Pam replies...."There was a mix up with the booking agent and he neglected to organise a guide. The clients are regular fly fishing enthusiasts and book this charter every year. Can you please help?"
Les...."I'll have to check with Debbie re work commitments first! Then there is the little (BIG) issue with the annual Bransfords Fishing Clinic being held on the Saturday; I'm committed to help out my mate Keith Graham! And these guys are specifically fly fishing for milk fish...one of the 'holy grail' targets with the long wand! Something that I had never attempted previously!"
I pleaded with Debbie.....I sheepishly asked Keith whether the clinic could go on without me (how important am I really)...and the plan was set. I could go, fly up on the Friday mornings Skytrans flight, guide / fish for 4 days and return on the early flight on Tuesday. Oh how the well made plans of mice and men sometimes go astray. To cut a long story short - one of the other guides fell quite ill with a dreaded flue like symptom and reluctantly asked me if we could swap return flights; meaning that I was to stay on for another three days and fly back to Cairns on the Friday - a full seven days fishing / guiding in absolute fishing "heaven". The rest is history, Deb was OK for me to stay on, work could wait and well...there was no real reason for me to not help this poor bloke out and more importantly, enable the charter to proceed uninterrupted!
We met at the Cairns Airport at approx. 5:00am...that's right. A sleepless night, and an early morning trip to the airport (thanks Deb...she is a gem) checked in our bags and rod tubes and off we went. The flight up goes via Cohen & Lockhart River, but with excited conversations about milkfish, fly fishing, worms, water levels, tides, barra & jacks & queenies & salmon & & &!!!! We were soon touching down at Aurukun where Mark (our chef) met us for the short car ride to the boat ramp. There waiting for us was our two tenders....the gear was loaded, eager clients scrambled aboad and off we scooted to the Mantaray which was moored in the mouth of the Ward River.
No sooner had we unloaded, changed clothes, rigged rods (we would be barra fishing that day) packed the esky's with drinks and food and we were off...I think it was about 10:15 am. Plenty of time for a full days fishing, well almost!
The first day was more about orienteering than catching...tide cycles had to be discussed, river levels explored, angler skills honed and relationships formed. Its very important that everyone "gets on" when ten fully grown men, full of excitement and great expectations, come together in a tiny little dot on the water. The Mantary is more than comfortable with plenty of space to move about, but you know. We would be living in each others tackle bags for a week Ha Ha! And the real focus was to start the next day...when the long wands were to come out of their dark hiding places and be rigged ready for war with the milkies. We caught a few barra, a jack or two and some feisty little queenfish which helped blow away the cobwebs....conversation was flowing...a great start to the trip.
Now the next day saw the tides not quite right for the milkies but with a high early in the morning (very early and still in the dark) it was decided that this would be the best opportunity to take the clients way up to the top of the Archer. Not only is this a magic place to fish, it is also one of the most beautiful waterways on the Cape to do it. Clear waters (at this time of year), pure white sandy beaches and tall paperbarks standing sentinel over their domain..it really is a picture!
The fishing was a bit slow however, but we managed a few nice barra; a couple were wrapped in paperbark and baked in hot coals on the edge of the river. An awesome dinner location and something quite unique to offer our guests. But it was not long before the urge to get back fishing took over and we were on our way downstream. It was a quiet day!
Something that always strikes me as being a magic part of remote Cape York is the glorious sunsets and sunrises. Every evening we travelled back to our mothership in the golden glow of the setting sun; and the mornings! Well, we awoke early, always eager for the next days action just as the sun rose over the fringing mangroves. The dawning of a new day is something to cherish up here!
Right guys, this is it; today is the day we start to target the milkies. The tides are about right, the moon is good and they should be feeding up on the flats on the run out tide. Breakfast was had with a bit more urgency that morning...anglers were becoming edgy with the prospect of tangling with one of these much revered tropical speedsters. Plans were made, boats allocated, fly rods to the ready and "secret patters" tied on. It was all good fun and great to see how mates, good mates, become even more competitive as the witching hour approaches. We are such a competitive lot...even though it is hidden, bubbling just below the surface...but it is there all right! Lets go!
These guys were experienced fly fisherman. Most practised their art back home but on entirely different species of course. This was an annual event, something like going to the "Grand Final" of fly fishing but lasting 3-4 days - some years, 5 days! Marks were lined up....just in the middle of this or the left hand side of that. They knew, they were ready and just on cue....was that a milkie? A surface splash 200m to our right...another one 100m to our left...there's one breaking the surface right next to the boat. Fly rods swept gracefully through the chilled morning air (it was quite cool, ever way up there at 7:15am) and the imitation plonked gently in the current line.
Its a waiting game now....and as each surface crash or broaching milkie pierced the silence the anxiety grew. You see, these fish are amazing! Just check them out here. Beautifully proportioned muscular speedsters of the tropical flats. They are powerful fish, their big broad tail built for sustained surges over relatively shallow water. They have small mouths for such big fish and feed on tiny offerings, I know that in some parts of the world they are burleyed up on bread crumbs and caught on imitation "bread fly's"....true. But we don't have a bakery on the Archer so we use other devious methods. But this article is not about giving away all of our secrets, clients treasure their milk fishing and guard their fly patters with steely resolve. If you want to catch them you should book a charter and have a blast learning.
FISH ON came the cry from Capt. Kim.... as at first the fly line, and then about 200m of backing peeled of the reel...the line rooster tailed across the flats and the milkie has a sustained and powerful first run. This would be one of many.
FISH ON I screamed.........Phil was hooked up to a beauty and a similar blur of line was peeled from the whirring reel in a matter of seconds....350m at least was out of the guides an arching across the flats. I was in awe! Line was gained inches at a time (fly reels do not have a high retrieve ratio like a spinning or baitcasting reel - they are basically one to one) so a hundred metres of line is retrieved with about 250 winds of the knob. But Phil had managed to put about 200m back onto the reel and surely he was winning.
And in the blink of an eye the milkie charged back across the flats, heading towards the deeper channel to out right....it was about 400m away this time. Phil was working doggedly to retrieve precious line, he gained a few metres...he lost a few more. On the next big surge he headed back towards the shallows; this was our big break. Lets pull anchor and drift with the tide and wind towards the flat. In the shallow water he will be much easier to tire and more importantly, be away from the marauding sharks who are known to spoil the party now and again (such a shame to see this carnage but its nature's way) and we do all we can to minimise the possibilities.
OK...by now we were in shin deep water....the milkie, which was well over the magic metre mark, would soon tire right! WRONG! These fish never give up, they tore off with repeated long runs but with persistent side pressure an constant turning their head, they can be brought under control relatively quickly...yeah right! I think this fish circled the anchored boat, sitting stationery in a few inches of water at least 36 more times...and we were still no closer to landing him. We looked back to Capt. Kim's boat periodically to see that he had landed his first milkie and was into another...or was it a double hook up. Man I just can't remember.
Back to our situation.....Les, you need to get into the water, grab a cloth or something and catch this fish by the tail! Hmmm...this will be interesting. I'll turn its head and bring it to you....well this went on for another ten minutes. Constantly turning the milkies head, it was swimming in ever decreasing circles and eventually, with great skill I might add, I lunged at the tail, held on as hard as I could and lifted this glistening magic beast from the waters. They are a magnificent creature...deserved of much respect and care and it was handled with great gentleness. Phil was stoked...his first for the trip at 113cm. I was astounded with the hook up, the fight, the sheer doggedness and their magic beauty out of the water. A few quick but well choreographed pics and it was gently swam at the boat to ensure survival. TO LAND THIS ONE BEAUTIFUL FISH TOOK JUST ON AN HOUR!
Was I impressed.... you bet I was!
As the tide receded so too did the bite....the boat's position was constantly changed to position us in the prime location....the feeding lanes. And it was not long before we had another hook up...a double hook up this time. With milkies heading in opposite directions it was a matter of slugging it out, playing the fish until eventually one would come close to the boat. Being smaller specimens of only 97cm they tired more easily......and only took 45 minutes to land. Both times we guided the fish onto the shallower flats, tiring the fish and after dozens of circles, I would jump over and tail the fish. They are beauties, words cannot describe how magic they are. Their streamlined powerful shape, their tight packed small silver scales, big powerful tail, huge clear eye...I fell in love with them as a piscatorial target of the highest quality.
But time & tide waits for no man and after what seemed like only minutes, but was in reality three hours, the bite was over...the milkies had moved on and it was time for us to do likewise. Our party had landed three milkies that first day, Capt. Kim four I think (who knows) but either way our clients were stoked. The fish were there, the timing was right, their fly patterns were working and we still had several days to go. A very satisfied bunch of guys headed back to the Mantaray for an early lunch and planned our afternoon assault on the barra or queenies or GT's of jacks....so many targets, so little time!
The tides were dropping in the afternoons so it was wise to concentrate our efforts in the Archer Bay region. This proved quite productive for our group while Capt. Kim headed upstream in the Ward to fish the gutters...he had success too!
But I must digress here for a moment and bring your thoughts back to just one angler...Phil Smith. He's the guy above with that big 113cm milkie (the first for our boat) and the look of satisfaction on his dial. Well that afternoon we decided to try our luck at a little sandy junction. The current line was strong here and it was an ideal place for the likes of queenies and GT's to smash baitfish. On what was his second cast with a weighted clouser fly pattern fished off an 8kg spin rod, he hooked, fought and landed (after a 30 min fight) this magnificent 107cm queenfish.
But wait, there's more......that same afternoon he hooked up to this 93cm barra (just missing the magic triple of a metre milkie, queenie and barra in one day) how cool would that have been.
Now I could go on and on and write "War & Peace", blow by blow, fish by fish...but that would take too long. Suffice to say that the pattern was set...the fishing plans made and it was quite simple really.
- Get up early to catch a magnificent sun rise...have breaky
- Head to the milkie spot, anchor up and wait
- Hook a few, fight them for hours...head back for lunch
- Go barra and other fishing in the afternoon
- Return to the mother ship in time to watch the sun set on another glorious tropical day
- Have a scrumptious meal prepared by magic Mark
- Wash it down with a wine, enjoy fabulous, excited conversation
- Get to bed and rest in order to do it all over again next day
There were many memorable moments...too many to describe here but a few are
- The day Stuart landed 4 milkies for the morning session
- The day that Phil had three casts of the fly rod (that's true) three hook-ups, three milkies landed in all about 3 hours fishing.
- The day Dave was busted up by a metre barra that hit right at the boat and tore off to its snag
- The day my brand new Rapala "walking the dog" lure (Thanks Bransfords for allowing me to field test this gem - ghost colour works!) was smashed by an unseen monster in about a metre of water - tore 250m of 30lb braid off my Certate 3500 and opened the 80lb snap!
- The day the same lure was smashed not once, but three times, by metre plus queenfish up the Archer River - I fought two to the boat before the hooks pulled.
- The day we had morning tea right on the milkie spot
- The sunsets
- The sunrises
- The company, the comradeship...the crew (Capt. Kim Andersen and Mark, chef extraordinaire!)
Check out this for a magnificent evening meal!
This place is amazing guys so do yourself a favour, book a trip with some mates and get up there to experience some of the best river and estuary fishing in Australia - you don't have to be a fly fishermen, this was a special trip for these repeat clients.
Catch you on the water, regards Les
PS - The Bransfords Fishing Clinic went ahead without me and was a huge success & Debbie had a record week selling real estate. Maybe I should do this guiding thing more often....only kidding?????