The Top End’s wetlands are truly amazing and none more so then the Mary River National Park, and its jewel, Corroboree Billabong – a flood plain ox-bow lake.
There is nothing like it anywhere else across the tropics and it rivals anything that the Kakadu National Park to the east has. The Rock Hole, upstream from Corroboree Billabong proper, are both connected by a narrow channel creating some 18km of navigable water. The billabong is reached by turning left just pass Corroboree Park Tavern on the Kakadu Highway. The 29km road is partly sealed. It terminates at the boat ramp, a bush camp ground, and a houseboat “marina.”
Both the Rockhole and Corroboree Billabong are noted fishing destination for dry season anglers from Darwin – an hour’s drive away. Barramundi are the main target fish, but the spotted or Jardine saratoga rates highly as a sport fish. Other tropical freshwater species include sooty grunter, sleepy cod, archer fish, tarpon, and pesky forktail catfish.
The flood plain scenery is world class, the bird life unique and the crocodiles include both freshwater and saltwater species. Like I said this place is special as they rarely co-exists in other places the way they do here. Antilopine wallaroos, Agile wallabies and Asiatic water buffalo graze on the land and in the shallows, keeping a wary eye out for the supreme predator, the misnamed Saltwater or Estuarine crocodile. They grow big here with one local over 6m in length with jaws to match…
One of the best ways of enjoying this unique wilderness is to hire a house boat and head out for the night and anchor somewhere on the water under a full moon. Relax on the rear deck with a fine wine and a fry freshly caught barramundi fillets on the barbie and be enthralled by the night noises as the billabong comes alive with splashing “booffing” barramundi. The “boof” is akin to a shotgun fired up a drain pipe as a barra engulfs its prey. In turn they are hunted by the crocodiles. The freshwater crocs communicate to each other with yapping sounds while their saltwater cousins sound like a sore-headed scrub bull with their moaning. Even some birds, particular the Great-billed heron, sounds very similar to the bull crocodile.
The house boats come equipped with a tinnie and you can roam about the water wilderness at will in search for where the best fishing is. The fringing lotus lily beds are always worth a try, as are the shady paperbark trees and under the stands of pandanus. There is a couple of rock bars hidden in the billabongs also. You need a sounder to find them, though if you see one of the local fishing guides trolling up and down a spot, he or she is most likely fishing a deep diving lure by bouncing it on the bottom for barra.
Another billabong, Hardies Lagoon, is reached from the Arnhem Highway; a few kilometres past the Tavern. The maintained dirt road ends at the boat ramp and bush camp area. The “lagoon” is about 5km long and is connected by a normally dry creek with Corroboree. It has top fishing, especially just after the Wet. There are many Antilopine wallaroos along the dirt road. The Top End does not have grey or red kangaroos, the similar looking Antilopine wallaroo replace them.
Located on the Arnhem Highway bridge, this misnamed river pool is in the Mary River proper and is about 4km long. There is a camping/picnic area on the right just before the bridge. A concrete boat ramp makes launching easy. The best barra and saratoga are found hanging off snags and on the several rock bars in the long pool. Sooty grunters are commonly caught farther upstream during the run-off.
Some 18km past the Bark Hut Tavern is the turn-of to the famed Shady Camp. The Mary River loses its identity here and flows into two large streams, Sampan and Tommycut Creek. There is a number of barrages (dams) in the area that prevent saltwater intrusion into the freshwater wetlands from the 8m tides that push in from the Van Diemen Gulf. Shady Camp has a large concrete wall that is rated as the best land-based fishing spot in the Top End – and the most dangerous. A bush camp ground is nearby.
Be aware that this part of the Mary also houses the largest number of 4.2m+ saltwater crocodiles in the world. Fishing on the barrage is not very healthy especially when there is water flowing over it as the snapping handbags live on both sides of the narrow wall. It is you call…
The best fishing is generally just after the wet season during the “run-off,” when the flood plains drain and the long dry season kicks in. The big Spring tides roll in as far as the barrage wall carrying myriad schools of mullet and hungry hunting barramundi. It’s pure carnage when the run ends and splashes against the dam wall and the predators close the man-made trap.
Local anglers will tell you that the fishing is poor during the dry season proper when the water is cool, and they are partly right, but Top End fishers are a spoiled lot used to catching bucket loads of barra. When the bite eases a little they reckon they are hard done by and locals stay home to watch the footy instead…
But I have never fished the Mary River system without catching a decent barramundi, saratoga, and other species, even during the coolest dry season days. It’s a matter of trying different methods, different lures, and changing positions. Bridge Lagoon has plenty of snags and many rock bars. Casting in the timber and trolling over the rock bars will always catch a fish.
The billabongs are fringed with weeds and lilies, best fished by casting amongst openings with weedless lures. My favourite and most successful lure is the Reidy’s “Weedie,” a soft rubber lure that has the hook embedded inside it. You just toss them in the weeds and lily pads and retrieve it as you would any other lure. Because the hook is hidden it won’t collect any debris, but when a fish bites down on the rubber the hidden hook is unleashed.
Hard body lures are favoured in these waters and the Reidy B52 is my chosen lure for the job. Others of course will work also. Never be afraid to try something different when the bite is slow. For instance last time I fished Corroboree the barra were off the bite, but we caught five over 80cm by trolling Reidy’s Daly Devils in 2.3m of water, 8m behind the boat using an electric outboard. Using new methods like this can pay dividends when the barra are lazy.
The Mary River wetlands are a dreamtime landscape where catching a fish is truly a bonus. You just never tire of the fauna and flora, the birdlife is outstanding, and if you have ever wanted to fish with crocodiles, this is where the dream comes true.
En route drop into Reidy’s Lure Factory near the junction of the Stuart and Arnhem Highways and get the right lures for the job. There is plenty of accommodation and bush camp grounds in the region.