DARYL HITCHEN and friends cruise the spectacular Whitsunday Islands off Queensland in what proved to be the sort of fishing trip the whole family can enjoy. Combine creek, estuary and blue water fishing with warm weather, snorkelling, beach cricket, bushwalking and sightseeing, and you’re on a winner with the loved ones. (Article by Western Australia Travelling Angler)
FAMILY and ﬁshing holidays are sometimes difﬁcult to combine successfully for a variety of reasons, and can often be directly related to your better half’s level of comfort requirements. Places like Coral Bay, Broome and Rottnest Island on the west coast spring to mind as places where the wife and kids can be entertained while keen ﬁshos can still wet a line. Some charter/cruise boats in the Kimberley also offer fantastic comfort levels and remote ﬁshing options, although most of them are at the higher end of the price scale and out of many peoples’ reach. However if you look a little farther aﬁeld to the other side of the country, you’ll ﬁnd some much more affordable options for a family cum ﬁshing kind of holiday, namely a bareboat charter in the Whitsunday Islands.
I didn’t know a lot about the Whitsundays when the opportunity presented itself to pay the area a visit recently, apart from the fact they were situated in north Queensland and inshore from the Great Barrier Reef. The area is one of the great boating and cruising destinations in Australia, and home to one of the biggest bareboat charter ﬂeets in the world. When Western Angler was approached by Queensland Yacht Charters (QYC) to go and have a ﬁrst-hand look at its operation, I was fortunate enough to score the gig, together with the magazine’s advertising executive Deb Waterman. Deb took along her ﬁsherman husband Russell and their two kids, 12-year-old Curtis and Ella (nine), while my partner Bev Turner came along for the ride as well. Although Bev is a keen ﬁsho and bushwalker who likes nothing better than camping out and roughing it, Deb by her own admission is more a ﬁve-star kinda girl who likes ﬁshing and boating in comfort, and was looking forward to a little luxury while Russ and the kids wet a line.
Based at Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach, QYC has been in operation for over 30 years and has a wide range of yachts and power boats available for charter. Most people skipper themselves so obviously some previous boating experience is needed, but for those who don’t come from a boating background, experienced skippers can be provided as an option. Prices range from around $600 per day for a basic but very comfortable yacht or powerboat up to more than $1500 per day for top of the range vessels. Although it may seem a little pricey at ﬁrst glance, when you split these costs between a few families or couples, it doesn’t work out too expensive.
Our boat Dimanche, was their premium powerboat and the largest vessel in the entire bareboat ﬂeet, a 14m Fountaine Pajot Cumberland powercat with all the bells and whistles. Powered by twin 225hp diesel inboards with shaft drives, she’d cruise all day sitting on around 2000 revs and 10 knots on the smell of an oily rag, and we burned only around 400 litres of fuel for the week. Dimanche was equipped with four double bedrooms with separate en suites, plasma TV, DVD player, stereo system, air conditioning, four fridge/freezers, generator, microwave, functional galley, outside barbie, ﬂybridge, dual controls and state of the art navigation equipment. A 3.6m zodiac and 6hp outboard served us well as a tender come ﬁshing platform for the week and enabled us to get up shallow inlets and mangrove creeks with ease.
With four couples on board, a similar trip to ours would work out at around $200 per day for the week, which is pretty good value for money to experience the Whitsundays in total luxury. We had a look at some of the other vessels in the QYC ﬂeet and while not as opulent as our boat, they would all be more than comfortable for a week’s cruising. And at $600 dollars a day, some of the other power boats are a lot more affordable, sleeping 4-6 people with ease. For those of you who don’t mind sailing, there are many more boats to choose from.
From the moment we stepped off our ﬂight from Brisbane at Proserpine Airport on Sunday afternoon and were met by a representative from the charter company, the whole week ran like clockwork and was a credit to Queensland Yacht Charters.
The Whitsundays are a collection of 74 islands off the north Queensland coast that run from just south of Bowen down to Mackay, 900km north of Brisbane. They are roughly the same latitude as Dampier on the west coast and are part of the larger Cumberland Island chain. The main group consists of Whitsunday, Hook, Hamilton and Hayman islands, plus a host of others that are reached from the main tourist towns of Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour. We ﬂew across the country and overnighted in Brisbane before continuing our journey to Airlie Beach full of expectation for the week ahead.
Once at the marina at Airlie Beach, we were met by the affable Phil Webb from QYC, who showed us the magniﬁcent vessel that would be our home for the next week and ran through the basics. The afternoon was spent provisioning for our trip and our ﬁrst night was spent in the marina enjoying a barbie on the back deck and familiarising ourselves with the surroundings and the boat. The next morning a full two-hour brieﬁng on all aspects of operating the vessel took place, followed by an hour’s “area brieﬁng” where Phil showed us the local marine chart to point us in the right direction. He was however a little reluctant to share any of his favourite ﬁshing spots or secret mackerel locations! By lunchtime we were heading out of the marina under Phil’s expert guidance for some practical advice and ‘hands-on’ testing to make sure the skipper had a reasonable handle on things and knew what he was doing. Thankfully I managed to bluff my way through and we were soon underway!
Passing Pioneer Rocks just off Airlie Beach, Russell put out a couple of skirted lures and I headed Dimanche towards the beckoning islands that started only a few kilometres offshore. We passed North Molle Island and crossed Whitsunday Passage at a steady nine knots before heading slightly northwards towards Hook and Hayman. Despite seeing the odd group of working seabirds the trolling lures didn’t get a touch crossing the passage, so we decided to head to nearby Langford Island for our ﬁrst look at the local coral and ﬁsh life. A fringing reef and inviting sand cay looked like the perfect place to jump in for a snorkel, and none of us were disappointed by the magniﬁcent coral formations, myriad of tropical ﬁsh and the friendly turtles.
Our ﬁrst night in the Whitsundays was spent at the Stonehaven Bay anchorage on Hook Island, where we tied up to one of the many public moorings that are scattered throughout the islands, especially in areas where there’s a risk of damaging any coral. The whole process of knowing where to go, various places of interest, good diving and snorkelling spots, bushwalking tracks and most importantly safe anchorages is made much easier by the local boating bible, 100 Magic Miles. This wonderfully detailed book makes exploring the Whitsundays for novices like ourselves just so much easier and safer, helping to ensure a relaxing and productive trip along the way.
With good weather and light breezes forecast for our ﬁrst few days, we decided to spend some time on the eastern or ocean side of the islands while we could, an area that can often be buffeted by the south-easterly trade winds. Unfortunately the lack of a suitable echo sounder on board (apart from a gauge giving us a digital depth reading) pretty much put paid to our aspirations of chasing any bottom ﬁsh on offshore reefs and shoals. Instead we decided to concentrate on trolling around the area’s many rocky headlands and dropoffs along the northern end of Hook and Hayman islands. Cruising beside spectacular sea cliffs, rainforest-covered island peaks and pristine beaches, the ﬁshing was almost a sidelight. The area reminded me somewhat of a cross between Tasmania, Coral Bay and the Kimberley – the incredibly green, tree-covered slopes of Tassie stretching right to the shoreline, the warm tropical water and spectacular underwater scenery of Coral Bay, and the rugged headlands and powerful tidal surges of the Kimberley. A truly dramatic and contrasting part of the world, and as spectacular as anywhere I’ve seen.
Despite the picture perfect surroundings the ﬁrst couple of hours trolling failed to produce any signiﬁcant results so we decided on a change of pace before lunch and went for another snorkel at the spectacular Manta Ray Bay. The rainforest that ran right to the water’s edge and massive granite outcrops contrasted the spectacular coral bommies beneath the surface. Fish life was abundant including a couple of huge hump-headed maori wrasse that seemed oblivious to us and other divers in the water. Manta Ray Bay is one of the most popular dive sites in the Whitsundays and the whole bay is a designated ‘green zone’ where no ﬁshing is allowed, so we enjoyed the underwater spectacle while still thinking about catching some dinner later in the day.
That afternoon saw us heading farther east again in the pursuit of some pelagic activity, changing our lures to a pair of old faithful Halco Laser Pros. We left Hook Island behind and headed towards a couple of likely looking shoals marked on the charts in a light 10-knot south-easter. The tranquillity was ﬁnally shattered by that lovely sound of a screaming drag that resulted in a solid double hookup, with Russ and Curtis both doing well to land a pair of four-kilo longtail tuna after a little back deck gymnastics. As much as Dimanche was a lovely boat to cruise around in, she wasn’t really designed with circling blueﬁn tuna in mind! The ﬁsh were dispatched, bled and put on ice and were to provide some wonderful meals over the next couple of days.
With fresh ﬁsh in the ice-box, it was time to ﬁnd a good anchorage for our second night and a protected bay at Border Island was the perfect option. Dinner was quickly seared tuna steaks on the hot plate, served on a bed of basmati rice with some char-grilled vegies and red curry sauce, all washed down with an icy cold Sauvignon Blanc. The weather was superb, the food fantastic, the setting idyllic and the company great, providing a ﬁtting end to a fantastic day cruising in the Whitsundays. It just doesn’t get much better.
Half of the crew were up again early the following morning, coming across some ﬁsh and birds working a distinctive tide line back in towards Whitsunday Island. Russell snuck up to the more than ample casting platform on the bow of the boat while I positioned the big cat upwind of the action. A couple of well-placed casts and quick retrieves turned the trick and Russ was soon hooked up on a speedster that turned out to be a pretty little mack tuna that we released, and Bev followed suit not long afterwards. This was all happening while Deb and the two kids were sound asleep in their cabins, which I guess was one of the beneﬁts of living on a very comfortable boat. By the time we’d woken up Curtis for a shot at the ﬁsh, the tuna had become a bit gun-shy and very hard to tempt, so we continued our run along the outside of Whitsunday Island past Tongue Point towards the magniﬁcent Whitehaven Beach. The rest of the morning was spent walking, swimming and playing beach cricket among the backpackers on the beach. At over 7km long there was plenty of room for everyone to enjoy the snow-white silica sands of Whitehaven.
By early afternoon, with the wind picking up and an average weather forecast issued for the next couple of days, we decided to leave the blue water behind and head around the bottom of Whitsunday Island through the notorious Solway Passage and into the sheltered western side of the islands. We passed the high-rise buildings and beachfront mansions that constitute Hamilton Island and steamed into the tranquil waters of Macona Inlet. The western side of the Whitsundays are in the lee of the south-easterly trade winds and characterised by a number of large inlets that offer great anchorages in any weather conditions. The inlets are generally dotted with small creek systems, rock bars, mangroves and sand/mud ﬂats that are just begging to be explored and contain a range of estuary species.
We sheltered in Macona Inlet for the next day or so, and in between showers Russell took the zodiac out for a ﬁsh an hour or so either side of the tide change. Trolling along the edge of the mangroves at high tide produced a couple of scrappy little giant trevally and barracuda for the kids, while Bev scored a beautiful ox-eye herring (tarpon) just on dusk. The tarpon snafﬂed a Nils Master Spearhead and lived up to its reputation of being a fantastic sportﬁsh by jumping all over the place before making a couple of scorching runs. They later snuck out again to ﬁsh a rock bar at low tide with Deb along for the ride as well, and this time managed a handful of solid bream and small emperor on unweighted baits.
With the weather clearing and our batteries well and truly recharged after two nights at the same anchorage, we steamed out of Macona Inlet not long after sunrise and headed towards the delightful Cid Harbour at the foot of Whitsunday Peak. Deb, Bev and I tackled the 500m summit of the island on a walk that had it all: rainforest, waterfalls, freshwater streams, interesting wildlife and breathtaking views over much of the Whitsundays. Russell again took the kids up a small mangrove inlet at high tide that produced a couple of sizeable 2kg javelin ﬁsh, a few more bream and a couple of solid spangled emperor and grassy sweetlip. That night we ﬁshed ﬂoating mulies off the back deck of Dimanche while sipping on our G and Ts and listening to Fleetwood Mac, until I was rudely interrupted mid-sip by a crunching strike and powerful run that turned out to be a 5kg giant salmon catﬁsh of all things.
Our ﬁnal day at the Whitsundays had us steaming up towards the northern end of Hook Island again as everyone was keen for a couple more snorkelling sessions to ﬁnish off the trip. A feed of oysters at low tide on the way through was our only diversion and we arrived at the beautiful Butterﬂy Bay by lunchtime with plenty of time to enjoy the sunshine and coral gardens below us. It was a ﬁtting place to spend the ﬁnal evening of the trip, although no-one was really ready to go home and another few days on the boat would have been welcomed by all on board.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relaxed at the end of a trip even though we’d seen and done so much during the week. It really was one of the best family ﬁshing holidays any of us had experienced and between us we’ve done more than our fair share. While we didn’t break any records on the ﬁshing front, we still accounted for some 16 species of ﬁsh during the week including a number of personal ﬁrsts. We had more than enough action to keep us both happy and well fed and you really can’t ask for much more than that. Cruising the Whitsundays was truly a ﬁshing trip with a difference!
The Female Perspective!
NORMALLY when my husband mentions a fishing trip, I immediately conjure up images of grubby little fishing shacks in remote locations with very few amenities and even less comfort. While I can enjoy fishing, when I’m catching something, it’s not something I can do for hours on end. So the idea of a “family fishing holiday” is never given much consideration in our household. But when the opportunity was presented by Queensland Yacht Charters and I took a closer look at their website, my opinion changed. The Whitsundays on a big, luxurious powercat – now you’re talking!
It’s a bit like travelling without ever having to leave your luxury hotel room. The sightseeing component was taken care of as we meandered from island to island and bay to bay surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of lush green forests and rich blue water. I loved sneaking off for a ‘nana nap’ in the afternoon en route to our next location, then waking to find myself in yet another glorious bay as stunning as the last.
The kids were in holiday heaven, doing bombies off the bow of the boat, snorkelling with amazing tropical fish, coral and turtles, and catching fish out of the dinghy. And for once, mum wasn’t harassing them to shower every day. While we did our best to conserve water by rinsing off on the marlin board, when we did finally need a good wash there was a wonderfully hot shower with plenty of pressure waiting for us.
We did have one day of ordinary weather but luckily there was plenty of wet-weather gear on board or we stayed warm and dry inside the boat. A relaxing day was had by everyone reading, playing cards and scrabble, or just enjoying each other’s company. The mist rising up from the nearby island combined with the rain made the whole view so serene we nicknamed it Normania – a mixture between Norway and Tasmania.
I did do a bit of fishing and even managed to catch a few fish, but mainly left it to the experts. So while the boys were out hunting GTs, I was more than happy to stay behind on Dimanche and enjoy a different type of GT on the back deck. The smile on the kids’ faces as they came back to the boat with their fishing stories was priceless.
The swimming and snorkelling, fishing, warm weather, relaxing days, sunsets, company and chance to spend real quality time with my kids made this the best family holiday we have ever done. It must also be the first trip I have ever done where my wallet stayed in my handbag all week! I needn’t have bothered packing the electronic gadgets for the kids as there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything they wanted. And the fact that my husband got to go fishing all week was just a bonus! – DEB WATERMAN