Words & Images: Colby Lesko
There’s no arguing with the fact the Cape York Peninsula is one of the most rugged, remote and untouched fishing destinations there is on the east coast of Australia. The area is smashed by some wild south-easterly trade winds most of the year. Mix this in with a three to four-month cyclone season that smashes down on the area over the wet season, and it doesn’t sound like the best fishing spot! These harsh conditions means the area is rendered relatively unfishable for most of the year – but the odd weather window does pop up, if you keep a keen eye on it. This opens up this magical and relatively unfished place to keen anglers and the results can be phenomenal.
A Cape York trip offers it all in terms of adventure, challenges, and highs and lows. The area will test the keenest and most experienced adventurer so make sure you are properly prepared for the task. Long distances between food and fuel stops on rough dirt roads, river crossings and dodgy beach launches are all part of the fun. To add to this pressure there’s no phone reception and it can often be days before you bump into someone else. So, if you do end up in trouble, you need to have plans in place. Satellite phones are a must for this area, both in the car and boat. For the purposes of this article, I’m talking about the area north of Cooktown right up to the tip of Cape York. All of this area is amazing fishing, offering a crazy amount of options for the keen sportfishing angler.
There are several tracks and roads up Cape York that lead out to the east coast. Most of these tracks have a campground as well as a beach, creek or in rare cases a small concrete ramp where you can launch smaller boats. These tracks are constantly changing due to weather conditions and how long since the road has had work done or been graded. So, it’s best to seek local advice once up the Cape to see what conditions on the road are like. You can do this by talking to others coming back south or stopping in at one of the remote roadhouses in the area to talk to locals. Have a couple of spots picked out so if one track is too rough you have another option. In some cases, it can be trial and error until you find a spot that you can tow the boat into and launch successfully.
Due to the rough tracks and small ‘make do’ boat ramps, you are pretty much limited to boats six metres or smaller. A 5m tinny is probably ideal but you will still be limited to launching and retrieving at high tide at most spots. Make sure your trailer can handle some off-road work with dual-axle trailers with high clearance preferable. Two cars are also ideal as you can have a single car travel in front of the tow vehicle to assess the track. This also gives you someone to pull you out if you do get bogged. Obviously a 4WD is essential, as well as the basic 4WD recovery gear. Winches, tow straps and Maxtrax are almost always needed to get you out of the sand if you get stuck. Once you tow your boat into Cape York the red dust is going to work its way into everything. Glad Wrapping the engine and important mechanical parts of the boat is a great idea to stop the dirt from getting in. The red dirt sticks and stains and there’s a good chance your boat or trailer will never be as white or clean again after a Cape trip.
I recently took a Cape trip with a couple of mates fishing out of a 6m centre console tinny, when we aimed for three days of sportfishing the reef. It was one of the best trips I have done in recent years and the sportfishing was world-class. It had been a few years since I’d been to this area and almost forgotten how special it is. Due to the effort required just to get up and into this area you really need to make the trips as long as possible – or as long as the weather permits – to make it all worthwhile. Usually, the weather windows are three to seven days of nice calm weather. After a whole day’s travel on the slow dirt roads, we finally made it to the coast and waited for the high tide to launch the boat. Of course, this wasn’t easy! We got the boat off the trailer, but the car was bogged in the sand, but after 30 minutes playing around in the sand with the Maxtrax the car was free. We had the boat fully loaded for three full days on the water so off we went on a big mission. The amazing number of islands and reef blue holes means you can find some protection from the weather to sleep out in the boat and maximise fishing time. We chose to sleep on the boat, but you can easily roll the swags out on a sand cay or island if you don’t like rocking around in the boat all night.
Once out on the reefs of remote Cape York the options are endless – you can pop for GTs, stick bait the reef flats, jig the isolated shoals, or jig or troll the outer edge for dogtooth tuna. These are all great options that we explored on the three-day trip and not one of them disappointed. Due to such little fishing pressure the fish are extremely reactive to lures and the average size of everything is much larger. Over the trip we fished five or six different reefs and had each one to ourselves with no other boats in sight. Plenty of GTs, huge reefies, prolific pelagics and some of the rarest fish on the reef were all caught over the three days. The outer Great Barrier Reef edge was roughly 70km from where we launched so we shot to the outer edge on the first morning and spent the next three days travelling south, bringing the trip total to 250km of ocean by the time we made it back in. We had planned this route and looked at it all on Google Earth in order to plan for anchorages, fishing areas, marine parks, adequate fuel and supplies. While the weather forecast was to be amazing for most of the trip, we did get caught in an isolated tropical storm for a few hours one day. Gusts of 20 knots and torrential rain smashed us for a few hours before it passed. Be prepared for this and always have a safe area in mind to shelter out of the weather if this does happen. We simply pulled into a blue hole of the reef and sheltered out of the big waves behind the breaking reef edge.
Living out of the boat for three days in the heat requires a few good iceboxes and big block ice supply or portable fridges. Keeping of fish is limited to Esky/fridge space that you have so we took only the fish that wouldn’t release well or the highly desirables, always being mindful of space and ice supply. Believe me, in three days’ fishing out here you can become extremely picky on what you keep and still come home with a huge feed. The trip was mostly about sportfishing and catch and release anyway, with some amazing fish caught. Big GTs, huge Maori sea perch, Napoleon wrasse and dino trout were all caught casting lures. This is really what makes a trip like this worthwhile and I don’t think there is anywhere else in Australia that produces consistent lure fishing like this. It seems it doesn’t matter where you cast your lure or drop your jig up here, there’s always a big fish willing to destroy it.
Waking up on the water to a glass-out 70km offshore without another boat or land in sight is an amazing experience, especially knowing that an amazing day of fishing is about to unfold in front of you. Simply pack up the sleeping gear and start casting! Overall, the remoteness of the trip pushes you to be exposed to the raw power of nature. I think this really adds to the satisfaction when you pull it all off. Sleeping, eating and living on a 6m tinny for three days isn’t something I would do at home but out here it all makes sense and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Even if you have a smaller tinny or roof topper the Cape can offer some great fishing. Most of the small rivers are full of barra and jacks, the headlands are covered in big queenies and giant trevally, and you don’t have to go far offshore to find a patch of hard bottom for some trout or nannies. There can still be some great day trips to be had fishing up the rivers or inshore in smaller boats around 4m.
If you have a bigger boat or a new fibreglass boat, the dirt roads of the Cape are not going to be kind to your gear. Thankfully Cooktown is a great option as you can launch at a good concrete ramp then travel north in the boat. This requires no off-road driving and will keep your gear much cleaner. Set the boat up to live off for a few days and you can fish some pretty amazing water to the north of Cooktown on a travel trip. This is the northernmost ramp before you get into the wild stuff.
Doing a Cape trip with one boat puts a great deal of pressure on your boat to perform without issues, so make sure your gear is all up to the task. It’s even better if you can convince a couple mates to come in another boat and travel together in case something goes wrong. So, think of the trip as more of an adventure than just a fishing trip and do everything you can to plan it properly. The place is really a once-in-a-lifetime trip for any outdoorsman, and I recommend everyone put it on their bucket list. But I can guarantee once you visit Cape York, there will always be plans to come back.