Cooktown all sorts

To say it according to Garfield: There has to be more to life than fishing, but I can’t think of anything. So, if you like to wet a line, Cooktown is definitely a magic place to be.







No matter what time of the year, there is always some interesting fishing to be had somewhere close by. If it is too windy to enjoy one of the many reefs, you can seek shelter up the rivers and try to get a barramundi or a mangrove jack. Or fish from the famous Cooktown wharf of course, where many locals and visitors alike have caught their fish of a lifetime. The diversity of fishing and fish species on offer in Cooktown are absolutely amazing and it is possible to catch big giant trevally, spanish mackerel or coral trout out at the reef in the morning and to have a go at jungle perch in a tiny, crystal clear rainforest stream in the afternoon.

Early one morning, a remarkable trip led us south along the unsealed coastal road in search of jungle perch. Many of the small creeks south of Rossville are full of this great little native fish. Jungle perch only reach a couple of pounds, but their attitude would suit a giant. The creek we fished that day was cool and clear and reminded us very much of a mountain stream back home. Apart from the fact that it flows through dense tropical rainforest rather than alpine meadows. Big boulders formed the creek bed and the pools and rapids looked very fishy. The first cast with our light 1 to 3 kg outfit yielded a fish; the beautifully marked jungle perch took the little popper aggressively and gave a good account of itself. We kept catching fish on our surface lure while climbing up the creek.

The only thing missing was a light, 7’ flyrod and a couple of bulky dryflies. Every now and then the surroundings detracted us from our task and we admired the rainforest. Orchids were flowering in many of the large trees and their sweet perfume filled the air. Tall tree ferns, palms, vines and countless other plants formed dense and lush green walls on both sides of the creek. We heard many different sounds and butterflies as large as a bird fluttered in patches of sunlight. By mid afternoon, we called it a day and prepared to walk all the way back to the car. Progress in the creek itself was very slow due to all the boulders big and small and when we crossed a small side stream, we decided to try and get up the stream to reach a track nearby.

We climbed up the steep bank and when we peered over the edge, trying to find something to hold on and pull ourselves up, we looked into the eyes of a somewhat surprised amethystine python. The snake was resting on a large, mossy boulder, trenched in sunlight. With a length of about 3.5m it was impressive, but would grow a lot more before reaching its full size. Amethystine pythons are Australia’s largest snake and can grow to 6 meters. After a first fright, we quietly admired the reptile for a while, before continuing up the stream. We reached the track soon after and walking back to the car was a breeze.

A friend had told us of some exciting fishing for tarpon along the beach and we were keen to have a go ourselves. The next morning, we left early to fish the incoming tide. While walking along the beach to where all the action was supposed to take place, we saw the turmoil from a distance. Small jelly prawns jumped out of the water everywhere and dorsal fins were breaking the surface at warp speed. Tarpon in a feeding frenzy!

We rigged up our rods with shaking hands; one spinning rod with a small soft plastic and a fly rod with a floating line and a pink Crazy Charlie. The fish took the fly without much hesitation and stayed connected, but getting a decent hook up on the soft plastic was near impossible and we lost almost every tarpon. The Pacific tarpon looks exactly like its Atlantic cousin, but does not grow nearly as big; we caught fish up to 70cm. Every now and then a small giant trevally or queenfish took a liking for one of our lures and at some stage we even got a good flathead. After a little more than half an hour, the action slowed down and soon after the fish had all but disappeared.

Fishing can be a dangerous pastime as shown on a beautiful day while up the river. We were casting to the bank and a big barra lure got caught in the mangrove roots at some stage. While applying a lot of pressure to get it off, the lure suddenly came free and shot back to the boat and hit Béatrice’s calf. One of the trebles firmly embedded itself in the muscle and it didn’t look pretty. We normally squash all the barbs on our lures, but the one in question was new and we forgot to do that. So it was packing up and heading back to the boat ramp and up to the hospital. The doctor on duty just smiled at us – this kind of hook up is fairly common around Cooktown – and after applying a local anesthetic, he cut the treble off and pushed the remaining point trough the skin and removed it. Only two tiny scars remain as an account of another day in paradise.

One of Cooktown’s icons and a great fishing spot is the wharf. In the tourist season, it can be a very busy place indeed and anglers are standing side by side to get their quarry. Because the wharf lies at the mouth of the Endeavour River and open water and reefs are so close by, you never know what you get next. Barramundi, spanish mackerel, mangrove jack and giant trevally are some of the more frequent species encountered, but there are many, many more. All sorts of creatures inhabit the warm tropical waters and people have caught sharks and rays from this amazing fishing platform.

We had great times fishing there too and, apart from other species, caught some good barramundi. Hooking a fish while fishing from the wharf is one thing, getting it past the several huge resident Queensland groper is another.

The groper with its huge bucket mouth – they can reach 360cm and 300kg – is able to swallow some pretty big fish. Several gropers reside right under the wharf at times and as soon as they detect a fish in distress, they go for it. We lost a Spanish mackerel and the brand new lure it had taken while trying to land it. One of the groper was faster and only with a lot of luck were we able to cut the heavy braided fishing line before our rod got pulled into the wharf.

When we caught a barracuda one day, we thought it to be a good idea to feed it to the groper and take a picture of the action. The dead barracuda was tied to a 120lbs hand line and lowered into the drink. Seconds later the head of the groper appeared from under the wharf and we pulled the fish back up, out of the water. Everyone got ready with the camera and the barracuda was lowered again. Before it even hit the surface, the water exploded and the groper inhaled the 60cm fish with ease. The heavy nylon line snapped like a sewing thread and most of the bystanders missed the action completely. Not so Geoffrey! He got a great shot, not the first one by the way; he is a dedicated and talented photographer.

During and after the wet season, the fishing action turns crazy. Otherwise dry drains and culverts are suddenly full of water and full of fish and it is possible to see people standing along the highway and catching barramundi from the road. Nearby Lakefield National Park becomes a huge wetland and barramundi and crocodiles reign supreme. Cooktown truly is a fishing paradise!


Doing a wharfie

There are many great and special places to be found throughout Australia and, with a bit of luck, you may even come across a unique place like Cooktown. A place where the clocks go different, where life is taken less seriously, where people live and let live, where on a calm day most of the town is out at the reef, having a ball catching fish after fish. And where everyone is doing a wharfie at least once a day.

Doing a wharfie: Driving down the main road to the wharf, where all the action is and where the road ends in a loop, taking you back into town.

Cooktown, the East coast’s equivalent to Broom in the West, is a place you just have to love. And madly fall in love with the small town we did indeed. It was just before Christmas 2011 when we arrived in Cooktown for the first time on this trip. We had been there on previous visits to Australia, but just for a couple of weeks. This time, we intended to stay at least four weeks and ended up staying for more than seven months!

The most important meeting point in Cooktown is the iconic Cooktown wharf, a place where one will always find company and where the fishing can be red hot. Because we arrived in the wet season, when most of the tourists stay away, we did get noticed and after a very short time we got to know many of the locals. Nicko’s seafood truck quickly became a familiar sight and every now and then on his daily visits to the caravan park, we enjoyed having a chat and a cuppa with Nicko.

Apart from him, one of the first locals we met was Roly, who had moved to Australia from Switzerland as a young man forty years ago. Roly is a keen fisherman and we shared many early mornings trying to catch one of the many species that regularly show up at the wharf. Roly is also a very talented artist and sells his wood carvings on Saturday’s weekly market. We loved our Saturday routine, which meant to be at the wharf at sparrows fart (reasonably early) for a couple of hours of fishing and then to go to the market for the rest of the morning and be around Roly’s stall, chatting away, watching the crowd pass by and getting the latest gossip. Nicko would have his seafood truck parked close by and there was always something going on. Around noon, we usually helped Roly to pack up and quite often later in the afternoon, we went over to his and his lovely wife Ricky’s place for a beer and good company.

Cooktown, despite the fact that it is situated a mere 340km north of Cairns, which isn’t much of a distance for Australia at all, has a feel of remoteness to it. With the main road from the south having been sealed all the way for several years now, the township has moved somewhat closer to its southern neighbours, but has retained its character.

The Cook Shire is rich in Aboriginal and European history and has seen exciting times indeed. Cooktown owes its existence to the fact that early prospectors found rich gold fields in the surrounding area in the 19th century. Within a short time the township was founded and named after Captain Cook, who landed with his crew at the very same spot in 1770. Cooktown became one of the busiest ports in Queensland and over several decades the lure of gold drew thousands of men and women to the Far North of Queensland. A few made a fortune, but many struggled and even found an untimely death. During our stay in Cooktown, we read a lot of books about the local history and they tell stories of unbelievable hardship and bravery. The climate and the rugged country are very demanding even in modern times and made receiving and transporting supplies in those early days extremely difficult. And the relationship between the native inhabitants and the alien intruders was often one of misunderstanding and hatred, causing many violent clashes and the death toll on both sides was terrible.

These days though, Cooktown is a very peaceful place and we enjoyed our time in paradise very much. The Cook Shire is 2.5 times the size of Switzerland and consists of very different types of landscapes and vegetation. Mountain ranges and dry plains, large river systems and estuaries, flood plains and hundreds of kilometers of sandy beaches all provide habitat for a diverse plant life and many animal species. From lush green, dense rain forest to dry eucalypt forest and open grassland, from billabongs full of water lilies to extensive mangrove forest, there is so much to see and explore.

The rivers around Cooktown are full of saltwater crocodiles, some of them over 5m long. We loved to head up the rivers and watch these giant reptiles sunning on the banks. Crocodiles are more often seen during the dry season though, when the water is cooler and they like to take a sun bath.

During our stay, the annual Cooktown Discovery Festival took place, celebrating Captain Cook’s arrival so many years ago. Over three days, the town was bustling with visitors and we were blown away by the creativity and the quality of the many attractions, all put up by a small community. There were speeches, singing and dancing, plays and stalls with yummy food of course and everyone had a jolly good time.

One of the reasons we stayed in Cooktown for so long was the fact, that we’ve found many new friends. Carol & Larry, Geoffrey, George, Ian & Jake, Ivan, Mark, Mina & Mario, Monique & Russell, Nicko, Richard, Ricky & Roly, Sandra with Angus & Juergen, Toosa & Russell, they all made us feel at home and shared their lifes with us. They took us fishing and beachcombing and treated us to homemade delicacies such as Carol’s famous fruitcake and Ricky’s legendary spring rolls. Many thanks to all of you, we miss you dearly!

Enough writing for now! It’s time to do a wharfie and then walk up Grassy Hill to watch the sun set. The perfect finish for another day in paradise!

A man with a passion

In the south, we’d already heard of Ian Ramsey, Cooktown’s very own butcher and rod builder, but had forgotten all about him when we arrived at the mouth of the Endeavour River several months later. So it came as a real surprise to find superbly crafted fishing rods and hand made lures hanging on the wall of a butcher shop when what you expect to see are mouth watering lamb shanks, sausages and steaks. Our shopping took therefore much longer than planned and we talked fishing with Ian and admired his work. He invited us to his Cape York Custom Rods’ workshop and when we arrived a couple of days later, we felt like kids in a chocolate factory. Ian uses Alps components on his rods and there were reel seats and guides in many different colours glistening from shelves and on finished rods. And while discussing rod blanks, guide placement and the ultimate varnish, we couldn’t help but notice how passionate this man is and that he goes to great length to ensure every finished rod is up to his high standards. From unique 4’ short, tight country barra rods and ultralight jungle perch spinning sticks to powerful popper rods for big giant trevally, Ian has the high end blank from United Composites or CTS and the Alps components to build the perfect fishing tool and he is always looking for something new.

Have a look at the high density EVA grip with the laser engraved Barramundi, it’s an absolute stunner. And Cape York Custom Rods’ own butt cap design in a range of colours is sure to turn a few heads too. It never stops to amaze us how many talented people are out there, doing their own thing with great passion and extraordinary skills.

Getting to know a master rod builder was just too good an opportunity to be missed and we are now the very happy owners of two CY Custom Rods. Both are 5’6’’ barra baitcasting rods, one is pitch black with just a hint of white on the butt cap and the other one is a black and copper beauty with a rattle snake skin inlay in front of the grip. Two perfect fishing tools with great looks to match.

Are you looking for that superbly crafted fishing rod, custom built with state of the art carbon blanks and hardware? Look no further, go and see Ian from Cape York Custom Rods at Cooktown Quality Meats, send him an e-mail at or call him on 07 4069 6999 or a/h 07 4069 5936. He is an experienced GT popper addict as well as a keen barra and jungle perch fisherman and knows what you are talking about.

Cooktown all sorts

Coming soon.

Reel wizardry

While travelling  through Australia we had the pleasure to cross path with several of the great names of fishing in the country. One of the legends we were hoping to meet at some stage, was Jack Erskine. When still in Switzerland, we read a lot about him and his contribution to big game fishing in Australia and the USA. More than 40 years ago, Jack started designing and building high end fishing tackle and he is still running Jack’s Precision Reel Engineering in Cairns, the number one address for anyone wanting to improve his or her fishing gear. He is also an outstanding fisherman and has caught many billfish on fly. In 2009, Jack was inducted into the IGFA (International Game Fishing Association) Hall of Fame for his achievements.

So when the drag on one of our baitcasting reels started playing up while up on the Atherton Tableland, it was time to get serious and give Jack Erskine a call. A friendly voice on the phone patiently answered our questions and despite the fact that he was more than busy with work, Jack asked us to come down to his workshop and see him. Having access to the best workmanship, we took several of our reels with us. Our idea was to have the drags on these reels serviced, to get the original carbon fiber washers exchanged for Jack’s famous Carbon Tex washers and have the spool shaft bearings upgraded to ceramic Boca bearings as well.

When we arrived at the workshop, we were greeted by Daniel, one of Jack’s two sons, and his very talented successor in the engineering business. Daniel showed us their workshop, which looked almost like a Swiss watch manufacturer’s place. Immaculately organized, with every tool at its particular place and a lot of machinery to do whatever job is required. Just a little later Jack welcomed us like friends and we enjoyed talking fishing to the two Erskines very much indeed. Five days after our first visit, we picked up our reels again. What a difference Daniel’s work had made! The drags were much smoother and up to 50% stronger as well. And thanks to the ceramic bearings, the spools turned even easier than before and spun like a devil. We had the pleasure to hear some more tales about fishing and the amazing work they do. And what a humble experience to see a man in his early seventies being as keen and passionate about what he has been doing for so many years as when he started it all. Daniel, the young gun, was converting overhead reels from right to left hand retrieve at the time and showed us how he improved the overall built quality and performance of the reels in the process.

Jack has been a member of the Cairns Game Fishing Club for many years and he invited us to come along and have dinner with the club members. On the day of the dinner, Jack had organized another surprise for us and drove us to a long time friend of his, who showed us the most amazing private collection of fishing tackle we’ve ever seen. The sheer amount of thousands of lures, reels, rods and accessories, most of them made in Australia, left us speechless. What an amazing time we had looking at those treasures and listening to the stories behind it all. And the club dinner at one of Cairns landmarks, the Cock & Bull Pub, was another highlight. Jack and his lovely wife Veronica drove us to the venue and what awaited us was spectacular: An entire room covered in game fishing paraphernalia. Thanks to the very friendly and welcoming club members, we felt right at home and time went by far too quick once more. Can’t wait to be back in Cairns and to spend some more time with the Erskines and the crew.

If you own reels that need to be serviced, drags that have to be improved or any other seemingly impossible task, give Jack or Daniel a call or visit If it can be done, they will be able to do it. And they have state of the art lubricants and drag grease for your precious reels as well.