Posts Tagged ‘Far North Queensland’

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!

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.

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. 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.