Light-Tackle Fishing

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Light-Tackle Fishing

Fishing with fly rod or light conventional tackle on the rivers and billabongs and seacoast off Darwin, Australia, is, in the lexicon of guides and other facilitators of sport, "A bastard of a good time!"

Cocody Market, just down the road from the Intercon- tinental Hotel in Abidjan, feels like the attic of some deranged West African pack rat: a labyrinth of aromatic stalls with piles of curios that look like they've been gathering dust since the fall of the Malian empire. You can buy wood-and-silver Bambara masks, Dogon ceremonial doors, Yoruba fertility Gods, Ghanaian gold, Tuareg daggers, camelskin jewelry boxes. Just remember to bargain hard, keep your hand on your wallet, and be prepared to fight your way out through a horde of desperate, sweat-soaked vendors.
              —Joshua Hammer
Unless, of course, one missteps or one's attention wanders, in which case one might have one's butt mauled by a giant saltwater crocodile, then get dragged to some reptilian hidey-hole and allowed to ripen with the help of endemic species — an entirely different kind of fishing that is beyond the interest or purview of this story.

No, let's think positive: If you pack along rods and reels to Darwin, you probably won't be eaten (almost no one is), and you will almost certainly have one of the most extraordinary fishing experiences of your life (almost everyone does).

Here's why: Australia's Northern Territory consists of 523,000 square miles of unpeopled, untraveled tropical wetlands, desert, and coast, yet Darwin, the Territory's administrative center, has a population of only 69,000. The few people who do fish here tend to go after that for which Australia is famous: giant marlin and other blue-water species. What this means is that there is a ratio of about a zillion shallow water fish per fisherman, so the odds are bloody wonderful and the fishing itself is great.

There are a number of shoal-water species that will hit a lure or fly, but the two most interesting are the barramundi and the ox-eye tarpon. The barra is a chromium-bright littoral predator that looks a little bit like a snook and fights very much like a snook (one of America's great game fish). It is commonly taken up to 50 pounds, so gear that's appropriate for the mangrove regions of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is ideal. Same with the ox-eye. One of only two species of tarpon worldwide, the ox-eye doesn't grow nearly as large as its more famous relative.

Now a good, conventional way to get out and catch these little darlings is to stop at Fishing & Outdoor World in downtown Darwin (easy to find — the store has a howitzer mounted on its roof) and talk to Greg Chan or George Voukolos about booking a guide. A less conventional and far more exciting way is to telephone David and Clint Walker, or their partner Mark Grosvenor, and have them fly you from fishing place to fishing place in their helicopter.

Here's the drill: They swoop down low over sections of river to make sure no big crocs ("lizards" they call them) are on the feed, then they'll land and wait while you fish until your wrists ache. At the end of the day, they'll make camp on a cusp of remote beach on the Timor Sea and build a fire, and you'll cook and eat the fish and mud crabs (superb!) you've caught — while Big Clint keeps his eye open for lizards they may have missed in their fly-by.

"The bastards are big enough to drag a water buffalo down," he might tell you. Which is a bastard of a time, but not a good one.

Fishing & Outdoor World can be reached at 011-61-889-816398; fax: 011-61-889-811569. To reach David and Clint Walker, call 011-61-889-881155 or 011-61-889-189613; fax: 011-61-889-450025. — Randy Wayne White

Key West these days can be a genteel place of elegantly restored B&Bs and fine French restaurants. But just tell the maitre d' that you want to go fishing, and he or she will likely whip out a handful of business cards and start dealing. That night, your phone conversation with a guide might go something like this:

"How much time you got?"

"Not a lot, really."

"How much money you want to spend?"

"Um. . .the minimum."

"So what do you want? You just want to catch some fish?"

"Yeah, that's right. Some big fish."

"Sure. Meet me at the dock at eight."

Next morning, your half-day charter might begin with spin-casting for palm-sized snapper over a shallow reef just minutes out of the harbor, still in sight of Mallory Square. When they're snapping, the live-well fills up quickly. In many places, this catch would already qualify as a successful fishing trip. Here, it's your bait.

The guide guns the motor and heads due south for deeper water. But not far. Soon he eases off the throttle and, sonar pinging, settles over an unseen wreck or some other bottom structure. Using heavier-gauge leaders but the same light tackle, you'll send dorsal-hooked snappers spiraling down to deep blue water. Here's a sure bet: Those tasty ambassadors won't make it to the bottom alive.

This is WHAM! BAM! GODDAMN! KEEP THAT GROUPER OUT OF THE HOLE! kind of fishing. It's a rod-bent-double, drag-singing-soprano, don't-let-it-go-under-the-boat sort of losing battle, mostly.

With light tackle, the odds favor the fish, so you'll probably feel that fork-in-a-socket shock on impact and never find out what hit you. Not till you play it just right. Then you're in for an extended bout of give-and-take and heavy lifting. Shark? Barracuda? Jewfish? Jack? A good Key West guide will know by the fighting style what's coming up alongside the boat, and will practice catch-and-release except in the case of the finest cuisine. That one he will put on ice, perhaps with the suggestion that you prepare it € la moutard. For information on booking a guide, contact the Key West Guide Association at 305-294-4805 or 745-4634. — Bucky McMahon

Most of the time, surfcasting on Nantucket — if you fish the way my friends and I fish — turns out to be more picnic than sport. Not that the bluefish and striped bass aren't abundant around the coastline of this low sand island 30 miles off the coast of mainland Massachusetts; it's just that they often seem to be somewhere else when we show up with our rods.

So we've learned to pack accordingly. Along with our fishing gear, we load up the chips, the peaches, the tuna subs, the Nantucket Nectars lemonade, the cookies, the beer. We throw in the Frisbee, the towels, the beach chairs. Then we point the Jeep out to Smith Point on the island's west end, where the sands shift so much from storm to storm that our first mission is always to find out where the point actually is this year.

We let a little air out of the tires and follow the deep ruts onto the beach, past the indignant nesting gulls and the twisted, bleached skeleton of an old slat fence. As we approach the broad sandy point, where the water roils in scary-looking riptides and eddies, we want to see lots of other vehicles. With surfcasting, the point is not to seek out solitude. We leave that stuff to the mellow-fellow fly-tiers. No, we want company — because if we see a beach full of people, some of whom may actually know something about angling, it means the stripers and blues may be there, too.

So we fish. We pick shiny Hopkins spoons and cast them out into the buffeting onshore wind. We reel them in. We cast, we reel, we cast, we reel. We look around to see if anybody's rod is doing any meaningful bending. Cast. Reel. We shout to be heard above the crashing surf — saying things like, "Think they're here?" and "I dunno if they're here!"

We fish some more. We notice some people down the beach from us have propped their rods up in the sand and are now sitting down in striped canvas beach chairs and twisting the tops off of bottles of beer. "Maybe they're not here!" we holler. We throw out one more line. Maybe? Nah. We might as well eat.

Besides Smith Point, you can fish off any of the island's beaches or at Great Point, Nantucket's remote, northernmost tip. The season lasts from spring into late fall. To drive on the sand you'll need to buy a $20 permit at the police station (508-228-1212). To visit Great Point, which is part of a wildlife refuge, you'll have to buy a separate permit at the Wauwinet gatehouse ($85 for the season, $20 for the day only if you are in a rental car; 508-228-2884).

For gear and advice on where to fish, stop in at Barry Thurston's Fishing Tackle (508-228-9595) near Straight Wharf. For guided surfcasting by four-wheel-drive, including gear rental, call Whitney Mitchell (508-228-2331) or Tip the Scales (508-228-0529) for additional information. — Meg Lukens Noonan

If you are among that rare breed of traveling angler who does not require a hard-wired, poured-to-form itinerary, who believes that self-reliance is the best kind of good luck, and who does not mind rough roads, rough billets, or the occasional sound of automatic-weapon fire, then Lake Nicaragua is the best bottom-dollar deal around, which is to say it is an angler's paradise.

Seriously: Lake Nicaragua (the 20th-largest lake in the world) is one of the most interesting fishing destinations there are, and not just because of Nicaragua's long history of intrigue and political cataclysm. Nope. We're talking about fascinating biological anomalies. For decades, Nicaraguans took pride in what they claimed was the only landlocked population of freshwater sharks in the world — reportedly trapped when a bay of the Pacific Ocean was cut off by volcanic action and filled by rain. The fact that the lake is located 127 miles from the Caribbean Sea added credence to the claim. Biologists even gave the sharks their own Latin name: Carcharhinus nicaraguensis.

Although an American biologist, Thomas B. Thorson, finally demonstrated some 20 years ago that these sharks (bull sharks, a very aggressive species) actually swam up the San Juan River and into the lake, these quirky and fascinating animals, though spooky to pursue, are still a hell of a lot of fun to catch. So are the other saltwater species found here: snook (up to 30 pounds) and tarpon. Why these hall-of-fame sea fish travel so far to live in fresh water adds a dimension of mystery that makes fishing for them, on this lake hedged by active volcanoes, a physical adventure and a cerebral delight.

The problem is, Nicaragua is not exactly a hotbed of tourism, so there is no way to book a boat or a guide in advance. Here's what you can do: After landing at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, head for the beautiful old Spanish Colonial city of Grenada, which is only an hour southeast by taxi or rental car.

In Grenada, have lunch or dinner at the China Nica Restaurant (look for the giant shark jaws on the wall) and ask your waiter about a fishing guide. If the waiter isn't helpful, ask for Dr. Norman Lpez (we're serious). Dr. Lpez, a physician, is also an enthusiastic naturalist, and he'll know how to help.

Or, you can rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and motor a hellish six hours to the village of San Carlos, at the mouth of the San Juan River, where you might rent a rice-bag seat on a 32-foot panga that will carry you (often safely) to the remote Solentiname Islands, where you can rent a bed and buy meals.

Once there, ask for Colonel Bosco or his faithful guide, Freddie. The two of them know more about fishing the lake than anyone around. They can get you hooked up — figuratively and literally.

It's the way things work in Nicaragua. And that's why it's an angler's paradise — if you're the right kind of angler. — Randy Wayne White

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