RECENTLY, I made my first ever trip to the Northern Territory. This also happened to be my first ever trip to specifically target barramundi. Not surprisingly, I’d been looking forward to the trip for a couple of months, so when I flew into Darwin and joined the rest of the group who’d booked in on Steve Goodhew’s I’ll Take Ya Fishing Charters, the anticipation was unbelievable!
Steve, a well-respected Top End guide, has been running charters specialising in sight casting for fish on the flats in remote Arnhem Land.
That afternoon, after lunch at Darwin Harbour, we boarded our home for the next five days, the 63-foot mothership Glenalan. Steaming east overnight, we reached the Mini Mini system by morning, and it was straight into the fishing.
Glenalan is skippered by Greg Murdoch and John Armstrong, and comfortably sleeps six plus the crew in air-conditioned quarters. There’s a large “living area” aboard, and the ship is equipped with two tenders used daily for fishing.
Apart from the fishing, a highlight of the trip was definitely the food. John, an accomplished guide himself, takes particular pride in producing restaurant quality meals for his guests including fresh fish and mud crabs, amazing curries and quite possibly the best steak I’ve ever eaten.
The mothership set-up was ideal for fishing in this remote location. As you’d expect, the prime fishing times proved to be early morning and late afternoon. Having the mothership in close proximity allowed us to return for some respite from the heat (that air-conditioning was fantastic!), a good feed and a rest when the bite waned in the middle of the day.
Sight casting the flats
Sight casting and surface fishing have to be two of my favourite fishing techniques. It doesn’t matter if I’m targeting bream or whiting back on my home waterway of Sydney Harbour, popping for Papuan black bass or, in this case, “jerkbaiting” for flats cruising barramundi. For me, there’s nothing better than spotting a fish, casting to it and hooking up!
The fishing on this trip was out of Steve’s six-metre purpose built boat, equipped with a big casting deck, state-of-the-art electronics and the stealth factor afforded by a Minn Kota electric motor. The electric allowed us to quietly move along the flats, approach the snags, or hold in the current without spooking the fish.
As with any sight fishing, it was visual and exciting. During the five days away with Steve, there was more than one instance of “barra fever”. It doesn’t matter how many times you’d rehearse the process in your head – sometimes that visual anticipation of spotting packs of fish was just too much to take, and the excitement just got the better of us … It’s at moments like these that your casts fall short or fly wayward, or worse still, in your haste, you end up throwing a great big bird’s nest in your reel …
I’ve always struggled to sight fish in the shallows. On occasions I’ve have had my mates nearly yelling at me in frustration as they pointed out tailing or cruising fish. Often I haven’t been able to see the fish until we were almost on top of them. I don’t know if it’s something to do with my eyes, but the secret, as I’ve since learnt, is practice. The rest of the equation is to be focused, alert and look for moving shadows in the water. A good pair of polarised sunglasses, and a hat, are a must. Buffs also help reduce glare.
One thing I can say for certain is that Steve has this sight-casting caper figured out. On more than one occasion, we’d be travelling between spots at full noise, and he’d bring the boat to a sudden stop, circle back round and casually deploy the electric motor, all before saying a word. This would generally be followed by a quick point to a cruising barra, or better still, a pack of them. By the end of the week, it ran like clockwork, with one of us already up by his side on the front casting deck, lure at the ready, before he even had to mutter a word.
After the first couple of days, we were all actually getting pretty handy at spotting the fish ourselves. With this kind of fishing, it really pays to be alert, not just to the guide pointing out fish, but also to the current flow, and the direction that the fish are moving in.
Although most of the fish we caught were in the 60-70cm range, we caught our fair share of 80cm+ fish as well, and a 95cm specimen was the biggest for the trip.
Peppering the snags
When we weren’t chasing the fish on the flats, Steve had us casting tight into the snags and mangrove edges. Often we’d spot the fish resting or cruising in the mangrove shoots before casting to them.
What surprised me the most was the number of fish that we could pull off a single snag before they would shut down. The snags that seemed to fish the best were ones located adjacent to, or in, a drain, or those that were creating a break in the current. Often fishing not more than a metre of water, we’d target the up current edge of the snag before peppering the lures as deep into the structure as possible.
One of my more memorable sessions of the trip was late one afternoon skipping unweighted surface frogs, rigged weedless on worm hooks, deep into the mangroves, and teasing the barra out. Watching the bow waves of a couple of hungry fish trying to out run each other to chase down my lure was intense! More than once, I struck too early, and had to watch in disappointment as they turned around and scurried back into the snags. Although there were no monsters caught, fishing so deep in the structure used every ounce of pulling power of my gear.
Lures & gear
On this trip, I took a wide range of small floating jerkbaits. The most effective were the Rapala 80mm Flat Rap and 110mm Clackin’ Minnow, Daiwa DP Minnow and Storm Thundersticks. I personally prefer natural colours, but a bit of silver or gold flash in the lures made them almost irresistible to the barramundi.
I upgraded the terminal tackle of all of my lures to 3X strength VMC trebles and 50lb split rings before leaving for Darwin. Although I took away a couple of baitcast outfits, Steve had recommended that I bring my heavy bream spin gear to target these fish on the flats. I certainly felt more confident with this gear, especially when accurate casting was required.
The heaviest bream rod I own is a Daiwa medium light Black Label SSS 6101MLXS , which I matched to a Certate 3000 spooled with 30lb TD Sensor Tournament PE.
Fishing this gear with 20-40lb Toray leader, I was able to manage long, searching casts over the flats, yet maintain control when fishing tight and deep into the snags and mangrove edges.
We caught well over 160 barramundi between the five of us, with numerous double hook-ups, and even a triple hook-up as well. Mixed in with the barra was a good range of bycatch. Threadfin salmon and queenfish were probably the most common, but there were a few golden snapper caught also. I managed to hook and lose a shark, and a number of crocs took a fancy to the lures being tossed around, and followed them out to the boat. And I won’t forget to again mention those succulent mud crabs …
Steve’s charter is an intermediate to advanced level trip that caters for anglers who enjoy active fishing and sight casting lures to cruising fish and tight into structure. Don’t get me wrong, we were all there for the serious mission of catching barra, but we had our fair share of snag-ups, tangles and laughs, and the atmosphere was fun and relaxed against the beautiful Arnhem Land backdrop.
Greg Seeto fished Arnhem Land courtesy of I’ll Take Ya Fishing Charters. Contact Steve Goodhew on 0407 568 729 or check out www.illtakeya.com.au for more details.