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The Great Barra Experiment

Doing fieldwork with a range of unconventional lures saw DAVID GREEN and his mates record some outstanding catches in the remote waters of Arnhem Land in the NT.

IT’S often said that in remote places the barras are so prolific you could catch them on a trolled sock. I’ve fished lots of remote places but I’ve found that in general barramundi don’t eat socks quite as well as more recognised lure styles. However, in these fish-rich environments experimentation can lead to finding some great new tactics that work well wherever barra are fished for. Far off the beaten track in remote Arnhem Land is the base camp of Russell Kenny’s NT Barra Fishing. I’ve fished with Russell for many years now, and if you want to put weird lures in front of plenty of barras, then there are few places better than this remote part of the country. Just like an election poll or any scientific research, you need a sufficient “sample size” to judge as to whether a new method, tactic or opinion is valid. If you’ve got a stack of barra to test drive all your seemingly left-field ideas on, you’ll get a much better idea as to how well they actually do work in practice. And from a fishing sense, there is actually no such thing as a “weird” lure. There are just lures that are unconventional, untried or misunderstood.

Russell is one of the most innovative barra fishos around, and when punters bring strange and unusual hooked creations with them in their tackle boxes to play with, he watches very keenly. He may dampen your initial confidence with the usual “what the stuff is that bloody ugly useless thing” (or worse!), but when the “useless thing” starts to clean up the more conventional lures, you can bet you’ll see those “useless things” in his tackle box the next time you arrive. When we first took some Berkley Gulps up to Russell’s camp several years back he described them as a “useless looking bucket of snot”, but now his boat is full of these lures that catch his clients thousands of fish every season.

The wet season of 2010 was one of the strangest in many years. Overall it was quite a poor wet in terms of total rain, but the bloody wet stuff kept falling right until June. I spent two months in the NT this year mixing work with fishing, but camping in the rain at the Daly River was an experience of mould, wet beds, bad smells, sweat rash, rising rivers and few fish. After enduring this for a few weeks I was keen to get into a more remote area where the fish were prolific and the boats were few. My mates Grant Thompson and Paul Topp arrived in Darwin when we retreated from the Daly, and the word was out that in late May Arnhem Land was in full flood with even more rain than the Daly region. While I was still recovering from a sweat rash of monumental proportions and had developed asthma from my mouldy bedding and tent, Grant and Toppy were fizzing with enthusiasm. And if you want lots of weird (well, unconventional) lures, Toppy is your man! Paul is an avid lure collector, the type that will religiously watch an old hand made cod lure on eBay for a week and consider it a bargain when he picks it up for only a couple of hundred bucks. It is an affliction, and there are, I found out, plenty of similarly afflicted fanatical lure collectors out there. We had a lot of lures to try out on this trip, and in the wash up found a few great new barra tricks that often out fished more conventional lures.

We flew into Ramingining through a maze of thunderheads, and on the floodplain below it was more like an inland sea than a river. The land was green and lush and the sky crystal clear with the absence of dry season fires. We soon settled into camp. The buffalos could be seen grazing on the floodplain from the campsite, and the country was glowing in the setting sun from the raindrops on the spear grass. The distant escarpment was a perimeter of red on a wide horizon. There is definitely something special about the end of the wet season, and we all knew that in the river only a few hundred metres from our camp that the run-off water would hold millions of barra that were moving both up and down river in massive schools.

The local Aboriginals call this river “Limuullily”. I’m not sure what this means, but it is a vibrant, barra-filled paradise, and we had arrived at a time where the floodplains were starting to drop. On our first morning we started with more conventional lures, hard-bodied minnows. Grant and myself used Jonesy’s Rhinos, while Toppy worked his way through a bunch of recent eBay purchases. This session got our casting arms ready for the week ahead, and was full of banter and high expectations. We picked off a few fish here and there casting to gutters, and then found a small creek where the bites flowed freely. The water was tannin from the creek and dirty in the river from the big tide, although there were still tannin stains in the main flow. Russell said in a matter of fact way “that is pink water”, meaning he reckoned pink lures would be the best in that particular type of clarity. We smashed about 50 barra to 85cm from that drain, and worked our way through various colours in the Rhinos. The results clearly showed that it was indeed “pink” water by a significant margin. The pink Rhino produced a fish every three to five casts, the “control” blue Rhino produced a fish every 10 to 20 casts, and Toppy’s eBay collection worked better when he got to the pink ones. To confuse matters, when the fish went slightly off the hard-bodies, a bright yellow four-inch Gulp Swimming Mullet caught a fish every four to six casts and reinvigorated a bite that had slowed, which is a conventional role for soft plastics in this river. However, over a day that produced around 70 to 80 fish in a short time, pink was a definite must-have colour. The lesson was clearly to appreciate Russell’s experience when it comes to colour, but experiment at the same time.

The next day saw Toppy go into the deeper and stranger sections of the tackle box. The first new toy to make an impression was a Chatterbait. These lures have a metallic bib-like blade on the front and a spinnerbait skirt over a small soft plastic tail. They are developing quite a following amongst bass and cod anglers and I’ve also used them on flathead. They give off heaps of vibration, carry a big solid hook and have a lot of flash. The barras loved this lure, and at one stage Toppy was catching three barras to our one. They were all lean silver salties with heaps of fight, and in the dirty water the Chatterbait was doing things to the barras that conventional hard-bodies weren’t. The Chatterbait, over the trip, turned out to be an extremely useful barra lure that was chomped
in a wide range of environments, and is now a very definite inclusion in my barra box. Chatterbaits give plenty of kick at very slow speeds and barra have little hesitation in eating them. I’ve previously caught barra on spinnerbaits but the booms get damaged and these lures are too big a contraption for the average barra to “boof” down, but the Chatterbaits solve all the problems the spinnerbaits had, and are tough with a good big hook that will easily hold a metre-long fish.

The next afternoon saw Toppy pull another rather unconventional lure from the depths of the box. In the distant past there were a number of metal chrome plated spoons on the market with a single large hook fixed to the lure known as “Barramundi Spoons”. These were usually used to catch mackerel and tuna on the troll, and were a standard item on many commercial boat sash cords. These are a very good offshore commercial trolling lure for many pelagic species. Somewhere in the past, however, someone must have used them on barra to give them the particular name they came by, but they just don’t look like a barra lure. The models that Toppy had, however, came from the US largemouth bass fishery and were a gold or silver plated spoon with a fixed heavy hook, a brass weed guard that seemed to greatly impede the fish’s access to the hook, and a skirt fixed to the hook. I’d previously seen Toppy bring these lures out while chasing cod, but he never ever caught a cod on one. The situation that unfolded where the spoon cleaned up was on a long sweeping bend of a large creek. As the tide ran out, large schools of mullet swept through the bend, and all across the river big barras were blasting them in thundering “boofs” that could be heard from hundreds of metres. Casting shallow hard-bodies was producing fish but it was frustrating as bites were intermittent, yet the barras were detonating mullet constantly. When Toppy cast the spoon out it was walloped first cast, and then again on the second, and went on to get fish after fish when most of our casts went biteless. A change to big subsurface plastics improved our bites but the stupid looking spoon seemed to hook everything that bit it securely and got bites when it just shouldn’t have. It would just flutter along on a slow retrieve and get smashed. The message was that Barra Spoons need more water time and barras eat them aggressively when they are feeding on mullet on the surface.

We went on to catch a stack of good fish that day. I caught a 96cm barra on a four-inch Gulp Minnow up a narrow creek on my flathead rod. This fish put up a big stink in a tight space, and Grant saved his reputation right at the death by catching some great fish on a new Rapala X Rap shallow minnow. But Toppy’s spoons were the real eyed opener, and after the ridicule we gave them there was absolutely no chance of ever “borrowing” one to try (but you can buy them on eBay, he reckons.)

A day later we moved upstream, and the massive tannin run-off saw the entire river running black tea out all the drains and down the main river. It was a tad early for optimal fishing, and we drain hopped, casting to feeder creeks, pulling a fish here and there, before we stumbled on another motherlode. Russell pulled out a big Bozo soft plastic shad in black. Now black lures are very effective in many fisheries, but black soft plastics are quite rare, and most lure ranges don’t include them, as they’re a poor seller. Barra, however, eat a lot of juvenile catfish, which are blackish, and the black Bozo produced fish after fish from several drains. But when we found a bunch of bigger barras stacked at one particular creek mouth, the black Bozo was the best lure (by this stage Toppy had hidden his spoons and Chatterbaits and had turned to using his “retro” collection of lures that ceased production in the 1980s). The message, however, was that black plastics are a “must have” for barras in certain situations, particularly in tannin water or where barra are feeding on catfish.

We caught hundreds of barras that week, and while we did benefit from fishing the run-off of a late wet season, I can totally recommend Russell’s operation if you want to catch barras on all types of lures. Getting a big number of fish lets you build confidence in fishing new lure styles, and greatly improves your fishing skills in a short time. The number of fish in the run-off period can be staggering, but even in the dry season the barra fishing in this remote region would be hard to beat.

On our second last day I cast a small soft plastic into a big back eddy where a main feeder creek forked into the main river. As it sank I saw hundreds of fish turn and flash in the tannin, the same flash you see when a school of mullet turns in an unbroken wave, but tinged in gold rather than silver. My lure was inhaled and spat out by half a dozen fish as it sank, and I casually lifted it to hook up on a 70cm black gold swamp barra that jumped and ran and crashed before spitting the hook.

“There’s a hundred barras in there, Russell,” I said. He gave me a bemused, “what kind of bullshit is that” sort of look. I was wrong, there were lots more. We caught 123 barras on lures generally not considered even close to conventional. 

Ironically, the best fishing came after we flew out. The day after, the boys caught six over a metre, and more than 200 barra the next day. But we had, largely  through Toppy’s weird and wonderful collection, uncovered a few new lures. 

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