Scott’s Spots – the Rowley Shoals, a remote and pristine fishing paradise

Only a few hundred people a year get to visit the Rowleys due to distance and weather, which is perhaps why the Rowley Shoals remains one of the iconic fishing destinations of Western Australia, writes fishing writer, editor and ace angler Scott Coghlan in his latest Scott’s Spots column, exclusively for Recfishwest.  

Only a few hundred people a year get to visit the Rowleys due to distance and weather, with the three coral atolls that comprise it – Clerke, Imperieuse and Mermaid ­– some 160 nautical miles offshore.

Giant trevally are a popular target at the Rowley Shoals, just ask Scott Bond!

These magnificent atolls rise almost out of nowhere from depths of hundreds of metres, and provide a stunning contrast to the endless deep blue water that surrounds them. Broome is the usual departure point for the magnificent Rowleys, which is mainly visited by Kimberley cruise companies and a handful of dive and fishing charters during a short season that only runs for a couple of months of the year.

They are regarded as some of the most remote and pristine marine areas in the world, formed by the remains of three volcanoes and featuring diverse corals and abundant marine life, including many species of fish that are highly desired by anglers.

Some of the most remote and pristine marine areas in the world

Scott Bond with a small dogtooth tuna, which put up a great fight!

These days there are tight restrictions, including sanctuary zones, that significantly restrict fishing activities at the Rowleys, but there are still some exciting angling opportunities to be had. It is important to note that all cod, groper and wrasse species are fully protected at the Rowleys, including all coral trout and humphead Maori wrasse.

As far as line fishing is concerned, it is allowed inside the atoll lagoon at only Clerke Reef, while angling is allowed around the outside of Imperieuse Reef, with Mermaid totally protected.

Having been lucky enough to visit the Rowley Shoals twice, the fishing there has proven to be challenging in some ways, and astounding in others. On both occasions I was there, the bluewater fishing around Clerke and Imperieuse was very tough, although I have heard good reports about this fishing at the Rowleys from others.

The Rowleys are renowned for producing sailfish and marlin, but neither have been prevalent on my visits. I have seen footage of sailfish being caught on jet skis there, but have only seen a couple and the boats I’ve been on haven’t hooked one on either trip, although a couple have been caught during my time at the Rowleys.

On my most recent visit we trolled extensively for marlin, but raised just one over several days of targeting them, while our group caught one for the week. I’ve seen a few wahoo hooked, but not in any great numbers, and done okay on usually smallish yellowfin tuna.

Longnose emperor dominate the Clerke Reef lagoon. Steve Palumbo with a nice fish on a Halco stickbait.

There are definitely good numbers of the prized dogtooth tuna there, but they are very hard to catch. They can be hooked trolling or on jigs but will dive powerfully straight for structure, and are also considered the prime local delicacy by the local sharks, of which there are many.

My brief experience of the bluewater action at the Rowleys, has been that it doesn’t match the expectation you might have for what appear to be three enormous FADs in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, but that could be for several reasons or maybe I have just been unlucky in the timing of my two visits.

Bommies away

On the other hand, on both my trips the fishing within the lagoon at Clerke, and where we have been able to get close enough to the reef edge to cast at it, has been unbelievably good. Casting around bommies inside the lagoon produces an amazing array of reef species and this is truly world-class sportfishing, with a strong visual aspect in the shallow water. Coral trout of all sizes and many different colourations abound on the atolls and we caught some monster fish to around 10kg.

There are many humphead Maori wrasse and these two are willing lure takers, often striking when the lure is paused in front of them. There are few more stunning fish in the ocean and they are a tough opponent, even though we were only hooking relatively small models to around 10kg.

We had a couple of massive humpheads chase a hooked longnose emperor and I doubt we could have stopped them even on our heaviest tackle. Longnose emperor also abound at the Rowleys and in good sizes, making for exciting fishing as they often appear in packs to chase down lures in the shallows. Red bass are also prolific and take some stopping around the bommies, but we managed some nice ones.

What an eye-catching black trevally that Steve Palumbo caught at the Rowley Shoals!

A species smorgasbord

We haven’t found a lot of giant trevally at the Rowleys but have caught the odd fish, and I watched an absolute horse try to chase down my lure at Clerke. Bluefin trevally appear to be more prevalent and are always a welcome catch with their striking markings, while black trevally are also regularly caught. Throw in cod, Maori seaperch, barracuda and more and you have a real smorgasbord of species on offer in of one of the most remarkable marine destinations on the planet.

Suffice to say, the lagoon is not a bad option if the bluewater fishing isn’t firing and indeed it would probably be my preferred option should I ever get back there again!

When you want a break from the fishing, there is world-class diving and snorkelling on tap at the Rowleys, with incredible water clarity most of the time. Even in 20m of water, you can often see the bottom.

One option is to drift snorkel the entrance channels at Clerke, which will see you sucked out of the atoll and into the deep blue abyss that surrounds it on the outgoing tide. Getting into the water is certainly a great way to get relief from the heat during a long day of fishing and there aren’t many more stunning places in WA to do it.

The Rowley Shoals take some getting to, but it’s a special spot that deserves a place on any serious angler’s bucket list.

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