with his partner Patrice.

Pop on top
I fished Albany Island with Rapala’s Aku Valta, Chris Beldon and Dean Ferguson, together with Fred Goh, from Rapala’s Malaysian office, and John Bretza, the designer of Okuma’s new Makaira game reels. The Rapala and Okuma guys were there to test gear, including the new X Rap Magnum 10, the Okuma Salina II high speed spinning reels and a couple of Andros overheads John had recently designed (due for release later this year).
I was invited along to, well, take pictures, catch fish and write a story. Tough gig …

The first day’s fishing saw us head out to sea in a stiff south-east breeze. Hamish told us that he’d been battling fairly strong winds all year but that current weather reports indicated the winds would back off and hopefully drop away completely midway through our trip. The sou-easters are why the west coast of Cape York is so popular – the SE winds are offshore there, meaning you can fish the beaches and rivers for golden trevally, queenies, barra, tarpon and blue salmon, amongst many other species, in relative comfort. The eastern side, however, is exposed to the worst of the prevailing trade winds; although it has to be said that the many islands and atolls in the Torres Strait provide for numerous lee shores where you can escape the worst of the breeze.

We fished lee shores around islands directly north of Albany on our first day and scored some nice Spaniards in dead flat water, as well as various trevallies, trout and smaller mackerel. Some of the bays, inlets and beaches around these islands have to be seen to be believed.

The water is crystal clear and the shoreline features massive rock buttresses interspersed with white sandy beaches. At lunch time we stopped for a swim at one of these beaches, keeping a weather eye out for any large scaly creatures in the process. I’m as paranoid about crocs as the next person but felt pretty safe here – you could see a croc, even a baby one, coming for literally hundreds of metres in any direction. I’d be a bit wary about swimming here during the wet season when the stingers come out to play, though.

As Hamish predicted, the winds dropped away and we fished the remainder of the week in flat arse calm conditions. Given the glass-out seas, we put in a bit of time to head east and check out a couple of more remote coral reef systems, as well as give the closer-in reefs a good working over. Prominent points, large bommies and edges exposed to the full force of the tides were the preferred locations when targeting GTs on the poppers. If you found a good edge being licked by current there was a distinct chance of stirring up a few trevs. The biggest fish of the trip – a couple of 50 and 60 pounders – came off a reef which was exposed fully to the south running current. 

More fish were taken off large bommies or corners in the reef. You’d cast your popper in towards or over the bommies and a pack of five or six big GTs would come hurtling out, scaring the crap out of you in the process. Aku, Fred and I had a triple hook up on 40lb GTs which all appeared from behind a big bommie sitting in about 10-15m of water out from the main reef. Fred unfortunately pulled the hooks on his but Aku and I managed to steer ours away from trouble.

We all scored at least one 50lb GT each during the trip – John got a 60lber, as did Hamish when he had a quick flick while the rest of us took a break from popping.
I caught a couple of 40s on the popper – we all used the fantastic five-inch Williamson Jet Poppers, which put out plenty of spray and noise without being too hard on the arms and shoulders – and I got my big one on a white seven-inch Slam. Fred had just caught a  decent sized golden trevally while popping over the reef and we saw what we thought was a mackerel shadowing the hooked fish. I drifted the softie down and came up tight to a screamer. Ten minutes later my personal best GT was finning quietly next to the boat, the heavy duty jig hook almost completely straightened out.

All the GTs we caught were carefully resuscitated and released. It was a great feeling to see these powerfully built sportfish swim back to their coral homes, ready to once again terrorise the reef system. We did keep a few of the coral trout and mackerel and ate fresh fish most nights. The lodge employs a full time chef so the meals were all top class. 

Apart from the fishing, a real highlight of the trip for me was the snorkelling along the coral reef edges. The reef here is as good as I’ve seen – and I’ve dived extensively on the Outer Barrier Reef and in places like Fiji. While it was cool to look at all the colourful coral formations and goggle at all the fish – I spotted Nemos, blue tangs, trout, big parrots, spangled emperor, mackerel and even a school of solid jacks milling around an isolated bommie – spearing delectable painted crayfish was a major thrill. The crays featured heavily on the menu as well.

Since this was a Rapala/Okuma field testing trip, we used a variety of Okuma reels and rods plus Rapala lures and rods. I was particularly impressed with the Okuma Salina II high speed spin reels. For a modestly priced reel (they start at about $360), these performed extremely well, subduing all our big fish with no problems at all. I used a 10000 Salina loaded with 50lb Tufline braid throughout the trip and found it a sturdy and dependable performer. I’m not going to say it rivalled any of the big name spinning/popping/jigging reels out there – those high end reels are obviously in a different class – but it did the job well, felt good and had a pretty awesome drag. It’s also a quarter of the price of the top shelf reels. As well as numerous big GTs, I hooked a stack of hefty sharks, plus some decent Spaniards, on the Salina I was using.

I honestly couldn’t fault it, especially when you consider the pricing. California-based John Bretza, who’s a very keen big game and sport angler, has worked hard in recent years to bring Okuma up to a new level of quality and performance. The Salina II, plus the new Makaira and Andros overheads, as well as a suite of very tasty looking prototype baitcasters that John brought over for testing, are well worth looking at.

I also enjoyed using a little Rapala “Rapalero” baitcasting rod that Fred brought over from Malaysia. Fred is an accomplished light tackle angler who does a lot of fishing for peacock bass and snakehead in his home waters. He showed no mercy to any fish during our trip, applying some very fancy rod work to knock over big GTs and sharks quicktime.
I jigged up a 6kg GT on Fred’s deceptively light stick and thought it would make an ideal barra rod. Deano, who designs all the rods for the local Aussie market, thought so too. I saw Dean and Fred having some long and involved conversations about these rods and I reckon we’ll see them in the local market sooner rather than later!   

The lodge
The lodge on Albany Island has recently been refurbished and is one of the more comfortable remote fishing locations I’ve visited. Instead of sleeping in tents or dongas, you have your own air-conditioned room in what is essentially a large house perched amid coconut palms overlooking the narrow channel which divides the island from the mainland.

A massive generator supplies 240v power and, believe it or not, you get better mobile and internet access here than you do in the middle of the city. Patrice keeps everything spotless and will even wash and fold your smelly fishing clothes each day.
The eating, drinking and socialising takes place in a covered area down near the water. Hamish or one of the boys will usually get a fire going from old coconut husks and the twin fridges keep the beers ice cold. If you haven’t had enough fishing, a session at the end of the old wharf will usually see some sort of action, usually involving sharks. Chris Beldon jigged up some tasty squid off the wharf, which we planned to use as bait but ended up eating!

All in all, CY Fishing Charters runs a very well-managed operation. The focus
is on bluewater but there are certainly estuary barra options to explore. Personally speaking, I can’t wait to chuck some more poppers at fringing coral reef!

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