DESTINATIONS: Fishing the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

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The Cocos (Keeling) Islands is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

THE fire started burning after a conversation with my partner, Rachel, about this so-called Australian paradise.

It wasn’t until we started to dig into any little bits of information we could find that we knew it was our calling. With Rachel's final teaching internship on the horizon, she bounced a few emails back and forth and secured a placement with the local high school. The two of us were currently driving dump trucks in the Pilbara, flying in and out of Perth. However, with the current border restrictions and a lack of operators on site, we were turned down when we requested leave to pursue this opportunity.

We knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one we would be devastated to miss out on. That being said, we quit our jobs, packed our bags, and headed for the Cocos Keeling Islands.

In the following article, I’ll explain how to discover and prepare for a trip to one of Australia’s most unique fishing destinations.

Cooper and a selection of lures he took to the Cocos.

GEAR PREP
Preparing gear for a location with limited knowledge of what to expect and tight weight restrictions is not an easy task. Expecting nothing less than Bonefish, GT, Red bass, and an exciting range of reefies, I knew only the best gear would stand up to the test. I had the outifts sorted – armed with a handful of Stellas and Saltigas backed by Indian Pacific Rods. Planning to run a maximum of five casting setups (PE 1,3,5,8,10), I was going to need a stack of lures.

As a next-generation fisherman, I thrive on the challenge of tempting fish into smacking a lure. Thankfully, my collection of lures over the past few years has become very generous, poppers, stickbaits, and plastics all included. Narrowing these down to fit them into 23kg of luggage was going to be a problem.

I chose to pack the following: 80-120mm / 120-160mm / 160-200mm / 200mm+ stickbaits and poppers, followed by a selection of soft vibes, plastics and divers. Terminals on most of the lures were upgraded to Decoy splits and BKK hooks. In terms of line, reels were spooled with Tasline and a selection of Varivas for leader (from 20lb to 220lb.)

The Cocos has some mean GTs, as Cooper found out!

SPECIES: GTs
Cocos Island GTs are brutal and I learned this early on in the trip.

Day one on Direction Island I spotted a fish pushing 20kg in less than a metre of water. With just a 5kg outfit and a small flick prawn, I couldn’t let the opportunity surpass me so I cast on his nose and he walloped it, crashing and splashing before he realised he was hooked then proceeding to rip 150m out to sea down to my backing where I had to grab the spool and try to turn his head. I inevitably snapped him off. This trend proceeded into the coming weeks with the next seven GTs I hooked taking my lures, and dignity, with them. Land-based I had the best luck finding these fish in-between the reef and beach on the western side of the atoll, often on the run in tide where there were bait feeding (dart and mullet). Throwing stickbaits between 120 and 160mm proved to be the most successful way to tempt a bite.

Venturing to the edge of the reef to fish when the weather was suitable gave us the chance to fish deep water without a boat. The time to do this was on the low tide when the swell was minimal often over a two hour window, however, it’s not for the faint-hearted with waves washing up around your waist not being uncommon. I would advise fishing with a buddy at all times here in case things go south. This form was an exciting, yet expensive way of fishing, often having big surface strikes turn into being bricked before you could blink. When given the chance to fish from a 4.2m tinny I grabbed it by the balls and give it all I had with long days and lots of casting resulting in some good GTs in both skinny water and off of deeper reefs. I found the full moon to be the most productive with the big incoming tides in the lagoon and the outgoing from the reef's edge to the drop-off.

The new moon was good in the sense of bait being everywhere but the fish were much more reluctant to feed on a lure unless they were in a frenzy. We found casting a combination of a popper and stickbait often resulted in the angler putting in the least amount of work rolling back a stickbait to the boat getting all the glory when fish raised to the commotion opted more the more subtle option.

Bonefish
When planning for the Cocos Islands trip I knew there was a potential to catch bonefish, however, I didn’t realise the caliber and number of fish that were thriving there. Initially, I was catching fish up to 50cm on small grubs paired to a light gauge 1/16 jighead. This gave enough weight to cast and make the plastic look natural in the water but didn’t give enough strength to stop bigger fish without bending the hooks out. So all of the 50cm+ models I was hooking I was losing to the overwhelming blacktip reef sharks. To combat this I had a mate bring up some heavy gauge jig-heads to give me the edge. All of the bonefish I had caught to this point had been on the reef side of the atoll predominately as by-catch and it wasn’t until I met a fly fishing guide from Victoria (James Norney) in the local pub that I gave the inside of the atoll a crack targeting these silver bullets.

Bonefish are abundant in the Cocos.

The weather when we first started fishing was windy and rainy following the fallout from a tropical low. Even so, we persisted and were blessed with some astounding clear water and glass-outs, making spotting fish a breeze. Watching them follow a lure to your feet was all the more exciting. Over the following weeks James and I were able to get some good fish and found plenty of feeding schools that we could cast into like salmon on the South Coast. Trophy bonefish are prevalent across the flats with fish over 80cm often spotted amongst smaller fish or grazing in the distance on their own. The bones didn’t seem to perform any different across the moon phase, however they always fished better on an incoming tide or the beginning of the run-out. To spot the fish we would look for them tailing in the sand or mud. If you couldn’t find them, often blind casting would still lead to good numbers of fish being caught. With the bonefish often came silver biddy and thick lip or banded trevally, all providing great fun on light gear.

Red bass
My accidental introduction to red bass came one afternoon when I was floating across some reef flats in 10m. I hadn’t caught fish for a good hour and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Earlier that day I had some good luck on GT throwing 40-80g popper so I tied on my all-time favourite ReefsEDGE roey in a pink swirl trout and the first cast got railed by a monster GT who took my last one home with him. I re-rigged and threw on a smaller one and before I could even take up the slack the Saltiga was screaming. luckily enough, I managed to work him free and get him up, I hadn’t landed a bass before so I was stoked. He went 76cm and released well. It was at this point that I realised red bass was a species I wanted to target. So target them we did.

Over the next three weeks we boated some more big bass and managed to hook up to some off the reef's edge, most of the time being drilled and losing gear but occasionally defying the odds and getting them up over the top and into the lens for some epic photos. When we located bass we found they were sitting in areas where there was movement in the water, either behind a drain in the reef, or around breaking waves. This didn’t make for easy fishing but defiantly made every capture that little bit more special. We caught fish on lures of all sizes, once again finding that when someone had a popper in the water they would be drawn to the commotion and then eat a stickbait in the vicinity.

Passionfruit trout
Fishing for trout was always a fun way to catch a feed and fill in an afternoon when we were getting tired of throwing big lures. The lagoon is loaded with trout varying in size from juveniles up to some bigger 70cm + models.

They aren’t too fussy either. There were days where myself and Josh would be throwing big poppers in 20 metres of water hoping to snag a dogtooth only to have trout race up from the bottom to nail the lure. However, the most fun came when we dedicated time to targeting these shallow water brutes on soft plastics and small stickbaits in 3-5m of water on light gear. We busted out the PE3 outfits and the Bait Junkie plastics and were overwhelmed by the masses of fish that were willing to eat. Not just trout; we were greeted with big flowery cod, paddletail, coronation trout, moses perch, bluefin trevally, and a host of emperor species all making for great fun on light gear.

The beautiful pattern of a passionfruit trout on full display.

A memorable session came on a day that had been a glass out all day, my mate James who is predominately a fly fisherman. Josh and myself were nestled nicely in our 4.2 tinny over some likely looking areas that we were yet to fish. We all rigged up a 5-inch jerk shad on a half-ounce jig-head. Before we knew it we had ourselves a three-way hookup a trout, bluefin, and Paddletail three class fish. This action continued for a couple of hours with a range of good flowery cod and trout being wrestled from their holes. We kept ourselves a trout for dinner and weren’t disappointed, coming out of pristine waters the flesh was bright white and the skin cooked up into some great chips. All in all a great species to target if you have access to a small boat and enjoy the challenge of stopping good fish on light tackle.

Emperor
Yellow lip (sweetlip) and long nose emperor inhabit the lagoon and shallows around the outer edge of the atoll, providing both great sport fishing and a table option. Targeting these fish specifically wasn’t easy as they were often in a mix with other demersal species and more than happy to have a feed on a lure. This made for entertaining fishing, comparable to a lucky dip not knowing what you might entice next. They certainly put up a good fight for their size and make for a great light tackle target. In saying that sometimes heavier tackle is required to beat the sharks so pack both. We had one great session on the new moon behind Horsborough the northernmost island, where we found what seemed to be aggregations of spawning fish, giving Rachel the chance to have some fun and catch us some dinner. The longnose on the other hand was very plentiful when diving but proved to be far more elusive on spin. These two were the premier emperor however by-catch often included other species of small emperor such as thumbprint, black blotch, and orange striped.

OFF THE DROP-OFF
It was not uncommon after the new moon to see huge bait balls being worked by sharks and a host of other species as they pushed out of the lagoon over the drop-off. One afternoon we noticed birds working on the horizon, what we found was red bass, sharks, wahoo, GTs, and dogtooth all pushing thru the bait and out of the water. We landed a big bass early and had a nice rainbow runner taken by a shark.

Soon after I hooked a monster dogtooth next to the boat only to have my terminals fail after a blistering run. This came with extreme disappointment accompanied by a stern reminder to upgrade all terminals no matter what. On the drop-off schools of yellowfin and bigeye tuna roam often from 5-20kg with the occasional 50kg+ model being boated. The wahoo are also sporadically scattered around the circumference of the Atoll often in the 5-15kg size range. Billfish, incisive of sails and marlin are here, everything indicates they would be and locals tell stories of good numbers being caught. The jigging scene here with such deep water so close to the land is unique and provides huge potential.

CONQUERING THE COCOS
The Cocos Islands, whilst very challenging at first with unfavourable weather and limited knowledge, soon became a lure fisherman’s playground. After the second week, going a session without at the least hooking the target species was rare. Learning how different tides and moon phases fished wasn’t easy over a short seven weeks, however, we used the tide to our advantage fishing inside the lagoon on the run-in and outside for the run-out with great success.

Coming here there were four species I hadn’t yet caught that I wanted to tick off – red bass, Maori wrasse, bonefish and, passionfruit trout. Of these only, the Maori wrasse eluded me with fish of high standards in the other three making me a very happy customer. Over the trip I donated half of my lures to the monsters of the reef and went through a couple of hundred metres of leader. To say the environment is unforgiving would be an understatement. All in all, Cocos has been a fantastic and memorable experience, I have met friends I will hold close forever and I strongly advise any keen fishos to make an effort to get out there.

If you’re looking for a guided option for fishing the Cocos, Hello Backing Fly Charters offers full packages, including accommodation, food and guided fishing with experienced guides.

Get in touch at Hello Backing Fly Charters to make a booking or to get more information about the all-inclusive fly fishing trips, simply email Nick at hellobacking@gmail.com.

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