Cape YorkFar North QLD
Cape York tops the bucket lists of many adventurous travellers and is a dream destination for keen recreational anglers… But get a few things wrong and it’s possible to miss out on the best action, even in this tropical paradise. Here’s how to plan your D.I.Y. Cape trip in order to avoid potential disappointment on the fishing front.
The sighing of wind through drooping she-oak fronds carries a wistful, slightly melancholy note. That secretive, pervasive whispering underscores my memories of tramping the empty beaches up along the western side of Cape York Peninsula: from the Skardon River northward to the broad mouth of the tea-coloured Jardine. Not that there’s anything wistful nor melancholy about that rich bank of recollections. They’re amongst the fondest of my long and fruitful fishing life.
In my head, I’m even now traversing the curve of one of those lonely beaches on a clear, hot morning. The persistent sou’ easter is bending the tops of the casuarinas seaward and making small, puffy clouds chase their own shadows far out across the Gulf. This is a happy place my mind’s eye readily retreats to, escaping the drudge of daily life. I can’t think of anywhere else on earth I’d rather be than right there. Coarse, sugary sand crunching up between bare toes, fly rod swinging loosely at my hip, eyes probing the jade shallows for furtive shapes. A ripple of nervous mullet. The black, triangular slice of a small shark’s fin, cutting silvery water. Doormat stingrays vacuuming the edges. All are noted in passing as I move ahead slowly, searching for greater prizes.
“That western side of the top half of Cape York Peninsula is definitely up there in my favourite-five list.”
The tide is rising, flooding in over corrugated sand flats and filling shallow gutters where hermit crabs scuttle. With it come the hunters. Golden trevally, queenfish, giant herring, blue salmon… and the greatest prize of all: pewter-flanked permit or snub-nosed dart. Tail tips scythe the surface in fast, curling flicks and deep, fleshy flanks flash like dull mirrors as they forage, blunt noses turned down to bump the sand. My hand trembles as I unhook the crab fly from its keeper and prepare to cast. Today could be the day.
I’m often asked to nominate my all-time favourite fishing spot. Having been lucky enough to wet a line in some 15 countries, all the world’s major oceans, and extensively throughout every state and territory of Australia, it’s a tough call to make. But that western side of the top half of Cape York Peninsula is definitely up there in my favourite-five list. There are destinations with greater numbers of fish, or bigger fish, and places with more spectacular scenery, but the Cape has an excellent mix of quantity, quality, variety and atmosphere. Best of all, it’s a far more user-friendly part of the world than most of the Top End and Kimberley coastlines.
Tides on the western Cape are smaller than many tropical locations, and the prevailing sou’ east trade winds blow offshore rather than onto it. As a result, the inshore water is usually relatively clear and calm… And those whispering, casuarina-backed beaches are simply a joy to walk on.
But there’s much more to Cape York fishing than hiking the Gulf beaches and sight-casting flies or lures to fast-moving predators in the shallows. The rivers, estuaries and inshore waters of the Cape are all rich in aquatic life. During intensive fishing expeditions to this part of the world, it’s possible to rack up 30, 40 or even 50 different species of fish. Most casual danglers couldn’t name 50 different types of fish, nor hope to accrue such an extensive catch list in a lifetime of dropping a line, let alone do so in just a week or two! Of course, to push the species tally so high, you need to be actively splitting family trees (not just cod, but estuary cod, gold-spot cod, wire-netting cod and tomato cod, for example). You also need to account for a bunch of ring-ins and oddities like remoras, jawfish, grinners, long toms and archer fish. But it can certainly be done, and some of us derive considerable pleasure from notching up such an impressive count.
Despite these impeccable fishy credentials, Cape York can also be a bitterly disappointing destination for the more casual or unprepared angler. Many do-it-yourself 4WD road trippers, in particular, come home with sad sagas of meager catches following their expeditions to the pointy end of Australia.
Incessant wind, unfavourable tides, fished-out river holes, surprisingly high numbers of fellow hopefuls competing for limited hot spots, poor tackle selection and the difficulties involved in accessing more productive waters can all conspire to put the kybosh on dreams of regularly filling the fridge freezer. Reality often falls well short of pre-trip expectations.
Much of this disappointment can be traced back to unrealistic hopes, combined with a lack of planning and preparation. Too many Cape-bound dreamers seem to be under the impression that all they need to do to find fishing nirvana is push a couple of hundred kays up the track and collect a decent layer of dust on their vehicle. Then it’ll be just a matter of dropping a baited line into any puddle of water beside the road and hauling out fish after flapping fish… If only it were so easy!
It’s estimated that as many as 70,000 people visit Cape York each year, and many of these folks travel up under their own steam. This equates to tens of thousands of vehicles traversing the various roads and tracks of the Cape, and the vast majority of those visiting 4WDs have at least one rod and reel, handline or crab trap stowed away somewhere on board. When you consider that the bulk of this visitor traffic is concentrated into a six or seven month period between May and November, the intensity of recreational fishing effort in this “wilderness” area becomes apparent. Little wonder it’s not always possible to simply flick in a line and haul out dinner!
Not surprisingly, many hopeful anglers making the Cape pilgrimage by road concentrate their fishing efforts on the creeks, waterholes and rivers immediately adjacent to the dozen or more water crossings encountered on the way to the top. These mostly fresh, non-tidal watercourses contain sooty grunter (black bream), saratoga and the odd barramundi, along with catfish, sleepy cod, coal grunter, archer fish, long toms and various other small forage fish, as well as cherabin or freshwater prawns. Lower down (closer to the sea) you can include mangrove jacks and mud crabs in that mix, as well as stingrays, sharks and sawfish. And it must be stressed that all of these waters are also home to potentially deadly saltwater crocodiles.
While the pools immediately adjacent to these crossings can occasionally turn on some excellent fishing, especially for the first few parties of travellers to hit them early in the Dry Season, the cream is soon skimmed off. By July, August and September, when visitor numbers peak, roadside picking are slim, at best.
Getting off the beaten track and accessing these same waterways several kilometers up or downstream of the busy crossings dramatically increases your likelihood of success. So does carrying a lightweight, car-topper boat. It’s even possible to use a canoe or kayak on some of these streams, but I really don’t recommend these craft in crocodile waters! As a general rule of thumb, the further you can get away from the crowds, the better your fishing results will be. Use topo’ maps (remember those?) and Google Earth to plan such side sorties, but carry adequate recovery gear in case you get stuck and don’t travel as a lone vehicle.
Accessing the coast on either side of the Cape also expands your opportunities. You can walk the beaches as I’ve already described, launch a car-topper in the estuaries or more sheltered coastal waters, and also fish from man-made structures such as jetties and wharves in the ports of Cooktown, Weipa and Seisia (Bamaga’s coastal community).
In particular, the concrete public wharf at Seisia, close to the tip of Cape York, is one of the most exciting land-based fishing platforms in the entire north of Australia. Over the years, this structure has produced some extraordinary catches, including giant trevally (GTs), big queenfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia, barracuda and even barramundi (the barra are most likely to be encountered at night, especially during the Wet Season).
However, like much of the Cape, Seisia wharf is a very hot-and-cold fishing spot, with long periods of inactivity punctuated by brief, intense bursts of action. These short, sharp bite periods can happen at any time of the day or night, but often coincide with dawn, dusk or tide changes. Live bait is the best offering here, usually in the form of small, silvery herring or sardines caught from the wharf itself using sabiki-style, multi-hook, bait-catching rigs. Dead bait and lures can also produce the goods at times. However, bear in mind that this is a working port facility and anglers often need to make room for cargo barges, pilot vessels, work boats and the regular Torres Strait Island ferries, not to mention other fishers, both locals and tourists… It can get rather busy at times!
The rocky points up near the actual Tip itself are also well worth casting a line from. A lure or bait cast from these current-licked outcrops could potentially produce anything from small cod and coral trout up to monster trevally, mackerel, sharks and even juvenile black marlin! To the west, Vrilya Point is another viable land-based spot, but tends to be kinder to those with a small boat. Take an oyster knife for the big black-lips, too!
Basing yourself temporarily in one of the Cape’s population centres, especially Weipa or Seisia, also allows you to make use of local charter boats and fishing guides, thereby greatly improving your chances of catching a feed and enjoying some of the world-class angling action this area is so famous for.
There are several very professional live-aboard mothership operations working Cape York waters, including Eclipse FNQ Charters (www.eclipsefnq.com.au), although these tend to cater primarily to fly-in, fly-out visitors seeking an extended (and relatively expensive) fishing expedition.
Of more relevance to most 4WD travellers are day-trip and short-term guided fishing operators such as “Fish” Philliskirk’s Weipa Fly and Sportfishing (www.weipaflyfish.com.au) and Seisia-based Charlton’s Cape York Adventures (www.capeyorkadventures.com.au). Both are long-established and extremely reputable businesses. Newer, but receiving some rave reviews and write-ups, are Jay Arnold’s Cape York Peninsula Fishing, also based in Seisia (www.capeyorkpeninsulafishing.com.au), and CY Fishing Charters, located on Albany Island, near the tip (www.cyfishingcharters.com.au).
For those who’d rather do their own thing, Cape York Ice and Tackle in Seisia offers hire boats and tackle supplies, as does Weipa Caravan Park and Camping Ground, while Weipa Houseboats represents another interesting option for visitors. (You’ll find links to these operations in a panel further down the page.)
As mentioned earlier, the tidal range is smaller on the Cape than across most of the Top End and Kimberley, but tides remain critically important and can impact heavily on fishing results. Generally, the week or so of building tides, during which the neaps (smallest tidal movements) grow towards the springs (large daily movements) produces better action than the top of the springs or run down to the next neaps, although there can be exceptions to this “rule”. Try to talk to locals on the ground up there before you leave home to get a better handle on all of this. (Obviously, tides don’t have such an impact if you’re fishing in upstream, freshwater reaches of rivers and creeks.)
The same advice about seeking local knowledge also applies to tackle selection. While your southern snapper, flathead, bream, bass and even trout gear certainly has its place up north, there are minor and not-so-minor adjustments that need to be made (such as the use of wire traces for sharp-toothed mackerel, or heavy monofilament leaders when targeting barra). These are beyond the scope of a travel overview like this one, but can spell the difference between memorable success and dismal failure. Do your homework before you go!
Cape York Peninsula can be a true fisherman’s paradise and, as stated earlier, sits firmly near the top of my personal short list of the world’s best angling destinations. But you can miss out on the Cape just as easily as you can anywhere else if you get it wrong. As with most things in life, those who go the extra distance and put in that little bit more effort are usually the ones who bring home the bacon… or the barra!
There are a couple of ways to explore Cape York. You could fly to Weipa, Bamaga or Thursday Island aboard regular or chartered domestic services, or drive in your own 4WD, either independently or as part of a “tag-along” guided group.
Contrary to some of the horror stories you may have heard, the drive is quite do-able in a reasonably well-maintained and equipped 4WD and there are fuel stations and roadhouses stocking both petrol and diesel along the way (in fact, the longest distance between fuel stops is 140km).
However, before undertaking the journey, do your homework and make sure you are prepared!