A northern winter Adventure

Craig Rist

As we all know, Tasmania has some great fishing, even during winter, but there's something very compelling and exciting about heading north to experience new waters. Squeezing in an extra 5 weeks of summer by heading north is definitely something to look forward to. Even more so when you are towing a 6 metre boat to one of Australia's best tropical fishing destinations. Mind you, wanting to go and actually taking that first step can be one of the hardest things to overcome.
It was late July, overcast and raining, as we drove onto the Spirit of Tasmania 3 in Devonport, bound for Sydney, the start of our road trip north to Cape York in far north Queensland.

We travelled in two groups, both towing 6 metre Quintrex centre consoles.  Our crew consisted of Steve Hambleton, Jim Schofield and myself, while another good friend of mine, Simon Hedditch, and his partner Cassie Arnold decided to take their own boat on the same trip. Simon's brother, Steven, also accompanied them.
By day three we had travelled 2,500 kilometres, arriving in Cairns around midday. We were soon tackling the 600 kilometres of gravel road from Lakeland on the infamous Peninsula Developmental Road to Weipa. This road has a well-earned reputation for destroying unprepared cars and trailers.
By the end of day 3 we had stopped at the Archer River Road House, less than 200km from Weipa. The road this far consisted of severe corrugations, dust holes and steep dips, some with water up to the doors of the Landcruiser.
The next morning revealed some minor damage to Steve's boat and Simon's trailer. One of Simon's mudguards had lost all, but one bolt and had spent some time resting on the wheels. This was easily fixed with some spare bolts we had brought along for such an incident. Steve's boat, on the other hand, had a little more damage with the hydraulic steering broken off the motor and a broken battery isolator from a mobile battery that had worked its way free of the strap. The repairs to Steve's boat would have to wait until Weipa.
As we neared Weipa the road improved dramatically and even had bitumen inside the town boundary. Weipa itself was very clean and modern with everything you would expect and more from a mining town. The locals were very friendly and were only too willing to help a fellow angler and the marine shop owner kindly allowed me the use of his workshop to repair the damage to Steve's boat. We then booked into the Weipa Caravan Park and stocked up on supplies from the supermarket complex in preparation for our first week of fishing the coast north and south of Weipa.
Towing a 6 metre boat to Weipa may seem extreme to some people, but for us it gave the freedom to go anywhere along the western side of the Cape in safety for days at a time. It only took one of us to mention a new destination or fish we wanted to catch and we could be there within hours.

The Fishing
As with most places, different fish species will favour certain times of the year.  Researching the prime times to fish for any given species and the techniques used to catch them, will be time well spent in the planning stage of a trip.
Queenfish and many types of trevally can be found at most river mouths. These fish are great fighters and it was a regular occurrence to have double and triple hook ups.
The river systems to the north of Weipa had massive schools of baitfish entering them, creating a feeding frenzy on an incoming tide. The river was alive with birds and fish. Giant herring, Spanish mackerel and queenfish were slashing through the bait balls as the baitfish made there way into the estuary.
We spent days exploring the estuaries along the Cape. Catching mangrove jacks, golden snapper, javelin fish, barra and estuary cod on both lures and flies. We also caught mud crabs in these estuaries and had our crab pot destroyed more than once by sharks or crocs.
The remote beaches and flats both north and south of Weipa are a magic place to fish. Some of these beaches have brilliant red cliffs as backdrops and fresh water springs draining into the sea creating a small patch of green vegetation amongst the white sandy beaches. Fishing these beaches by foot or from the boat with the electric outboard produced threadfin salmon, dart, queenfish, giant trevally, golden trevally, diamond trevally, barramundi, bream, mackerel, giant herring, permit and one blue bastard (aka Sweetlip).
Wading the flats was only ever an option when we had good visibility into the water. Crocodiles are very much at home along these remote beaches. One overcast afternoon, Jim and I were searching for permit along a remote beach. We had very limited visibility into the water from where we were standing. Just as we were talking about wading into the water to get a better view, a croc surfaced 30 metres away. Needless to say, we decided it would be safer to fish from the boat in these conditions.
Out to sea we saw manta rays feeding on plankton and schools of mack and northern blue fin tuna had the water boiling as they push the baitfish to the surface. Jim managed to hook up onto one of these northern blues on his 8-wt fly rod only to have his fish taken at the boat by an 8 ft bull shark. Jim was now firmly hooked up to this shark and was losing line fast. Using the boat we managed to get the fly line back onto the reel, breaking the shark off without losing everything.
Mackerel were abundant at this time of year and could be seen leaping clear of the water towards evening. A large silver spoon trolled in the late afternoon light was a pretty reliable way of connecting to these great eating fish.
With the aid of the chart plotter we located some outer reefs and managed to drag out some coral trout and blue lined emperor in some pretty rough seas.
Using the boat as our accommodation each night meant we could keep fishing after dark. These night sessions soon became our own shark fishing competition. Just on that, I would highly recommend you don't bring a live 5-foot black tip reef shark aboard for a photo. We tried this and nearly broke a couple of thousand dollars worth of fly rods in the process, as this reef shark went ballistic in the back of the boat. We managed to wrestle it into submission before releasing it back into the water. A welcome change to the sharks at night were golden snapper and jewfish, caught while anchored in a deep hole of the Scardon River north of Weipa.
Camping out
We set up Steve's boat to live onboard, with a gas stove, 12-volt fridge, 120 litre under floor water tank and extra under floor storage for food and equipment. Storing enough fresh water on board was essential for extended trips.
The centre console layout had ample room to roll out three swags. All that was needed at the end of each day was enough water to float the boat overnight. While we enjoyed sleeping on the boat, Simon and his crew were much happier to set up a base camp ashore, returning before dark each night.  They used tents to sleep in and lit a fire most nights to cook with. They also had a 12-volt fridge that stayed in the boat. Using a 12-volt fridge instead of ice was a very convenient and effective way of keeping food cold. The dual batteries were used in each boat allowing us to run the fridges throughout the trip without any problems.

Prior to the trip, we spent a lot of time on Internet forums, reading articles, talking to the locals in Weipa and anyone who had previously travelled to the Cape.
We invested in a map of the area for the GPS chart plotter. This turned out to be an invaluable tool. The GPS allowed us to find reefs, navigate coastlines and find the channels into the many river systems along the Cape.
Tides are also worth investigating prior to the trip. Some river systems can only be accessed on certain days depending on the height of the tide. An hourly tide chart for each area along the coast, proved to be a great asset.
Both trailers were modified so that each boat could be chained down to the trailer. One chain was used to hold down the front with two chains holding down the back of the boat.  All three chains were tightened using turnbuckles and locked off with cable ties. The outboard leg was also pulled down onto a bracket, mounted to the trailer. Both boats were fitted with extra under floor fuel tanks, so we could freely explore the coast for up to a week at a time without being limited by fuel. Auxiliary outboards were fitted to each boat.
Before we covered the boat with a full boat cover, we used industrial cling wrap to cover the centre console and motor to keep the dust out when travelling over the dirt roads.
A complete tool kit and spare parts for the boat and trailer were taken. Some of the spares we took along were: - Leaf spring, tow ball, 2 spare wheels, wheel bearings and hubs, U-bolts, assortment of bolts, oil for the boat and car, vee belts, radiator hoses, spare propellers and anchors.

Guides or do it yourself
Guides and charter operations are a great option if you have limited time.  Having fished the area for many years, these guys know exactly where and when to fish for a whole range of species and what you need to do to catch them.
If time is not a problem and you like the idea of discovering new places and catching different species of fish at your own pace, then I would highly recommend doing it yourself. The sense of adventure and achievement you get from a trip like this will soon have you planning your next quest north to escape yet another Tasmanian winter.
Craig Rist

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