Some say it’s not worthwhile heading north in the dry season to catch fish – any fish. However, Dick Eussen sets the record straight.
Barra don’t bite when it is cold, but mate you are so wrong!
I have just returned from yet another trip on the lower west Cape York Coast (the third since March). My most recent was in mid-June and it was bloody cold, the water went to 16C one morning and I had three blankets, plus my swag cover wrapped around me. Yet despite this cold, by 8am we had our first barra in the boat!
We were camped on the tidal flats of the Coleman River, south from Pormpuraaw, an indigenous community that, like other Cape York communities, welcomes visitors to their lands.
This village has three campgrounds to cater for visiting fishers and birdwatchers. The well-established grounds on the Chapman and Mungkan Rivers have cold showers, toilets and firewood provided, but the Coleman River sites have little excepting a couple of drop toilets with a view! There is no shade, fresh water has be carried in from a billabong 4km away, and the mossies and sandflies will drive you nuts and keep the Bushman Insect Repellent people in pocket money, but as camping anglers know, who cares as long as the fishing is good.
There is also the matter of access and like other parts of the north, the region has amazing run-off fishing. But unlike the NT there is no Arnhem Highway and Daly River Road to access it and the travelling angler has to wait until the roads open. We had much rain in the 2010-11 seasons and it was not until mid-May that the road to Kowanyama opened. Wayne Peacock and I headed out and found that the Coleman River Road was still closed, so we fished in the streams just out from the village and had some good days.
Bookings for campsites and permits are a must and Robbie Morris, the team leader for the Indigenous Wild River Rangers, said that the Coleman River sites were all booked out. Robbie controls the numbers of visitors, to ensure that there is no overcrowding at sites and to protect the fish resource from over-exploitation. No commercial fishing is allowed in the Chapman and Mungkan Rivers, but the pros work the Coleman and Mitchell River delta, arguably the largest in Australia.
A week after my return Robbie called and said that there had been a cancellation and did I want it. Of course I did. A call to Ian Leighton confirmed that he and his wife Anne would be coming. Ian’s dad, Alan said that he and his wife Delma would come with me.
We were on the road a couple of days later and arrived at our designated campsite a day later after spending the night at the Musgrave Road house.
We had the camp set up and the boats in the water by mid-afternoon and Alan and I zoomed off in my Quintrex 420 Dory, which is powered by an Evinrude 30hp E-TEC outboard, a fine combo. Ian and Ann have a plate boat powered by a Yamaha, the Beermundi. Delma fished with them. While we did not find the fish on the bite that arvo, we did eat a fresh barra for tea. We were on the water early the next morning. Alan and I headed to fish a feeder creek that has always been kind to us. The night had been cold, very cold, and the morning even more so. We were well rugged up, and I wished I had gloves as my hands were frozen on the tiller handle!
We trolled the mouth of the creek and got a couple of east coast barra, that were over 58cm, but under 60cm. The Gulf of Carpentaria and its watershed has a 60cm limit, the east coast 58cm. I dropped the plonk, a lead anchor weight, in midstream of the creek where it junctions with the river and we commenced to cast about a snag and over shallow mud flats where mullets were scattering about as predators rushed amongst them on a lowering tide.
BARRA ARE FUSSY
We spent most of the morning casting about the area and had almost instant success with barra up to 80cm and the odd threadfin salmon taking our lures. Alan was using a Tinaroo lure, a handcrafted timber lure made by Laurie Petersen, who works for Ian and Ann on their farm. In the days ahead he caught most of his fish on it, and so did the Beermundi crew. Tinaroo lures do not rattle, something anglers should take note off when fishing with lures. Nils Master lures are also made from timber and have no rattle, but they consistently produce barra and salmon, proving that rattles are not truly needed. In fact, I have noted that in places that are heavily fished, the timber noiseless lures are generally the better performer. Think rubber lures if you doubt me…
I was testing the new Sébile Lures. I had used some in the Kimberley a few weeks earlier with excellent success on mangrove jacks, but due to heavy flooding we caught few barra. But on the Coleman River they were performing well and caught a number of barra before I gave them away as the freshwater hooks fitted were not up to the task. The importers, Nomad Charters, have advised me that saltwater hooks are now fitted to all Sébile Lures, thus the problem is now fixed. They are an excellent lure for all our fishes that eat bait and I am still testing the top water models in billabongs, and have replaced the hooks with 2 and 3X strong trebles.
A CLASSIC LURE
I also played about with the new Classic Warlock 8cm lures and 10cm Classic 120s. Both performed well, especially the smaller models, as it appeared to be what both barra and salmon wanted. Other lures used were the ever reliable Reidy B52, Rapala X-Rap 10s and Halco Scorpions. These lures are proven performers and will always hook fish. Ann caught some big barra while trolling one of the Reidy Little Amazon lures. For some reason rubbers were not wanted by the fish and I fished with Reidy’s Shads, Storm and Sébile soft-baits. Yet only a few weeks earlier, the barra were climbing all over rubbers.
We pulled up anchor after lunch and headed elsewhere, the icebox holding a few nice take-home barra. Yes, like many other fishers we kill and eat fish and when driving 1,300km for a trip, I always try and take my limit of five barra home, and other fishes if I am lucky. This may upset the trendies, but truth is there were a number of other camps on the river, with about eight boats fishing. Even if we all caught their limit, it would be puny indeed to what the local pro-netters catch in one night. One pro was taking 800kg of barra fillets per week when we were up there, thus people who only take their bag limit don’t even count in the order of things.
It appeared we had been fairly successful as the Beermundi crew had little luck, though they had dropped a couple of big barra. Retired game skipper, Captain Laurie Wright, also a top barra angler, was camped near us. He said they had a great day in the Mitchell River, which is connected to the Coleman by a 3km channel. We decided to hit the Mitchell the next day.
The Mitchell has three channels emptying into the Gulf and a massive delta with dozens of tidal creeks, mere pen scratched on maps and the GPS. We travelled 30km from the North Arm into the main river and fished a spot in a tidal creek that has always provided top action. It did so now on a golden/red Classic 120 and I released six barra, while Alan went without a nibble on the Tinaroo lure. However, all were under size.
We met up with the Beermundi crew for lunch and they had not seen a fish, so we decided to troll a large rock bar in the main Mitchell and drop some baited squid hooks down in the mouth for fingermark and grunter.
A great idea, but apart from some small blue salmon, we got nothing else. The water was cold and the wind was blowing hard, so we headed back for the long haul to the Coleman.
En route we fished a few tidal gutters and caught several small barra.
We passed a mate of Laurie’s, marlin skipper Darren “Biggles” Hayden, who with his dad, Norm, was trolling along snags in the North Arm. He was hooked to something big and we stopped to enjoy the battle. It was a 96cm barra, a great catch. After I photographed it, the fish was returned to the water to fight another day, as like most other fishers, Biggles prefers 65 to 80cm barra for eating.
As the Coleman was fishing much better we decided to stay with it and at daylight Alan and I turned upstream to fish the creek mouth that had so far been kind to us. We spent most of the morning trolling in and out of the creek, after having no luck casting, unlike two days before. But we caught enough barra up to 80cm to keep us in that creek until midday when the bite was over.
Next we turned upstream where the river divides into a maze of channels, meeting up with the Leighton clan for lunch. There were a myriad jellyfish in the channels and creeks of the upper delta. We had heard on the grapevine that no netting had been possible due to their presence. That suited us and for much of the afternoon we trolled and tossed lures all about with mixed results. Late afternoon found us behind a small timbered island where floods had undermined the bank and dozens of mangroves had dropped into shallow water. It was classic snag country.
The first cast amongst the timber took me completely off guard as a big barra smashed the Reidy B52 lure and turned into the timber before I managed to engage the Shimano 200 Curado reel, loaded with 30lb of Fins braid, and backed with a 60lb leader. I managed to turn the fish and physically pull it out to the last branch when the leader snapped, possibly
on the gills. The 80cm barra swam under us, the B52 very visible across its cheek.
I was prepared for the next hit and landed a nice 76cm barra after an epic struggle keeping it out the sticks by locking down hard on the spool with my thumb. Big barra panic and pull hard when in snags and it was somewhat of a shock to suddenly rediscover that snag fishing is totally different to hooking a barra when trolling in open water.
In the meantime, Alan, not wanting to risk his performing Tinaroo lure, tossed it out about 3m from the snags and was immediately hit by yet another 70cm+ barra. He landed it, while I was concentrating on battling another snag barra. We had found the honey pot! For the next hour we landed many barra ranging from 60 to 85cm that were holed up in and about the snags before the setting sun ended the day.
MORE HOT HONEY
Our last day had us up bright and early and again we turned to our feeder creek. Alan dropped a nice fish before I landed an 83cm model on a Classic 120 and a little later dropped one that was close to a metre. The Leightons turned up and advised us they would be fishing upstream near the upper delta. Soon after the VHF radio crackled into life. It was Ian. “Dick, you better get your arse over here, we are up to our knees in barra.”
We found Beermundi trolling along a straight stretch of the river that held a combo of mangrove-fringed bank and a long, high bare bank. They had just released a 100cm barra that Delma had caught. I had avoided trolling in large sections of the river as my fishfinder was not working due to a blown fuse (no spare), thus I more or less followed the track the other boat was on, or trolled blind.
Beermundi was hot and catching and landing good fish up to 100cm on almost every run. We had our limit in the Engel freezer back at camp, fish ranging from 65 to 85cm and it was catch and release fishing today only. Alan and I were soon in the midst of things, releasing fish up to 85cm, though Beermundi was doing much better releasing several 90cm barra. No reason, similar lures, similar speed, or perhaps having three lures in the water was better then two! But we did not care, enjoying the moment and only when the setting sun signalled the day’s end did we head back to camp.
It had been a fantastic break, but best of all the weather was cool and balmy, even though the nights were cold. But that is winter fishing in our tropical north and there is no better time for deep south winter refugees to pack up, become a grey nomad, and head north to enjoy some fine barra fishing when tropical “millionaire” weather is at its very best – whether camping or relaxing in the comforts of a fishing lodge or mothership.
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