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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 www.jackerskine.com. 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.

Koombooloomba magic

When Ian invited us to join him on a trip to Koombooloomba dam, we could both hardly wait for the day to come. We had heard a lot about the great fishing for Sooty Grunter in Koombooloomba and the beautiful scenery and were looking forward to seeing it all by ourselves.

On the morning of our trip, the weather is picture perfect and when we arrive at Ian’s house at 06.30 am, he has already hooked up the boat and the three of us take off in his car. It’s about a 100km drive from Tinaroo to Koombooloomba dam and the trip alone is worth the effort. The road leads from the flat tableland into the hills and up the mountains. The hillsides are lush green after all the wet season rain and the cows are happy and fat. Many of the hilltops and deep gullies are covered in patches of dense rainforest. The road winds higher and higher and, at 1143m above sea level, we reach the highest point of any road in Queensland. The view into the surrounding mountains is breathtaking and time goes by very quickly. Ravenshoe is still asleep at 07.30am on a Sunday morning and we admire the old buildings along the main street. Shortly after leaving the township, the road turns from tar seal into gravel. We are now in the middle of the rainforest and all kinds of birds, butterflies and mammals come in sight. The single lane road is in quite good condition, but our driver still has to avoid some car and boat shattering pot holes. And then the lake appears between the trees.

Launching the boat is a bit rough, but Ian has no trouble to get the rig in the water in no time. His wide, flat bottom boat is the perfect fishing machine, featuring huge front and rear casting platforms. We head out into the maze of dead, standing timber, lake arms and small islands; without a GPS or a detailed map, it’s easy to get lost on this 1550ha dam. The lake is situated about 760m above sea level and as a result of the recent heavy rains the water temperature has dropped slightly.

 

The Sooty Grunter won’t mind, but the also present Barramundi might not be in the mood. We concentrate our efforts on the shallows and weed beds combined with timber and on rocky outcrops. The first hour is very slow, but just before ten o’clock (Jack knows all about it!), the fishing is firing. Each of us catches the first Sooty of the day and many more are following. Again and again Ian points out a sexy looking tree or submerged timber and the first cast close to the structure yields a good fish. We get many double hook ups and the fish give a really good account of themselves. Vibes and soft plastics, worked slowly, all catch their share. Ian also fishes with the fly, but whenever he touches his fly rod, the otherwise calm weather turns windy and makes casting a real challenge.

The clear, nutrient poor water of the lake makes sight fishing possible and we explore the shallows and some of the countless flooded gullies. At some stage, we are able to spot several good sized Sootys in a small, flooded creek and Ian manages to catch three of them. Every now and then we have to give the fish a rest, sit back and admire the scenery. The three of us together have already landed more than 20 fish and lost many more, when suddenly a big Barra follows a hooked Sooty right up to the boat. Everyone is jumping around and trying to tie on a decent Barra lure as quick as possible. In the meantime, Béatrice has caught yet another Sooty and the Barra is getting serious now. The big fish attacks Béatrice’s quarry and is just about to swallow it, when the smaller fish gets off and the Barra grabs the little Squidgy soft plastic instead. And then all hell breaks loose! With a tiny 1-3kg rod, 8lbs mainline and 12lbs leader, Béatrice can only hang on for dear life and hope for the best. Thank god, it all happens in an open part of the lake and Ian skillfully follows the fish with the boat. At some stage, the line gets caught in floating timber and everyone expects the worst to happen. Great boat work saves the day yet again and after what seems to be a long tussle the big fish gives in. The landing net is too small and only the head of the Barra fits in. Seconds later the fish is in the boat though and it is even bigger than expected. The brag mat shows an impressive 104cm and the female is fat and in prime condition. Well done, Béatrice! She has long become a Squidgy addict and expert and has just caught her personal best Barra so far.

After a bit of a rest to gather ourselves after all the excitement, we continue fishing and catch several more Sootys. At around 3 o’clock pm we call it a day and head back to the ramp. With the boat securely tied down onto the trailer, we tackle the road back to Ravenshoe. The main topic of our conversation on the way home is the awesome fishing and the great location and we arrive back at Ian’s place soon. Thank you for another day we will never forget, Ian! Koombooloomba is an absolute gem!

Not just another lake

The Atherton Tableland, west of Cairns, has been another favorite of ours for many years. It shows all the features of the tropics, yet – being situated approximately 650m above sea level – is blessed with a very pleasante climate, much less hot and humid then the low lying coastal areas.

The deep red soil of the Tableland is very fertile indeed and the mild temperatures and a high annual rainfall allow the cultivation of mangoes, avocados, bananas, potatoes, peanuts and even tea and coffee, to name just a few. Malanda at the southern end of the Tableland is Queensland’s dairy farming centre and produces milk and other dairy products for the domestic market and for export.

About 50 years ago, the Barron River was dammed and Lake Tinaroo was built to cater for an increasing demand for irrigation. As a byproduct, another outstanding freshwater fishery has been created and Lake Tinaroo is famous for the sheer size of its Barramundi. Sooty Grunter are also common and Red Claw Crayfish can be caught in good numbers.

Large parts of the Tableland were once covered in rain forest. Farming and forestry both took their toll, but the remains still show a rich variety of plants and wildlife. On our daytrips we came across Platypus and tree kangaroos and – on the forest floor – Musky Rat Kangaroos and snakes crossed our path. The wet undergrowth proofed to be a paradise for leeches, which loved to attach themselves to our legs and feet. They were hard to get rid of and the small wounds kept on bleeding for some time.

Remnants of the areas volcanic origin can be found in many places, the crater lakes probably being the best known feature. The two largest lakes, Lake Barrine and Eacham, are surrounded by rain forest and walking trails lead around them. On our walks, we saw Archer Fish, Jungle Perch, eels and dozens of Saw-shelled Turtles in the clear water. Many of the crater lakes have no surface connection to other waterways and therefore show a unique water fauna with subspecies that can only be found here. Massive strangler fig trees are a highlight of the Tableland forests. These giants provide shelter and food for many other species and their maze of roots resembles organ pipes. Strangler figs start their life high up in the tree canopy as a little seed on another tree. Growing bigger, they send roots down to the ground to get more nutrients and water and while getting larger and larger, they eventually strangle their host.

Granite Gorge, near Mareeba, is home to wild rock wallabies. Large granite boulders and a permanent spring seem like an oasis in the middle of dry, open eucalypt forest. Access to the area is supervised and the wallabies are used to humans. Even females with their joeys showed no sign of fear and came very close to get their share of a special marsupial treat, available from the visitors centre.

The small townships on the Tableland are all quite charming, every one of them with its very own character. Yungaburra features a Swiss restaurant; we had heard of it down south and just had to go there and see what it is all about. Nick Crameri, owner and chef of award winning Nick’s Restaurant for many years, welcomed us like old friends and treated us to a traditional homemade Swiss bratwurst and cabbage (Surchruut). Our meal was delicious and browsing through Nick’s guest books with comments in many languages, drawings and even poems, made by guests from all over the world, was entertaining and fascinating. Nick is also running a pizzeria and the pizza we had on our next visit was by far the best we’ve ever tasted. His pizzaiola is from Italy and oh boy, she knows her stuff.

We love Kuranda, despite the fact that it is a well known tourist attraction and gets often very busy during the week. The little village in the mountains has a very special charm and the colorful locals and their arts and crafts set it apart from the main stream. We were looking forward to being back and were slightly disappointed of what we found. The old market looked a little run down and was almost deserted with only a handful of stalls remaining. At some stage the focus had obviously shifted to the main street, were a lot of flashy new shops attract huge busloads of visitors. The location of the village is magic and a walk down to the river and into the surrounding forest was still worthwhile, but for us the unique attraction of the village has faded. Luckily, one of Kuranda’s icons, its railway station, hasn’t changed at all. The old buildings are in great shape and the place looks more like a lush green plant nursery than a train station. At the time of our visit a train with old carriages was awaiting departure and we had the opportunity to have a look inside. Beautiful, comfortable looking leather seats, dark wood panels and polished brass fittings created an atmosphere of grandeur of days gone by.

About 30km south of Atherton, around Milla Milla and at the very edge of the Tableland, many rivers and creeks plunge down into the coastal lowland, creating waterfalls of serene beauty. What a pleasure to take a refreshing swim in one of the pools below or to stand under the fall itself and have one’s back massaged by the force of the down pour.

Every now and then while on the Tableland, we saw burn offs. At night the fires in the distance looked spectacular, while during the day all that remained was smoke and blackened hill sides. Privat land owners and authorities maintain the land by regularly and deliberately setting fire to reduce the amount of dry grass, leave litter and dead wood. Reducing the material that fuels fires, helps minimizing the risk of huge fires which are difficult to control and which may cause severe damage to the environment and to infrastructure. Regular, small fires generate much less heat and most trees and many other plants survive. Just days after a fire, the gum trees start to grow new leaves and the black soil turns into a bright green sea of grass and herbs. For kangaroos, wallabies and many other animals, this is a time of plenty.

The scenery and diversity of the Atherton Tableland were not the only reasons why we wanted to go there again. You may have guessed it; the possibility of some outstanding fishing was another major draw card. The eastern and the western shoreline of Lake Tinaroo are very different, with forest adjacent to the east and farmland to the west. The lake features many arms and bays and large areas on its eastern side are covered in death trees, providing food and cover for fish. Thanks to an abundance of Bony Bream, the Barramundi grow fast and big. Tinaroo is not the easiest lake to fish though and notorious for patchy fishing. But if the conditions are right, the fishing fires.

More than 10 years ago, during our last visit, we met Jack Leighton, a local and one of the pioneers of Barra dam fishing. He knows the lake like the back of his hands and has caught more big ones than he cares to count. We fished with Jack back in 2001 and had a great time with this humble man. And we caught a 45lbs Barramundi, our first Barra ever. No wonder we wanted to see Jack again and may be spend a day on the lake together. We learned that he has retired from guiding since our last visit and has sold his boat. He still enjoys going down to the lake just below his house and catching a nice fish on a lure or a fly.

Ian Kucurs, a keen young fly fisher and experienced guide, has taken over and is guiding people from all over the world to a fish of a lifetime. www.tinaroobarra.com We spent many days on the water and, while fishing with Ian and on our own, we were able to land some beautiful fish. The really big ones kept quiet though and we couldn’t catch a meter fish this time. Ian was great company, showed us many of his prime spots and we even learned new ways to tie knots and how to make our own twisted leaders. Already, this has proven to be very useful indeed. And we were pleased to learn, that one of our most successful shallow water pike lures from back home, Storm’s Suspending Wildeye Swim Shad, is also one of Ian’s favorite Barra lures.

The wildlife on and around the lake is fantastic. Geese and ducks and other water fowl are usually around in good numbers, water dragons can be found sunbathing along the lake shore everywhere and large groups of wallabies feed on the lush grass growing right at the water’s edge. Pythons and tree kangaroos are a rarer sight, but not uncommon.

Dam Barra

The popularity of fishing the dams for Barramundi has increased dramatically over the years and so has the challenge to hook a big one. With the mounting pressure from anglers, the fish seem to have become smarter and in many dams stealth is paramount. It all starts with approaching your favourite fishing spot. Motoring right up to it with a noisy outboard is not a good idea and will most certainly put the fish off for a while. So these days most of the keen fishos use electric motors to sneak up to their quarry quietly. We have got one ourselves, a Minn Kota Riptide SP 55 lb, and it works a treat. Speed and direction of the bow mounted motor can be changed by working a foot pedal, which leaves your hands free to do the rod work.

A separate deep cycle battery delivers the power needed and, fully charged, gives us an average of about 3 days of fishing. The electric is not only great for stealth, but makes it easy to hold the boat in position when the wind is blowing. The new Minn Kota i Pilot motors even have a built in GPS and the so called anchor function keeps the boat in place automatically even in strong winds or  heavy currents.

For short range fishing in the trees and up the creeks we use little 5’6’’ rods in the 6 to 10 kg range, in open country, when distance is required, the rod length goes up to 7’. We love our little bait casting reels, but also use spinning reels in 2500 to 4000 sizes at times. All our Barra reels are spooled with 20 to 30 lb braided lines – most of it being Sufix 832 – rather than monofilament.

A short piece of 40 to 80 lb nylon leader acts as a shock absorber and withstands the abrasive small teeth of the Barramundi. The leader is tied to a Bimini Twist Double with an Albright knot or, better still, a knot Lindsay Dobe showed us for the first time. Here it is: The end of the double is twisted around the heavy nylon leader, starting about 10 cm from one end of the nylon and winding away from it (step 1). Make about 8 to 12 wraps, bend the end of the leader back and pull it trough the loop at the end of the double (step 2). Lubricate the knot with saliva and tension it carefully by pulling firmly on the braided main line and both strands of the heavy leader. Close the knot by pulling hard on the braided main line and the heavy leader, trim the tag (step 3).

We like to attach our lures to the leader using a Perfection Loop; the loop allowing the lure to move freely at the end of the heavy nylon.

When it comes to Barra lures, the choice is overwhelming. Hard bodied, bibed minnows, soft plastics, blade style lures, vibes, poppers and other top water lures come in all shapes, colours and sizes and tempt the angler on the shelves. All of these lures work at times and it is a matter of making the right choice for the task on hand that makes all the difference. Australia has an amazing number of lure manufacturers who know the fishing well and make great lures that are up to the task. Many of the lures from overseas are not strong enough for the Barras sheer power and require at least a change of splitrings and hooks.

Some of our favourites, to name just a few, are several lures out of the Reidy’s range, Killalure Barra Baits, Rapala X-Raps, Berkley Hollow Belly’s and our long time favourite, the Storm Suspending Wildeye Swim Shad – an outstanding lure for pike in our home waters as well.

Fly fishing for Barra is great fun and works very well. A 9 or a 10 weight rod – Sage Bass rods are a perfect tool –  does the job and has enough lifting power to fight the fish. Legendary Barra flies like Gold Bomber, Pink Thing, Flashy Profile, Dahlberg Divers and many others bring good results and most of our pike flies work equally well.

Tropical paradise

One of the best known holiday destinations in Queensland has to be the Whitsundays. Palm fringed, pristine beaches, countless, unspoiled islands and reefs, surrounded by clear, warm water in all shades of blue, creating a unique tropical paradise. And, best of all, Lake Proserpine –another great Barra dam – is only a short drive away.

It is an easy 500 km trip from Gladstone to the Whitsundays along the Bruce Highway. Just after Gladstone, we pass a huge coal train and count exactly 100 coal carriages and 3 huge diesel engines. On the way north, we have to pick up our mail in Rockhampton, sent to us Poste Restante as usual and waiting for us. Earlier this year, Rockhampton was severely affected by the floods of the Fitzroy River for several weeks and large parts of the city went under water.

While travelling through Mackay, this time just acting as a short stopover to stretch our legs, we remember our last trip 10 years ago, when we spent memorable time here and further west, up in Eungella National Park. Eungella is a great little place in the mountains about 600m above sea level and features stunning rainforests; platypus are common in its relatively cool mountain streams and there are numerous walking tracks to explore the area. And yes, there is another dam up there of course, home to enormous Sooty Grunter.

From Mackay it is just a little more than another 100km and we are in Proserpine. We decide to stay in Proserpine rather than in the Whitsundays, because Prosy is situated just about half way between Lake Proserpine and the Whitsundays. One of the first things we do is paying the local tackle shop, Proserpine Bait & Tackle, a visit and asking for the latest fishing news. Lindsay Dobe – owner, fishing guide and Barra expert par excellence – tells us that the water temperature is still a bit on the cool side with 20 to 22°C, but with warmer weather moving in, the fishing is expected to improve. He points out some of the current hotspots on the lake and with his sound advice we tackle the task. We manage to get some nice fish, but some days, nothing seems to work and we even try a bit of Harry Potter magic, but not even our ‘Fishy, fishy, don’t be shy, grab our lure or we might cry!’ spell makes a difference.

We have the great pleasure to spend time on the lake with Lindsay and love every minute of it. He is not only an amazing guide indeed, but also excellent company and we learn a lot new tricks (fish the sexy looking trees….) once again and laugh together till our tummy muscles hurt. Lindsay’s Nitro bass boat is a purpose built fishing machine and our own boat seems small and flimsy in comparison. Flying over the water with more than a hundred kilometres an hour is a thrilling experience and we squeal like kids.

Lake Proserpine has heaps of dead, standing timber and it sometimes feels like fishing in a forest. Orchids and other epiphytes grow in some of the trees and eagles use them as nesting sites. At some stage we even see a White-breasted Sea-Eagle with a freshly caught and half eaten duck in its claws.

Ten days after our arrival in Proserpine, we have to look for a new place to stay, because Proserpine Tourist Park is booked out. Seabreeze Caravan Park in Cannonvale, in the heart of the Whitsundays, becomes our base for the next couple of weeks. Just after 4am early one morning, on the way to the lake, a wallaby appears out of the dark and jumps right into our path. We manage to reduce our speed a little, but avoiding a collision is impossible and we hit the animal hard and with a loud bang. The impact is massive and the car veers to the right. Luckily there is no oncoming traffic and we pull up on the side of the road. We are prepared for the worst and – with trembling knees – inspect the front of the car with a torch. Miraculously, we can’t see any damage at all. The bull bar did exactly what it is supposed to do and took all of the impact. The poor wallaby wasn’t that lucky though and lies dead in the middle of the road. It is a strange and sad feeling to pull the lifeless body off the tarmac; it is still warm and the fur feels very soft. After a couple of minutes sitting in the dark and gathering ourselves, we continue our drive. Having driven many thousands of kilometres on Australia’s roads on several trips, this is the first time we’ve hit a kangaroo or a wallaby. To stick to our policy not to drive at night whenever possible, seems to make more sense than ever.

Two days later, again early in the morning, and despite the swerving to avoid a collision, we roll over a Bandicoot. The little creatures are all over the road and many of the guinea pig sized marsupials get killed every night.

During our outings on the lake with Lindsay and on our own, we manage to catch some nice fish, two of them reaching the magic meter mark, the others being smaller. And we also meet Karen and Peter, two very friendly Aussie travellers from New South Wales and experienced and keen fishos. We are impressed by the perfect set up of their boat, where everything has its place and is within easy reach when needed.

Geordie, Lindsay’s employee and right hand, tells us about some of his fishing spots and we have a ball catching Tarpon in a little creek meandering through the Proserpine golf course. Quite the opposite of our experience back home, the players are exceptionally friendly and don’t mind us being on their turf.

While in Cannonvale, we fall in love with one of the beaches nearby. Dingo beach and the small settlement along its shoreline are almost too good to be true. Fine, white sand, palms, shallow sand flats and a pub with cold drinks 50m from the beach; life doesn’t get much better than that. Wading and fishing soft plastics yields a range of species from flathead to small Giant Trevally, cod and Barracuda. One morning, the sight of a school of permit tailing in the shallow water gets us excited and with trembling hands we flick our lures into the fish’s path. The permit are extremely spooky though and even a small soft plastic making a little splash sees them going off like greased lightning and heading into deeper water. After only a couple of minutes the show is over and the fish disappear.

Another day a dog shows up out of nowhere and sits next to us in the water, watching every single move of ours and following us around for several hours until it eventually disappears again.

A little closer to Cannonvale is Coral Beach, a gem as well and one of the finest beaches for swimming, consisting entirely of pebbles and pieces of coral and framed by rocky headlands at both ends. We fish from the rocks with slightly heavier gear and catch a range of smaller coral species and lose a couple of bigger fish to the sharp rocks. Fishing poppers and walk the dog type lures is great fun and we manage to land some nice Queenfish, just reaching the meter mark. There are good sized Giant Trevally around as well, but they prove to be too powerful for our 8 – 10 kg outfits and we get busted big time every time we hook one of these brutes.

It’s a half an hour walk from the car park to Coral Beach, leading through dry eucalypt forest most of the time. While walking, we usually see brush turkeys foraging on the ground for a yummy morsel. These birds build large mounds out of leaf litter. The heat generated by the decomposing organic matter incubates the eggs buried in the mound by the female. The brush turkey controls the temperature and adds or removes material to maintain optimal conditions for the development of its offspring. Some of the mounds we come across are more than 2m high and 6m in diameter and have been used for many years.

Along the beaches in the Whitsundays, we see the yellow signs warning of saltwater crocodiles again. The Australian saltwater crocodile is the largest crocodile in the world and has been sighted on the East coast as far south as Fraser Island. Crocodiles have been fully protected for many years now and their numbers have increased dramatically. The Proserpine River has become serious croc country in recent years and one can go for a croc spotting tour with a local operator. We have not come across a croc on this trip yet and are still looking forward to a reunion.