Upgraded barge facilities ensure island access in any weather

Unlocking Hartog's secrets

In this Shore Angles I thought it might be timely to reflect on my ninth year of fishing Dirk Hartog Island and how the experience has changed over that time.

While we would normally aim to visit the island in April, for various reasons this year’s adventure fell in June. Over the nine years we have visited in April six times and once in each of March, May and June. Every trip is different but in general the fishing has been more reliable in April with the tendency for things to become quieter later in the season, especially for the demersal species.

As you would expect weather conditions play a huge part in our angling success on the island. Naturally the later you go the more risk there is for winter weather systems to mess up the conditions. This year’s June trip was a classic example of this. Over our week-long visit we initially encountered superb weather to be followed by substantial rain and winter frontal conditions. The front also brought large swell and onshore winds. Shore angling options on the west coast become pretty limited during these circumstances. The beauty of DHI is that you can always head east and explore the protected Shark Bay side of the island when the west side turns nasty.

In contrast my March experience was different to say the least. Two weeks prior to our arrival the island was lashed by two consecutive cyclones that decided to round North West Cape and travel down the coast. The result was over 120mm of rain and very strong winds from the north with an associated high tidal surge. We were actually lucky to even go as the track to Steep Point was only reopened days before we set off. The cyclones left the ocean cold and green so the much anticipated pelagic species were nowhere to be found. What was to be found however were plagues of mosquitoes which found all the stagnant freshwater pools ideal for breeding purposes. The other issue for us was heat and strong southerly winds which blew relentlessly for the entire week. We chose Urchin Point as our camp that year which offers little in the way of protection from the wind. Needless to say the place lived up to its nickname of ‘Dirk Hardship Island’ on that occasion.

Our May trip had the advantage of cooler daytime temperatures and much less wind. May can potentially be a fantastic month in the Mid-West for the shore angler. We had all the ingredients for success but the fish themselves were unusually quiet. Like June the demersal species were harder to find. With the exception of baldchin groper, which seem to be a year-round proposition, other species like pink snapper and spangled emperor were few and far between. Having spoken to several experienced Shark Bay anglers recently it seems the demersal species might move offshore into deeper water in May/June.

For consistency April seems to offer the best combination of favourable weather conditions and fish activity on the island. This must be the general consensus amongst the DHI regulars these days as it is generally the first month to book out each year.

Compared to when I first visited the island in 2009 the visitation numbers have definitely increased. These days it’s not just fishing parties that go across from Shelter Bay to enjoy the island’s delights. It’s also becoming a popular destination for the more adventurous families looking for a wilderness experience where coastal wildlife encounters rate highly. But there’s no denying more fishing groups are visiting these days.

So has this increase in fishing pressure affected the fishing catch rates? This is never an easy question to answer accurately without hard data which I don’t have. So my observations after nine years of DHI trips are purely anecdotal. I would say the most heavily fished locations such as the Block are not producing as many resident demersal species such as baldchin groper. These species seem to be more vulnerable as they don’t move around as much as the pelagics. As I alluded to earlier the baldies appear to be in attendance all year or at least over the different months I have visited the island. Pelagics, on the other hand, move around constantly in search of the baitfish. I doubt land-based fishing pressure on the island has had any discernible effect on pelagic fish numbers.

There have been major changes to the land management on DHI since I first visited. Originally the Wardle family were the custodians of the entire island. This all changed when DEC (now DPaW) took over land management duties when the original pastoral lease expired. This led to DHI being incorporated into the Edel Land National Park.

One of the first tasks DEC undertook was to remove the feral goats and cats. The goat eradication was relatively straightforward and proceeded at speed thanks to aerial shooting from helicopter. The cats on the other hand were a tad trickier. I read recently where ‘Cat Man’ had claimed victory on the last feral cat after devoting a big chunk of his life to the job of trapping them out.

The vegetation on the island responded to the lack of goats by exploding into growth. The scratches on my ute provide the evidence of this. Also exploding into growth is the population of mice, which seem to be enjoying the absence of cats. Birdlife is also far more prolific these days.

DPaW have constructed a fence across the island which roughly divides the landmass into northern and southern halves. Islands present unique opportunities for re-establishing endangered species for obvious reasons. Once you get rid of the ferals, you stand a reasonable chance of staying rid of them (fishermen excluded!).

These days the Wardle family run DHI homestead as an ecotourism destination and retain ownership of the land around the homestead itself. DPaW essentially manages the rest of the island. Fees for getting on and off the island are paid to the Wardle family who operate an upgraded new barge which makes short work of the crossing in virtually any weather conditions. Fees for staying on the island are paid to DPaW separately.

In the early days vehicle numbers on the island were heavily restricted. Nowadays this has been relaxed to allow for more visitors. You actually have to be conscious of oncoming traffic these days. More vehicles means more wear and tear on tracks and in some cases new tracks being forged into places that could only previously be reached on foot. It’s the cost of progress I suppose. So what does the future hold for people planning to visit DHI?

Without a crystal ball it’s hard to say. What we can all do to help keep our future chances of fishing the island high is to take care of the place. There are simply no excuses for things like leaving rubbish behind. There’s little doubt in my mind that island access via the Wardle’s DHI barge service will remain open thanks to the family investing so heavily in the new vessel. The big question is will access to the remote land-based fishing camps stay available into the future? I for one certainly hope so!

Caption 1: Upgraded barge facilities ensure island access in any weather. A far cry from the dodgy old barge crossings.

Caption 2: Tim Farnell displays a fine DHI land-based pink snapper. Hopefully these opportunities remain available into the future.