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Half Snook. Half Beast. All Attitude.
When Lefty said, “This is the new frontier,” people should have listened.
By John Haenke

Barramundi like this are relatively common in Northern Australia. They are a fantastic fly-fishing target and when I fished them with Lefty Krey, he compared them to snook.

Back in the 1980s I was the cameraman/producer of a television show featuring Lefty Krey’s travels and adventures across the top end of tropical Australia.

He enjoyed world-class fly fishing for many species he hadn’t encountered before, and he cast on a variety of fish-rich and remote locations. It was a privilege to be with him as he saw for himself what Australia has to offer fly anglers. Before the end of the trip Lefty called Australia “the new frontier.”

During his trip, one species stood out: the barramundi. Lefty compared it to a snook, but remarked on it being more powerful, much larger on average, and that it responded to similar fishing techniques.

His old haunts had become, in his own words, “overcrowded and terribly expensive.” He and many other anglers, he said, were looking elsewhere.

After the trip Lefty wrote in his book Fly Fishing in Saltwater, “As I see it, the next great frontier where developments will rival those made in the 50s and 60s . . . will be in Australia. Here they have thousands of miles of coast, with all sorts of tackle breaking fish species that may become as well known as bonefish and tarpon”

Sadly Lefty is no longer with us, but his prediction was spot on.

Australia has over 21,000 miles of coastline, far more coast per capita than any other continent. With more than a thousand estuaries, there is a diverse range of sport fishing, including great opportunities for permit and bonefish, and many species not so well known outside of Australia. Much of it is still a very remote, and a well kept secret, often only accessible by boat.

The tropical northern half of Australia remains the least populated, and in many parts the least accessible. It is also in this top half that our premier sportfish, the barramundi (Lates Calcarifer) is found.

Barra, as Aussies call them, are similar to snook in appearance and habits, but they have a bulkier profile, can grow to over 100 pounds, and have an average length between two and four feet. They eat almost anything, including other barramundi, and can consume prey up to 60 percent their length.

With loads of attitude and a depth-charge like bite that inhales any hapless baitfish or fly that comes within striking range, plus acrobatic jumps and a vast range of different areas within Australia to fish for them, it’s no wonder they are an ideal fly target.

The natural range of barra extends from the desert country in the Kimberly area of Western Australia, through all the Top End of the Northern Territory, around Cape York in Queensland, and down as far as Hervey Bay in southeastern Queensland. Along this vast coastline, the locations where we can fish for barra are many and varied.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA AND THE KIMBERLY

In northwestern Australia and the Kimberly, ancient rivers have cut through sandstone, forming majestic gorges and waterfalls that meet the tidal sections of estuaries. Aboriginal paintings from tens of thousands of years ago adorn the caves and walls of some of these gorges.

This area has an ancient spirituality, a timeless quality. This is the landscape that visitors envision when thinking of Australia, and it never fails to impress. Where the red sands and rocks of the desert meet the turquoise ocean waters, the estuaries and rivers are often dominated by large tidal variations of up to 26 feet.

Barramundi are an ambush predator, often making use of the larger tidal flow. They sit in eddies and slack water behind structure, out of the current, picking off food as it passes by.

To be successful here, the fly needs to get down to the fish, behind and around the many rock bars and ledges.

It’s a case of blind casting with a sink-tip, intermediate or even fast-sink line, giving the fly time to get in front of their noses. Large profile flies with plenty of natural movement, like the Pink Thing, are stripped back close to structure and around the bases of waterfalls and rapids. When doing so, anglers know that at any moment a fly may be eaten and a magnificent silver fish could be jumping and tail-walking in front of them.

Saltwater crocodiles are seen sunning themselves on rocks with sea eagles soaring above. You may get the sensation that nothing has changed for millennia. This spectacular region is very remote and isolated with limited access. Motherships and floatplanes are often the only means of reaching some of the best barra fishing locations.

Controlling barra can be difficult, especially when fishing in and around structure. Keeping these fish on a short leash, close to the boat, is what it is all about. Sudden direction changes and powerful surging runs all add to the excitement.

Although saltwater barramundi are a sought after table fish in Australia, most barra are released to fight another day. They are a tough fish and survival rates of released fish are very high.

THE TOP END AND THE NORTHERN TERRITORY

In the Top End and the Northern Territory, massive rivers flow across extensive floodplains to the sea. These floodplains are littered with lagoons and billabongs, remnants of past wet seasons that are teaming with wildlife … and barramundi.

Reminders of distant times abound here too, in ancient artworks found in rock outcrops, in the deafening roar of thousands of corellas and smaller flocks of black cockatoos screeching above … in the timeless dance of the brolga and the majestic jabiru feeding on the rich diversity of food the floodplains provide … and the ever-present saltwater crocodiles cruising, looking for an easy meal.

Fishing surface flies here amongst the lily pads in these lagoons and billabongs, while experiencing the wildlife and ancient culture, is an experience not to be missed.

Watching a Dahlberg Diver bloop across the surface here is not for the faint hearted. The end result is often preceded by a large disturbance in the lily pads, followed by the fly disappearing in an explosion of whitewater and a fly rod bent to the max.

Further downstream barramundi are prolific around the mangrove mud flats, drains and rockbars as they travel with the tide.

Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory, and is centrally located to many of the rivers and floodplains, offering easy access to most of the prime barramundi fishing in the NT.

The Northern Territory billabongs and lagoons are famous for surface fishing during the dry season. Casting Dahlberg Divers amongst the lily pads is a great experience. The explosive strikes here are not for the fainthearted. Your fly rod will be bent to the max as you try to lead a fish into open water.

TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND

North Queensland is a mixture of the Kimberly and Top End, with the added mix of rainforest clad mountains. Fishing the rainforest rivers and streams, or sight fishing the lakes and impoundments for trophy size barra, is a different experience yet again.

The tidal sections of rivers and estuaries are prime habitat for barra. During a falling tide prawns and mullet can be seen flicking and jumping—they have no choice; they have to run the gauntlet of patrolling predators.

When this is happening an angler might suddenly here a crack, which means a large barra has crushed bait off the surface. A cast, a couple of strips, and there comes an unmistakable tug on the line, followed by a massive silver fish airborne, shaking a mouth that looks like a bucket. A fly might be pinned in the corner of its jaw as it tailwalks repeatedly. In my opinion the only thing that beats this is sight casting to barra in clear, shallow water . . . and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that, in the fresh and saltwater.

On Queensland’s east coast in particular, some of the river systems barra would naturally travel up and down have been dammed, with the water backing up behind a wall.

Interestingly, all barra are born as males. They become sexually mature at about three to four years old, and then some turn into females at about five or six years old, when they are about 32 inches long. But they require saltwater for this sex change, so all impoundment barra are males. These lakes or impoundments are therefore regularly stocked with barramundi fingerlings by fisheries and independent stocking groups. In these food-rich impoundments barra grow very large, producing excellent opportunities to catch trophy size fish. The average size is in the 20-to 30 pound range and often much larger.

During the cooler months when we usually have blue-sky days (the dry season), exceptional sight fishing for barra in the impoundments can be had using polarized sunglasses. These barra are up in the shallows looking for warmer water, literally sunning themselves. Cruising around the edges of the weeds and lily pads at this time of year can produce some of the most exciting fly fishing imaginable.

Most of these fish are over three feet long. Watching them hanging out, sometimes with their backs and dorsal fins out of the water, other times a tail waving in less than foot of clear water, certainly gets your heart thumping.

Getting into casting range requires stealth. Sometimes in low light or with poor visibility, it is difficult to determine which end is the head and which is the tail. This is particularly true when barra are holding up and not moving much. Nothing worse than a great cast landing in front of a barra’s tail!

When it all comes together though, the hookup is explosive and all hell breaks loose. Trying to keep the fish under control is nail biting stuff, especially around dead trees and timber. Keeping that fish on a short leash, close to the boat is, what it is all about. The really big monsters don’t often get completely out of the water, but the gill-rattling headshakes is something every fly fisher should see at least once in a lifetime.

North Queensland rivers are spectacular, often flowing through tropical rainforest and jungle. The Great Dividing Range is the source of these rivers flowing to the east coast and the western side of Cape York.

In many areas of Australia, there is very little pressure on our barramundi, particularly in our more remote north. A day on the water is often spent with no other anglers in sight.

SEASONS

Our weather patterns in Northern Australia are pretty straightforward. We have a wet season monsoon during our warmer months from around November to April, and a dry season during our cooler months, May to October.

Exceptional fishing can be had for barra at the beginning and end of our wet season, but the weather can be unstable. During the build up to the wet months, thunderstorms roll in across the flood plains, producing spectacular lightning shows, booming thunder and torrential rain and flooding.

These storms and warmer temperatures stir the barra up, and some of the best barra action can be had at this time of the year. However, it is very unpredictable and weather dependent.

During the wet season everything comes back to life—the coastal swamps fill, the feeder creeks run, and heavy rains fall constantly. The dust settles, and the grass and leaves turn from shades of brown to vivid green. Wet and dry is the cycle of life in our tropical north.

The breeding seasons of our wildlife evolve around the seasons. Barramundi spawn adjacent to the rivermouths once the first heavy rains start, so most of the larger female barra move downstream at this time of year.

During the wet season in Northern Australia there is an event that happens when the flood waters run off the plains, out of the coastal swamps, and into the rivers. It’s called the run-off, and it is something all Aussie anglers want to experience.

Each location sees different conditions, depending on how much rain falls in the surrounding area. Sometimes there may be a couple of floods, often determined by cyclones (hurricanes) tracking close to the coast. If your timing is good and it coincides with when the barra are moving back out of the feeder creeks and into the main rivers, the fly fishing can be sensational.

Most of the creeks draining the coastal swamps have tannin-stained water the color of tea caused by the bark from the paperbark trees that grow there. Even though it is dark in color, it is reasonably clear in contrast to the dirty milk-coffee colored water in the main river systems. Casting a fly around the edges of these color change areas can produce one fish per cast at times.

Nervous mullet get smashed off the surface by barra patrolling these color changes, traveling the length of these larger rivers from one feeder stream to the next. It’s something many barra anglers live for, and success is just a matter of finding a creek where all the “boofing” is going on and then getting your fly in the water.

There is often current flow around the creek mouths during the run-off. A sink-tip or intermediate line will get the fly down deep enough, and even though it’s a blind casting situation, it isn’t usually long between bites. The anticipation of another fish grabbing on, and not knowing what size it might be, keeps the adrenalin flowing.

If you enjoy landing large numbers of fish, then the run off is the time to do it.

Overall, Australia is a fly fisher’s paradise, and the barramundi is at the center of attention. If you love fly fishing for big angry battlers, appreciate spectacular, untouched and varied environments, enjoy watching a diverse range of wildlife, and want to experience an ancient land with a fascinating indigenous culture, Australia is the adventure you’re looking for.

Exceptional fishing can be had during the wet season run-offs. At this time of year, fly fishing for barra can be sensational. However, the weather is unpredictable and conditions can deteriorate quickly.

During our dry season and cooler months—from April through to October—the weather is usually consistent. At this time, sight casting to large impoundment barra in North Queensland is a great fly option.

The run off during or at the end of the wet season is a great time to fish barra. At this time barramundi, many of them well over three feet in length, gather around feeder creeks and tributaries running into the major river systems.

Bonus: Australia is a relatively safe place to visit. It is politically stable, with warm and genuine people who are very proud to call themselves Aussies, and who want to show you this fabulous continent they call home. Aussies also speak English—well sort of. You’ll get used to our drawl, maybe eventually understand what we’re saying, and you may even end up understanding our humor. But no guarantees there! What we can guarantee is an adventure that you’ll never forget, and that our barramundi will have you returning for more.

When it comes to large barra, a 9 or 10-weight rod and reel combination is ideal. A quality reel with a large arbor and a good drag is essential. These are powerful fish and you don’t want gear failures preventing you from landing a fish.

The Pink Thing is a bulkier version of a Whistler, and is without a doubt our most popular barra fly. Tied with a weed guard, it is extremely versatile. It can be fished at different depths on anything from a floating line to a fast-sink line.

Sight casting to barramundi of this size is a wonderful experience. With clear skies and polarized sunglasses anglers often see barra with their backs and tails out of the water.

Saltwater crocodiles are common in many of our tropical estuaries, rivers, creeks, billabongs and lagoons. Their range extends far up into freshwater, so there’s definitely no swimming in these areas. Care needs to be taken when fishing these areas but crocs are an integral part of our ecosystem and have survived since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

John Haenke
John Haenke has spent most of his life behind a camera, capturing on film and video some of the best fishing Australia and the South Pacific has to offer. Nowadays John specialises in guiding fly fishers on the flats and for trophy barra in the beautiful Whitsundays in North Queensland, Australia.