Venture North to Cobourg!
In mid-September, 2012, my wife Jo and I were lucky enough to sample the extraordinary fishing on offer around the remote Cobourg Peninsula, north east of Darwin, as guests of a wonderful operation called Venture North Australia.
Owned and run by affable brothers Aaron and Hugh Gange, Venture North has historically been an eco-tourism, wildlife and cultural-experience guiding operation offering a little casual fishing on the side (usually aimed at catching dinner). However, earlier in 2012, all that changed with their purchase of a Darwin-built, 7-metre CustomWorks Eliminator plate alloy sportfishing boat powered by a 225 HP Yamaha four-stroke. To say the boys have made a decision to take the fishing side of their business a lot more seriously would be something of an understatement!
Interestingly, my good lady Jo was partly instrumental in this significant upgrading of Venture North’s fishing focus. While looking at the Gange brothers’ website in her role as a marketing consultant, Jo noticed quite a few photos of big fish. She asked why they didn’t place more prominence on this aspect of their operation, and her comments obviously got the guys thinking! Less than a year later they’d bitten the bullet, bought the big boat and significantly ramped up the angling side of the business.
As something of a thank-you to Jo for her advice, Aaron and Hugh invited her up to Cobourg for a few days, and mentioned that she might as well bring her old man along, as apparently he didn’t mind a spot of fishing, either!
Back to Cobourg
As our light plane banked in over the broad, sparkling expanse of Cobourg’s Port Essington, I reflected that it had been at least 25 years since my last visit to this fantastic part of the world… Far too long!
Peering down from the plane, it didn’t seem like very much had changed, and that certainly proved to be the case once we were on the ground. A big part of the reason for this is the fact that Cobourg Peninsula and its waterways are contained within the vast Garig Ganuk Barlu National Park.
This extensive region is carefully managed to preserve its abundant natural and historical treasures, with only 20 non-resident tourist vehicles permitted within the park’s boundaries at any time. Add a sprinkling of traditional owners, some rangers and other park staff, and the likes of Aaron, Hugh and their camp workers and you’re left with a very sparsely populated area that’s rich in natural wonders. Long may it remain so.
We’d come to Cobourg to fish, of course, and after a delicious lunch that proved to be just a taste of the wonderful things to come on the culinary front (more about that later!), Hugh helped us load our gear into the big, open runabout and we were off, speeding smoothly across the lightly wind-ruffled waters of Port Essington towards a date with some serious line-stretching adversaries.
We’d already explained to Hugh that we weren’t too fussed about chasing barra on this trip, despite the fact that Venture North’s clients had been catching some beautiful, chrome-plated salties ranging well into the upper 80 centimetre range during recent weeks. Jo and I had been doing heaps of barra fishing over the preceding couple of months, and our digital photo files were bulging at the seams with great images of the mighty ’mundi. Now we wanted to chase some variety, and were particularly keen to engage in some of our favourite pursuits: jigging and casting soft plastics, metal jigs and poppers over the Top End’s offshore reefs, gravel patches and bommies.
Hugh was more than happy to accommodate, and what followed was three and a half days of the sort of non-stop, white-knuckled, rod-bending angling action that provides a lifetime of happy memories.
I won’t bore you with the fish-by-fish, blow-by-blow details of the fishing we enjoyed during our stay, except to say that it was right up there with the best of its sort I’ve experienced in this part of Australia, and that Cobourg’s fish stocks seem to have, if anything, improved in the quarter century since my last visit!
We caught four species of trevally, a couple of types of mackerel, some stunning queenfish and a whole host of reefies, consisting of both common and not-so-common varieties.
A standout for me was the sheer abundance of coral trout in these rich, shallow waters. The inshore seas of the western Top End are not especially renowned for either the number nor the size of their coral trout, but Cobourg surprised and delighted on both fronts. I’m not talking about the metre-long, sabre-toothed thugs of the outer Great Barrier Reef here, but certainly more than enough small to middling coastal trout to keep our rods bent and our smiles broad. In one short, sharp session I counted 15 trout swung over the rail, with just two of the better ones kept for the table and the rest carefully returned to the water. And, as we were jigging our Squidgies in depths of just 8 to 11 metres at the time, those released fish raced off straight back to their jagged coral lairs little the worse for the brief encounter.
Even Hugh commented on the fact that our jigged Squidgy Shads (mostly in the proven White Lightning and Phosphorus colours) caught a far higher ratio of coral trout than he’d ever expect to see taken on bait. This is a phenomenon I’ve encountered many, many times before, from WA’s Abrolhos Islands to the outer reefs off Queensland and the sea mounts of Vanuatu. Coral trout love soft plastics!
The other big bonus when bouncing rubber on the reefs is the relative lack of tiddlers, sharks and other unwanted “by-catch” typically encountered. It’s all about quality over quantity when you jig plastics in these areas, and that suits us just fine.
Another surprise was the regularity of mackerel encounters on our yo-yoed Squidgies. Naturally, some of these resulted in near-instant snip-offs, but more than a few of these razor gang members ended up pinned cleanly in the jaw hinge and were landed after exciting tussles. Adding a short length of single strand wire to our rigs certainly reduced the lure losses, but also cut back on reef fish catches. In the end we stuck with the bareback approach of a mono-only leader and accepted the occasional bite-off in return for a higher rate of overall action.
Poppers and metals produced their fair share of fish, too, but those versatile softies were definitely the standout performers. It was also extremely useful to be able to cast exactly the same lure into less than a metre of water up on the shallow sand flats as you were dropping onto a reef in 15 metres.
Did I mention flats? There are plenty of these in and around Cobourg, and the major one extending south west across the broad expanse of Barrow Bay, beyond the long finger of Record Point, is a real stand-out.
We saw enough golden trevally, big queenfish, milkfish and other skinny water speedsters here (including one tantalizing glimpse of a large permit or snub-nosed dart) to unhesitatingly declare this a world-class flats’ fishery, with the potential to lure discerning international fly fishers. Some of the clearest water you’re ever likely to see in the western Top End for at least two weeks of every month (neap tides building to springs) simply adds the icing to this extraordinarily attractive sight fishing cake.
File the names Barrow Bay and Record Point away in your memory banks. I’m predicting that you’ll hear a lot more about them in coming years.
… and the food!
No overview of Venture North’s Cobourg operation would be complete without at least a passing mention of the calibre of the camp itself and the culinary delights offered to its lucky guests on a daily basis.
The setting of this comfortable, safari-tented camp is second to none, with gob-smacking views from the low, ochre cliffs out across Berkeley Bay and over Port Essington toward the distant ruins of Victoria Settlement.
Sitting at the cliff-top sunset bar with an icy drink in hand at day’s end, watching the tangerine orb of the sun sinking quickly through a last layer of low haze over distant Turtle Point is a wonderful enough experience in itself, but being presented with a stunning platter or hors d’oeuvres, fresh sashimi and hand-made sushi rolls to compliment the moment makes it totally unforgettable.
I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed finer food at any fishing establishment I’ve visited during my four decades in this game, and that includes some of the ultra-expensive, five-star resorts that pride themselves on such things, and make a big song and dance about them in their glossy brochures and websites. By contrast, Venture North is quite understated regarding this side of its operation, which only serves to heighten the level of amazement when you’re served up with gastronomic delights such as plum-infused roast duck, whole coral trout wrapped in paperbark, home-made steak and mushroom pies, beer-battered golden snapper or quite simply the world’s best-ever lamb shanks… dished up straight from a cast iron camp oven nestled in the glowing coals of the fire pit!
Hugh and his lovely mum, Heather, did the cooking during our stay and I swear that if they ever tire of the tour guiding business, there’s a lucrative career in the restaurant trade waiting for them, and most likely a finalist’s berth in “My Kitchen Rules”… And no, I’m not exaggerating! The food really is that good.
If you’re looking for that dream “bucket list” trip to a genuinely wild and fish-filled stretch of Top End water with all the hard stuff taken care of for you, I would unhesitatingly recommend Venture North’sCobourg Peninsula operation as being second to none.
From a hard-core fishing perspective, the guys are especially focusing on the “shoulder” seasons in April/May and October/November, which tend to offer the best mix of angling action, but windows exist at other times of year, too. Find out more by visiting their website at www.venturenorth.com.au or give their Darwin booking office a call on (08) 8927 5500 … and be sure to tell them that Starlo and Jo sent you!