How I Met My First 'Barra' In The Northern Territory

19 February 2015

Let me tell you about the first barramundi I caught. I still get a thrill thinking about it.

I grew up in Queensland, a kid obsessed with fishing. As a boy I could name every game boat and its skipper chasing the giant black marlin off Cairns, which were the best trout rivers in the southern states, and what species you could catch off the rock shelfs of Western Australia.

But what I dreamed about, what I longed for as I sat through long summer days in hot classrooms, was to go fishing in the Northern Territory.

 That frisson of danger

In my mind there was no more exciting place on the planet. Pursuing Australia's iconic sport fish, the barramundi, in a wild river running through wetlands teaming with unique birds and animals, ferocious crocodiles adding a frisson of danger, was the ultimate angling experience.

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Dinosaur Throwbacks

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Sure, Queensland has barramundi. So does Western Australia. But not like the Territory. They're bigger, wilder, more plentiful there.

And it's not just barramundi either. Saratoga, those throwbacks to the dinosaur age which hide under water lily pads and ambush anything that moves, are another favourite. Mangrove jacks, black jewfish, threadfin salmon, fingermark, giant trevally ... All the tropical species are there queuing up to clobber a lure.

It took me 26 years to get to the Territory, and when I went I had one thing on my mind - to catch my first barramundi.

 True wilderness

By then I was living in Sydney, and with a mate and our girlfriends we flew to Townsville, hired a Landcruiser and drove across Queensland, entering the Territory at Camooweal. We were a long way from barra country, but before we got there we were to experience some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet.

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Visual Feast

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Katherine Gorge is like the Grand Canyon - everyone has seen photos of it and you think you know what you'll find when you get there, but it's only when you are standing on the ancient escarpment and seeing the majesty of it for real do you appreciate its grandeur.

We also stopped at Mataranka thermal springs and Litchfield National Park ... Beautiful places. Every hour of that long drive was a visual feast.

But I wasn't enjoying it as much as I should because I was bursting with the need to get to Kakadu National Park.

It was there I would have my first shot at hooking the fish I had thought about for so long. Specifically, at Yellow Water Billabong.

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'There's No Fish Here'

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This famous waterway is renowned for its birdlife. There's a hotel there now, and guided tours. It's one of the jewels in Kakadu's crown. Back when I visited, there was only a basic campground.

We arrived in the afternoon and set up camp. The only other people there were a family from Victoria. I went to say hello and asked them about the fishing, and they said they had been trying for a couple of days for no reward. "There's no fish here," said the dad.

 A dream come true

It looked pretty fishy to me. A few snags, lots of water lilies, and plenty of bait fish around because you could see the birds scooping them up.

I used the rest of the daylight to rig up, tying on a lure I had bought years before just for this occasion, my first crack at a Top End barra. A glorious sunset and a few cold beers had me humming with anticipation.

I awoke at first light, crawled out of the tent, grabbed my rod and walked towards the banks of the billabong. It was surprisingly cool for October, and there was mist rising off the still waters. As I strolled along the bank hundreds of ducks and other water fowl were starting to stir, and the eastern sky was tinged with pink and gold. It was a beautiful scene.


Meet the reptiles. On A Croc Sized Adventure

See it all from the air. See The Top End The James Bond Way With Outback Wrangler Matt Wright


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Hire A Guide

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I found a likely looking spot - a gap in the lilies near a bit of fallen timber - unhooked my lure from the rod, and let fly.

It's what happened next that I'll never forget. The lure hit the water, two cranks of the reel handle ... Bang! The barramundi hit the plastic and came out of the water shaking its head. It looked huge to me but photographs show it was barely legal.

In that early morning light the fish's scales were bronze sequins, each leap and head shake a kaleidoscope of colour.

But a short tussle later, the fish was at my feet.

How was that!? My first cast in the Northern Territory and I've caught the fish of my dreams. You've gotta love it when a plan works so well.

For the next two hours or so I hooked and dropped a couple more, happier than I'd ever been. It was a magic morning.

Later on I ran into the Victorians, and I could see why they hadn't come close to catching a fish. They thought they were in Port Phillip Bay. You're not going to catch much except catfish using a snapper rig and ganged hooks in Yellow Water.

And therein lies a lesson. If you don't know the feeding habits and terrain of the fish you are trying to catch, hire a guide.

The good thing about the Northern Territory is that there are abundant fishing options catering for all levels of enthusiasm and comfort requirements, coupled with professional guidance on tap.

In my view it is crazy to go there and not utilise this expertise.

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The Glories Of Kakadu

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Whether you are a family with youngsters just wanting a morning on the water and maybe a fish or two for dinner, or a seasoned saltwater fly angler chasing a trophy saratoga, it takes time to get to know local conditions, so unless you are planning to stay in the Territory for months, hiring a guide is the smart thing to do. The professionals can maximise your opportunities to catch the fish of a lifetime.

 Kakadu's Jimjim Falls

Having nailed my first barra, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the trip, and there was plenty to see and do. Even if you're not a fisherman, the glories of Kakadu, and many of the other Territory attractions, can sustain you.

Still now, as it was then when I first visited, the Northern Territory is one of the world's great fishing destinations. Time to stop daydreaming at your desk and get up there.

Rory Gibson

Rory Gibson somehow makes a modest living writing columns for newspapers and magazines on the subjects of beer, travel and dating advice for his three sons, and roams the world looking for material to fill them.