If you don’t know your monster cast from your strip strike (I’m sure you’re not alone), then this could be the article for you. Fly fishing newbie, Clare, takes us through her first saltwater experience in Ningaloo, drops some knowledge bombs and leaves us with a tale of the big catch. Trust us, it was thiiiiiis big.

I Bloody Love Fly Fishing

My life changed forever when I cast my first fly.

Before this moment my passion was live music and the adventure of the night. All it took was one day on the river and an entirely unexpected new world opened up to me.

Almost immediately my weekends were booked out with fishing trips, my holidays swapped from pilgrimages to wild parties, to wild fishing streams and, most significantly, my relationship with the environment deepened dramatically. I started to become interested and invested in the extraordinary world of river systems and what impact nature and wildlife have on them.

Although I’m still in the early stages of my fishing career, I thought it would be a nice change to hear about a fishing trip from the perspective of a new and passionate angler – hopefully I’ll encourage some of you to get into fly fishing too.

What I Learnt Saltwater Fly Fishing In Ningaloo by Clare Downs, boat fishing

Ningaloo Reef

I’ve just returned from an adrenalin pumping fishing trip in Ningaloo.

Ningaloo is known to be one of the last ocean paradises, found 1200km north of Perth where the desert meets the ocean. All you need to do is slap on some snorkelling goggles to see why Ningaloo Reef is a World Heritage Site. There’s about 500 species of tropical fish just 10m off the beach, and one in particular that people come from all around the world to see.

Swimming just below the surface is the biggest fish in the ocean, the majestic Whale Shark. We ventured out past the reef where a plane circled overhead on Whale Shark lookout. The guides signalled which direction they were travelling in.

Looking apprehensively through the murky water, my heart started pounding; there was nothing… until suddenly, there she was.  An enormous nine-metre whale shark, peacefully cruising with a tail the size of a bus swinging gracefully through the water. To heighten the underwater fantasy I was in, a posse of Golden Trevally led the cavalcade swimming around her head like a golden halo.

What I Learnt Saltwater Fly Fishing In Ningaloo by Clare Downs, whale shark and golden trevally

I Have A Confusing Relationship With Fish

After two days in Ningaloo, marvelling at the most incredible fish I have ever seen, I went out fly fishing. It’s confusing, I know.

Anyway, it was my first-time saltwater fly fishing and it was like nothing I ever expected.

Here’s What I Learned

# 1 It’s a lucky dip – for two years I have been targeting trout, bass and salmon. I know where to go for these fish and when I feel a strike I know what I’m going to be hauling out of the river. However, in the wonderful world of saltwater fly fishing, you don’t know exactly what you are going to find. In one day we caught six different species; the most our guide has caught in one day is 35.

# 2 That’s not a rod, this is a rod – the weight of the rod is determined by what fish you are targeting. A 10 weight rod is appropriate for large rivers and saltwater. It enables you to cast long distances and bring in big fishes. Until now I have only ever cast a five weight rod (suited for trout and bass). So when I was handed my monster 10 weight rod, I felt like I was starting all over again.

# 3 Monster casting – with most of the trout and bass fishing I have done in Australia, I usually focus on short and precise casts. But in the ocean, it’s all about big monster casts. It’s double haul (a technique used to increase line speed) territory out there; the greater the distance, the more success you will have.

# 4 To strip strike or to trout set – The other major difference is setting the hook. For a lot of freshwater fishing you trout set (lift the rod in a short, fast movement) to set the hook. In saltwater you strip strike, which is a long pull of the fly line.

The Obligatory Fishing Yarn

For all my life I have been told to fear sharks. This is apparently not the attitude of the Ningaloo residents. I blew it with our fly fishing guide when I excitedly screamed ‘Ahhhh! We’re going to see sharks. Ahhhh!’ – to which he rolled his eyes and made a grunt. I felt like a real tosser and quickly feigned the cool, nonchalant attitude that our guide – and seemingly all Ningaloo locals – have toward sharks.

It was at lunchtime, after we’d just caught some trevally and snapper, when three sharks finally appeared and started circling in the turquoise water. I cannot remember the last time I had so much adrenalin pumping through me. Our guide was slightly less excited: ‘Oh, bloody sharks are going to ruin our fishing.’

I continued to cast and had a strike, marvelling all the while as they glided through the water. One of the sharks clocked the struggling fish on the end of my line and so I started to strip the line fast, when whoopa, the shark took my fish straight clean off the line. It was seriously cool… although, again, our guide was slightly less impressed.

After lunch, however, there was no action. In fact, I felt a little disheartened and I started to have my doubts about saltwater fishing again. At least with rivers, you keep moving, seeing new sections of the river, systematically working through each pool and moving on. But in the ocean there isn’t much to do other than look for fish and, if you like, continue to blind cast.

What I Learnt Saltwater Fly Fishing In Ningaloo by Clare Downs, boat fishing

Of course, the moment I thought this, an enormous 3.5m tiger shark came cruising toward us. Our guide Brett screamed (a sound I think that guy rarely has made) ‘There’s Cobia with him, start casting!’ While this felt counter-intuitive (I wanted to run), there I was, balanced on the bow of the boat casting at a shark. The Cobia is a popular game fish that hangs out with tiger sharks for protection. Gun fly fishermen can spend years trying to catch one, and here we were, face to face with about five of them cruising with their big shark protector.

Unfortunately, the rig I had was not doing the trick, so it was up to my brother Max with a 12 weight rod to get the trophy fish. He cast a couple of times but the shark and his Cobia sycophants were moving too fast. We fired up the motor and did a huge loop around the shark to meet it head-on. Max started casting – and, again, nothing. For 20mins we looped out in front of the shark, with Max casting, until we were finally in the perfect position and Max presented the fly a metre in front of the shark’s nose. A monster Cobia split from the pack and BANG, Max was on, hauling in a 10kg monster.

It was the most exciting 30mins of all my fishing experience: the crystal water, the peaceful yet potentially dangerous shark and this sensational trophy fish.

In summary, saltwater fly fishing is absolutely incredible and Ningaloo is beyond anything I can describe; a fantastical dream world that every Australian should see.


Feature photo by Nigaloo Discovery

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