milkfish-double-2This trip still goes down as one of my favourite trips to the remote Buchineer Archipelago region of NW western Australia.  I have never ever seen or hooked so many big milkfish in all my life!

The remote Kimberley coast of northwest Australia is a magnificent place to visit and as a fishing destination most of it still remains relatively unexplored.

Despite having made a few trips to this part of the world over the past few years this trip was going to be a little different as we were invited by a good friend to come up for a few days and chase some big milkfish near a remote saltwater barramundi farm at Cone Bay in the Buccaneer archipelago, which is situated about 60 miles by water from the township of Derby.  It was going to be a great opportunity to catch some huge milkfish on film for our television show Adventure Bound.

As usual just getting there was half of the fun.  Andrew Clark and I flew into Broome International airport where we got a taxi to a mates place, picked up his car and hooked up the tinny, drove 200km to Derby then launched the boat with all our gear and then had it crane lifted onto the ‘Merindah Pearl’ which is the farm supply ship.  It was here we met up with our good mate Ben Little who has worked on the farm for several years.  Then it was just a matter of loading the ship with 20 tonne of fish food by crane and we were off on a 6 hour run to Cone Bay.  This gave us ample opportunity to catch up on some well needed rest and gave us time to admire the amazing coastline.

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Dawn at the "Island" at Cone Bay

Aside from the amazing scenery, the 9 metre tides and rugged coastline the prospect of hooking a 15-20 kilogram milkfish was something that had been on our minds for some time.  I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few milkfish out of Darwin Harbour before and although they were awesome speedsters they were only half the size of the fish we were to chase on this trip.

If you have ever caught milkfish before then you will know that they can be a challenging species to not only hook, but also a formidable opponent to land on any tackle.  Their forked tail and torpedo shaped body gives them a huge amount of power and speed which usually gives them the upper hand on light tackle.  Combine these factors with plenty of hungry sharks and structure and you have a challenging situation.

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Loading the boat and waiting for the high tide

The plan was to target the fish on the lightest tackle we dared to use. The plan was to see if we could land the fish on this gear first before pulling out the lighter Daiwa Branzino spin reel loaded with 8kg Black Magic rainbow braid and matching rod and while our plan was always to try and land the bigger fish on threadline tackle, Ben and I threw in our fly rods for some added fun (and pain!) if we got the opportunity.

On day one we got up early and headed out to the barra pens.  The plan was to fish in the lee of the pens as the tide began to run.  The tides are so big up this way that the current can reach several knots which can make fishing difficult.  One of the benefits of this though is that the milkfish usually shelter behind the pens and feed on debris washed from the structure with the tide.  First we had to find the fish and although it took a little while to find them it was well worth the patient approach.

Milkfish are omnivorous with big eyes and with relatively small mouths for their size they feed on a variety of small organisms and algae.  To get a hookup we had to use small baits, so we cut some 4 inch Slam soft plastics into small pieces to imitate the floating algae and presented them on a Black Magic size 2 GZ hooks and 40lb flourocarbon leader.

The fish were certainly wary until one finally took the bait.  On the first hookup all hell broke loose and in a matter of seconds Andrew busted off on one of the pen anchor lines.  The second hookup ended up much the same and it was then we tried motoring up on the fish from behind, leaving it running out of gear in anticipation of a hookup.

Finally we managed to steer a fish away from structure and settled in for a long battle.  Despite some long powerful runs, we used the boat on the fish and got some line back only to spend the last 10 minutes of the fight spinning around the boat in circles trying to get the fish into net range.  When the milkfish come in beside the boat they rarely ever lay over on their side due to their round torpedo shape and they are hard to turn until they are completely exhausted.

With a long stretch Ben landed the fish for Andrew.  It was a ripper of a fish in the 15-20kg range and was what we were after.  After a short period of admiration and a few quick photo snaps we revived the fish and released it as quickly as possible.  In this part of the world fish certainly don’t survive out of the water for very long in the heat and with these fish not rating highly on the plate there is simply no other option but to let them fight another day.

double-milkfish

Whopper!

With a successful capture in the boat it was time to try going a little lighter and Andrew opted for the light Daiwa Branzino outfit.  After a couple of absolute roastings on the steel pen anchors, one of the fish made the wrong move and he managed to steer it out into open water and settled in for a long battle.  While the gear handled the fish well the fight time was extended a little and left Andrew sweating in the 38 degree Celsius humidity.

Fortunately for us we were able to get plenty more hookups as they day wore on which gave us repeated chances to land some more fish.  By the end of the day we had the technique for dragging the fish out sorted and eventually landed about 50% of the fish we were hooking, which wasn’t a bad effort considering the line class, pulled hooks, sharks and weather conditions.  Ultimately the most critical stage of the fight was hooking the fish and trying to lead them away from structure under light drag before tightening up on them.  Even though the gear we used was capable of handing out considerable drag pressures you could only run a 3-5kg of drag maximum because of the possibility of pulling hooks from their small mouths during a long battle.

landing-miklfish

Super fun on light threadline gear

With plenty of footage on tape it was time to have a play with the fly gear and Ben took first shot at one on his 9wt.  He’d tied a heap of small brown flies previously which looked much like a small crab or crustacean.  As it turned out they were dynamite and went straight down the hatch and before long he was hooked into a 10 kilo plus fish.  The fish went bananas and did three or four aerials as Andrew backed the boat away from the pens.  After losing 50m of backing the fly line finally returned to the reel and it was a tug of war around the boat in circles trying to tire the fish.

A few minutes later just as the fish was tiring a big whaler shark stuck up its head and nearly ruined Ben’s hard work, but he was able to straighten his rod and pull the fish into the net.  An awesome effort on fly gear and smiles all round.

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Benno with a ripper milkfish

 Last fish for the day and a break from filming and it was my turn on the fly rod.  My first hookup ended in disaster as the fish went around an anchor chain and shredded the first 5 metres of PVC coating on the flyline.  I quickly re-rigged and found myself hooked up again a short time later and this time I was in for the fight of my life.  In the past I’ve been lucky enough to catch southern bluefin tuna to 15kg and kingfish to 11kg on fly gear, but I have never ever come close to losing the estimated 250m of backing I lost on the first run from this fish.

In short the battle was momentous and easily my best capture on fly to date.   The first run nearly spooled me and I only had 50m of backing left on the reel.  With some much line out it had gone around 2 separate moorings of which luckily we managed to untangle it from.  Then it took off out on the surface into open water and the line nearly got run over by a passing ship.  Finally after 30 minutes and around 2000 turns of the reel I got the flyline back on the reels and lugged it out around the boat.  As much as I enjoyed the battle I was literally stuffed with sore knuckles and in no urgent need of doing it again in the near future!

scott-milkfish

What a catch - one of the best fighting fish around!

Over the next few days we visited Cone Bay we saw fish that were muchh bigger than 20kg which sent chills down the spine, but it was difficult to get past the smaller 10-20kg rats that usually got the fly or bait first.  It certainly sounds like a good reason to go back and try again for a bigger one someday and while fishing trips always seem to go quickly it was a fantastic opportunity to catch some of the most powerful fish for their size going around in the beautiful remote Kimberley region of northwest Australia.

 

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