Category: High Risk
IF there is an icon species in Australia it must be barramundi. They grow big, they can be prolific at times, they take lures, flies and baits and they jump. What more could you ask? At some stage in their life most southern anglers dream of catching a big barra and many make an annual pilgrimage to the Pilbara and Kimberley regions to live out this dream. Barramundi are probably the top tourism dollar earner species in Western Australia, which is no doubt in part why the size, bag and possession limits are so tight.
A lure cast – not without risk – tight into the shadow of a fallen knot of corkwood and river gums is an anxious moment in a barra angler’s life. Is there a fish under there? Has to be – it’s just too good a snag to be fishless. The lure is twitched enticingly past the largest of the river gum trunks where it’s left for a second before a quick short downward movement of the rod has it kicking forward and away from the shadows.
The rod bucks in the sweating hand of the angler as the braid comes tight to a barra. A split second later it’s airborne – some 20 kilos of muscle covered in silver scales the size of 50 cent pieces, mouth open, gills flared and head shaking. Before the angler can regain some composure the lure flies free and lands in the water no more than a metre from the side of the dinghy. In seconds the holy grail is found and lost but the angler lowers his head slowly and vows to return the following year for another shot at the barra of his dreams.
Barra are fascinating creatures whose table qualities have in earlier years seen stocks under some serious pressure. Fortunately both anglers and government have come to realise that a healthy barra fishery is good for the state – very good in fact. That’s why adherence to today’s realistic bag and possession limits is so important for the future.
About the only species likely to be confused with a barramundi is a sand bass, which is not related in any way. The easiest way to tell the two apart is that barra have a seriously underslung bottom jaw whereas the sand bass has a protruding top jaw. As well, the sand bass grows to only 50cm.
The Game Fishing Association of Australia shows a 27.1kg monster being captured in the Northern Territory but larger land-locked barra are to be found in some of Queensland’s stocked impoundments. In Western Australia a 22.1kg barra was taken in the Pilbara in 1997.
A good barra is 10 to 15 kilos and a big one weighs up to 20 kilos, which used to be a 40-pounder in the old measurements. Anything above 20 kilos is an absolute horse and the subject of many an angler’s dreams, but in fact the vast majority of barra caught recreationally tend to be smaller fish to three kilos.
Commercial, and to a lesser extent recreational, exploitation used to be the biggest threat to barramundi stocks but that would appear to no longer be the case in WA although barra stocks are considered to be commercially fully exploited. Barra are very vulnerable to netting as they move in and out of small creeks and rivers, and in recognition of this all recreational haul and set netting is banned north of Beadon Creek at Onslow. In addition, some rivers have recently been closed to commercial netting.
Tackle and bait
A lot of barra fishing is still done with six to eight-kilo monofilament but keen anglers have increasingly turned to 10-15kg braid, which allows a lot more purchase on fish hooked in our snag-ridden northern creeks and rivers. Although some anglers use spinning gear the preferred setup for the vast majority of hardened barra anglers is a baitcasting outfit. Small overhead reels, combined with a single-handed rod to suit, can be cast all day without line twist and are a delight to use once you get the hang of them.
Many barra still fall to a strip of fresh fish or a whole mullet, and generally the simplest of rigs will do the job – just a hook tied on to a leader to protect the main line from the barra’s sharp gill plates. Barra are wonderfully co-operative in that they will take baits at various depths and all manner of lures and flies, including those fished on the surface. In fact, working surface fizzers at night is something I always look forward to on a barra trip.
It is widely accepted that the southern range of barra in WA extends down to the bottom end of Exmouth Gulf, but from Dampier north is where the main stocks occur.
Breeding and migration
The life cycle of barramundi is fascinating because they are mostly – but not exclusively – protandrous hermaphrodites. What this means is that the vast majority start their lives as males but undergo sex inversion to become females at 6-8 years. The young males primarily live in the headwaters of northern rivers and freshwater billabongs. The wet season sees them heading downstream to the estuaries and tidal flats where the female barra live. On a full or new moon, and in water temperatures of 27 to 33 degrees, barra spawn. The eggs are taken deep in to the creeks and estuaries where brackish water is the preferred environment for the newly hatched barramundi. Finally at the end of the wet season the young, mostly male, barra head upstream to spend the next few years in the freshwater until it’s their turn to breed.
TIn rivers, creeks and billabongs baits should generally be fished close to a snag, rock bar, hole or other obvious barra habitat. When such features are scarce, small creek mouths and sand bars will often turn up some barra at the right stage of the tide. In these circumstances don’t fish in the middle – try to work out where the barra will move through in and out of the creek. This is often within three metres or so of the water’s edge. The standard fare for barra fishing is casting bibbed lures at features to entice a strike. A slow, twitching retrieve has proven the most effective way for me to catch barra consistently, although unusual savage downward ripping actions have given me some great results too, so be prepared to experiment.
Lures such as Tilsan Bass, RMG Scorpion, Classic Lures and Rapala Shad Raps have all given me some great sessions over the years. [Remember, too, that it’s impossible to have too many lures; just ask my wife!] Bibless lures like Rattlin’ Spots and small Tremblers are also worth a place in your tackle box for times when the fish are deep in the snags. Small surface poppers and fizzer lures with blades will also turn up their share of fish, especially at times of low light, and it’s a great way to fish because you get to see and hear the strike!
This year’s Barra Classic in the Northern Territory was won using soft plastics which is yet another style of American freshwater bass lure that has been adapted for barra fishing. Lure fishing is a constantly changing world and that’s probably part of its appeal. Many barra anglers don’t like trolling but at times and on certain rivers it’s the best way to catch big fish. Try using floating lures that bounce off the snags down deep. Don’t be too concerned about getting snagged – if you’re not down there in snaggy territory you will almost certainly be missing out on catching fish.
Have a range of options to make the most of your barra trip. It’s well worth the effort.
References: Allan & Swainston, The Marine Fishes of North Western Australia. Compiled with the assistance of Dr. Barry Hutchins Curator of Fishes, West Australian Museum.