Bite Trigger – Dan Bowater June 16

At the time of writing local fishing has been challenging with heavy rainfall and squally trade winds ruling out trips for all but the keenest minority. Some of the larger local river systems like the mighty Johnstone react very sensitively to these unpredictable rainfall events. So it’s not surprising that such waterways are currently sporting a red tinge and flowing about a metre deeper than normal.

Somewhat fortuitously my mate James was passing through Innisfail in early April whilst on a massive road trip from Victoria just before all the recent rain hit. Back then the Johnstone was much more stable flowing low, slow and ultra clear. We had planned to fish the period a few days before the new moon and water temps hadn’t dipped much under 30 degrees- both positive variables for lure munching estuary dwellers.

The Johnstone is a massive river that divides in half at the Innisfail Township with the South Johnstone reaches offering a narrower, more protected saltwater and brackish lure casting options. Any day when those strong southerlies are in force it’s honestly hard to pass it up as one of the best local choices. The clear characteristics of the South Johnstone become both a blessing and a curse in that the snags and fish are more visible but resident predators often behaving tentatively toward artificial offerings. On our trip we were determined to experiment with some new hard-body minnows featuring LED technology successfully trailed at James Cook University. I had already tasted success on my small Balista trigger minnow in the shallow mud flats near Mourilyan Harbour but hadn’t given them a solid run in the bigger rivers featuring larger freshwater reaches. When James and I launched the tinny at the mirror flat Johnstone junction water visibility was typically high but slowly diminished through the morning thanks to some turbulence from the howling sea breeze.

The tide had fallen significantly by about midday allowing a further two hour window of opportunity for some decent fishing action. Remembering a successful trip with my mate Ryan Harris I figured we could put the trigger minnows to good use in an unassuming sheltered adjoining creek we had ‘scoped out’ back in 2010. Like I remembered it just had a much different eerie feel to the main river. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a torrent of cloudy muddy outflow exited the entrance. The churning stained waters were almost the polar opposite from what we had seen only half an hour earlier. We carefully navigated my old barra punt into the upper section with some cautious optimism. The logic being that the barra and jacks would be hammering any bait schools trapped or lingering around a series of shallow timber and rock structures.

In reality we had probably picked a day with too much tidal run considering the perpetual outflow of clear freshwater is a commonality between the Johnstone, Mulgrave and Russell tributaries. In these systems a slight incoming tide is actually easier for effectively working the snags and doesn’t seem to decrease interest from those battlers occupying them. However, this small feeder creek was more representative of a traditional barra river being dictated more predictably by only the tide book. Our expectations grew each time a group of startled poddy mullet wizzed past the tinny or were chased by an unseen harasser from below. I began by tying on my trusty battle scarred ‘brown dog’ trigger minnow and slowly twitched it parallel to the first cluster of snags. Immediately a solid jack struck the lure but somehow missed the lip jewellery. It was a promising start anyway! The electric motor slowly and surely pushed us along to the next set of snags positioned under a shady overhang. The suspending qualities of the trigger minnow caused it to hold in the narrow strike zone remarkably allowing the red LED light to provoke a strike (at midday no less!). It was probably the weirdest barra strike I’ve experienced with the fish slowly slurping down the lure before erupting into a series of short bursts and jumps.

The predators were seeking out prey with timber and rocks merely being used as ambush points rather than cover for safety. I feel that in this situation (where the barra/jacks are searching for food) having a lure with both a combination of rattle, bold colour and internal light allows for a special presence in the water. Of course, the flip side is that these features can be a little overbearing in ultra clear water when fish are more timid. In such instances reverting to something like weedless soft plastics is definitely a quieter/sneakier option. As we continued downstream the bait could be polarised panicking as the dwindling schools raced out of the feeder creek and into the main part of the Johnstone. Then in the next half an hour we were provided with exactly the kind of estuary sport fishing we hoped to encounter. A series of small jacks and other by-catch were quickly added to the tally before James found form with a very respectable 42cm jack and just-legal barra. It really is awesome to seal the deal by sliding the landing net under a fish like a big gleaming lure-caught Johnstone jack. I felt stoked that James was rewarded with these captures for travelling so far. Both fish were great fights in tight cover too (one less tip guide on a certain baitcast rod I believe?).

They might not have been monsters but our session showed these trigger minnows were deadly in this pretty textbook lure casting situation. It’s worth noting that this lure is a relatively small profiled 70mm hard-body that is suitable not only for barra but also light tackle species like sooty grunter (perfect really in FNQ). Interestingly for a small minnow they are quite ‘weighty’ for their size meaning you can effortlessly place short low trajectory casts to the snags as easily as long range casts in open water. We opted to make them ‘barra-proof’ by removing the standard hardware and replacing with VMC 9626 (3x) size 6 treble hooks and Decoy 40lb rated split rings. This combination seems to be the strongest while still maintaining that important suspending buoyancy. Our day on the Johnstone really made it obvious how those suspending qualities provided time for a slow menacing coverage of the strike zone.

One of the great things about fishing our big NQ Rivers is that there are always lessons to be learnt whether it’s fishing for barra, bream or anything in-between. Toward the end of our trip we spotted a huge school of tarpon ‘tailing’ on the surface. They were shadowing the last outflow of bait schools and I followed my instincts by immediately reaching for the 4lb spin stick. Now normally this approach of ultra light line and small 3 inch prawn soft plastic simply doesn’t miss on a featherweight calibre of fish. However, we were amazed when James cast the trigger minnow to achieve practically instantaneous strikes compared to my untouched sp. What tha? Considering too that the lighter gear was presenting the lure more naturally it re-enforced the importance of selecting a lure to match the conditions. The tarpon were just homing in on the trigger minnow within seconds. Actually within an hour of entering the feeder creek the tables turned big time in our favour in terms of species caught. Apart from the jacks/barra/tarpon we also landed pikey bream, sleepy cod, small trevally and archer fish all on the flashing trigger minnows.

The amount of technology going into modern fishing lures has really given us spoilt anglers a big advantage for success in practically any given conditions. At the same time it is amazing how few of us will actually take proper advantage of it. There’s still no such thing as one miracle lure to solve all barra fishing woes. Inexperienced anglers often ask “What’s the best lure for barra?” If only it were that easy! Going fishing in the river with one lure would be a bit like going onto the golf course with one golf club. It’s important to have a range of tools for the job and gain the vast advantages that different lure types (like these LED light models) offer. We found the right place, the right time and had the right lures on-hand! It turned out to be a great day in Innisfail’s premier sports fishing river…you could even say we pulled the bite trigger!