Deep End – Dan Bowater

Mirror flat horizons, masses of churning baitfish and roving oceanic predators. The mere possibility of mouth watering ‘bait ball’ action lures anglers from all over Australia to the western coastline of far north Queensland. If you’ve ever found yourself experiencing the thrill and excitement of retrieving a metal slug or popper through a foaming school of pelagic species you’ll certainly commiserate with the bait ball addiction.

Possibly the attraction is even greater for those who haven’t felt the rush. The aspiration to get it renders everything else as insignificant!

The wonders of Weipa

In September 2015 I embarked on my second week long stay on a hired houseboat via the Weipa Houseboat operation. Some readers may recall my two piece story covering a trip from back in 2013. Even after visiting Weipa for around a decade that trip blew my mind in terms of fine tuning tackle, techniques and most importantly locating the fish! A large contributing factor was the expertise of our crew being formed of some highly skilled blokes (including one local). In fact looking back I doubt I could hand pick a better crew if I tried! You would definitely class them as the kind of guys who spent hundreds of hours each year striving to go one better with their trophy captures (and they have!). In 2014 I finally accepted a request from another group of guys whose dose of ‘bait ball fever’ was just as high. Despite having less ‘on water’ experience they were keen…in fact that would be quite an understatement! However, as things panned out many fundamental hurdles realistically troubled us over the ensuing week holiday during September 2015. It got me thinking recently of how new anglers from other towns would adapt to such a massive fishing challenge. Apart from bait ball action there are literally hundreds of bluewater and estuary fishing options at your disposal- so many that it borders on overwhelming. Thankfully, for me, having a bit of local knowledge has provided a helpful starting point for planning past trips. So what about the mad keen, but ultimately new, visiting anglers? In this article I’d like to cover some of the perhaps less obvious factors at play in turning a prospective trip into one that becomes a treasured memory


Get the mix right!

Finding the right mix of people is the first critical step and not necessarily an easy one! These Cape York houseboat trips need careful consideration typically involving four figure sums of money and six days away from civilisation. Not everyone can follow through with such sacrifices! On the issue of paying the hire fees our past groups intelligently paid them off in small monthly amounts. Not only did this strategy keep the payments manageable it also keeps everyone committed to the trip. Talk is cheap! There is no worse feeling than having to cancel plans for a group of keen people just because one member hasn’t thought out their finances. Normally these trips require a booking plus deposit one year in advance. This timeframe is ideal to begin those small/manageable instalments. Take it from me you don’t want the uncertainty of a late cancellation possibility keeping the trip in the balance. In this regard our most recent group cleverly addressed this sometimes difficult issue. Onya lads!

Acclimatise for action!

You can’t catch bluewater species without being in the bluewater! If you want to see bait ball action (or any significant bluewater action) you need to be able to handle fishing in a pretty remorseless open environment. Whether you’re fishing the east or west coast of Qld it’s the same big blue paddock out there. It’s amazing how many southern estuary anglers expect to start their bluewater fishing techniques from scratch on one of these Cape York houseboat trips. If you’re not confident of spending a full day on the reef or any bluewater location say 10-20km offshore chances are its gunna be one bloody tough introduction! Millpond type weather scenarios, while possible, can hardly be expected especially for six days. That is sort of like expecting to buy a new boat because your Melbourne Cup horse is about to win!

On our first day we had light 5-10 knot conditions so took our two 4.5m tenders around nine nautical miles offshore. For a regular angler from Townsville or Cairns that might sound like child’s play considering this distance wouldn’t even be half way to your favourite reef. When arriving at ‘Spot X’ I turned to see a trio of long faces spearheaded by those in the boat behind us eventually feeling the effects of seasickness. On the upside hordes of fish were teaming below and the wait for hook-ups was minimal. In a short timeframe I hooked ten Spaniards, a few G.Ts and a massive black spot cod- and that’s not even counting all the fish taken by sharks! Despite this action with each passing moment I could see the morale of the other guys plummeting. It was time to make a group vote on the fishing plans.  Since we all paid equally for the trip a democratic approach was locked in place otherwise people’s behaviour might descend to other less evolved forms of primate! Consequently it was a short innings at this location but at least pleasing to get some early scalps. If you are interested in fishing for pelagic species in Cape York I can’t stress enough how important it is to gain that first bit of personal offshore fishing confidence.  At the very least book a couple of basic half day charters in your local area that allow you to customise your mind and body to the bluewater experience beforehand. Don’t wait until you’re in the houseboat!

Discard all assumptions!

Abandoning pre-conceived notions and adapting to proven methods is, in my humble view, the key in advancing toward successfully fishing in Cape York. On our most recent houseboat trip the guys had been watching bait ball footage on their I-phones for weeks and just wanted to see fish carving up the surface- visual fishing action. There are fewer YouTube clips of anglers looking a sounder screens… so ya can’t blame em’ I guess! I probably egged them on by sending the web links in the first place! Over the next four days the old group vote formality led us to fishing in a shallow 2-3m deep area characterised by a submerged rock formation. While we scored some good fish retrospectively it’s hard to ignore ‘what could have been’ by exploring the depths. Once the lads could see the fish/structure they just had their minds set on extracting the resident species. It was perceived as the only relatable choice matching their bait ball driven desires. At times our wishes were granted with flurries of surface feeding activity erupting around the frantically retrieved poppers. During other times it was more like casting in a big lifeless swimming pool. For anyone partaking in bluewater fishing methods off Cape York I can’t stress enough the importance in using your electronics to experience consistent action. When the fish are deep (which is commonly!) your sounder becomes your eyes. Keep an open mind when exploring bluewater terrain and always be willing to discard prior assumptions for best results.

Prepare wisely!

When it comes to forming a game plan in a place like Weipa the range of angling environments is incredible for such a specific area. Whether that’s fishing for shallow water barra with gold bombers to fishing 20 meters with big jerk shad plastics all options are definitely on the table. For this reason the range of gear required on these extended trips is almost unlimited. On the bluewater side of things costs certainly mount quickly with suitable outfits costing enough to make Donald Trump nervously check his bank balance. One of my mates went to the extreme length of hiding yellow notes in an old sock to keep the missus onside. Later the sock was eventually exchanged for a rather nice spin reel from Erskine’s Tackleworld!

Whether its selecting quality gear, getting it serviced or upgraded it all matters when plunging into such an unforgiving fishing environment. Getting your leader to braid connections in the muscle memory helps immensely too. Doing this bit of practise helps by reducing wasted time on the water- broken leaders are to be expected. Take the time to test out a few different leader connections in your local fishery so there’s no disappointment in inevitably high pressure fishing scenarios. Nick Phillipa has outlined some good options in recent Fish and Boat editions. During our trip we had a few freaky bite periods on big queenfish when some avoidable leader connection issues cost us quality fish (and lures).

Another routine I follow involves methodically upgrading all my front line bluewater lures to Owner St-66 trebles and Owner ‘Hyperwire’ rings (use ‘Texas’ split ring pliers). For the ‘run of the mill’ fish it probably makes no difference. It’s done to heighten the chance of landing those rare trophy specimens like 20kg G.Ts, cobia or Spaniards. It’s fully up to the individual- as again the cost of upgrading lures can mount quickly.  I remember one of the lads convincing me he would just do it on the drive over. Upgrading lures over the corrugated Peninsula Development Road? That would be like trying to mate with a python in a phone box during an earthquake. On the trip itself there were a couple of excellent captures involving G.Ts to around 20kg on heavy 80lb tackle. I’m certain that strong leader connections and clever upgrading of lures led to these hook-ups being converted. Give it some thought if you want to land some of your own Cape York monsters.

Lastly, make sure you have prepared a good music playlist on a USB stick for the journey. On the houseboat sound system our five song mix became very familiar by the sixth day. So familiar that pressing play was about on level par with sitting under a dripping tap!

Take up the Cape York challenge!

Queensland’s west coast is a special part of the world that appeals to the full spectrum of anglers. For some fishos the above information might lead to lost faith in chasing its famous bait ball action. Fishing is a funny activity as sometimes the most audacious plans unfold perfectly with minimal fuss. In other fishing arenas like Lake Tinaroo metre barra occasionally get caught on the first cast, and on the reef red emperor can bite on every bait etc. However, what needs to be considered is that these outcomes are not necessarily representative of the norm- just as eternally churning Cape York bait balls probably aren’t always the norm. Being aware of the many possibilities or ‘playing the cards you’re dealt’ is paramount. The staff at Weipa Houseboats are very helpful in advising what might unfold on your special trip based on prevailing weather conditions and action from past crews. You get that head start plus the full advantage of home style living while you are on the water. It’s definitely the best operation I’ve seen in terms of connecting yourself with the true magic of remote Cape York fishing. All the vital ingredients are set in place for a unique and unforgettable fishing holiday. The challenge in converting this valuable opportunity lies totally in the mentality of the group. I’d argue the fate of most trips is already decided before the houseboat is even untied from the pylons. When it all comes together and you are hunched over a loudly screaming reel any kind of adversity becomes forgotten in a heartbeat! If you think you’d like to plan your own Weipa houseboat trip visit