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Profiling Queensland’s hidden low-impact saltwater fly fishery

When people hear of fly fishing, they often picture older men in waders fishing for brown trout in cold streams; OR they may ask you what you are on about, fishing for flies. But did you know people also go fly fishing in saltwater?! Saltwater fly fishing occurs in various parts of the world, like Florida in the United States and here in Queensland. What distinguishes fly fishing from other recreational fishing is the gear and technique. You use a lightweight hook that imitates prey (a fly) to lure a fish on-to your line. The power needed to cast this tiny lightweight fly comes from a thick weighted fishing line (fly line) that’s whipped back and forth with a flexible fishing rod (flyrod) that drags the fly out to the target. Fly fishing is a visual exercise, just like hunting, so fishers spend much time looking for moving fish, often in shallow water (sight fishing). It’s difficult fishing and usually requires expert local knowledge. In Queensland, local experts (guides) run charter fly fishing trips every year, where fishers (clients) can book days on the water; Despite its popularity, very little is known about this unique fishery. So, Amos Mapleston, Andrew Chin, Owen Li, and myself sat down and decided to explore and describe this distinct Queensland saltwater fly fishery through a research project (which doubled as my honours degree from James Cook University).

Figure 1: Saltwater fly fisher casting near a mangrove forest in Queensland.

Profiling data poor fisheries is challenging and can be one reason why charter operations like these are less understood than other fishing sectors. Nonetheless, some researchers have great success working with expert fishers when they lack traditional data sources! Fishers have accurate and extensive knowledge on their fisheries which has contributed crucial information to management in the past (see more on fisher knowledge HERE). To understand what this fishery is and how it ‘works’, we interviewed as many fly fishing guides and clients as we could find. These interviews helped us to dig deep into social and ecological aspects of the fishery, with some interviews lasting up to 3 hours. Luckily, I love to fish and talk about fishing, so I could not wait to get started asking actual experts about fish and fishing!

Figure 2: Saltwater fly fisher reeling in a fish.

Fly fishers were generous and responsive with their time, and shared some really useful insights about their fishery. The most popular target species is permit (Figure 3) which is regarded as the ‘holy grail’ by saltwater fly fishers all over the world:

“… some people will travel the world to catch those fish [Permit] … And I'm lucky that I live in a part of the world where there's a species here that's relatively abundant. But yeah, any fly fisherman jumps off the plane and you ask him what he wants to catch, and it's invariably that's the most at the top of the list.” (QLD fly fishing guide)

Many of the popular fly fishing target species like trevallies (Andersen et al., 2005), are not targeted or are less valued by other recreational or commercial fishers, while some species such as barramundi, are shared target species between sectors. But what really sets the fly fishery apart from other sectors is that saltwater fly fishers release most of their catch (~98%), leaving them to fight another day! Although ‘catch and release’ is not unique to fly fishers, the high percentage of release does suggest that the impact of saltwater fly fishing is relatively low, especially since species such as permit and trevallies recover well after release (Holder et al., 2020; Mapleston et al., 2008). But why do the fishers bother fishing if they release most, if not all, of their catch?

Figure 3: four of the top target species in Queensland; a) permit (Trachinotus sp.), b) barramundi (Lates calcarifer), c) golden trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus), and d) giant queenfish (Scomberoides commersonnianus).

Recreational fishers choose to fish for various reasons that are broadly defined by not having fish as their primary source of income or nutrition. What unites recreational fishers is that they do it for fun or relaxation. Furthermore, fly fishers in Queensland are primarily motivated by the challenge of catching specific, difficult, and/or new species; their aim is not to keep fish to take home. Many fishers I talked to said that if they were presented with opportunities to catch those fish, they considered that a good trip. Regardless of whether they managed to catch the fish or not, it’s still exciting and considered a learning experience. In other words, the challenge and excitement of the hunt, and opportunity to succeed or learn is more important than bagging out. Here, the real trophy is a picture of a fish handled gently before returned to the water as quickly as possible; some never even leave the water before release #keepfishwet (Danylchuk et al., 2018). But saltwater fly fishing is also about more than the fish. The comradery that comes with spending quality time with mates and fishing guides while achieving personal goals in beautiful locations is, for many, the most important aspect of fly fishing. The whole package is important! And the guides that can provide that have repeat clients travelling from all over Australia, even overseas, to fish in Queensland.

Figure 4: Me releasing a golden trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus) after capture.

Even a catch and release fishery can have its challenges. To the Queensland fishing guides, one of the biggest challenges are the regulations and limitations designed for the entire recreational charter industry, and the perception that their very different fishery was overlooked by fisheries management. Another challenge to the fishery involves an increase in fish lost to sharks (shark depredation). This is a complex issue in Queensland and has recently been highlighted by members of our lab (Hoel et al., 2022). Shark depredation is an understudied issue in recreational fisheries (Holder et al., 2020) which requires more research to better understand the survival of fish both before capture and after release, and best practices and new ideas for minimizing depredation. Indeed, the clients interviewed in this study named depredation as one of the few things that could ruin a good fishing trip. Fishing guide operations may well suffer if this issue keeps getting worse.

Figure 5: Saltwater fly fishing guide and client ‘sight fishing’ the sand flats in Queensland.

Fishers’ knowledge gave key insights to the unique aspects of the Queensland saltwater fly fishery. We learned that it’s a small low-impact part of the charter industry that practices sustainable catch and release fishing, often for non-marketable fish. However, recreational fishing in the GBR is diverse and complex, and information on catch and effort is relatively sparse (Chin et al., 2019). Some of the popular recreational target species don’t have scientific stock assessments or catch limits in place, putting them at risk of overfishing by fishers who don’t release their catch. Meanwhile, involving fly fishers in tagging and monitoring programs can be an efficient way to sample, tag, and release fish (Ahrens et al., 2015; Griffin et al., 2021; Ledee et al., 2016) and increase the sense of stewardship throughout the wider fishing community (Elmer et al., 2017). This hidden saltwater fly fishery may represent an opportunity for fishers, scientists, and managers trying to conserve fish populations in Queensland. By using fisher knowledge and cooperation, we can undertake stock assessments (Adams et al., 2019), understand historical baselines for specific data-poor fisheries (Rehage et al., 2019), and fund research that addresses shark depredation. Improving the communication and cooperation between recreational fishers, scientists, and management in Queensland is possible, especially if scientific information is communicated effectively to everybody, not just scientists (Li et al., 2010). By highlighting the hidden saltwater fly fishery in Queensland thanks to expert fisher knowledge, this project can be a step in the towards more cooperation in the future. So, hopefully, the next time you hear about fly fishing you also picture permit and golden trevally, crystal-clear saltwater, and the sandy beaches of Queensland where fishers enjoy a low-impact world-class saltwater fly fishery!

“Where else can you catch a queenfish, a GT, a giant herring, golden, long tail tuna, and a permit on the same flat? ... Without you going to Cape York or Wessel Island or somewhere. I'm talking about somewhere that you can fly into a major city, a major industrial hub … and you are just 30 minutes away from some of the best flats-fishing that you'll see. You know, I've had guys that come here and have more shots at GT’s in three days, than they have had in a week at Farquhar Atoll of the Seychelles. So, you turn around and tell me where? … I guess it's a hidden gem.” (QLD fly fishing guide)

For more information on the project click HERE


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