The Unexpected Benefits of the Net Free Zone - By Dave Magner

With the benefit of hindsight, I reckon Rockhampton City Council will one day look back on their decision to declare the region a Net Free Zone (NFZ) as one of the smartest and most far-sighted choices they could have made.

 While there will no doubt always be a place for some form of commercial seafood harvesting, recreational fishing and attracting new residents to the region with the thought of the great fishing and outdoors lifestyle on offer is bound to bring far greater benefits in the long term. Removing the nets really has been a win-win situation for Rocky, both economically and environmentally and the city is now set up for sustainable future growth.

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Now I keep a pretty close eye on the fishing grapevine and having heard how the fishing has kept getting better and better since the nets have gone, I really wanted to get up there and check the situation out for myself. While I only live a couple of hours away in Tannum Sands, I haven’t done a lot of fishing up that way, so I figured it would be worth getting a guide who could provide the all-important local knowledge so that I could see the very best of what the region has to offer. Having used the services of Nathan Johnston from Rise Environment and Guiding Services previously with great results, it was a simple decision to call him up and see what sort of fishing he thought he could get me onto.

The mighty Fitzroy River flows through Rocky, and it was one of the first systems to demonstrate the benefits of the closures. The fishing in the Fitzroy has gone from strength to strength and it has now got to the point where Nathan and the other local guides can literally put their clients onto metre barra and thumping threadfin salmon within sight of the city’s CBD. I wonder how many other tropical cities can claim that?

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I must admit I was tempted to have a crack at fishing the Fitzroy, but if given the choice, I’d much rather fly fish than use lures or baits and the water clarity in the Fitzroy really don’t lend itself to fly fishing. So, after discussing all the possibilities with Nathan, we decided to try something a bit different and check out the sight casting options around the Keppel Islands instead.

Hitting the Keppels

As this was going to be a fly only trip, Nathan contacted me the afternoon prior, and suggested that we make an early start, as this would maximize our time on the water before the predicted afternoon north easterly sea breeze kicked in. So, six am the following morning we met up at Keppel Bay Marina, which is located just south of Yeppoon at Rosslyn Bay for the 20 minute boat trip out to the islands.

Nathan had decided to start our day on the Northern end of Great Keppel Island and our first stop was a protected little stretch of shallow beach. We’d only just started poking along the back of the gentle shore break when we came across a huge school of tarpon sitting right up in knee deep water. I’ve no idea how many fish there were, but it must have been thousands as they formed big, black schools that were probably close to a hundred metres long.

The fly fisher in me got super excited at seeing all those tarpon. While they only grow to a few kilos, tarpon are one of my favourite species to chase on fly, as they go absolutely crazy when hooked. Unfortunately, despite the staggering number of fish in front of me, I found it ridiculously hard to get any interest from them, which became quite frustrating. They really weren’t in a cooperative mood at all and I ended up trying about a dozen different flies before I eventually found something one of them would eat.

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When I did finally land a tarpon, as I was lifting it into the boat it sprayed roe all over the deck, which went some way to easing my earlier frustrations. Clearly the fish must have been in a spawning aggregation, which explained why they were packed so tight and showed so little interest in my flies.

It was at this point that Nathan pointed out how much of a difference the net free zones have made to places like the Keppels. In the bad old days, a pro would most likely have come along and netted all those tarpon and sold them for a couple of bucks a kilo as pet food. Now that the nets are gone, those fish get a chance to breed and build their numbers up, providing superb light tackle sportsfishing that will attract visiting anglers. One can only wonder how good it will get once the fish stocks get back to their original, pre-net levels.

Anyway, after sort of cracking the tarpon code, Nathan took me further along the beach to a small rocky point. From his elevated position on the poling platform, he could see schools of fish working the churned up water along the rocks. I wasn’t able to see them from my vantage point down on the deck, but with Nathan calling the shots I managed to put a fly in front of one and it nailed the little clouser with an electrifying hookup.

As I hadn’t seen the fish to this point, I was expecting them to be small queenfish or trevally, but they turned out to be giant herring, which was a real bonus, as these things go even harder than tarpon and are highly valued fly rod targets in their own right. I found it hard to believe that one little stretch of sand could produce two such prized fly rod species, but the day was only just getting started.

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After playing around with the herring for a while, my guide suggested we head around the corner of the island to a little cove on the other side where he had encountered big schools of milkfish a couple of weeks before. Naturally, I was keen as to tangle with a milky, as I’d only taken one on fly before. I got that milkfish while I was living in the territory and I still rate it as the most insane fish I’ve ever hooked on any tackle. Milkfish literally have rockets up their rear ends and they should be on every serious angler’s bucket list!

We made the short run around to the eastern side of the island and tucked into a small, protected bay. I’ve got to be honest, as to me that bay didn’t look like the sort of place where I would have expected to find milkfish, but while they weren’t as thick as they had been the week before, there were still one or two small pods of fish cruising about. Unfortunately, they were doing what milkfish do best which is not eating flies and while I managed to cast at a few, I just couldn’t get them to show any interest. Eventually we got bored with being ignored by milkfish and decided to cut our losses and see what else was hanging around.

Luckily, the same bay just happened to also have some massive queenfish in it. These things were much more cooperative and ate flies with gusto. Unfortunately, the only problem was they were so keen to take my fly that my 15 kilo tippet was no match for them, I popped one off on the strike that was way over the metre mark!

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While I lowered my clousers to the queenies and milkfish, I did come out on top of a couple of encounters with more manageable sized species. I landed a pair of solid trevally up to about four kilos. I know that might not sound that big if you are used to fighting them on heavy spin gear but gee they sure put a serious bend in a 10 weight fly rod and really make you work for them. Despite their modest size, I was pretty happy with both captures.

If I had more room, I could keep going on about fishing in detail but suffice to say, the rest of the day was pretty much more of the same with lots more fish sighted, hooked, lost and landed. There were however a couple of real highlights that deserve a mention.

At one point in the afternoon, I found myself casting at a huge permit that looked every bit of 10 kilos or more (one of fly fishing’s holy grails). I also had numerous casts at a GT that was probably closer to 20 kilos. Sadly, I wasn’t good enough to stick a hook into either of them but that just gives me another reason to head back up there so I can try again another time.

Wrapping up

I had an absolute ball exploring the Keppels and was blown away by the diversity of species and the sheer number of fish on offer. I’m a keen but fairly average fly fisher and even though we only sight fished, I still had shots at more than enough great fish to make the trip a resounding success.

On what I’ve seen, I guess it’s fair to say that this place offers world class fly and light tackle sportsfishing in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings. If it keeps improving it may well turn into a real sports fishing mecca.

While improving the fishing out around the islands probably wasn’t the main reason for removing the nets, it gives you some idea of how profound and far reaching the effects have been. The future sure looks bright for the Rocky region and I know I’ll be spending a lot more time up there in the future reaping the fishing benefits of their decision to go net free.

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Last modified on Thursday, 13 February 2020 04:17

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