Arnhem Land Pt 1: Cody Hochen

From my window seat, there were endless flood plains and rivers leading to the Arafura Sea. They teamed with diversity of wildlife and were home to leaping barramundi. From the other side of the plane was the spectacular, but rugged, Arnhemland escarpment, glowing red in the morning sun.

They were two of the most contrasting and spectacular sites I had seen. As the small plane touched down on that deserted airstrip in the small Aboriginal township, Maningrida, to say my anticipation was high is an understatement. This trip was twelve months in the making. My brother, father and I had chosen to spend five days fishing the amazing waters of Arnhemland with the crew from the Arnhemland Barramundi and Nature Lodge.

With our feet back on the ground, we were introduced to Arnhemland by two guides, Pete and Andy. Their casual nature had us feeling at home, as we loaded our gear into the back of the Landcruiser and made the 20-minute journey to the ‘Barra Lodge’. Immediately, the inevitable question, “How is the fishing?” was asked. From my research, I expected that the conditions leading up to our arrival had been great; but Pete’s answer indicated otherwise. Apparently, groups had struggled with the tough conditions. How could the fishing be tough in Arnhemland? Pete warned us that the tides had not been great for the rivers but the fishing would pick up over the next few days.

We arrived at the lodge, and what an amazing place it was. Perched on top of an escarpment, the lodge compliments the landscape, leaving a very small architectural footprint on the surrounding environment. The view from the top of the escarpment allowed us to take in the huge expanse of floodplains that drain into the Tomkinson and Liverpool rivers. Our quarters for the five nights were spacious, fully air-conditioned canvas tents, with a deck and all the facilities of a 5-star hotel. I’m told this is ‘glamping’, but I certainly wasn’t complaining.

After eagerly unpacking and rigging our rods, we settled in for the afternoon sunset with a few beers on the deck of the main quarters. A never-ending precession of food arrived just as the resident blue-winged kookaburra arrived for its regular afternoon feed. The buffalo grazed on the floodplains in the distance. That night, after eating probably one of the best steaks I have had, we met all the guides, including Declan our own for the five days, and head guide, Sean. As the beers flowed, we enthusiastically discussed the next day’s plans.

Day 1

There are no 4 a.m. starts at Barra Lodge, unlike when I am fishing at home. We woke up at gentleman’s hours (6 a.m.) and were greeted with coffee and a hot breakfast. Still digesting, we piled onto the bus and made the 20-minute run to the boat ramp (or lack of) at Maningrida. As we had no option but to launch at a low-tide, the launch was a mission in itself. The ramp stopped about one metre above the low-tide mark and we had no option other than to drop the wheels of the trailer off the ramp and carefully lower the fully-decked-out Ocean Masters into two-foot of water and mud. After a five-point turn and some churning, we were eventually on our way down the huge expanse of the Liverpool River.

Since the tides weren’t at their peak for fishing the salt, we opted to do the long hall in the Ocean Master up to the freshwater reaches to try our luck for barra, saratoga and mangrove jack, plus anything else that wanted to eat our lures. After an hour and a half of travelling down the Liverpool River and watching it change from its enormous muddy mangrove banks, to skinny Melaleuca and Pandanus lined reaches, we arrived at a likely-looking stretch of snags. We quickly cast out weedless softplastics and medium hard body divers. Within five minutes dad landed a brilliantly coloured freshwater mangrove jack, around 45cm. Surprised by the size of the freshwater jack, Declan assured us that they grow even bigger in this system. Over the next few hours, we landed some rat barra and around a dozen jacks, including one cracker to Justin that almost made it to the 50 cm mark. Like all jacks, these were ferocious and tried to dust us on the never-ending snags, with one succeeding and taking my ever-reliable Jackall Squirrel with it.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to tangle with a wild saratoga, one of my bucket list fish. Monster archerfish were in plague proportions, often getting to the lure before more sought after fish had a chance. The first day was a good appetizer for what was to come.

That night after a few beers, barra bites, and another impressive dinner, we discussed the options for the next day. After chatting to other fishing parties and guides, it seemed that the tides weren’t conducive to good fishing in the Liverpool River. For Day 2, we decided it was time to try another system.


Day 2

After another dodgy low-tide launch, the Ocean Master was on its way out of the vast mouth of the Liverpool River, down the coast to Rolling Bay. After 45 minutes of passing some of the fishiest looking beaches and rocky headlands we made our way into Rolling Bay. We churned our way over a few sandbanks and steamed into a small creek. Our focus today was the reason we came all this way: barramundi.

Our first stop was a bank of never-ending snags a couple of kilometres up the creek. It only took half a dozen casts to hooked up, but unfortunately I dropped a nice barra. The next dozen casts with both plastics and hardbodies resulted in a few rats, a nice jack and about 4-feet of angry barracuda that did its best to eat a rat barra from the previous cast. We spent an hour casting plastics and hardbodies at some great looking snags and gutters for a dozen smallish barra and good sized jacks. As the bite slowed, Declan suggested that the tide was just right for some barra action at the junction of the two creeks at the mouth of the system. Declan pushed the nose of the Ocean Master up onto a mud bank as nervous mullet milled around on the incoming tide. He told us that that barra stack up on a mud drop off, waiting for mullet to move up onto the flats on the incoming tide. It didn’t take long, as Justin’s weedless plastic got belted as soon as it hit the water. Unfortunately, the hooks didn’t find the mark, though on the next cast they did as a healthy barra around 70 cm leapt from the water. This was so far the biggest barra of the trip and it looked as though there were plenty more to be caught. Over the next hour we landed about 10 barra and a nice jack while casting weedless rigged 4” plastics along the mud drop-off. The highlight was watching dad and Justin battle twin 75 cm barra as they tail-walked around the boat. We kept a few fish around the 65 cm mark for barra bites that night.

As the water started to make its way up into the mudflats and mangroves, so did the mullet with barra hot on their tails. This meant it was time to move. Since Declan is from Brisbane, we exchanged stories about targeting threadies in the Brisbane River. He told me there were a few in the creeks of Rolling Bay, which could be targeted using a similar method I use in the Brisbane River – hopping soft vibes. However, these fish were in shallow water, and like to put on a good aerial display while hooked. He suggested we visit a sharp bend in a nearby creek that usually held a few threadies. It didn’t take long for my Zerek Fish Trap to receive one’s subtle bites. Unfortunately, the hooks didn’t find the mark and on the next hop, got thumped by another sizable barra. You can’t complain about a 70 cm barra even when you are expecting a thready. After I pulled another three barra out of the thready hotspot, I finally pinned a thready. It immediately jumped out of the water and charged straight at the boat (typical thready tactics) and under the anchor rope. Some quick rod work with my Venom Crankbait 2-4 PE had the fish charging off to the other side of the bank. After some quick runs around the boat, a solid 80 cm thready was landed. While not big for Brisbane River standards, it was just as much fun out of such shallow water. Once another 10 or so barra on soft vibes were caught, it was time to move back to the creek junction for the outgoing tide.

The sounder indicated there were plenty of barra on the drop-off, waiting for the mullet to retreat from the draining mudflat and mangroves. It only took half a dozen casts to get into the action. We moved up and down the drop-off, landing another dozen or more barra and another nice threadfin. All the action attracted the attention of a small crocodile that didn’t seem too bothered by our presence. Both Justin and I were destroyed by two very large fish (perhaps black jewfish). By the end of the day, we had easily caught 40 barra, a dozen mangrove jack, three threadies, as well as the usual bycatch. We had a terrific day and Declan’s expertise had us reeling in quality fish throughout the day.

The next day would see us taking advantage of the light winds by partaking in some bluewater action.

Day 3

We arrived at the ramp and like clock work, Declan was waiting for us with the Ocean Master rigged and ready to go. The tide was getting a little higher in the mornings so the launch, although still difficult, was nothing compared with the last two days. With light winds and no swell, we punched out to a large rocky island approximately 15 kilometers north west of the mouth of the Liverpool River. The whole island looked amazing, with shallow rocky fringing reef that dropped off into bluewater currents. Firstly, we threw around some stickbaits to try to get the attention of the local queenfish. They didn’t seem to want to play the game so after an hour we moved to a patch of deeper reef for something a bit tastier.

Dropping 3 – 4” Zman shrimpz and minnowz on ½ ounce jigheads and bouncing them off the bottom soon received some interest with all kinds of reef fish and the usual reef ooglies. We caught a few small trout before dad hooked up to something a bit more substantial. After a white knuckle battle trying to extract the fish from the reef, up came a beautifully coloured bluebone. What a spectacular looking fish, with its iridescent blues, greens and pinks. It was almost a shame to throw it in the esky, but a fish of such beauty is also one of the tastiest. After the trevally moved in we made tracks to a patch of reef about 12 feet deep that Declan thought would hold some good bluebone. About 10 minutes into the drift, Justin hooked a brute. It ripped drag at will and his Nitro Viper doubled over as it tried hard to find the reef. Expecting a monster bluebone, up popped something a fly fisherman would give their non-casting arm to catch. Approximately 10 kilograms of blue bastard floundered beside the boat. Declan was surprised since he’d never caught, let alone seen, a blue bastard of that size. The fish had put its all into the fight and despite all our best efforts, couldn’t swim off. We put it in the kill tank for crab pot bait. About 10 minutes later, Justin hooked another, exactly the same size. While watching the combat, my plastic was crunched. After a short but intense battle, up popped a reasonable bluebone. We took photos of both fish and released the blue bastard, which this time swam off. Declan put the bluebone in the kill tank and now the blue bastard that was almost dead was swimming around in the kill tank. Surprisingly it had revived itself and this time slowly swam off when released. Over the next hour, we caught another bluebone, coral trout and a few big sweetlip. All fish came out of 12 feet and took some stopping on our relatively light gear.

We went searching for fingermark, however, stumbled across some bait balls at the entrance to Rolling Bay. Straight away, I saw a Spanish mackerel explode about five metres out of the water as it erupted out of one of the bait balls. Hurriedly, we tied on stickbaits and threw them into the bait balls. Eventually we found some interest with a couple of big queenfish smashing Justin’s Yo Zuri stickbait. Just as we were about to leave, I shot off a cast into a small patch of bait that had been separated from the main bait ball. As soon as the stickbait landed, a Spanish mackerel appeared. I quickly skipped the stickbait across the surface the Spaniard was in hot pursuit. As it neared the boat it crunched it on the surface. The 6-kilogram Spaniard was lifted into the boat after a couple of short runs. The following afternoon this fish was served to the guests of the lodge as the best sashimi I have tasted.

The first three days were over and we had caught at least 20 species of fish. Although we hadn’t caught a memorable fish yet, reports from the end of day 3 suggested that the rock bars in the Liverpool River were starting to fire. This is what we had been hoping for. However, those two days deserve their own article, so tune in next month…