10 May 2023

End of an era as Cape York fishing icon pulls anchor

| Matt Nicholls
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A GIANT of the Cape York fishing industry has pulled anchor on his long-standing career.

Alan “Fish” Philliskirk was a pioneer of the fishing guide business in Cape York – along with a couple of others – and is one of the reasons why Weipa is now one of the most desirable fishing destinations in Australia, if not the world.

Late last year, he sold Fish’s Fly and Sportsfishing after more than two decades of success in Weipa.

Ansett was still flying to the mining town when Fish started up, firstly in partnership with legendary fly fisherman Peter Morse, before going solo.

“There was barely a fishing guide industry in Weipa at the time – at least compared to what it’s like now,” he recalled.

“There was Dave Newman, who is still running, and Dave Donald, who is also still in town.”

He still recalls his first charter in Weipa around 1997 when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his brother-in-law Robert Hughes took their families to Weipa for a four-day fishing trip.

“He wasn’t even a politician back then,” Fish recalls.

“It was a fishing trip with the family and we camped up at Pera Head.

“That’s when Morsey and I started talking about making a charter business out of Weipa as the fishing was superb and there weren’t many guys doing it.”

So that’s what they did.

Unlike what Fish’s business became, he and Morse started off with a mother ship operation so they could go to more remote locations, rather than most of the day trip-type fishing that is done by most guides.

“Six months after that Weipa trip Morsey was filming Wild Fish for SBS and he rang me and said ‘I think we’ve found our boat,” he said.

“It turned out to be the Eclipse, which we used as our mother ship for a couple of years.”

Although their friendship remained, Morse and Fish severed ties as business partners and Fish stayed on in Weipa.

It has brought him more than two decades of seasonal living, with most clients flying in between April and October.

His business went from one boat and grew to four, which meant putting on blokes to work as guides.

If you look at the new fishing charter operators in Weipa over the last decade, most of them can be tied back to Fish or Dave Donald.

They taught a new generation of fishing guides and now those people are now teaching.

“Some ended on good terms and some not so much,” said Fish, who doesn’t mince his words if he’s passionate about a subject.

But asked if he was proud to have taught a generation of guides and you didn’t need to hear the answer as the wry grin said it all.

What has stood Fish out from the pack is his focus on fly fishing.

While other charter operators tend to focus more on bait fishing, Fish brought in a different type of recreational angler.

Dave Donald agreed, saying his one-time rival had put Weipa on the map for fly fishing.

“What he did was good for all of us,” the retired charter operator said.

“Fish brought different people to Weipa and we fed off his business and I’m sure he fed off ours as well.

“Back in the day we didn’t always see eye to eye but we always respected one another.

“He did a lot of the things that I did … invited magazine writers and TV shows to come up and cover the fishing in Weipa, which brought a lot of business to the Cape.”

Ben Bright was one of Fish’s employees/students and moved to Weipa to work as a fishing guide for his business.

“He was my reason to come here after he offered me a job,” the pilot boat operator said.

“I would definitely say he was a mentor and he was to a lot of other blokes along the journey.”

Bright said the key to his former boss’ longevity and success was the location.

“I’m not trying to talk Fish down because he had the vision, but Weipa is one of the best fishing destinations in the world,” he said.

“It boasts a lot of options in terms of diversity in the fishery and you get nice offshore winds throughout the dry season.

“Very few people have done as much for the fishing industry in Weipa as Fish has. You could throw Dave Donald’s name into that mix.”

So how does a boy from regional Victoria end up in Weipa?

As you would expect from a fisherman, it starts off with an adventure.

“Sue and I were going to travel around Australia in a HK Holden,” he said.

“In 1976 after we got married we went north and got to Cairns before we ran out of money.

“I couldn’t find much work and did a bit at the slaughter yards but never held a job for long.

“I saw a job in the paper at Groote Eylandt, thinking three months there would get us enough money to come back and drive to Darwin.

“But we liked it there and the fishing was sensational.”

The tropical Gulf waters were a long way removed from the chilly Port Phillip Bay and freezing Bass Strait that Fish had grown up with.

All of a sudden a short trip to Groote became a place to raise a family and they made it their home.

“We spent 15 years there and I worked for BHP. When I left I was the 2IC for the township administrator,” Fish said.

“I also did work for BHP as a commercial diver.”

Before they ended back in Far North Queensland there was a small detour to the Pacific.

“Moresy was starting a business over in Fiji – he was born there – and was having a boat built and asked me to come over and do some sea trials.

“I went over there for a couple of weeks and met the guy that built his boat and he was starting a new resort near Suva and offered me a job to run their water sports.

“He had a 57-foot long-range game fishing boat.

“I rang Sue in Groote Eylandt and we ended up packing our things and moving to Fiji and stayed a couple of years.”

From there it was off to Cairns, where they had a number of businesses, although Fish found himself travelling away for work.

“I was doing trips to Papua New Guinea for a mate called Dean Butler who was working out of Port Moresby on a mother ship called Golden Dawn, which was owned by a Dutch guy,” he recalled.

“We’d sail into the Gulf of Papua with clients and chase black bass, which can only be found there.”

Some people regard the black bass as the world’s most powerful sports fish.

The legendary fisherman also dabbled with some guiding around Hinchinbrook Island and ended up in Weipa after agreeing to take Malcolm Turnbull, Robert Hughes and their families fishing.

After living in a demountable early on, Fish and Sue purchased a house in Trunding and still live there 20 years later.

With son Bryn living across the road and daughter Kristy just around the corner, they don’t have plans to leave any time soon.

In fact, Fish plans to do a bit more of the sport that earned him his nickname.

He purchased another large boat with Butler and hopes to take it on a few more adventures.

As for the future of his business, which he sold to his guide and friend Mark Bargenquast, Fish believes it will continue to thrive.

“Bargy knows what he’s doing and he’s a good operator,” he said.

“I have promised a few of my old clients that I’ll take them out this year, so I might do up to 30 days of guiding, but definitely no new clients.”

The future of the fishing industry in Weipa must be examined, though, he says.

“The fishing is as good as it has ever been but the sharks are a big problem,” he said.

“Every time you start catching fish the sharks arrive and you just can’t reel them in quick enough.

“Back in the old days, you would never see bull sharks.

“If you hooked a tuna and something ate it, it was probably going to be a marlin.”

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