January 30, 2020
One of the most common (and generic) questions I get is, “What is your favorite Species or Destination?” My answer is that It’s never a fish or place, but always a process. I love sight casting, and the trips I enjoy the most are the ones on the fringe—places that aren’t completely dialed in, where there is still some learning to do, and species that force you to figure out the puzzle or crack the code. after all . . . that’s the essence of fly fishing.
What’s the new new? Chasing permit in a different part of the world is new, and chasing a species of permit I’ve never seen or really heard of, that’s the new new; that uncharted territory that is only getting harder and harder to find. When those opportunities come up, you can count me in.
I hadn’t made it to the Land Down Under in all my travels, and there were fish to be caught there that only recently made it onto my radar. The Wessel Islands in the Northern Territory of Australia offered me opportunities for at least four new species to tick off my list—Trachinotus anak (a permit species), tuskie, barramundi, and blue bastards. Trachinotus blochii and queenfish also roam the flats.
If you happened to catch Jako Lucas’s recent short film Glorious Bastards, you witnessed a taste of how awesome and new this fishery is and the crazy fish that live here.
Josh Hutchins, owner/operator of Aussie Fly Fisher guide service, is pioneering a lot of the fishing in Australia. He deserves the credit for bringing both Murray cod (a freshwater fish) and blue bastards to the attention of U.S. fly fishers.
Australia seems far—and it is—but it’s relatively easy travel. I managed a direct flight on Delta from my home airport in Raleigh to Los Angeles, and from there to Sydney. One stop to go around the world is about as easy as it gets.
From Sydney you take a regional flight to Cairns and spend the night. I caught a short flight to Gove Airport in the morning and then boarded the Phoenix One owned by Waterline Charters. It’s a beautiful 115' luxury yacht that sleeps six anglers and a crew of seven. From there, it’s a 8- to 12-hour trip to the northern tip of Wessel Islands on Australia’s north coast.
Waterline is the only operator with permission to run a guide operation in this area. They managed to track down the single aboriginal elder who was born on the islands, and were able to negotiate exclusive rights to the fishing there.
New locations, good people, and the possibility of great fishing are reason enough for me to hop on a plane, but there were two species in particular I was hoping to tangle with on this trip: Blue bastards and a new (for me) kind of permit, Trachinotus anak, a lesser-known and less widely distributed Indo-Pacific permit.
Anglers have chased blue bastards all over Northern Australia for many years, but they were only scientifically classified in 2015. True to form, the scientific name follows the more common moniker: Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus. Caeruleo means blue and nothus means bastard. As the name implies, these fish glow blue in the water, and they are bastards to catch. They are endemic to Northern Australia, and the Wessels is probably the best place in the world to try to catch one on fly.
Part bonefish, part redfish, and part mutant, blue bastards cruise and feed on the flats. They love to tail, and they glow blue in the water so they are incredibly easy to spot. They are not as easy to catch.
We found that any well-placed fly would get their attention, but converting that to a hook-up was a much greater challenge. They seemed to prefer the fly sitting on the bottom with no movement, so you can only set the hook based on the fish’s behavior and your own intuition. There were numerous fish that reacted to various retrieves, but they almost always followed the fly to the rod tip and never committed.
Blue bastards were amazingly frustrating at times, and willing participants at others. Ultimately you must read the fish behavior and move or not move the fly based on how that particular fish wants it. As with most fish, your first shot is your best shot. Once they knew you were there, you had no chance. They’d stay in casting range and leave you frustrated, but once you were busted it was game over.
Permit still reign supreme in my book, and we gave up some great fishing for blue bastards to look for permit. There are two species in the Wessels: Trachinotus blochii and Trachinotus anak.
T. blochii is the same Indo-pacific permit found in the Seychelles and Oman. [See the author’s story “On Foot in Oman” in the February-March 2019 issue. The Editor.] T. blochii are a beautiful permit species with incredible golden fins, but what really had my interest was T. anak, and Australia is really the only place to target them. They get a little larger than blochii, have a very distinctive snub nose, and are notoriously finicky. Since they both swim the same waters and look so similar, you can’t really target one type of permit over the other.
We had a little bad luck with the weather on my week in the Wessels. Clouds, rain, and wind really hampered our visibility but overall we still managed a phenomenal week of fishing. When we had good light, the fish were there and we made the most of those opportunities. Between Josh and I we hooked six permit for the week, and three of those made it to hand. None of them were T. anak, but luckily we added a few days of fishing the Queensland, Australia, coastline with Gladstone Fly and Sportfishing, and I managed a cracker anak there. Like the blue bastards, both types of permit really liked the fly on the bottom with minimal to no movement.
We had a full moon in the middle of our trip. We found the fish very aggressive going into the moon. The day of the full moon and two days following, they were a little harder. Then the last day it all turned on with great weather and sun and really happy cooperating fish.
Hutchins made a beautiful cast at a big permit that was most likely an anak, riding high in the water column. I watched the fish see the fly, swim over, and just inhale it as it was sinking. It was perfect, but also perfectly unlucky as the line wrapped around the engine and just as quickly as it happened the fish was gone.
We had a moment early in the trip where it was dark and rainy and suddenly the sun came out. When the lights came on, there were fish all around us. I was hooked up to a blue bastard, Hutchins was casting to a permit, and I was trying to get my fish off the hook as quickly as possible as there were 20 or more permit all around the boat.
As cool as those blue bastards are, they still play second fiddle to the permit so you don’t properly appreciate them at all times. The other fish are a real bonus too, queenfish on the flats, barramundi, golden trevally, and GTs.
The rig is pretty simple, a 9-weight with a floating line and a 12-foot leader terminating in 20-pound-test fluorocarbon. The Aussies also like to have a clear intermediate tip rigged for some of the deeper flats, and you always want to have a 12-weight rigged and ready for any GT that might sneak in on you.
Most of the bottom is bright white sand or topped with just a little mud. A white Alphlexo Crab matched it well. All of these fish preferred the fly on the bottom, and the Aphlexo is tied double weighted with two lead dumbbells under the mesh body.
The permit generally jumped on this fly, and it fooled a fair number of bastards as well. It worked well enough that it was hard to throw anything else. I did pull out my trusty EP Spawning Shrimp a couple of times, and managed a few fish on that as well.
The Wessels is home to saltwater crocs, or as the local calls them: “salties.” They are a little unnerving when you are planning to wade for tailing permit, but the risk is easily mitigated with some common sense. You don’t wade when you can’t see: Whether it is too deep, poor light, or even walking into the glare, if you don’t have good visibility you stay in the boat. The guides are great and they won’t put you in dangerous positions, but that doesn’t give you a pass on taking responsibility.
The other safety risk is jellyfish. The Northern Territory is home to Irukandji, box jellyfish the size of your fingernail and one of the most venomous in the world. There’s not much you can do about those except wear pants and make sure your Global Rescue medical evacuation insurance is up to date.
Expect to hear more and more about the Wessel Islands—it’s pristine, and the Phoenix One is the nicest mothership I’ve been on. The boat is well appointed, the guides are talented and enthusiastic, and the fishery shows untapped potential. I’ll be returning with a group in August 2020. Email me if you’re interested in joining our group.
Oliver White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.