When it comes to places that you should fish before you die, Lord Howe Island is right up there as a must-visit location. MARTIN SALTER finally gets to tick a much-anticipated box on his personal fishing bucket list.
AS an Englishman enjoying a year-long fishing sabbatical in this wonderful country, I’ve been privileged to have visited some amazing places and to catch fish that were once only the stuff of dreams. On the windswept winter surf beaches of Fraser Island and in the stifling heat of the mangrove-lined estuaries of Arnhem Land I’ve experienced Boys Own fishing trips that will stay with me forever. However, my wife has somewhat different holiday priorities. These often require levels of comfort that would be hard to find aboard a wave-tossed boat or in some remote and dusty campsite.
Luckily Australia contains some of those rare places in the world where a mad-keen fisherman can spend time catching that faraway fish of a lifetime and still remain happily married at the end of the holiday. What’s more I reckon one of the best is less than two hours flight from our temporary home in Sydney. Lord Howe Island is piece of unspoilt paradise on 30 sq kms of rock hidden away in the Tasman Sea and is the perfect place for a couple to enjoy a romantic yet adventurous holiday together.
Discovered some 18 years after Captain Cook’s first voyage by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, commander of the First Fleet ship Supply on route to Norfolk Island to establish the infamous penal colony, this small island contains the southern most coral reef in the world. With almost 500 species of fish, 90 different types of corals and such an abundance of flora, fauna and other marine life it came as no surprise that Lord Howe was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982.
With surf beaches and rock platforms on the west, the maze of the Admiralty Islets to the north and the world’s largest ocean stack in the shape of the 550m Balls Pyramid to the south, Lord Howe has every type of natural fish holding feature imaginable.
The Islanders enjoy a unique lifestyle aimed at preserving their pristine environment. A strict limit of 400 visitors at any one time, controls on new development and numbers of vehicles coupled with a permanent population of just 350 has ensured that Lord Howe has avoided the ravages of commercial exploitation. This is place of honesty boxes and friendliness – a reminder of a bygone age – where no door is locked and keys are never removed from the ignition.
Lord Howe is well known for its kingfish and wahoo fishing and attracts visiting anglers from all over the world. With no commercial fishing in the island waters covered by the marine park boundaries, a number of the charter operators regularly provide fresh, line-caught fish to the hotels and restaurants. This practice has caused some controversy of late with complaints from customers wishing to exercise their right to practise catch & release. The message now appears to be getting through and customer choice is reasserting itself – as it rightly should.
Further offshore there is a marlin fishery that is hardly touched, although Garry Sexton and his 40ft Blackwatch Double Trigger is pioneering some pretty exciting billfish action just three miles out from the island’s one and only jetty. But it’s not all about beefy tackle and big game species – there’s another side to fishing at Lord Howe Island that’s just as rewarding and possibly more challenging.
Reef action The majority of the western shoreline is protected by an extensive reef system creating a substantial, shallow and crystal clear lagoon that is fishable in all but the most extreme conditions. The lagoon teems with life and is home to some unique fish that can be caught by sight casting from a small boat – surely one of the most exciting fishing methods of all. For me the kingies could wait as it was this light line, shallow water sportfishing that was my primary quest on a recent visit to Lord Howe. In particular I wanted to achieve the local lagoon grand slam of a trevally, a silver drummer, a bluefish and the strange looking double-header in a single session. This last species is a strong, bruising fighter and appears not unlike a Maori wrasse but is found only on Lord Howe. My fishing guide was friend and Lord Howe angling guru Gary Crombie, an Islander descended from some of the early settlers whose local knowledge is second to none. It was “Crom” who first encouraged me to visit Lord Howe and sample its special fishing and who promised me something a little different to simply towing lures around the ocean. Crom runs Oblivienne Sportsfishing which currently operates two boats: a five-metre Mako side console for inshore and lagoon fishing and a larger Eagle Ray centre console for offshore work. He and his wife Viv, no mean fisher herself, also run one of the island’s general stores containing a tackle shop and bakery. This turned out mighty handy since we were fishing with bread for fish that proved pretty adept at stealing our hooks.
Now my partner Natalie and I were lucky enough to be staying at the beautiful Arajilla Retreat situated towards the northern end of the lagoon. Quite apart from the sumptuous food, spacious apartments and gorgeous grounds, Arajilla had one great advantage for visiting anglers – it was only a five-minute walk to the jetty. The same jetty that provided cover for shoals of fish including trevally and some resident, and apparently difficult to catch , big silver drummer. Since I wasn’t due to meet Crom until late morning in order to get the best of the sun and the tides I sneaked in a little session before breakfast. I watched the drummer steadfastly ignoring my freelined bread whilst mopping up the loose offerings with gay abandon. All was not lost however, as beneath the big silver drummer lay the not so shy trevally and once Crom arrived to pick me up I was able to claim that a quarter of our target had been achieved, albeit accidentally and of somewhat diminutive proportions!
Skipping across the lagoon in Crom’s wonderfully nippy Bonefish our first task was to find a school of silver drummer. This took all of 10 minutes. A few scoops of mashed bread soaked in tuna oil and water as berley soon had them swirling on the surface like hungry trout and it was time to put out a bait.
The rig was simplicity itself. A No.4 hook with a piece of crust impaled on it and a 12lb fluorocarbon leader, greased to make it float in the surface film, beneath 15lb floating braid. On Crom’s instructions I cast to the point of the feeding shoal farthest from the boat where the fish would be less nervous. In no time at all my crust was engulfed and an angry silver drummer was tearing line off my lightly set drag. The tackle held firm and after a spirited scrap my best drummer of any colour was hoisted aboard, quickly photographed and returned.
Just as it was all seeming too easy, things began to go wrong. The school continued to feed confidently on the berley and I was hooking up reasonably well. But the next three fish sawed through the line using their typical head shaking lunges to rub the leader against the teeth in the top of their jaws. Eventually I mastered playing them with the rod held low and using a little more finesse to avoid being bitten off but by now the fish had become wary and were drifting away.
Time for our third target, the stunning looking bluefish, in a different area a little closer to the reef but using the same tactics as these beauties like to swim and feed with the drummer. With bright turquoise blue colours and orange spots the bluefish weren’t hard to find. Our biggest problem came in the shape of three reef sharks which were simply smashing into any hooked fish within a few seconds. Feeding beautiful fish to sharks is not my idea of fun and I was about to give up when Crom handed me a stronger rod and line with the instruction to “hook up then wind like hell”. Some two minutes later an extremely fortunate bluey was smiling for the cameras having escaped a munching by about a nano-second.
We had fished for less than two hours with constant action in crystal clear water and watched every bite from every fish in stunning surroundings with Mount Lidgbird as a dramatic backdrop. This really was pretty special and I didn’t want the morning to end.
Fish number four favoured crabs rather than bread so we paddled ashore at Rabbit Island (real name Blackburn) in search of bait. Like everything else in the wonderful marine environment of Lord Howe the crabs were plentiful and soon we were scanning the water for coral outcrops likely to be hiding places for the big, slate blue double-headers. It was here that I was most surprised when Crom produced an outfit more suitable to my mind for monster kingies than anything else. A large Hoodlum hook and running ball sinker completed the rig and soon a crab was lowered into position on a patch of sand adjacent to a promising spot. I was under orders to let the fish run no more than a metre before setting the hook and then to hang on like grim death.
Within seconds the line twitched and soon my rod was creaking alarmingly as the double-header powered back to his rocky home. The tackle held firm and after a brutal scrap four kilos of double-header completed the Lord Howe Lagoon Grand Slam.
The lagoon fishing continued to impress and by getting a bait in the water at first light and at the top of the tide I even managed to snare three of the big “uncatchable” silver drummer from the island jetty. Obviously, it would have been rude and impertinent to completely ignore the island kings and pretty quickly a personal best 12kg beauty was added to the list on a lure trolled in the shadow of Mount Gower, the tallest of the Lord Howe peaks.
Natalie loved the beaches, the cliffs, the forests, the spas, the walks, the snorkelling…in fact every waking moment of our trip. She can’t wait to return and, not surprisingly, neither can I.
With some justification they call Lord Howe “the last paradise”. As none of us can be absolutely sure about either the existence or the nature of any afterlife, my advice is to experience it while you can.
Martin Salter visited Lord Howe Island courtesy of Lord Howe Island Tourism Association, Arajilla Retreat and QantasLink.