They might nibble on bread but Darwin’s Milkfish are pure dynamite once hooked and will keep any angler on his toes. Story by Steve Hunt.
As a freelance fishing writer I am always on the lookout for something new. New species, new locations and new fishing methods are pure gold especially when our editor is very keen to print something out of the ordinary.
On a recent trip to the NT we found un-seasonally heavy rains had shut the barra down on the rivers. So rather than waste our visit we high-tailed it back to Darwin for a crack at a real speed demon.
This was supposed to be the tail end of the Wet season. However the South Alligator region had received over 350ml of rain in three nights so it was futile trying for barra. This downpour, combined with big Spring tides meant the barra had evacuated the main river and headed into the wetlands to chase baitfish. So Micky Quaiser of Spring Tide Safaris (ph 0411 854 436) drove us back to Darwin.
Micky’s plan was to catch the afternoon high tide, berley up and try to catch one of the true speedsters of the tropics – the famous Milkfish of Darwin Harbour. Normally a very shy fish it’s occasionally taken on small saltwater flies. But mostly these fish can be found daily eating bread at the nearby tourist attraction of Doctors Gully.
For over 40 years hundreds of milkfish, batfish, bream, mullet, catfish and even barramundi have gathered at this spot on the high tide for a free feed of bread. It gives the tourists a chance to get up close and personal with a mass of hungry fish looking for that easy meal. An exclusion zone has been set up around Doctors gully that allows no fishing inside the markers.
While you have a lot of boat ramps in and around Darwin you have to be very mindful of the tides because of the huge daily tide range. There are ramps located at Vesteys Beach, Doyles ramp, Nightcliff, Cullen Bay, Buffalo Creek and Dinah Beach close to this beautiful city.
Dinah Beach is probably the best ramp, having a long floating pontoon to secure your boat. However, you still need to have at least 2.5 metres of water to get in and out here.
We arrived at Dinah Beach around lunch time with around three metres of water lapping at the ramp, no problem to launch Micky’s 6.2m tinnie. The predicted seven metre tide at 3.30pm also would be perfect to chase the milkfish for the next five hours. And it would leave us enough water back at the ramp when we returned.
ON THE BREADLINE
After a short cruise around Darwin Harbour we had soon anchored not far away from the Larrakeyah naval base.
With eight loaves of bread on board we then began a constant berley trail of bread pieces about an inch in diameter each. These would be released about a metre apart. That is the trick here, just a constant trail of bread over the water that will bring the fish to the back of the boat without over feeding them.
It was very pleasant in the warm afternoon sunshine enjoying a few stubbies of Coopers finest as the berley trail snaked its way back to the rocky shoreline of Larrakeyah.
As the first telltale signs of Milkfish appeared as big splashes way back in the berley trail, I readied my gear. I had brought along a brand new outfit, a Saltiga Game 3500 reel loaded with 30 pound Pro Power braid, matched to a Saltiga Hiramasa 63S rod that I had bought along. The rig was simple, a metre long length of 40 pound leader with a size six Mustad Tarpon hook.
Small hooks are the go as the wily Milkfish will not spot anything out of the ordinary and ignore your baits completely. The trick is to take a slice of bread, remove the crusts and fold it around your hook squeezing it onto the line to form more secure bait.
You then cast this bait some 10m back into the berley trail where it should float on top of the water. As the fish follow the berley trail they should see your offering and snaffle it.
The large splashes moved ever closer up the trail as Noel, Adam and I readied ourselves for battle. However it was Adam’s bait that got inhaled first and once the fish realised its error all hell broke loose. It put its head down and took off on a scorching run.
Midway through this charge the fish suddenly had a change of mind and erupted from the surface with a big cart wheel that released the hook. Round one to the Milkfish!
“What the hell was that?” We’d heard that these fish could go but this first encounter was just brutal! Noel was the next contestant on the stand as another pack of marauding Milkfish moved down the berley trail and scoffed his bait down.
Instantly Noel’s rod loaded up as the 30 pound braid whistled through the runners at an astonishing rate. And then without warning the hook straightened and the fish was off. Round two to the Milkfish!
The guys may have been trying to horse about, so I vowed that when got a hook up I’d let the fish have its head. Subsequently my first run was a real ball-tearing, blistering run of over 150 metres. It was a vicious, powerhouse run that ripped 30 pound braid from the spool in a sustained burst of raw power. This was punctuated by solid head-banging thumps transmitted through the taut braid.
It was at that moment that I fell in love with the Milkfish. These fish are faster than anything that swims up here in the Territory. But the battle was far from over as it now skirted the shoreline some 200m away.
I was glad I had the classy Saltiga outfit in hand. It meant I had plenty of line left and it was just a matter of time before I landed my first Milky.
Subsequently I began to slowly regain line using the pump and wind technique. It wasn’t long before the big Milkfish neared the boat. These fish are legendary for their stamina and just as I thought it was in the bag – it raced off on another line-searing run that a barra would have been proud of.
However, the fish was slowly tiring and it wasn’t long before I led the silver ball of muscle into the waiting environet. It was with great satisfaction that I held the 1.1 metre long Milkfish up for the camera before Micky released it to fight another day.
It didn’t take long for the action to start again as some big swirls behind the boat revealed the location of more Milkfish. Huge forked tails scythed through the calm surface as the school approached snatching pieces of bread on the way. Adam’s bait disappeared and his baitcaster screamed again. This time he let the fish run long and hard before applying more pressure.
The tactic worked as the fish tired itself out on that long first run just before the backing on the reel got wet. Slowly he began to work the fish back toward the boat remembering to let the fish run if it wanted too.
However, when the fish saw the boat it took off on another 80m run in another awesome display of power. Adam did very well and soon the 90cm fish was being photographed and released.
I looked at my other brand new outfit a Team Daiwa Zillion 100h baitcasting reel loaded with 20 pound Pro Power braid, matched with the Zillion 10-17 Pound rod.
Yeah, why not I thought; this rig should stand up to the speeding milkfish. So I moulded on a new slice of bread, waited for the tell tale swirls and then cast it into the strike zone. My offering got smashed immediately!
Well! Away she went at a million miles an hour! The rocket fuelled fish covered one hundred metres in no time flat and was still charging toward the coast. I began to contemplate the expense of a new spool of braid as the backing began to show through. Time for some careful use of thumb pressure and luckily it persuaded the fish to slow down and then change direction.
It swam side on to the boat which allowed me to regain some precious line on the spool. Filled with confidence now I heaved back on the little Zillion rod and began to regain a lot more line, so much so in fact that the fish was now only fifty metres away. That sweet sound of the Zillion’s precision hyper tournament drag filled the air again as the Milkfish bolted off on its second big run.
But its great having confidence in quality fishing gear and I was absolutely stoked with how this outfit was performing above its weight range. Before long the Milkfish was alongside the boat and was doing its last few circles before being led into the waiting net. Even though this fish was smaller than my first I was ecstatic at landing the fish on the much smaller outfit.
Micky was away next with another ripping run that also featured several cart wheeling leaps from another good fish. As usual the fight was filled with breathtaking runs and awesome stamina that makes the angler earn every inch of line he retrieves. And to round the session off Noel caught and released his first ever Milkfish after another marathon fight also.
So it was a very happy crew as we pulled the anchor and bid goodbye to the very willing school of Milkfish that was still smashing the bread in the berley trail. It was another typical warm Darwin afternoon as we cruised back past the wharf precinct enjoying a couple of more celebratory beers. The calm waters of Darwin Harbour ensured we were back at Dinah Beach ramp in five minutes with plenty of tide left to retrieve the boat.
THE MILKFISH SPEEDSTER
The Milkfish (Chanos chanos) is the only living species in the family Chanidae, of which several are extinct, some dating back to prehistoric times. They live in the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans and are schooling fishes that live near the shore but breed in open water. Milkfish mainly eat animal plankton, bacteria, algae, weed, fish eggs and larvae and small invertebrates.
One look at a Milkfish and you can tell why they are so powerful and so quick off the mark. They are a streamlined silvery fish with a huge forked tail, large eyes, no teeth and a pointed snout and superficially resemble the legendary bonefish. In my way of thinking they look like a giant mullet on steroids with the fins of a Spanish mackerel. They can grow up to 1.8 metres long but are generally found around a metre long.
The Milkfish is a very important food fish in South East Asia and are actually the national dish of the Philippines. They are commercially farmed in this area where the young are caught close to shore and raised in coastal ponds.
The name Milkfish comes from the flesh which goes a milky white when cooked. Their flesh is soft and full of small bones, and they are much better off being released after capture.
After all we have many more better eating species at our disposal so Milkfish should be enjoyed for their amazing sport and then released to fight another day. These fish are pure dynamite once hooked and will keep you on your toes for every second of the energy charged fight.
I’m certainly glad that Micky Quaiser introduced me to this wonderful sportfish and I know that I will be back very soon to lock horns with the sizzling Milkfish of Darwin Harbour.