CBD Barra (CQ) – Bill Bowtell March 2016

It started as a parry with stories of the past and ended with generational views of the future.

Some stories were anecdotal – passed down from Grandfather to father, then finally, son.  Some, came directly from personal experiences, whilst others were gathered from Uncles and other, predominantly male, members of the family.  They made for interesting listening, and in my case, even comparison.  For I was much older than the narrator and in some cases could directly relate to that about which he was speaking.


Both points of view were modern, and reflected ideas and events, not only being discussed in the broader fishing community, but shaping our fishing futures as well.

As I walked up the bank and back to my car some hours later I had a sense that our river was in good hands. Sure! There are things to be done and attitudes to change, but the willingness to make it happen was very, very obvious. The sun shone brightly.

I will call him “John” for some of his stories were both sensitive and in some cases, damming.  We sat on the banks of the Fitzroy River – Queensland’s largest catchment – and the city of Rockhampton’s greatest asset.

The river was in minor flood and we were bait fishing with live perch – an age-old ritual.  Three polystyrene floats bobbed around in the backwater just wide of the creek mouth. It was idyllic and the movement of bait around the line of colour demarcation between the waters of the creek and the river, indicated that the fish were here. If old “pink eyes” was about and feeding, then this is where he would be. We sat and waited.

Across the river on the opposite southern bank, the city of Rockhampton began to stir.  The hum of traffic across the two bridges increased and the drone wafted along the river like a swarm of bees.

A goods train carrying shipping containers rumbled across the steel rail bridge further upstream.  It’s cargo bound for places north and west.

Workers and early shoppers alike, jockeyed for riverside parking space, before joining office co-workers and the “cycling set”. All “doing coffee” at the many well-appointed and pleasing, sidewalk venues along Victoria Parade, one of the city’s main riverside thoroughfares.

Those more fortunate and with time on their hands, moved out onto the balconies of their high-rise units to have breakfast and take in the views of the ranges and the river.

Twenty metres across the creek a barra “boofed” amongst the bulrushes!  Tiny baitfish scattered.  There was an air of expectancy. The big river offered plenty to its citizens.

John and I fell into conversation. We spoke about the river and its fish – barra mainly – for that was his slant. Mine too!

John explained that he comes from a fishing and rural based family and has worked net and crabs in the inshore fishery as well as line offshore.  It was obvious from the start that he knew what he was talking about.  It was also obvious, despite his young age, that he had some very fixed views on several major issues affecting the river.

The initial conversation was anecdotal stories of the days before the construction of the Rockhampton barrage in 1970, when the big spring tides would push upstream to as far as Alligator Creek, some 40klm north of Rockhampton.

John recalled family photos of his Dad and Uncles holding metre long barra taken from the mouth of Alligator Creek and of big king threadfin taken from the holes around 18 Mile Island.  All areas, which are now part of the barrage water storage serving agriculture and the city of Rockhampton.

I told John that I first came to Rocky in 1974 right in the middle of the 1 in 65 year flood event caused by successive cyclones, namely Una and Wanda.

The barrage was in full operation at that time and this was its first real test under major flood conditions. Many, myself included, went to look. This flood delivered a massive flow of water that could not be contained within the banks forcing several break-out points upstream of the barrage. One was at Pink Lily, just west of north-west of Rockhampton city.

These floodwaters circumvented the structure and followed the ancient flow path of part of the original Fitzroy Delta – the Yeppen Floodplain, forming a direct link to downstream estuarine areas. The barras, using this traditional pathway, migrated upstream in their tens of thousands.

I spoke of seeing those floodplain lagoons south of the Pink Lily high banks choked with juvenile barra all pushing upstream into the freshwater stretches upstream of the barrage. Some went via Lion Creek whilst others could be seen forging straight ahead into the mainstream flow.

Over the next few years these fish reached maturity and followed their urge to migrate back to the saltwater to breed. This happened when the barrage gates were opened to release waters coming from the northern and western systems feeding into the Fitzroy. (Studies since by CQU and Infofish Australia has verified this movement of barra)   

As the floodwaters receded, those fish that did not make the river fell back into the many floodplain lagoons and grew to a massive size – creating a whole new fishery. It was not until the flood of 1983 that all of these lagoons again linked up with the main downstream section of the river. Being mature fish they all immediately made their way downstream to join the spawning population at the mouth of the river. It was a time of plenty that was never fully recorded. And in most cases, never realized.

I told John that at that time my records show an average catch of 3.8 barra per trip to these lagoons, each with an average mass of 4.8kgs.  Wonderful fishing and all done on foot.

But, if one was to walk Gavial Creek beyond Bates’ Lagoon – it got even better!  This was “Tiger Country”!  Records show a best result of twenty-seven fish – all barra, in one two-and-a-half hour session.  John was interested and asked me to continue.

In the years immediately following the 1974 flood event, Rocky’s CBD was “really discovered” as a barra hot spot.

It was long known by the locals that they had good fishing right in the heart of the city, but outsiders knew little, if nothing, about the barra fishing opportunities to be had only eight hours from Brisbane. And indeed, would scoff at locals as they passed on their travels north to catch a “REAL BARRA!” In some ways that was how the locals liked it.

This attitude did nothing for the economy of the local community and indeed the management of the river. It certainly did nothing for the long-term viability, or management of the barra fishery.

John was listening and asked me to keep talking. I could see that he was making mental notes.

I added that in my opinion this so-called “discovery” was due to three main factors. One, the massive recruitment of barra in late 1973 and the subsequent distribution and grow-out during 1974; two, the construction of the barrage and its impediment to upstream migration of barra and its effects on tidal movement. (Tidal waters bank up on the downstream side of the barrage and the fish follow suit – baitfish and barra alike.  Then, as the tide recedes, they fall back to around the Tannakie Rocks area right in the middle of town.) And three, a very important social factor of that time – the recognition of fishing as a sport!

People were now using fishing as both a sport and recreational pastime. Not just a source of food! And the barramundi was the angler’s choice and top of the target list of fish to catch!

Fishers were spending big $’s to catch a barramundi.   

John stood up. Then shifted ten metres upstream before tossing the line into the water just wide of a patch of bulbous water-lilies.  He returned and began to talk.  His tone was sober.

During this same period his family was working the river, mainly nets, but some crab.  Fishing was good with most of the product being sold to local fish shops and the main fish wholesaler in town.  They made a reasonable living. But management of the fishery was haphazard and in most cases non-existent. Most times they were left to their own devices.

As their operation was small they had restrictions – lack of market opportunities and availability; and often, the inability to process all of the fish they caught.  He was reflective and spoke about their only options.  I understood as I had seen it all before when working in the Gulf Country during the ‘80’s and into the early ‘90’s. I had also seen it along the river and the beaches immediately north, and told him so.  My words didn’t make it any easier though for him to accept.

His final words on that subject were, “It’s a wonder that there are any bloody fish left at all!”

One of the floats began to bob violently.  It was a big whiskery catfish, which grunted its disapproval.  John handled it expertly avoiding the stinging barbs.

“Buggers in a net!” he said. This one was lucky and disappeared into the murky water.

A new bait was rigged and tossed into the creek.  This time without a float.  Maybe the barra were sitting near the bottom. We both had some smoko, mine was a hot coffee and piece of dark fruitcake, and John’s was a cigarette, a litre of Coke and paradoxically, a high-energy fruit bar.  I took the mickey out of him.  He responded by saying “I caught 194 barra from this very spot in 2012.”

“You win,” I replied.  We discussed 2012 and what it meant to the river, and the city of Rockhampton.

From fisheries data, meteorological reports and studies conducted on the river, the lead up to the barra season of 2012-2013 was a near disaster, and would have been total, if not for the timely rainfall events of late 2008 and into early 2009.

The seasonal conditions and early storm rains of 2008 triggered a major spawning event at the mouth of the Fitzroy and the fishery responded.  Mother Nature played a further part by producing better than average seasonal rains in early 2009, which again triggered a further minor spawning, possibly as late as March-April of that year.

The nurseries were full of little barra. Then, like all good mothers, she again lent a hand and produced a near record flood event during the 2009-2010 wet season right across the entire Fitzroy catchment culminating in a major seven week inundation of the lower Fitzroy River and the associated Yeppen Floodplain.  The old pathways were once again open and the barra had a chance to spread far and wide. They did. Many pushed up into the city reach at Rockhampton and beyond into the freshwater – déjà vu of 1974!

John spoke of these times.  He was working the river back then and spoke of the lack of barra in the period leading up to 2009 due to the previous ten years of near drought conditions and no run off.  Adding, that the largest percentage of fish captured during this time, were big breeding female fish, which in essence should have stayed in the water.

And eventhough he expressed his concerns several times, they were still a barra and commercial. The fish were targeted.  It did not sit well with him and he was glad when the rains finally came and the swamps and nursery areas filled.

He spoke of the ensuing years, the glut of barra taken in the nets as they were washed downstream, fish prices and the influx of operators from other parts of Queensland all entering the Fitzroy river fishery. In his opinion it could not be sustained and they all knew it.

The local fisherman knew that they were lucky. The timely rains of 2008-09 and the follow-up in 2010 was a reprieve. But only just! All it did was demonstrate the resilience and fecundity of the barramundi as a specie. Not how well they were managed!

Care is needed! And of this, John was adamant.

We spoke of many things after that. I told him of the magnificent fishing that was had upstream of the barrage during 2011 and 2012. And mentioned the 126 barra, fish between 63 and 98cms, my boat put on board in six outings, with a further 30-odd lost amongst the unforgiving timber. And of those 122 fish that were tagged and released, 28 tags were returned from recaptured fish down in the saltwater sections of the river after it again flooded in 2013.

He told me that he often caught tagged barra but either, never bothered, or forgot, to return them – losing details of date and location of capture. It was one of his regrets.

State Government legislation has recently declared three net free areas along the Queensland coast. One of these includes the area of Keppel Bay and the Fitzroy River. I raised the topic with John, leaving it up to him if he wanted to respond, or not.

“Best thing that ever happened, Bill” he said.

“Not just for you and me, or the rest of them out there for that matter, but for the fish. They need it!” It was a sharp reply. One made with barely a breath taken. There was a lot of reflection, experience and sentiment in that statement.

We spoke at length after that, each expressing independent points-of-view. John was sensitive to the barra in a practical way and stated quite matter-of-factly what he saw as needing to be done to preserve and sustain stocks. He was forthright about the need to review current fisheries management plans and legislation controlling the various fisheries saying that zoning, Total Allowable Catches (TAC’s), numbers in the fishery and agreed fixed price marketing were all needed. All I could do was agree.

Of the Net Free Area in particular and its importance as an economic opportunity to the region, his views were even more direct. His response was thought provoking. It was also right on the mark.

“Have a sustainable fishery and the economy will follow. Entrepreneurs will see to that. But people first must take ownership of it and civic leaders must lead the way and provide support, otherwise it will never succeed.” It was pure and simple.

The people of this region have been given a responsibility to both control and manage the resources for future generations and must get actively involved in suggested and existing programs of monitoring and recording catches.

Businesses too have a responsibility. Their focus is to look forward and invest for a share of a tourist-based and recreational fishing industry with a proven worth of more than a billion of dollars statewide, for both job creation and the economic stability of the region.   

The Rockhampton Region now has the opportunity to promote the Fitzroy River as never before. Managed correctly the fish will do the rest. The years of ‘74, ’83, ’91 and 2010 have shown that.

As John said looking out across the river to the city, “done correctly, it can be up there with beef! I have to agree.