November 16th, 2002
I like Australians. Among their many positive attributes is an admirably direct view of the world - it's not everywhere that the prime minister tells the press that his wife is "buggered", as Bob Hawke once did, or feels up the Queen, as Paul Keating was wont to do. So when one of them tells you that the fishing is slow you're inclined to believe them. Unless, that is, you've flown 10,000 miles and driven another thousand or in pursuit of their country's legendary sportfish, in which case nothing on earth will make you believe that the fishing is likely to be anything but spectacular. And so it was in late October, when we arrived in the tropical northern town of Cardwell to pick up the boat that would be our home for five days of non-stop rod-bending action. "How's the fishing?", I asked Bruce Walker, owner of said boat. "Quiet", he said. And I grinned broadly - "quiet" was obviously a euphemism for "incandescently hot" or "unbelievably good" or perhaps just "superb" or maybe even "exceptional". Anything, in fact, other than quiet.
True, I had just spent 24 hours sweltering in the passenger seat of Mike's turbo diesel-powered Landrover, an experience that is likely to induce delusional symptoms in pretty much anyone. The Bruce Highway from Brisbane to Cairns (yes, there really are a lot of Bruces in Australia) is no-one's idea of an interesting stretch of road; hundreds of miles of roasting sugar cane fields, scorched cattle pastures and an awful lot of places called Six Mile Creek, none of which seem to be six miles from anywhere at all and even fewer of which have any water in them. This is one tedious stretch of tarmac - duller than any American interstate, so dull that you find yourself counting roadkill in a desperate attempt to induce sleep in the face of the Landrover's rattle and roar. This gruesome tactic is rendered even more depressing by the fact that you are counting dead wallabies and kangaroos and taipans instead of fluffy, merrily baaaa-ing lambs; and after the first couple of thousand, even we tired of cheap jokes about dubbing materials.
But we drove and drove anyway, and we lost a wheel on the trailer, and we talked about what a good trip this was going to be, and what our tactics would be and what sort of tides we had. And by the time we got there, we had more or less convinced ourselves that the icebox was as good as full of prime barramundi fillets, and that the only question that remained was exactly which of the five of us would get the best fish on fly gear. As it turned out, there was a more important one that needed to be addressed first.
The next day, I'm standing on the bow of the good ship R&R, leaning forward into the wind, watching the smoky curves of Hinchinbrook Island hove into view across the flats as I scan the water for signs of life. The R&R is a wondrous thing - forty feet or so of catamaran-hulled, diesel-powered tub capable of sleeping eight people who know each other pretty well, five in lesser states of acquaintanceship. This is a sort of bonsai cross-Channel ferry, with better food in the fridge and a much more interesting bar. We may be here to fish, but we're pretty well provisioned; an early sign of weakness, perhaps, an admission that we may not actually be able to catch enough fish to feed us after all.
Still, I feel good as we round Hecate Point and catch the first glimpse of Missionary Bay - a legendary place among Australian tropical fishos, its nine muddy, mangrove-lined creeks heaving with fish just begging to give themselves up. It all looks pretty damn good, frankly, if strangely reminiscent of something I can't quite place - at least, not until Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries blasts from the onboard CD system, Mike's contribution to our initiation into this Apocalypse Now-like landscape. We laugh, and then we just gawp for a while at the strangeness and wondrousness of it all; a huge and properly steamy tropical island, almost all of its perimeter riddled with fractally convoluted creeks and streams and drains, its lumpy mountains decorated with uninhabited, untouched rainforest. It's like Jurassic Park, but with crocodiles instead of tyrannosaurs - and all the scarier for the knowledge that the crocs made it a lot further along the evolutionary road than T. rex ever did.
It's hot here. Really, really hot; 36 or 37 degrees today, but - and this bit turns out to be critical - it is a very dry heat, a bad sign at a time of year when tropical Queensland should be preparing for the first of the three or four metres of rain that are absolutely expected and welcomed. But there has been no rain here for months, and none is forecast for months more - those streams and drains are looking pretty sorry for themselves, and the area's legendary humidity (this season is not called the Wet just because it rains a lot) remains worryingly absent. But there is sea water in abundance, and fish live in that, right? So they're not complaining. I retire to the rear deck to get out of the sun, watching the dinghies - tinnies, in Aussie parlance - bouncing cheerfully behind the boat and wondering what the crocs think about pale English blokes waving funny-looking sticks around from the stern. And then we're there, and Chris has moored us up, and we go fishing.
Here's the thing about fishing mangrove creeks: it all works in reverse. Forget what you know about fish moving up and feeding on rising tides; here, they wait for the insane tangle of the mangrove roots to drain as the tide runs out, flushing the baitfish from their protecting veil as it goes. The bigger fish ambush them as they seek the refuge of deeper water, darting from snags below the low-water mark to inhale the hapless mullet and hardyfish and, if you believe the characteristically colourful Australian literature, more or less anything else that moves. The lower the tide, the more concentrated predators and prey become - and, thus, more accessible to a man armed with an 8-weight Redington and a Vision Extreme reel.
Before I've even attached it to the rod, this reel has attracted much attention. The guys in the Cairns tackle shop who sold me a tropical clear sinktip SA line cooed over it even as they attached the 350 yards of backing; and it is, in truth, a handsome and cunningly engineered thing which frankly deserves to have its frighteningly smooth cork drag put to the sternest of tests. If it feels somewhat heavy and cumbersome to a man more accustomed to slinging five-weights around, it also feels the way I imagine driving a Rolls-Royce must feel; endlessly smooth, comfortable, tolerant of anything thrown at it by man or road or, in this case, fish.
Or not, of course.
Here's another thing about mangrove fishing: there aren't any fish. At least, not today there aren't; all we have today is wind, and heat, and some wisecracks at the expense of the lure-chuckers (and I'm talking about 9-inch Gold Bombers with size 1 trebles thrown on baitcasting rods here, not Dog Nobblers) operating out of the R&R's second satellite tinny. They, though, are catching fish; estuary cod, all mouth and no substance but indisputably fish with a capital F. We scowl, and cast some more, and we get better at this business of easing big, ugly, weighted flies into improbably narrow gaps. We fish Clousers, Pink Things, Dahlbergs, Barraminkies™. We fish them deep, and we fish them shallow. We strip. We twitch. We wait. Every snag, every hole is covered and explored. Eventually we have covered every inch of a bank maybe a kilometre long. Not a single fish troubles our flies, or us. And suddenly, as we return to the mothership to repair our bruised egos with Cascade beer, the horrible truth about saltwater flyfishing becomes apparent. It's just like trout fishing, but a lot more expensive.
Which brings me back to that unasked question; unasked here at any rate, if not on our home waters.
Why do we do this, exactly?
Next week: You don't know jack!