In mid-June, 2012, I was lucky enough to capture (on fly!) what may well be one of the largest queenfish ever taken in Australian waters. Here’s the story of how it happened…
My stunning 1.3 metre, 16 kilo queenfish on fly from Darwin Harbour. Without question a “fish of a lifetime”!
For keen anglers like myself, the Dry Season is certainly a fantastic time to be living up here in Australia’s Top End, especially when one intense low pressure system after another sweeps across the southern half of the continent, and the incessant trade winds ease a little north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s an old rule of thumb that crook weather down south means happy days up top!
A spell of exactly such magical Top End weather around the middle of June this year saw my wife Jo and I venturing offshore in our 4.5 metre trailer boat to chase the abundant Spanish and broad-bar mackerel, longtail tuna and other pelagics that were pounding bait schools not far from Lee Point, in Darwin’s northern beach suburbs.
Jo fights a hard-slugging longtail tuna off Lee Point on a classic Dry Season day.
The fishing grapevine had been buzzing for a few days with news of everything from queenies to giant herring smashing bait in this area, and Jo and I had been chafing at the bit to get amongst them, but found ourselves repeatedly frustrated by work and family commitments. When we were finally able to get away, it was obvious we’d only just caught the tail end of the hot bite, but we still had plenty of fun on the macks and tuna, coming home with a lovely meal or two of fresh fish for our troubles.
Fly rod shot
Two days later, I headed out again, this time on my own, and with the 9-weight fly rod rigged in the hope of tangling with a few line-peeling pelagics. However, as soon as I rounded East Point and left the Harbour behind, it was obvious that conditions had changed. The sou’ easter was back; chopping up the sea and robbing it of that emerald clarity it had offered the previous week. Surface activity and bird life was also noticeably lacking.
I persisted, and ended up spending a couple of hours anchored on our mackerel marks off Lee Point, feeding a steady stream of small fish off-cuts into the swirling tide as berley. Again and again I worked my big streamer fly, rigged on a short length of single-strand wire, through the trail. Despite trying all manner of retrieves, I failed to draw so much as a bump. Disappointed and a little battered by the short, steep chop, I eventually admitted defeat, wound up my fly line, hauled up the pick and turned the bow for home.
Jo with a lovely longtail from Lee Point, two days prior to the queenie encounter.
Back inside the Harbour and away from the nagging sou’ easter, I was able to open up the Yammy and speed toward the boat ramp at Dinah Beach, However, as I drew level with Parliament House, it seemed to me that the breeze had eased and the broad expanse of Darwin Harbour twinkled green and relatively calm under the early afternoon sun, with Sunday boat traffic carving in all directions across its placid surface. Damn it! It was too nice a day to go home early… surely I could give it another hour or so?
Prospecting the harbour
On a whim, I swung the CrossXcountry’s bow south and arced out across the wide mouth of East Arm, toward the long gas loading jetty on Wickham Point, eyes peeled for bird life and any sign of surface activity. However, apart from an array of pleasure and work boats in all sizes and colours, there was little else to see.
Giving the boating exclusion zone around the gas loader a wide berth, I continued into Middle Arm, still hoping to spy a patch of feeding longtail tuna, but the placid waters remained unruffled by anything other than the afternoon’s dying sou’ easter, a wind that would all-to-soon be replaced by a stiff sea breeze from the north.
I really should have gone home, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. Dead ahead, the northern shore of Channel Island beckoned, sparkling in the Dry Season sun. This had occasionally been a happy hunting ground for me in the past, producing everything from bream to barra. Maybe, just maybe, I could still salvage a fish from this blank day…
One last cast…
A rising tide had already inundated the flats and flooded well back between the trunks of the mangrove forest. It was a bit of a “nothing” state of the tide, and I figured my chances of success were fairly slim. Still, I cut the motor and deployed the bow-mounted Minn Kota electric. With fishing, you just never know…
Snipping the big streamer and its short wire bite tippet from my leader, I tied on a nondescript little green and white Clouser fly built on a relatively fine gauge No. 1 hook. I figured my best chances were probably a small trevally or a little queenie that I could take home and turn into numus (pickled fish), which is a bit of a favourite in our household.
Struggling to hoist the four feet, four inch long queenie from hell for a happy snap back a Dinah Beach boat ramp.
Slowly, I drifted west, across the top of the island and past the rocky point separating the mangrove studded flats from a delightful white sand beach. My fly remained untouched as I repeatedly cast it up into the rocky shallows and stripped it back.
How many times have you said, “just one more cast, then I’ll go in”? If you’re a serious angler, you’ve probably lost count! So it was for me that lazy Sunday afternoon on Darwin Harbour. I was really only going through the motions by now, and I knew that I could easily keep doing this for hours, but there were jobs waiting to be done at home. Six more casts, I told myself. Six more, then no more…
On about the fourth of those last six casts, I detected a large surface swirl on the left edge of my peripheral vision. Probably a big diamond scale mullet or even a milkfish spooking away from the boat, I thought. Still…
I quickly stripped in the little fly and fired it out in the general direction of the swirl, along a vague current break where the three metre rocky shallows dropped away into a deeper channel. Because I was still running a fast sinking line after my earlier offshore foray, I only gave the fly a few seconds to settle before beginning the retrieve.
Fifth or sixth strip, the fly line suddenly jerked tight in my hand with a powerful urgency and my 9-weight Loomis fly rod loaded up. “Sweet!” I thought, “I might have actually scored a reasonable golden trevally by the feel of this!”
My unseen opponent gave a couple of strong, angry head shakes, then powered off purposefully to the north west, out into open water. With just a few metres of fly line left between my stripping hand and the reel, I quickly reached that point where I needed to decide whether I should try to get the fish “back on the reel” or continue to fight it by hand. Another surge on the line made the decision for me, and now I was on the reel. I reckon it was at about this point that the devil I’d hooked actually realized it was in some sort of trouble…
Oh my god!
Suddenly, my rod lunged down and fly line began to literally melt off the spool, almost immediately punctuated by the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of the knot joining it to the backing shooting up and out through the snake guides and disappearing into the Harbour. The sound of braided backing under load wailing at high speed over snake guides is pure music to any fly fisher’s ears, and I was in heaven. Maybe this was a lovely big queenfish!
Exactly as that thought flashed into my mind, the world turned on its head. Sixty metres out into the Harbour, the green water suddenly split open and spewed out the most impossibly enormous queenfish I had even seen, heard of, or even dared to dream about. The beast was so bulky, only three quarters of its length cleared the water, but the patch of foam it left on re-entry was larger than the casting deck of my boat. All I could think (and mutter out loud to myself) were three words: “Oh… my… god!”
Check those bear-trap jaws… and the frayed, twisted leader with no shock tippet!
I knew I was in serious trouble. Little fly, fine hook, no shock tippet, 9-weight fly outfit, on my own, and hooked up to the queenfish from hell: an animal that now seemed to be completely intent on leaving the Harbour and travelling to Timor by the most direct possible route!
As backing continued to hemorrhage from the gyrating Felty fly reel at an alarming rate, I kicked the speed dial on the Minn Kota foot control up to 10 with my toe and stomped on the power button, setting off in pursuit. I urgently needed to stem the dramatic loss of line!
Surprisingly, the fish now slowed and then performed another of its three-quarter-length lunging jumps, but I was horrified at how far away it was this time. Cranking as fast as I could, I continued powering towards the fish with the electric, narrowing the gap between us. “At least it’s out in open water!” I muttered under my breath. I should have known better…
Back into to the bad stuff
Without warning all pressure came off the line and my rod straightened. No! Surely it couldn’t be gone already? Hoping against hope, I continued cranking backing onto the half empty reel like a man possessed. As I did, I noticed that the angle of the limp backing trailing into the water was coming back around to the south east, past me and in towards the island. Yes! He was still on!
As I finally caught up with the fish, the rod pulled down again and I found myself losing line just as fast as before. However, to my complete horror, that backing was now tracing a hot pink line straight at the flooded mangrove forest to the east of the beach and rocks where I’d hooked the fish… No!
Rather than following the fish, I continued angling the boat further and further out into the open water of the harbour, sacrificing line in return for increased pulling pressure. But still the monster queenie maintained its path for the mangroves. I swallowed hard and began easing more palm pressure onto the whirring spool, praying that the tiny hook and unprotected leader would hold.
Remarkably, the fish curved and began to track along the front of the mangroves, perhaps 10 metres my side of their outer trunks, then traversed the shallow, rocky stuff in front of the point. It jumped twice more at this stage, and I had trouble getting my head around the huge disparity in distance between the airborne fish and the point where the backing now entered the water. The queenie was clearly dragging a huge belly of fly line behind it, but at least it was now curving back out into open water again.
Terrified of another close encounter with the rocks and mangroves, I stayed well out from shore and began pumping and winding the fish to me rather than chasing it. I’d killed the electric and was simply drifting on the calm swirl of the making tide, quietly working to re-fill the reel.
As the tail of the fly line inched up out of the water, I knew I was far from home and hosed. I accepted that the odds were still stacked heavily against me, and that I’d most likely lose this incredible fish. The part of that realization that saddened me most was the knowledge that no one would ever believe just how big a queenfish I’d actually encountered. Why should they? I was still having trouble believing it myself!
At this point, a major mental battle was raging in my head. Half my brain was telling me to ease the pressure right off to protect the leader and hook, and to “gentle” the queenie with soft, soft hands in the hope of eventually nursing it to the boat, even if it took an hour or more. The other half of that same brain was logically arguing that extending the fight simply increased the chances of something going wrong… or a shark finding the tiring fish!
Incredibly that little hook, although partially straightened and twisted, hung in there! Check out the tiny sliver of meat it’s holding by… You can get lucky!
In the end, logic won and I kept the pressure right up, pulling as if I had a good fish on the line, rather than an exceptional one. Within 10 minutes, I glimpsed deep colour, but the dimensions of that “colour” almost made me waver in my resolve to keep pulling hard. The queenfish looked like a silver barn door pulsing in the depths!
Centimetre by centimetre, I kept putting fly line back onto the reel as the queenie stubbornly circled the boat, still giving an occasional angry head shake and short, powerful lunge for freedom. Finally, I began to steal glances at my big, barra-size Enviro-Net, clipped to the front of the console. It suddenly looked ridiculously small and inadequate for the task at hand. How the hell was I going to do this on my own?
The final act of this epic encounter was almost an anti-climax. A few more pumps and the huge fish simply rolled belly-up beside the hull, the yellowish colour flushing its flanks telling of lactic acid overload and total exhaustion. With a small pang of regret, I picked up the hand gaff instead of the net, pinned the fish under the gills and began to slide it in over the gunwale. It was only at this point that its true dimensions hit me. The photos hereabouts really don’t do it justice, as they fail to capture the lateral thickness through the body, or the bear-trap nature of that massive head and jaw structure.
As it lay on the carpeted foredeck, the expiring queenfish could barely manage one heavy thump of its over-sized tail before a shudder ran through its body that seemed to strangely mimic the frequency of the tremors now wracking my own hands and knees. A mix of emotions flooded my senses, including both sadness and elation. But the strongest feeling was definitely one of sheer relief… I’d done it!
From the very first glimpse of that mega queenie in the first minute of the half hour encounter, I knew I was connected to the fish of a lifetime, and now I could barely control the shaking of my limbs. I can count on one hand the captures I’ve made that have had such a profound impact on my senses.
For the record
For the statistically-minded, the leviathan measured 114 cm from nose to tail fork, 130 cm to the tail tips, and had a girth of around 70 cm. It weighed a staggering 16 kg (35.3 pounds) on certified scales a few hours later. The biggest queenfish currently on the world fly rod record charts is a whisker under 10 kg and was caught in Mozambique. Because I was fishing alone and not using pre-test leader material, the granting of a record for my fish seems fairly unlikely, but I’ll go through the formalities of submitting a claim.
Official records and the like aside, I know the fishing gods truly smiled on me that sunny Sunday in Darwin Harbour, and allowed me to pull off a genuine catch of a lifetime. It certainly makes up for a whole heap of “ones that got away” over the years!