Top Shelf Fishing – Talina O’Brien 2017

Most of us have those dream trips always in the back of our heads – some have the opportunity to make those dream trips occur and some just keep on dreaming. I moved to Bamaga over four years ago and during my time in such an amazing part of Australia, I have always talked about my dream fishing trips that I would love to do before ever relocating.

On top of my list has always been to fish the outer shelf of the Far Northern Great Barrier Reef.   I knew to be able to complete a trip like this, all of our planets would have to align.

Recently I had the opportunity to make this dream trip come true. Not only was it a successful fishing trip, but it was also a big tick off my fishing bucket list. Without a doubt this would have to be one of the biggest & remotes trips I had ever planned.

For most well known angling designations along the far North East coast, the continental shelf is only a short trip. However, mid way along the Cape York Peninsula, the Great Barrier Reef makes a slight turn to the east and is approximately 140km due east from the tip of mainland Australia.  To make it even more difficult, there is a large green zone at the top north-eastern corner of the Great Barrier Reef.  If I wanted to fish the shelf, I would have to travel further north past the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and into the Torres Strait. I could never do a trip like this on my own and it didn’t take much to convince my loyal fishing buddies to join me.

Now if you look at a map, this destination is in the middle of nowhere.  140km from my local boat ramp and the nearest island is more than 80km away I knew that we would be required to carry all of our own necessities including sufficient fuel.

Obviously for this trip, the weather was going to dictate if we were going to be successful or not.  With work commitments it was going to be a matter of locking in a 4-5 day period and then hoping & praying that the weather gods were going to be nice to us, we had no room for flexibility.

In most of Far North Queensland, the south easterly blows for constantly 8 months of the year during the dry season and usually, it is about November-December that the wind stops and swings around to the north- north west. It is these winds, that we call the doldrums, that bring the wet season storms and rains.  We knew there was no way we could get to where we wanted to go during the south-easters as you are lucky to get one good day on the east coast let alone 4-5 good days, so we knew we had to plan our trip around the time when the winds stop and before the winds and rain started coming from the west.

So it was back in April that we took a stab in the dark and picked 4 days in mid December. As the year went on we started to think about what gear we were going to need, how much fuel we would require and the logistics of carrying it all to where we wanted to go.  A small part of me was super excited about the trip but another large part of me knew that we couldn’t get too excited as the weather is always punishing and these sort of plans can be cancelled at short notice.

Two weeks out, I started watching the long range forecast and it was looking good.  As each day got closer the weather was looking better and better and come the day prior, it was all systems go.

We were travelling in a  6.2m Quintrex and we had organised to travel with a mate of ours who manages Albany Island which is situated off Somerset just off the east coast of Cape York.  Hamish, who has been fishing Cape York for around 10 years has planned a trip to the shelf most years but due to the weather and remoteness has only managed to get out there twice. This trip is not one you want to do with only one boat, so we felt safe in the knowledge that Hamish was travelling with us in his Offshore Marine Master.

We launched our boat at the Seisia Boat ramp and made the 20km trip around the top of Australia to Albany Island where we met up with Hamish.  We stayed the night on Albany Island where we spoke more about our plans.  We were all super excited. Early the next morning we woke to a large thunderstorm, great!  With the distance we had ahead of us we decided to wait until the storm passed. We were not going to take any risks.

We waited a couple of hours until it was clear again and kicked off on the first leg of our trip.  After doing our research, we knew that the last significant island between us and the shelf was a little remote sand island called Dugong Islets.  We had stayed there before and it is a great location to set up base camp. Dugong is situated approximately 50km east of Cape York and is a beautiful sand island surrounded by shallow reef, which provided a pretty decent anchorage.  It was here we spent the first night, set up camp and off loaded everything we didn’t need including excess fuel.  Dugong itself is a superb fishing location but for us, the grass is always greener and we had our remote destination in sight.

We awoke the next day to conditions we had been praying for the whole year.  The ocean was absolute glass and the skies were clear.  Hamish had travelled out earlier that morning from Albany Island and upon his arrival we set off towards the shelf.  We travelled a further 80km in glass conditions. With the ocean conditions the way they were, it was hard to pass the large amount of fish action we saw as we weaved through the outer reefs. At that stage we only had one destination in mind, the shelf.

If you look at the chart, the reef that separates the Torres Strait from the continental shelf is very shallow, rarely can you find a decent channel to take you to the eastern side.  Thankfully Hamish had some local knowledge so we followed him to one of the few passages in the area called Yule Passage.

After a good 2 hour trip, we had arrived at the western side of the reef at Yule Passage.  I could only describe it as mind blowing in both a good and bad way.  The passage itself is probably only 500m wide with shallow reef ledges on both sides and the deepest part through the passage about 80m.

When organising these dates, we didn’t even look at the tides.  We were facing pretty large tides with a massive amount of tidal current ripping through the passage upon our arrival.  With the current in some sections ripping through at 7-8knots, we really had to stay on the ball. If we knocked the engine into neutral or happened to stop for some reason, the current would have us up on the shallow reef in a matter of seconds.  It was kind of scary.

There was bait being hassled all over the place so we put the troll lines out so we could have a bit of an explore.  The lines hadn’t even been in for 2 minutes and one of the rods went screaming off.  The 80lb braid ripped off the Shimano Stella at a great rate of knots. It was panic stations all round until we managed to clear the other lines and turn the boat ready to chase whatever it was before we were spooled. It was then the massive bend in the rod came springing back as the line busted on one of the numerous shallow bombies that surrounded us.  Oh no, what have we got ourselves into, we all thought.  Maybe we needed to bring heavier gear.  With the 80lb line I honestly thought we’d be able to give some big fish a good go and now within the first 5 minutes, we had already lost 300m of braid in a matter of seconds.

We slowly trolled out towards the outer edge of the Yule Passage and as we got closer and closer it made us even more nervous.  Although the wind conditions were calm, there was a fairly large, clean swell coming in from the east.  The size of the swell that was going in over the shallow reef would only be described as a surfer dream.  Added to the 2-3m swell were pressure points where the strong current was pumping out of the channel. We soon realised that there was no way we were going to get out to the deeper ledge, not at that stage anyway, it was just too dangerous for our 6.2m boat.

This didn’t worry us too much, as the country on the western shallower side was enough to get us excited.  The shallow reef ledges went from about 1m down to 80m with large reef bombies scattered everywhere.  We continued to troll and explore.  With the amount of life underneath us it was only a matter of seconds before the lures hit the water and the strike was on.  Was it a big pelagic or a quality reef species?

We were pleasantly surprised with a nice job fish, something we weren’t used to seeing back in the shallow waters around the Cape.  An hour or so had passed and these quality job fish were dominating our lures although we also managed a mixed bag of Spanish mackerel, cobia and golden trevally.  Up until now, catching a job fish was a novelty but at this stage they were thicker and more aggressive than any other of the bottom dwellers.  We were stoked!!

But it was the big trout that we were constantly seeing through the clear water below that kept teasing us.  For some reason, they wouldn’t take the troll lures.  We were facing a tricky situation because like trout love to do, they were sitting on the bombies with the most tidal current around them, it was going to make it tough to get some plastics down to where we wanted them.  Always hopeful and with someone on the throttle the whole time to ensure we sat where we wanted to, we gave it a shot. It was hard to be accurate but it was only a matter of time before we managed to tease out a couple of quality trout.  It was at that stage, we were oblivious to what was going to occur next.

Taking into account where we were, I could confidently say that a lot of the reef we were fishing was untouched or very rarely fished. So the species list was endless and with every strike, anything was possible.  With the current making it very tough for us to stay positioned on a bombie, we really only had the opportunity for 1, maybe 2 drops before we were off position.  It was frustrating and as we drifted off the position I begun winding my plastic in.

For some reason I stopped winding,  and as we drifted for a very short moment I was trolling my plastic out the back of the boat.  I was totally unprepared for what was going to happen next.  Bang, my rod had gone off.  I was barely holding it so thankfully I was on the ball and managed to take full control again quickly.  For a split second I began to wonder what was on before a beautiful big dolphin fish launched itself into the air.  Awesome. I wasn’t expecting that and after a few good jumps, he had thrown the hook. Dammit!! I began winding it in only to see another 4-5 big Dolphin fish chasing the little plastic.  BANG, I was on again and this one gave us a spectacular aerial display all over the glassy ocean.  For a short time there was mayhem all over the boat, we definitely weren’t expecting a school of large dolphin fish to turn up on the shallow reef.  But hey, this was the remote continental shelf.

It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting in the west.  There was no lagoon anchorage close by so it was a matter of working out where to anchor amongst the 100’s of shallow bombies throughout the area.  We tied up to the bigger boat and as the sun set over the reef, we cooked up some fresh green job fish that we had caught only an hour earlier.  After a few cold beverages and reminiscing about our day of adventure we were all early to bed to get prepared for day 2.

It was a short sleep as un unpredicted north westerly picked up at about 2am.  This was definitely not what we wanted.  At this time of year, northerly’s can be bad news. We were 90km away from the nearest land so it was going to be a long trip back if the 15knot breeze kept up.  We had to untie from the bigger boat and hung back off the stern as the swell was knocking both boats around.  We didn’t really sleep too much from that point onwards, it was just a matter of waiting for the sun to start rising. It seemed like forever.

The wind didn’t let off once, I was starting to dread the big, long trip back.  We all woke up early, pulled anchor and put the troll lines out.

The Yule Channel looked really ugly from the western side as the wind was pushing against the incoming current that was pouring through.  Hamish pushed through the channel in the bigger boat, just to see if he could find some calmer water.  It wasn’t long before Hamish contacted us on the radio and told us to follow him out. The wind had swung around the conditions on the shelf side were glass.  You ripper!  This is what we wanted.

We pushed through some pretty horrible waves and slowly watched the sounder go from 80m-100m to 200m and 300m.  And this was about 200m off the reef.  Woohoo, we had made it. We marked the spot on the sounder, we had finally made it to the continental shelf of the Torres Strait and we wanted it recorded.  Hamish started jigging and found immediate success and had hooked something brutal.  We could see that massive bend in his rod and the grimace on his face.  We were super excited.

It was only a matter of time before our two 80lb troll rods steamed off. Double hook-up straight up and after a tough 20 minute fight, we had two massive GT’s at the side of the boat.  Two of us struggled to get the fish over the side of the boat and after a very quick photo, we released them back into the depths.  Well that got the muscles warmed up and the arms stretched.

We had identified a fairly shallow pinnacle that rose up out of 200m of water and there was big fish all over it.  As we motored over the pinnacle it was a matter of counting down, 5..4..3..2..1 BANG we are on.  There were fish everywhere and between both boats we were constantly hooked up.  After numerous ‘extra large’ GT’s, we were getting to the point that we were too scared to put the lures back in the water, our muscles were definitely burning and it was starting to hurt.

Alright, we couldn’t help ourselves, the lures went back in and 5..4..3..2..1 BANG, another double hook up.  After a short fight we had pulled the hooks on 1 and I continued fighting mine.  Oh geez, I didn’t need this.  It was hurting and my stomach was getting welts as I had stupidly not put a gimble on.

This one fought right to the end and after about a 30 minute brutal fight we were all expecting to see another GT.  I could see colour, I was getting some momentum back and as it got closer to the boat, I yelled with excitement, it’s a big doggy!!  I knew they had to be along this ledge, it was the perfect country for them.  We just had to get through the massive school of GTs to get to them.  I was stoked as we pulled in a solid dogtooth tuna.  I had only ever caught smaller versions in the past so I was absolutely stoked.  Yeehaa!!

We could see storm clouds closing in from numerous directions and when we looked back onto the other side of the reef, we could see the wind hadn’t dropped too much.  We knew it was going to be a long slow trip back so we made the decision to start the journey back to our home base of Dugong Island.

After a nearly four hour trip back in 15-20 knots and some pretty heavy rain, we finally reached the Island.  Thankfully the rain had cleared and we enjoyed being back on land for the night.  We had smiles from ear to ear and although we were tired, we were ecstatic about what we had achieved.

We had made the shelf, the remote designation that we had always talked about for numerous years prior.  We not only made it there but we managed to get amongst some quality fish that some people would only dream of, and to think due to weather restraints we only had time to fish a very small area. It was great to find some top shelf fishing action.

I’ve been on some pretty epic trips before, but this would have to be one of the best, it definitely will be hard to beat.  To have all of our planets align and to find success is nothing less than satisfying.  Will we have the opportunity to get back out there one day, who knows?

But I definitely won’t be forgetting this one in a hurry.  Trips like this are the reason we go fishing so don’t forget to dream big. Don’t ever think you can’t achieve something. Get out there and do it, I’m glad we did!!