First Prize of the Tropical Angler Internationally recognised as one of the world’s top sport and game fish, the fighting barramundi is the glamour catch of Australia’s tropical north. Fishermen travel many hundreds — even thousands of kilometres just for an exciting encounter with a barra. and its fame as a table delicacy is well documented, earning it a place on the menus of many leading restaurants.
The barramundi (Lates calcarifer) is a giant perch, belonging to a family of fish which is widely distributed through the Indo-Pacific region. One of the largest known specimens of this fish was taken off the coast of India and weighed a colossal 272 kg! The barramundi is also a close relative of the Nile perch, which has wide distribution through the rivers of Africa. Another fish of Australia’s northern rivers. the Gulf Country, Cape York and the Northern Territory is the northern saratoga, which is sometimes called ‘spotted barramundi’, and which has a close relative in central Queens- land occasionally labelled as the ‘Dawson River barramundi’. Neither are related to the true barra. Both are. in fact. primitive species and dissimilar to the fish best known in the tropical north.
Threatened by Over Fishing
Originally barramundi was plentiful through- out the rivers across the northern part of the continent but over-fishing has reduced their numbers considerably. Fisheries authorities in the Northern Terri- tory and Queensland have placed bag limits and dosed seasons on amateur fishermen in an attempt to ensure that this important resource has a future, though it may already be too late in parts of eastern Queensland. Anglers should check on the current status of limits and seasons before fishing for barra. The growth rate of barramundi is not as fast as was once thought. It has been estimated that it takes one year for the fish to reach a length of 35 cm, at least two years to reach a legal length of around 50 cm. and 8 to 10 years to reach 1 metre.
Great Power of Propulsion
The barramundi is a large powerful fish with a slab—sided body which, in salt or brackish water, is a brilliant silvery to grey or mauve on top. shading to silvery-white underneath. Fish from freshwater holes and billabongs may be much darker. Young fish have brown stripes running along their backs which perhaps helps to camou?age them among the mangrove roots and weed beds.
The second dorsal and anal fins of the barramundi are located close to the large, paddle—shaped tail, giving the fish great power of propulsion. The fish’s large, bright, pinkish- red eyes glow brilliantly at night— testimony to its nocturnal feeding habits.
The barramundi has a large mouth, capable of opening to enormous widths, through which it sucks in its prey along with vast quantities of water which is then expelled through its gills. The fish also has sharp spines and serrated gill covers which can slash the careless fingers of an eager fisherman.
Fresh and Saltwater
Barramundi can be found in the freshwater rivers, waterholes. estuaries and inshore waters of the coastline north from Mary- borough in Queensland around the top to at least the Ashburton River in northern Western Queensland.
The fish breeds during spring and summer. The adult fish move down into estuary mouths during the start of the monsoonal ?oods. where the eggs are released. juvenile fish then gradually move upstream, swimming against the ?ow of floodwaters and moving into tidal creeks. freshwater pools and billabongs as far as dams or waterfalls will allow. Some mature fish will also move upstream. but the majority at this time will be caught in the estuary. The juvenile barramundi uses these sheltered habitats in holes and freshwater swamps as nurseries in which to grow, pending the next season’s rains.
The barramundi is known to have a hermaphroditic life cycle. The fish are all born as males and remain so for the first few years of their life. Then. they change sex to become functional females in the larger sizes. To sustain a viable population, a complete cross—section of sizes is obviously needed. This sex change normally takes place at weights of between 5 and 8 kg, but certain populations of barra exhibit changes at much smaller weights. and sexually mature females as light as 2 kg have been recorded.
A Vigorous Predator
The barramundi feeds on almost anything that it can engulf in its large, bucket like mouth. This includes small fish, prawns, shrimps. crayfish. frogs, lizards, small birds and insects. it’s this diversity of diet that makes barramundi such an interesting proposition as far as the fisherman is concerned; barra will occasionally have a go at almost anything on a hook. On the other hand. they can be incredibly difficult to tempt and fickle, particularly in hard-fished regions.
It will also take its food on the bottom, at mid-water, and on the surface. Their feeding times are usually early morning and late after- noon and also throughout the night. However, because these tropical rivers of the north also contain potentially man-eating crocodiles— another nocturnal predator — barramundi fanciers are well advised to be very careful around these waterways at night!
The barramundi is a typical ambush predator, lying or finning in wait for its prey, then darting forward to take it whole in its mouth. It will often await opportunities to strike by lying among or behind the branches of a fallen riverside tree, near a rocky outcrop in the river or in muddy water near a colour change. waiting for small ?sh and other live prey to swim past.
When it does strike. it does so with great power and vigour. Upon being hooked the barra almost always leaps from the water with gills ?ared and head Their bodies twist and turn like a true game fish and test the angler’s tackle and ability to the utmost.
All Round Appeal
It would be difficult to envisage a fish of greater appeal to anglers than the mighty barramundi. It grows to as much as 50 kg. though fish of more than 30 kg are extremely rare these days, and inhabits both estuarine and freshwater habitats. It is an excellent table fish. a predator which responds to many different types of lures and live baits yet remains a wary sporting opponent and is a fish of handsome appearance which leaps and fights and often escapes.
As sporting fish, barramundi does have peers but few superiors. Even experienced anglers have been seen to develop a touch of the shakes through sheer excitement after encountering what is certainly not their first barramundi!
Before setting out on a barramundi safari northwards it is well to check with the relevant state fisheries authorities on dosed seasons. closed areas and bag limits. Because stocks of barramundi have been reduced perilously close to danger levels in some areas, their survival is closely monitored and there are large fines or even jail sentences for flouting fishing regulations it should be remembered that the legal minimum length of a barra in Queensland is 50 cm and any fish captured under that length or around 1.8 kg must be automatically returned to the water.
Barramundi country in Queensland are those rivers which ?ow into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the rivers which rise in the Great Dividing Range hundreds of kilometres from the coast and wind their way eastwards through the many valleys of the coastal ranges. l The Mary. Dawson, Fitzroy. Moresby and the Burdekin rivers meander their way over an area bigger than the state of Victoria. This is rugged timber and cattle country where often anglers must get permission to use private property in order to get to top barra waters.
Catches in Freshwater
Of the 14 coastal river systems within two hours drive of Cairns. there are three magnificent rivers that still produce occasional catches of barramundi in freshwater. These are the Murray and Tully Rivers, some I25 km to the south of Cairns. and the Daintree River on Highway I, some l IO km to the north. Of these rivers. the Daintree and the Tull} are the most navigable and the Daintree is perhaps the most productive. One of the reasons why the Daintree still has good stocks of fish is due to the strict ban on commercial netting that has been vigorously enforced by the Douglas Shire Council since I974.
Naturally, some of the rivers even further north on Cape York produce better numbers of barra than those in harder fished regions. Barramundi tends to be a dark, gold colour in freshwater lagoons as opposed to the brilliant, sleek silver fish of the saltwater estuaries. In north Queensland, barra fanciers use plugs, lures, flies, spinners live and dead bait in both salt and freshwater. Many world famous anglers have made the pilgrimage to our north to do battle with the giant perch. The American fishing writer Bob Stearns, big game fishermen Ralph Miller of California and other notable anglers from England, japan, and Canada have all visited barramundi country.
Right at the northwestern tip of Cape York lies the Jardine River, a famed home of barra and saratoga. This big. powerful stream flows fresh all the way to its mouth and is a popular destination with southern visitors. The Jardine is now serviced by Cape York Wilderness lodge, which caters specifically for angling parties.
Fishing the Top End
Northern Territory barramundi anglers like to boast that catches of the fish from their northern rivers are larger in both size and number than in Queensland. It would be difficult to argue with this assertion. Numbers of monster barra over the 20 kg mark have been taken from the Daly River. while the Mary River system still has some of the best barra fishing in the Territory. despite heavy amateur and commercial pressure.
Down the Daly
The Daly River is a real favourite with Top End anglers; the camping spots are good. it has plenty of shade even for trolling and it’s very pleasant fishing. May and June are popular months for those chasing big barra. A spot called the Second Cliffs and another location called the Golden Mile, named for a rock bar or wall that comes out of the water, are both top fishing spots. made legendary by anglers like Col ‘Cords’ Cordingly, who has taken over a dozen fish topping l8 kg in this stretch.
Other Hot Spots
Cahill’s Crossing on the East Alligator is another barra hot spot. while the South Alligator River is also a renowned barramundi producing waterway in the north. The gutters ?owing into the main channel of the South Alligator River are perfect feeding grounds for the fish. On the outgoing tide, they camp at the entrance and wait for the baitfish to be washed down to them. The South Alligator River is fed by ?ve large creek systems. During the monsoonal months of January, February and March, the creeks and rivers are full to over?owing. This is the time when the barramundi” are on the move upstream chasing small baitfish. The upper reaches of the creeks all contain stocks of fish especially Jim Jim, Nourlangie, and Barramundi Creeks.
Mary River System
During the wet season, the whole of the Mary River System in the Northern Territory becomes a water highway for the barra to move up or downstream. During the dry months, the river recedes into a maze of waterways, channels, and billabongs where some great catches are taken. One of the magical spots is Corroboree Billabong. where the bird and wildlife are superb for photographic enthusiasts. This spot can fish well at any time of the year, but produces its best immediately after the wet and very late in the dry season, during the ‘build up’ to the wet.
Fishing in the months of June, ]uly and August may be a little slower due to the colder water temperatures, but even then, there are fish to be taken. Early in the year, Shady Camp usually fishes better than Corroboree. This lower section of the Mary River is at the top of the tidal influence which means the barra come and go as they please. Another advantage of fishing Shady Camp and Sampan Creek is that the fish are often more silvery and better to eat, having come straight from the saltwater.
All things considered, the Mary River has some of the best, easily accessible barramundi fishing in the territory. Access can be gained in several places. The shortest way to Corroboree is via Marrakai Station off the Arnhem Highway. Look for the sign well before the bridge on the Mary River.
You can also travel via Annaburroo Station or via the Point Stuart Road past the Bark Hut on the Arnhem Highway.
Dangers of the North
The smallest boat that anglers should put into these often swiftly flowing waters of the north is a 3.5-metre dinghy. Attempting to fish from anything smaller is looking for trouble. The waterways of the north are wild and unpredictable and should be treated with the greatest respect.
Another danger to be considered are the strong tides. The king and spring tides can produce a ‘tidal bore’ which creates a large wave on the incoming tide. This is common on the Daly. This volume of water races up the river quite swiftly and can prove dangerous for the inexperienced. Other dangers of the river include sandbars, floating debris, logs and other submerged obstacles that can quite easily tip a boat over. Not to mention the large crocodiles, which have re-asserted their man-eating capabilities in recent times.
Barra in the West
Fishermen chasing barramundi in the Kimberley region of Western Australia have every chance of landing specimens every bit as large as those taken in the Northern Territory. Barramundi can be found in nearly every major river from the Fitzroy northwards. and in many inland billabongs and waterways which link up with these rivers during the wet season. The Fitzroy River flows for more than 500 km through the Kimberley region and barramundi can be taken right up to its source and into the Hann River, which flows into the Fitzroy.
The majority of barra fishing is done on the Fitzroy and Ord Rivers simply because other rivers in this area are mostly inaccessible. The fish appear to bite best just after the wet. between March and May. After that, they often go off the bite until the wet begins again. when they become active and chase schools of mullet.
Local fishermen in the Kimberleys don’t bother fishing hard unless the temperatures are in the 30s as barra up here simply do not bite actively when it is cold and any temperature under about 30 C, is considered ‘cold’. Most visiting anglers stay away from the Kimberley during the wet. but local anglers often take their best catches when it is raining ‘buckets’.
ln this region, freshwater red-eye mullet is a top bait and these fish are usually netted. They can then be baited live. as a dead mullet will often be grabbed by other unwanted species such as catfish. Other popular baits for West Oz barramundi include the ri?e fish, oxeye herring. large shrimp and frogs.
These baits should be worked around the edges of weedbeds, near deep holes, close to eddies around ?owing water near the mouths of feeder creeks.
Four Wheel Drive Country
Those anglers venturing into this vast area of timeless beauty with just a handful of topographical maps are advised that the majority of the Kimberley region should only be travelled by a four-wheel drive vehicle. Roads vary from ones that you could negotiate safely in a family car to those with bone jarring horror stretches. All vehicles should be in excellent mechanical condition and must carry sufficient supplies. petrol and spare parts for journeys into remote areas. A CB radio is an excellent form of insurance in the case of unforeseen emergencies.
Throughout the Kimberley region, any river which has access to the sea will contain barramundi. Although there are stocks of the fish as far south as the Ashburton River, below Onslow in the Pilbara. the real top ?fishing spots are further north around the Fitzroy River.
Many Rivers inaccessible Northeast of Derby. travelling via the Gibb River Road. the May and Meda Rivers can give anglers great saltwater barra fishing at times. However. permission to ?sh these rivers must be obtained from the Kimberley and Napier Downs Stations. In the far north of the Kimberley, many of the rivers remain inaccessible with the barramundi populations remaining virtually untapped. The Edwards, Carson, and Drysdale Rivers can be reached but because these areas are part of an Aboriginal Reserve. entry permits are required and can only be obtained from the Aboriginal Lands Trust in Perth.
Small numbers of barramundi are sometimes captured from the wharf at Wyndham. but most locals in this area prefer to fish the maze of tidal creeks and rivers around Cambridge Gulf from a boat or head for nearby rivers like the Salmond, Pentecost, Chamberlain and King which can be reached via the Gibb River Road. When the roads are first to open immediately after the wet. the freshwater pools along these rivers yield some great catches. Also worth a try is the Parry’s Creek catchment area. close to Wyndham.
Fishing the Ord River
Many fishermen in the northwest agree that the Ord River is the best barramundi producing waterway in Western Australia. It regularly produces big specimens around 20 kg and it is not unusual for anglers to haul in the odd fish wall stops the barramundis upstream progress and just prior to the wet season. the barra ?shing at this spot can be spectacular. Below the dam wall to Ivanhoe Crossing. locations such as the Dunham River junction. Fords Beach and various weedbeds and snag spots are all top barramundi hang-outs. The majority of tracks that lead to the Ord still require a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Except for a minor part of the East Arm. saltwater barra fishing on the Ord is unavailable due to Noogoora Burr infestation. This noxious burr area has been quarantined since I974 and fishermen are warned that entry into this area is strictly prohibited. Disregarding these laws could bring a fine of $500 to $900. However. limited ?y-in safaris to this area are now available through Alligator Airways. PO Box 10, Kununurra, 6743. They can be contacted by phone on (O91) 681 576. Anglers seeking saltwater barra in the Kununurra area usually head out to the numerous tidal creeks that cover the coastline via Carlton Hill Station or visit the Keep River on Legune Station just inside the Northern Territory. As stated earlier, you should be sure to check with each state’s Fisheries Department on barra fishing regulations as bag limits and closed season dates can vary from state to state.
ln the Kimberleys, all relevant information regarding current fishing regulations and an Inland Fisherman’s Licence which is required to take barramundi can be obtained from the Fisheries and Wildlife offices at Broome and Wyndham. or from the Derby and Kununurra courthouses.