The big advertising campaign for the Northern Territory used to be: “You’ll Never, Never know if you Never, Never go.”
Sounds silly, but it is right. When I was at school the Territory was always associated with the “Never, Never Land.” It was a reference from aboriginal folklore; like the Dreamtime. However, “Never, Never” doesn’t relate to the fishing, and Dreamtime is for real – it’s something to do on the trip home after the adventure.
Moreover, adventure is what the Territory is about. Not just the fishing, but the flora and fauna. I’m no greenie, but it’s hard not to appreciate the raw environment where anything that swims, walks or flies – including anglers – has meal potential.
The Territory has a diverse offering for travelling anglers, however the most sought after fish is the barramundi, and the best time to be here is during the run-off after the Wet. One of the most accessible areas for anglers is the Mary River system; about three hours drive east of Darwin.
The name is a misnomer as the Mary River breaks up into a system of billabongs and creeks the size of southern rivers. The two largest waterways are Sampan and Tommycut Creeks, which flow out of Corroboree Billabong.
Most of my fishing in this area has been in company with Dean McFarlane, fishing guide and owner of the Pt Stuart Wilderness Lodge.
Shore based anglers can fish from the Shady Camp Barrage, which separates fresh and salt water. Situated on Sampan Creek, the barrage is a noted land based fishing spot but not one recommended given that these waters hold the biggest crocodiles in the Territory. Watching anglers standing knee deep on the barrage in fast running water is a scary sight, given the backdrop of crocodiles.
There is a boat ramp above the barrage. Barramundi in the freshwater reaches of the river are not as big as those caught downstream, however there is the bonus of saratoga for anglers who prefer to fish at Corroboree Billabong.
Anglers wanting to go downstream in the saltwater launch across the riverbank below the barrage – keeping watch on those crocs. Launching a boat off the riverbank at Shady Camp can be an unnerving experience. On my first visit the area was in flood, and boat launching meant holding the boat in the water while the vehicle and trailer were parked. These waters are home to the biggest crocodiles in the Territory, and standing up to your thighs in water in the predawn grey holding a boat takes some getting used to.
My unease that first time wasn’t so much the crocodiles I could see, rather from what I could not see: Knowing there were even bigger crocs hanging about the place … somewhere. I knew this because I had seen a 14 footer the day before, and was told it was being a nuisance knocking over the rubbish bins. On that first morning the rubbish bins had been knocked over again, but there was no sign of the croc.
Sampan Creek runs from the barrage at Shady to the sea at Chambers Bay. The biggest barra, fish over a metre, are caught at the mouth of the river, but you don’t have to travel that far to hook decent barra.
Returning from fishing Tommycut with fishing guide Dean McFarlane, we came out of the chicane that is the shortcut connecting Tommycut Creek with Sampan Creek. Making a sharp right turn to motor upstream towards Shady Camp, we were hot, dry and thirsty when ahead of us we saw a mirage: a boat decked out with umbrellas labelled Peters Ice Cream. On board was Darwin-based guide who had anchored close to the bank out from a small drain. The discolouration is the demarcation between the fresh drain water and saline river water. Barramundi sit on these demarcations, feeding on small fish and crustaceans being washed off the flood plain.
As we pulled up near Dean, his crew were flicking lures towards the bank: Barramundi were coming on almost every cast; not big fish, most were between 50 and 60cm. As we watched, Melbourne angler Murray Smallhorn cast his soft plastic lure to a line of discoloured water, let his lure sink, gave it a slight lift and hooked up. A few minutes of aerobatics and Dean nets a 5.5kg barramundi. The fishing stayed like that for a few more hours: the drain, one of many along the river, was about two kilometres downstream from Shady Camp.
Fishing options in the Mary River system are numerous. One of the best is Tommycut Graveyard, once a healthy thriving freshwater wetland system similar to Kakadu, which was destroyed by saltwater intrusion. Monsoonal rainforests, pandanus and tall shady paperbark trees have gone; the lifeless trunks of paperbarks and ever expanding mangrove trees, and of course barramundi, remain.
I fished here with Dean and Victorian fishing writer, Rod Mackenzie. Motoring a few kilometres downstream of the shortcut in Tommycut Creek, Dean made a left turn into a small, mangrove-lined creek and drove his boat upstream against the fast flowing water for several kilometres. We fished the creek with success until lunchtime when Dean decided we should move further upstream. The tide was low tide and when we could go no further he nosed the boat into the bank and tied it off. We then stepped ashore and walked a couple of hundred metres across crusty clay to a barrage constructed in an attempt to halt saltwater flow into the Graveyard.
Casting soft plastic paddle tail lures with our baitcaster outfits brought immediate success. The technique was to let the lure sink to the bottom, and then wind slow employing a slight lift and drop technique. Barra take the lures on the lift, drop, and on the bottom. The key to success is speed. Another fishing guide once told me: you can’t wind too slow for barra. He was right. There was plenty of action as the barramundi to about 70cm were schooled in a small area along a deeper section of what remained of the barrage.
Barra are a boof and bite fish. A barramundi engulfs its prey with a huge intake of water, and then expels the water through its gills with a loud boofing noise that has been likened to the sound of a shotgun fired up a drainpipe. The noise is so loud that inexperienced anglers could be excused for thinking it was opening day for duck season.
Tommycut and Sampan Creeks flow into Chambers Bay where isolated reef systems hold solid populations of mulloway and golden snapper. The fish are prolific, and in about six metres of water.
When I fished here, the method was to drop the line to the seabed, then wind the sinker off the bottom about 30cm to avoid snagging. The first indication of a bite was a tap-tap on the line, then the rod would buckle over as a metre-long slab of silver and scales scoffed the bait and steamed took off.
It sounds easy, and it was. At least setting the hook was easy. These mulloway run hard and long, and when close to the boat always dive for the anchor rope or the propeller on the outboard. Nevertheless, coming across so many mulloway in the middle of the day in shallow water was an experience bordering on surreal.
Wildman River is inaccessible by road and takes about two hours fast running in a boat to get there from Shady Camp. Dean motored downriver for 30 minutes, and then we left Sampan Creek and entered the sea at Chambers Bay. To avoid the shallow mudflats, boats are motored several kilometres offshore before turning east to run along the coast past Pt Stuart, and then into Finke Bay. An hour later and we entered the mouth of Wildman River. This is a big river: there are no mudflats or breaks in the mangrove lined banks, and despite the 150 metre width of the water, the vegetation is so tall and thick it is claustrophobic.
Upriver about 20 kilometres, we came to a junction. Another boat had come in ahead of us and the crew were already catching barramundi. We dropped the anchor a little upriver of the boat, and closer to an eddy just behind a point on the junction. Dean said to cast the lures as close to the snags and overhanging mangroves as possible. The first barra came on the first cast, and soon we were enjoying triple hook-ups on fish from 65cm to 80cm long.
Loud cheers came from the other boat; I turned in time to see a huge burst of spray as a metre-plus barra went skyrocketing out of the tannin-coloured water. Melbourne angler Chris Memery had hit the jackpot, hooking into one of the bigger fish Dean had said were there. The whopper took off around the boat, and headed for the safety of the mangroves. Chris turned the barra with inches to spare, and the great silver ingot responded with more aerobatics and head shaking as it attempted to throw the lure. The hooks held firm and the 16.3kg, 1.10m fish was netted, photographed and released to fight another day.
Another 10 minutes passed and I was into a similar-sized barra, this one was a tad shorter but a kilogram heavier at 17.23kg. Another quick release, a few more casts, and Dean’s father Rod hooked up a big barra. When the fish took the lure he was too close to the mangroves, and Rod couldn’t stop it before it dragged his lure and line down through the mangrove roots and snapped the 24kg braid line. The mangrove bush was shaking as the fish tried to free itself, so we went over, just in time to see the fish under the water before it took off.
There was no breeze where we fished. After several hours sweating in the 40-degree heat, our hands were so slippery that holding rods and fighting fish was difficult. Nevertheless, we persisted: It isn’t that often that you come across a hot barra bite with fish of that quality.
Shady Camp is a free camping area with clean toilet blocks sited off the ground. Rubbish bins are located well away from the campsites and there is no worry about feral dogs and cats getting into the rubbish: the crocodiles take care of that.
Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge is located in the heart of the beautiful Mary River Wetlands. The lodge has motel rooms and campsites. Power is available, as are barbecue facilities, a pool and a saloon bar with restaurant. Boat hire is available at the lodge, which is on the road to Shady Camp.
Further information: Pt Stuart Wilderness Lodge 08 89788914 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.