On the way to Papua’s Timika harbour, Olivier Helloco wants to stop at a friend’s place to show us something. The friend is a fish dealer. His freezer is full of fish from the place we are going. There are plenty of barramundi and queenfish, but what catches my eye are five big permit. Richard Tong, a tackle-shop owner from Singapore, is less impressed. There is only one Papuan bass and it is not big; Helloco has promised us bass heaven, after all.
Papuan black bass are reputed to be the hardest-pulling freshwater fish in the world pound-for-pound and they can weigh up to 50. They lie in ambush and pounce on passing prey. If that prey is attached to your line, you will find yourself in a tug-of-war with a fish determined to regain the snags of its lair. Tong has brought an array of rods and reels and lures with which to take on the challenge. He shows them to Helloco and Antoine Métairie, the fourth member of our party, on our first night in Amar, a village without wheels, running water or electricity. He has soft plastic baits that look as though they have just flopped out of a jar of formaldehyde. He has reels that have no drag, that will not give an inch of line, however hard a fish pulls. He has stickbaits he can cast 100m. How can I, as a fly‑fisher, compete with that?
Helloco has been operating in Indonesian New Guinea for eight years, from Biak in the north, to the western Bird’s Head Peninsula, to the Asmat shore where Michael Rockefeller disappeared in the 1960s, supposedly eaten by cannibals. To get us to Amar he’s chartered a speedboat and a fibreglass longboat for the supplies. He has never been to Amar – this is an exploratory expedition – but after some speedy negotiations with the local chiefs, he has rustled up accommodation, guides, another longboat and an outboard, all before our supper of mangrove crabs is on the table. A crowd has gathered to inspect our rods and lures by lamplight, and in the morning the jetty is lined with people watching us set off to fish.
The southern coast of Papua is a swamp, a maze of inlets and estuaries, creeks and channels, cloaked in casuarinas and mangrove. The influence of the rivers is felt far out into the Arafura Sea, and that of the sea is likewise felt far inland. Helloco has planned our trip to coincide with neap tides, when the rising water pushes more slowly and the prey fish are exposed for longer before taking refuge in the flooded forest. Tong likes the look of a creek mouth ahead and puts in a long cast with a stickbait. On the retrieve he makes the bait jink from side to side – “walking the dog” – and as it comes away from the shallows a fish hits it hard. It leaps silver like a tarpon, shaking its head and flaring its gills, and then it is gone. A barramundi.
This first encounter is encouraging and disheartening in equal measure. The fish are there to be caught but, as a fly-fisher, I can’t possibly cast as far or as fast as Tong, or make as much noise on the surface. It is something to be able to say that you are the first person ever to cast a fly in these waters, but what’s the point if you don’t catch anything? Then again, no one catches anything that first day.
The river at Amar is linked by a winding channel to the estuary of another river at Kawar to the east. Our local boatman Pius says there are many bass in that river, and at the first place we stop Helloco has a hit so explosive it breaks the knot between braided line and leader. A bass, he reckons, and I am left wondering how I am going to control one on a fly rod. He is using a crankbait that dives from the moment he starts to reel, and beside a fallen tree he has another hit. The fish plunges down into the unseen branches and Helloco is left hooked up to wood.
We head downstream to the sea pool, emerging from the closed-in mangrove forest to a vast sky. A flock of pelicans stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a sand bar. Barramundi will hunt along a shore like this and there will be times when sea birds swoop on bait that is being attacked from below by queenfish or threadfin salmon, but it is quiet this afternoon. Walking along the sand strewn with waxy leaves and the seed-pods of forest trees, I come across a sea snake sliding back into the waves.
There is a fishing camp on a sandy point opposite: Kawar, a collection of blue and orange tarpaulins. The headman comes over to ask us to visit; they have caught a huge fish and he wants us to photograph it. It is a grouper of around 60kg, an enormous brute they have tethered to a buoy, but what interests me more are the inhabitants of this temporary village who press around us as Métairie poses for the photograph: the glimpse I catch of their life around their cooking fires on the beach, of the work of processing palm-trunks into sago. There is a larger boat lying in the channel offshore, which belongs to the fish merchant. That is where the grouper will end up, and the little money earned will be spent on the tobacco and two‑stroke mix the agent sells dear.
The rain is back next morning and I am thoroughly cold and wet before I have even cast a fly. When it becomes torrential we take shelter in the fish merchant’s boat to drink coffee and warm up. The weather improves during the course of the day, though the fishing doesn’t. We are heading back to Amar early, when Helloco insists I have a few casts around a likely‑looking dead tree, and as my fly comes clear of one branch a red shape swims out from underneath and nails it. It is not a big fish and the fight is short, but it is a mangrove jack, a member of the snapper family like the Papuan bass and, says Helloco, very encouraging, because the bass’s behaviour is similar. A few more casts produce another fish. They are delicious fried.
We fall into a routine of getting up before dawn to fish the rising tide, returning to the village for brunch and a rest, and heading out again as the tide begins to fall. One afternoon as the two boats are fishing near to each other there is a shout. Tong has hooked a big fish. It has gone deep into its fallen tree, but somehow the fish is still on. Tong is sure it is a bass. Pius strips off his shirt and gets into the water, ducking down to follow where the line passes through the tangle of branches. Helloco gets into the water too, and suddenly Pius emerges with the fish in his hands. It is only a grouper, but the encounter spurs Tong on to fish around obstacles in the narrow creeks and channels. I too have had more success in those close quarters, so I go with him, deeper into the mangrove forest. Fly is holding its own against bait for mangrove jack, but there is no sign of Papuan bass. Helloco and Métairie prefer fishing the sea pool at Kawar, where they cast huge poppers. Métairie lands two giant trevally.
In the first light of our last morning, as the tide begins to push into the mangrove saplings, I am fishing with Tong along the same muddy shore where we started on the first day. We hear an explosion at the surface behind us, and then another off to our right. The barramundi are beginning to hunt and finally, after six days of casting, I have a solid take on the fly. The fish jumps – a head-shaking, heart-stopping moment – but it’s still on when it comes down. What else could go wrong? The coils of line at my feet could tangle; better wind them onto the reel. But while I am doing that I let the tension on the barramundi ease and it throws the hook.
All the action is funnelling towards the mouth of a creek as it fills with water. Shoals of bait fish are trying to get into the mangrove and the barramundi are lying in wait. Tong sends a long cast into the creek and hooks a good fish. He puts me in the bow to cast into the creek. Twice barramundi charge my fly without taking, and then the mayhem ebbs as the tide rises, and I am left casting into empty water.
For Helloco the search for bass heaven continues. I leave him and Métairie in Timika preparing to head out again to a spot he has heard of further along the coast, to another estuary he can sail into and make his own. He is sure it is out there and he knows he will find it.