REPORT: Melville madness!

IT’S a damn good feeling when the first cast of the day results in a 78cm barramundi. It’s an even better feeling some eight hours later when the last cast of the day ends up as a double hook up on leaping barra. Add to that all the fish in between – a swag of big threadies, solid 40cm+ jacks, countless more barra, a giant 24lb queenfish – and the day begins to take on epic proportions.

That was Day 1 of a recent two-day stint fishing the majestic Johnson River, a massive system that almost bisects Melville Island, north of Darwin in the Northern Territory.

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  Barra action!

Melville, along with nearby Bathurst Island, is owned by the Tiwi people. In a move to take control over their resources and generate employment opportunities for their young people, the Tiwis recently purchased the successful Melville Island Lodge operation from Mike Baxter. As well as now owning a premier fishing lodge, the Tiwis have acted to preserve their fish stocks by restricting all commercial fishing in their waters. Furthermore, they’ve banned mothership operations from the mainland accessing their creeks and rivers. This means the island’s sportfishing potential is now well managed and highly sustainable.

Mike Baxter, a successful businessman with significant expertise in developing sportfishing eco-tourism operations, remains as MD of the newly formed Tiwi Islands Adventures and together with the Tiwis has rebuilt the Johnson River Camp (previously wiped out by a cyclone) and is midway through redeveloping the famous Barra Base (to be known now as Bathurst Island Lodge) at Port Hurd.

Myself, together with Fisho writers John Newbery, Peter Zeroni and Jamie Crawford, as well as Fisho photographer Shane Chalker and Steve Fitzpatrick, a good buddy of mine who works as an editor for The Australian newspaper, were fishing Melville as guests of the Tiwis.
We were there primarily for the 2012 Melville Challenge, a now annual event organised by Mike Baxter to help introduce sportfishing to students of the Tiwi College (see details on the inaugural Melville Challenge HERE and stand-by for a report on the 2012 event in our e-newsletter next Tuesday) and also to report on a new sportfishing option involving a couple of days at the Johnson Camp followed by a few more days fishing out of the Lodge. When Bathurst Island Lodge is up and running early next year, visitors will be able to experience a trifecta of tropical sportfishing options – the Johnson, Melville Lodge and the amazing fishing out of Port Hurd at the new lodge. That will be a pretty unique experience …

We choppered out of Darwin last Thursday afternoon and after a 20-minute flight were deposited by the banks of the upper Johnson. Guide and lodge manager Scotty arrived minutes later to pick us up in his 4WD. A short drive through the bush (we spotted two buffalo and a dingo on the way) we arrived at the camp. “Camp” is something of a misnomer – air-conditioned rooms, a full kitchen, showers and toilets and a big covered deck overlooking the surrounding bushland definitely make this one of the more luxurious “camps” I’ve ever been at.

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Camp on the upper Johnson River.

Dinner was prepared by Johnno, an experienced guide who just happens to also be a professional chef, and was followed by a session spent yarning and sipping cold beers by the fire. Scotty and Johnno have got the Johnson Camp humming along incredibly smoothly – the camp’s success is testament to their hard work and professionalism. For example, on our last night Johnno cooked up a seven-course seafood extravaganza – an amazing culinary feat considering just how remote the camp is.

The fishing is equally fantastic. The lower reaches of the Johnson are notable for the many shallow flats which provide excellent sight fishing opportunities for barra and threadfin salmon. The tides on our first day proved excellent for flats fishing with multiple barra and salmon spotted, cast at and hooked. As the tide dropped, we fished gutters and snags for more barra as well as good numbers of jacks (several of which were kept and cooked whole on the BBQ by Johnno for dinner that first night).

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Pete Zeroni put his camera down long enough to catch this nice threadie.

Next day we focused on luring up big threadies from mangrove-fringed gutters – we all got salmon in the 75 to 85cm range and I lucked onto my PB threadie, a 100cm beauty which smashed a deep-diving Classic Barra and rampaged into the trees before I managed to turn it and continue the fight in clean water.
I was pretty stoked with this fish and was confident it would prove to be the biggest landed. My hopes were dashed at lunchtime when we met up with the other guys to be informed that Steve had caught a 101cm fish. Bastard!

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Jim Harnwell with his PB threadfin.

After a leisurely breakfast on our last morning (I didn’t eat much, being still full from Johnno’s seafood epic the previous night), we piled into the Landcruisers and headed west towards the headwaters of Goose Creek, where we were met by Melville Lodge guides Wazza Smith and Simmsy.
Goose Creek’s resident saratoga didn’t disappoint, with multiple fish to 68cm being caught and released on spinnerbaits and Z-Man plastics. Down a bit further we encountered big numbers of barra around the “buffalo drains” before heading out of the river and west into the setting sun towards Snake Bay and the lodge.

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  Top: Creek barra. Above: Goose Creek’s reliable saratoga didn’t disappoint. Jamie Crawford with a nice one. 

Next day we headed to the Jessie River (midway between Goose Creek and the Johnson) where we targeted jacks and barra before making a stop at the famous Jessie River Rockbar where Jamie scored a magnificent 28lb black jewie. Jamie had a corker of a trip, catching the aforementioned 24lb queenie off a barra snag in the Johnson (it was a massive queenfish, 113cm long with a head on it like a deformed pitbull terrier) as well as his PB black jewie, which came in at 115cm.

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John Newbery with a lure crunching estuary cod.

John came up trumps with the biggest barra (78cm), Pete got the biggest ‘toga (68cm) and Steve held onto the biggest threadie rights with his 101cm beauty. While I was cruelly robbed of threadie dominance, my 100cm fish will live long in my memory banks – I just have to close my eyes to see it again go crashing through the mangroves, whiskery mouth agape and fins flaring.

Shane managed to score himself some cracker fish while also snapping some truly magnificent images – stay tuned for the October issue for a full-length article which will feature the best of Shane’s work, plus selected images from talented NT-based lensman Pete Zeroni, the only bloke I know who will hook a barra and then throw the rod at you so he can grab his Nikon and snap more of his beloved jump shots.

All up, this Johnson River/Melville Lodge option is a great way to experience the best that the Tiwi Islands can offer. The Johnson Camp is an absolute cracker and Melville Lodge itself has to be one of the best remote fishing locations anywhere. I can only imagine how good things will be when Bathurst Island Lodge opens for business early next year …

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Barra stealing croc!

For info on the sportfishing options now available at the Tiwi Islands, check out, email or call (08) 8978 3664 or 0400-045470. Bookings are being taken now for Bathurst Island Lodge so get in quick!

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