November 16, 2022
This article originally appeared in the 2022 Destinations special publication of Fly Fisherman.
Australia is known for the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It’s the Land Down Under, with red desert plains, jumping kangaroos, and cuddly koalas. We’re famous for Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and Crocodile Dundee. Many people are interested in trying some fly fishing in Australia when they visit, but what is usually missing from the tourist brochures is the untapped potential for fly-fishing adventures.
The first record of Australian fly fishing is from 1833. An article on fly fishing titled, “A Day’s Fishing on the Plenty,” appeared in the Hobart Town Magazine in Australia’s most southern state, Tasmania. The author of that story caught mullet using a Red Hackle or Fern Fly, and so began what has become the treasured pastime of thousands of Australians over the last 200 years.
Nestled between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Australia is an island with 30,000 miles of fishable coastline. And whether it’s standing knee deep in clear saltwater flats or hiking into alpine streams in the mountains, Australia offers something increasingly rare in the fly-fishing scene—plenty of space. There are hundreds of untouched streams and beaches just waiting to be explored.
The species on offer are as vast as the landscape. GTs, permit, queenfish, and trout are all well known, but throw in freshwater fish like barramundi and Murray cod, and the emerging saltwater favorites of blue bastards, tuskies, and the endemic permit species, and you have a very appealing list. Much more exciting than Nicole Kidman. With so much to explore, let me take you on a journey of my top seven Aussie fish and fisheries.
The Wessel Islands, a rugged archipelago off the east Arnhem Land coast, is Australia’s most remote and untouched fly-fishing destination. Nestled at the top of the Northern Territory, and with no permanent residents, the islands carry much mystery—they are an untapped world ready to be discovered.
For thousands of years, an indigenous population called the Yolngu clans lived here. They survived by eating fish, sharks, stingrays, marine mammals called dugongs, and crocodiles. But in the 1790s, their population was decimated by smallpox introduced by Indonesian traders. The indigenous population living in the Wessels at that time was wiped out. Today, no one is allowed to travel to the islands without exclusive permission from the remnant indigenous owners. But for those who do travel with the approved operator, the fishing is incredible.
For flats enthusiasts, the Wessels knocks off two permit species—Trachinotus blochii (often referred to as Indo-Pacific permit) and Australia’s endemic species Trachinotus anak. And if you can look beyond the permit, the opportunities continue.
Blue bastards are numerous in the Wessels, and whether wading or by skiff, they are challenging targets. Hard-fighting and often tricky to fool, blue bastards are prized flats fish, and an important addition to your Australian wish list.
Blackspot tuskfish or tuskies are another flats favorite. Tuskies glow a bright blue-green when feeding on the flats, and are especially fast and strong when they are hooked. They are much like triggerfish, but even fiercer. To tick off a permit, blue bastard, and a tuskie in a day is the ultimate Australian grand slam.
And just in case you’re looking to add more spice to your life, queenfish, barramundi, giant trevally, Spanish mackerel, coral trout, golden trevally, brassy trevally, and giant herring all inhabit the Wessels. When a 4-foot queenfish comes cruising down the flat in shallow water, it doesn’t matter what you’re chasing—few can resist the temptation to pursue the leaping queenie.
For those who love to wade, the Wessels offers the best wading opportunities of all the Australian saltwater fisheries. And after an action-packed day of fishing, you get to enjoy the views. These islands offer a network of coves, clear sandy flats, mangroves, and freshwater creeks. There are few things more satisfying than a drink onboard the mothership after a plentiful day of fishing, watching the sunset, without another boat in sight. Surrounded by beautiful and intriguing landscapes, the Wessels are a must-visit location.
Cape York sits at the very top of Australia. It takes miles of red dirt roads, river crossings, and random kangaroos to get there. Home to crocodiles, stingrays, and the world’s most venomous snakes, Cape York is as threatening as it is wild. But it’s also the largest unspoiled wilderness in northern Australia. It features tropical rain forests, wetlands, wild rivers, mangrove swamps, rare birds, and extraordinary biodiversity, including 200 species of butterflies. But we aren’t here for the butterflies.
Cape York has excellent fishing on both its western and eastern sides. When not plagued by a ruthless trade wind, the East transforms into a stunning fishery. Clear sandy beaches, island cayes, and miles of the Great Barrier Reef create a fly-fishing paradise. Its unpredictability is made up for by its beauty. With the sky reflecting off the water, and large GTs, permit, and blue bastards on offer, the East is volatile but magnificent. The west side of Cape York, however, is consistent, and full of fish. Large T. anak permit fill the flats, and energetic barramundi roam the rivers.
Queenfish, golden trevally, and cobia are common targets in the West. However, most fly fishers find the large T. anak permit the most distracting on the flats. Of all the areas where these permit are found in Australia, Cape York has proved to hold the most prolific numbers. Schools of up to 50 or 100 big permit are what makes this fishery special, but like everywhere else, they aren’t always easy to catch.
Roaming the many rivers and creeks of Cape York delivers a myriad of species, but most famous are barramundis. Barramundis in the wilds of Cape York are a memorable experience. Hunting through small creeks and flooded mangrove margins produces exhilarating fishing.
The Cape is full of adventure, helicopter trips to remote billabongs, beachside campouts, and week-long mothership explorations. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of place.
For the location that doesn’t just make you happy but makes your nonfishing partner happy as well, there are few places better than Exmouth, in western Australia.
Unlike The Wessels and Cape York, where there is a wet season from December to March, the Exmouth season is almost the opposite, with the fishing peaking around September through May.
Travel to Exmouth is via Perth, and bringing your partner along isn’t a trade-off. Exmouth and the surrounding Ningaloo Reef aren’t just beautiful to look at, they’re beautiful to fish as well.
The Exmouth fishery is made up of two distinct areas—the ocean side with Ningaloo Reef, and the extensive fishing playground of the Gulf of Exmouth. The crystal-clear waters of Ningaloo have drawn ocean lovers from all over the world. The odd Australian bonefish show up along Ningaloo, but it’s more renowned for its permit, giant trevally, queenfish, and numerous large golden trevally. Ningaloo is a breathtaking coastline and well serviced by high-end resorts with plenty of room to relax if fishing is not your thing.
Exmouth is the first place I landed a permit on a fly, and it holds a special place in my fishing heart. And it kicked off what became a lifelong addiction. Australia is full of saltwater opportunities, but it’s hard to look beyond The Wessels, Cape York, and Exmouth as the premier fly-fishing destinations.
Barramundi, or barra as most Aussies refer to them, and are among our most iconic fish. They hit hard, jump when hooked, and always put up a good fight. Barramundis frequent both fresh and salt water and make great fly-fishing targets. Inland billabongs, freshwater lakes, coastal rivers, saltwater headlands, and sandy flats are some of the favorite Aussie locations to target barra.
In clear-water locations, barramundis make exciting sight-fishing targets. Shallow baitfish profile flies or topwater patterns are very effective in these situations.
Most northern Australian destinations have wild barramundis. And many inland impoundments along the northeastern coast of the state of Queensland stock barramundis. These lakes have become popular with fly fishers, with the average size of barra being 3 to 4 feet long and more than 40 pounds.
In their native habitats, barramundis grow to more than 100 pounds and have captured the hearts of Aussie sport fishers for years. They are a species worthy of international attention.
Murray cod, or goodoo, are Australia’s largest freshwater fish. They grow to more than 100 pounds and have been historically recorded at more than 200 pounds.
Murray cod inhabit the southeast corner of Australia, and the best fly-fishing water is not too far from Sydney and Melbourne. They live in small streams to large lakes, and in some places, big fish can still be found in small water. Murray cod have a striking appearance, patterned with green and gold, and resemble more of a freshwater grouper than a cod. They aren’t cod at all, and many visiting Americans would compare their aggressive feeding habits to largemouth bass.
Topwater flies are the highlights of Murray cod fishing, with large foamhead poppers creating exciting fishing. Muskie- and pike-style flies are the perfect offerings for goodoo, and they are often fished in the same ways.
It’s not uncommon for goodoo to consume full-grown ducks off the water with a loud implosive hit! They are fish with a big appetite.
Fly fishing for Murray cod is a true adventure—rugged bushland, 4x4 terrain, gorges, kangaroos, wombats, and the Aussie Outback. Although Murray cod don’t always lend themselves to sight-fishing opportunities, headwater streams sometimes offer clear water and visual fishing.
Goodoo tend to enjoy the warmer months of the season, December to May, but winter fishing, despite the seemingly endless casts, can often produce the largest fish.
Browns & Rainbows
In 1864 the first successful introduction of trout in the Southern Hemisphere took place in Tasmania, Australia. New Zealand’s brown trout were later introduced from Tasmania, and rainbow trout were eventually introduced from California.
Despite Australia being often thought of as a dry, arid country, the southeastern states of New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania provide some excellent trout fishing.
Tasmania’s brown trout fishery is one of the wildest in the world. Since the introduction of brown trout, they have thrived within Tasmania’s streams and extensive network of lakes with little human interruption or intervention.
Tasmania looks like a remnant of northern Scotland, and migrant Scots were among the early settlers. Like Scotland, it’s vast and stark, but filled with beautiful streams, tarns, and lakes. It carries a strong nostalgia of traditional dry-fly trout fishing, with incredible hatches of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. Local food, coupled with Tasmanian distilled whiskey and gin, make this location an easy place to enjoy. It has held its own against many of the world’s trout meccas, and the best part is, you’ll have it just about to yourself.
Trout are also easy to find from Australia’s two largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and these mountainous areas not only offer great fishing, but fantastic scenery close to the city. Whether by foot or drift boat, there is a surprising amount on offer for a day or multi-day trip from the city.
Mainland trout fishing is one of Australia’s biggest surprises for traveling anglers. The Snowy Mountains and Blue Mountains are not only world-class tourist destinations, but offer plenty of fishing for brown and rainbow trout.
While the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge may be on thousands of postcards, it’s the water underneath that deserves the greatest acclaim. Sydney Harbour is one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, and the fishing is even better.
Busting schools of yellowtail kingfish under the iconic Harbour Bridge feels particularly Insta-worthy. When the fishing is as busy as the lunchtime food hall, you know you’re in for a good day. The sun shining, a sparkling harbour, and a bustling city make Sydney a perfect holiday stopover, even for just the day.
Yellowtail kingfish, or kingies as we call them, are hard-fighting fish. They often feed on bait balls or hang around structure in the harbour. People travel for thousands of miles to catch these powerful saltwater fish, but in Sydney you can make a day of it on the way to or from one of Australia’s other destinations.
Whether it’s fresh or salt water, through mountains or flats, trout or permit, great fly fishing awaits you Down Under. I hope your curiosity brings you here because the diversity will keep you coming back!
Book Your Destination
Due to its immense size, terrain, and abundance of both saltwater and freshwater fly fishing, there is no off season in Australia. Most direct flights from the U.S. land in Sydney or Melbourne in the southeast corner of the island.
Aussie Fly Fisher – aussieflyfisher.com.
You can’t plan and pack your gear until you decide which species you’d like to target—you can’t catch them all! This is my list for a typical day of fishing for barramundis or Murray cod during the warm season.
Josh Hutchins caught his first fish when he was 13, and it launched him into a lifetime of traveling the world in search of the best fly fishing. He is a guide, professional photographer, a trip host, and owns the travel company Aussie Fly Fisher. Follow him on Instagram at @aussieflyfisher.