Bonkers about Barra!


Former UK fishing MP MARTIN SALTER takes a trip to Arnhemland to find out the cause of barra madness.

I WAS about halfway through my 12-month Australian fishing sabbatical before I got the opportunity to find out why so many Aussie fishos have this obsession with dear old Lates calcarifer, more commonly known as barramundi. Prior to my trip out here I read up on the types of fish and fishing I could expect to find in the “Lucky Country”. It quickly became clear that the barra has serious cult status and is pursued by its most ardent advocates with an almost religious fervour, often to the exclusion of some of the other wonderful species that swim in your seas, lakes and rivers.

I learned that the barra is something of a strange fish in that it will live happily in both salt and freshwater and, in the wild, makes a reverse migration downstream to spawn in the estuaries. This makes it particularly vulnerable to commercial netting at the river mouths. All barramundi are born as males and change sex later in life, usually when they reach around 8kgs. There are no grandaddy barra – all those highly prized, one metre plus specimens are always going to be grand old ladies. And barra of all sizes and both sexes are aggressive feeders and angry fighters with a tendency to spend as much of the battle as possible in the air rather than the water. They were beginning to sound tempting!

My Pommie fishing friends and I have been lucky enough to have fished on several continents for some pretty impressive predators such as the mahseer, the white sturgeon, the northern pike and the Nile perch – all species with similar characteristics to the barramundi. In fact the Nile perch, or Lates niloticus, is a direct, if somewhat larger, relation whose introduction into Queensland inland waters was once briefly considered and then rejected as a substitute for declining barra stocks. An entirely sensible response to a stupid suggestion since the decline in barra numbers was almost solely due to the usual twin evils of commercial over-fishing and agricultural chemical pollution, not some advanced climate change problem requiring trans-continental fish stockings.

In marked contrast to those half-mad political decisions on marine park lock-outs and estuarial water contamination that masquerade as fishery policies out here, it is good to see that the humble barra and its followers have been the beneficiaries of some far sighted thinking. Commercial netting has been substantially reduced in many Top End rivers, Aboriginal land councils have negotiated sensible access arrangements for organised sportsfishing and the barra impoundment stocking program has delivered great recreational fishing opportunities and much needed tourism dollars to country areas of Queensland.

Despite not being anything like the country’s largest species, I reckon it’s fair to say that if there’s ever an iconic fish of Australia it has to be the barramundi. For one thing there ain’t too many other places in the world where they live. Entire magazines appear to be devoted to them and there’s no doubt that you guys love to catch, eat and now even farm your barramundi to the extent that they have become a single species industry in their own right. So having cut my Aussie fishing teeth on kingfish, salmon, luderick, drummer and bream in and around Sydney, I finally decided it was time to go and find out what all the fuss was about. Particularly as I had been told on more than one occasion that no fishing experience in Australia is complete without a barramundi trip and that there is probably nowhere better in the world to go than the massive floodplains of the Northern Territory.

Here, deep in the country’s largest Aboriginal land reserve, lies the famous Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge which I recently visited in the company of Daiwa’s Evan Spary. Situated a few miles from the Maningrida township at the mouth of the mighty Liverpool river system, the lodge is owned by Aussie barra legend Alex Julius and is the only fishing lodge in a region containing no fewer than six rivers and 20 creeks. Entry to Arnhemland for non-indigenous people is restricted to those holding permits issued by the traditional owners, which means that lodge guests have access to literally hundreds of miles of lightly fished waters.

And if the rivers are too coloured or the tides are wrong for good barra fishing, there’s some spectacular blue water action to be experienced around the reefs and islands which lie just a few miles offshore. Evan and I caught some cracking Spanish mackerel, golden snapper, queenfish, slatey bream and trevally while trolling and jigging in just a short morning session before the sharks moved in and spoiled the party.

Prime times to visit Arnhemland are at the beginning and end of the dry season. Access during”the wet” is almost impossible but the run-off period from March through to June produces some great sport as the barra lie in ambush waiting for the tadpoles, jelly prawns and baitfish to come off the floodplains and into the creeks as the waters recede. Later on in the year during “the build up”, the seas fall calm and the barra begin to shoal up for spawning. So September onwards can see some huge catches of barramundi at top weights as well as the whole range of reef species.

Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge provides comfortable and breezy accommodation in tented cabins and serves fabulous food on an outdoor veranda with stunning views across the flood plains. The Lodge employs only the very best fishing guides and Evan and I were lucky to secure the services of Benn Boulton for a full three days. With a good set of neap tides scheduled and under the expert guidance of one of the region’s top tutors, I felt sure that my first bit of barra action was all but guaranteed. In fact, within 10 minutes of casting lures into a bunch of snags bordering a creek mouth I experienced the heart-stopping take of an angry barra. Unfortunately, the fish then promptly, and somewhat contemptuously, leapt out of the water and shook free the hooks.

With the tide beginning to flood Benn announced it was time to move up to one of his favourite spots on the Liverpool and troll over a rock bar that often holds bigger than average barra. On only our second run through, my Rapala was grabbed savagely by one of the grandmothers. Very quickly my little Daiwa Exceler spin rod was hooped into maximum compression and I was glad to have 30lb braid on the Advantage 3000. After some solid runs around the boat we lifted aboard a beauty of 82cms which would have weighed well over 10lbs and proved to be the best fish of our trip. Not a bad start to my barra fishing career, although Arnhemland does produce much bigger specimens.

The next two days passed in a blur of barra action with more than 50 fish coming to the boat on our final session on the beautiful Blythe and Cadell rivers. Fish to 60cms were common and 70cms plus specimens turned up regularly enough to provide some extra excitement.When the fish stopped taking shallow lures, a few casts with a five or seven inch soft plastic would usually entice a couple more takes. Every now and then a threadfin or blue salmon would turn up and occasionally a copper coloured mangrove jack would put in an appearance to add to the variety.

I thought the sport was wonderful and Evan, who has caught more than his fair share, described it as “the best barra fishing I’ve had anywhere, ever” – yet Benn and the other guides told of many a time when 100 fish or more would be brought to the boat.

It was on that last evening, arriving back at the lodge where the cold beers were waiting, that I realised that I too had contracted barra madness. For burned into my memory, although sadly not on film, was the image of a long silver fish exploding from the water in a shower of spray, its scales shimmering in the late afternoon sunshine against the backdrop of a landscape untouched by human hand save for its traditional owners and a few lucky fisherman who had found the best of all reasons to be there. If you are lucky enough to catch your first barramundi in Arnhemland I guarantee you will become similarly afflicted and will want to return.

Former British MP and angling spokesman Martin Salter fished the NT courtesy of Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge. Go to or call (08) 89831544 for details.


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