Fast Food River Trees. By Nathan Johnston

After dropping in for a chinwag with the property owner, the four-wheel drive is pointed towards the river. A few paddocks and several internal gates later, the edge of floodplain country is reached. From here, it’s a 5-minute walk across the currently tinder dry Fitzroy landscape.

This initiates reflection about the unique tropical Aussie climate. Our northern cousins in Townsville have just experienced the wettest season in recent history. They say it’s a great southern land of drought and flooding rains and the stark contrast is in full view as a path is struck through the grasses and forbs that have long browned off due to a lack of moisture. The environment and country folk are both going to really struggle in many parts of the Fitzroy if good rain doesn’t fall in the catchment before the wet season is through. Let’s hope it does.

Tall eucalyptus tower overhead and are still remarkably lush, having sent their roots through softer sandy loam in search for moisture-laden soils well below grasses’ reach. Sulphur-crested cockatoos act like schoolyard dobbers as they note the arrival of an intruder and send out an alarm across the valley floor. Hiking down to the high bank, yellow gives way to green as the thin line of vegetation begins to benefit from river water soaking laterally through the soil profile. A mob of eastern grey kangaroos spook and cut through the bush, pull up at a shady tree to confirm their concerns before continuing on out of sight. A fish swirls at the water’s edge and drops out of view, startled by my clumsy bank-side movements.


At the river, there are unfortunate signs of recent pig wallows. A note of thanks is uttered to those who spend time hunting these ferals and for landholders who spend their well-earned money to control pig numbers. Without this control, our waterways would be in far worse nick. The extreme animal rights activists could not handle the reality of what goes on to keep these destructive creatures under control, but without it, our natives wouldn’t have a hope. I stare at the mess of wallows complete with cloudy, turbid waters stirred up by their workings and wonder if these extremists have thought deeply enough about such matters and whether spending a couple of weeks along the banks of our rivers away from city life would lead to a change in mindset. The hogs have ripped up the river edge like a rotary hoe works the soil in the field. Nothing survives this routing, including fragile melaleuca seedlings, that would have otherwise grown to provide valuable bank stability and fish habitat.

I turn and head upstream, walking the high bank of the river, scanning for patrolling wild southern saratoga, known affectionately by Fitzroy Basin locals as spotted barra. The term barramundi is an aboriginal word originally used by the Darumbal nation who are the traditional custodians of the Fitzroy River delta country. This word is used by our ancestors, and those still on the land to describe large scaled fish like silver barra, spotted barra and lungfish.


The sun is high, not the best for sighting patrolling fish. My pace is steadied as a large overhanging melaleuca comes into view. The melaleuca are a cohort of trees commonly referred to as paperbarks and tea trees. For wild river anglers, these melaleuca are comparable to fast food outlets, complete with neon signs and extensive food offerings, but without the fatty aftertaste! Healthy sections of freshwater rivers across Queensland are lined with these mature melaleuca that extend from the bank and hang well over the water. And just like a fast food outlet, they also offer fish a cool place to stop and hang out during the heat of the day.

Today it is hot, and the paperbark in sight has several hungry customers lined up. Two saratoga are parked under it, resting after their morning patrols and waiting for unsuspecting morsels to be delivered from above. Though the fish have been sighted, several trees, bushes and branches block a clear casting line to the fish from where I stand, and so a change of position is required before the lure can be sent out. Movement is slowed to near standstill as the difficult terrain is traversed to reach the small opening. A twig snaps and the senses are ratcheted up, though the saratoga is none the wiser. An acute sense of sight and an in-depth knowledge of their surroundings are their secret weapons. Many a time, I have stood still and waited patiently for a clear cast while watching a toga swim parallel to the bank conducting their patrols. As they draw closer, they have spooked, not because of movement but simply because my presence represents a change in what, to them, is an otherwise predictable procession of trees and shrubs along their beat.


This time the clear casting line is reached without the fish being alerted to the threat. A 65mm surface walk the dog presentation is sent out just beyond the treeline and retrieved within 30cm of the saratoga. As the presentation draws closer, the fish break rank away from cover and the fastest of the two engulf the lure. The rod is loaded, and the toga immediately heads skyward before throwing the lure. They are known as ‘spotted bony-tounges’ for good reason, with hookup rates being frustratingly low at times!

With impoundment fish that see a lot more artificials, this kind of hit and drop sequence of events usually results in a spooked fish. However, wild versions in their natural state see very little fishing pressure and are not as timid. As long as the fish doesn’t feel the sting of the hook they will come back several times over before cottoning on to the fact that the offering is not food. With this in mind, the lure is sent out a second time to the pair of fish that are now actively patrolling in a heightened search pattern to locate the recently spotted morsel.

It is not long before a second hook up follows. After a few aerial displays and a bit of playing up, the lip grips are secured on a healthy 67cm fish. The toga is left in the water while tagging equipment is prepared and then quickly lifted from the water, measured, tagged, photographed and released to fight another day. With a sizeable toga landed, it is time to move on to the next fast food river tree! When it comes to this bankside vegetation, think bigger, closer and greener for southern saratoga and any other insectivorous fish. Just like every value meal comes with burger, fries and a soft drink, these three factors help deliver these species the important elements of food, ambush points and shade.


Saratoga have morphology geared up for topwater feeding. The eyes are positioned on the top edge of their heads, allowing them to look both up and across. A weighted presentation cast and left on the bottom of a deep pool is unlikely to get much attention from a toga for this reason. Catfish on the other hand!! The old school anglers fish with meat dangling half a metre under a float, and this works on toga for good reason. Insects blown onto the water surface are one of the primary food sources for these fish. This is why larger, greener, and lower are important factors when it comes to the fast food river trees. Why? Because more insects are attracted to live plants, the bigger the tree is, the more insects are attracted. The lower the tree hangs, the less time the insect has to react and fly before hitting the water surface.

The greener and more dense trees also provide better shade in the middle of the day, which becomes increasingly important as the summer months progress. In addition, the timber and shade provide vantage points for the spotted barra to ambush other prey, particularly fish that swim past and shrimps that feed and shelter amongst the matted roots of the melaleuca that extend well into the water column.

In this day and age of instant gratification, the art of observation and reflection are slowly eroding, which is a real shame. Those anglers who embrace deeper observation will enrich their fishing experiences and increase success. Observation is not about living some form of Amish existence, where all technology is shunned! In fact, the cutting edge sounder technology is simply a tool that extends our vision. Those excelling with sounders pair the latest technology with hours of on-water observation, using the sounder as an extension of eyesight below the water. A good operator who has spent more time on the water observing and learning with a sounder that is a couple of years old will almost always outfish the guy with little on-water experience who has the best unit straight out of the box.


Some of these observations can be gleaned from others who have done the hard yards if you have earned their trust or are willing to pay for the knowledge. Examples include experienced guides, long term members of fishing clubs, articles written by quality anglers in fishing publications, watching in-depth instructional videos and fishing master-classes run by proven anglers. These anglers have spent hundreds of on-water hours making their own observations and discovering the patterns to improve the likelihood of catching a target species. While the expert knowledge from others is a good way to fast-track a deeper understanding of fish patterns and behaviour, there is still so much more to learn! Cracking a productive fishing pattern of your own is one of the most rewarding goals for a competent angler.

Observation involves engaging and using all of our senses to take in the data that surrounds us in order to collect information. Through reflection, this information can be compiled and considered to determine patterns. What anglers call a hunch, is termed a hypothesis by pure scientists. Once the hunch (hypothesis) is formed, then it needs to be tested, usually resulting in more fishing for the insightful angler. It’s a tough life! Some people keep diaries to help pick up these patterns. Others like a more informal approach, storing useful information in the mind.

Make use of all of your senses and maintain an inquisitive mindset when angling and take note of any patterns that may emerge. Hopefully, you discover patterns that unlock more reliable fishing experiences for the species being targeted. This won’t happen on the couch or in front of the computer though, so start organising your next trip to target your favourite species! For those who want to spend a few days hunting and catching wild saratoga without all the hassle, get in touch with me and organise a trip to immerse yourself in an outback saratoga tour.

As anglers, we can become single-minded on the fish itself and ignore the bigger picture, and I am certainly not immune to getting stuck in this pattern of behaviour. When we do slow down and shift our focus to the bigger picture, then something that was once dull suddenly fills us with excitement and anticipation. This has been the case for me and the humble melaleuca. The tree is no longer an obstruction to my cast or a snag for the lure. It has been elevated to the status of fast food river tree and prime toga haunt. May you discover similar treasures in your future fishing adventures.

The humble melaleuca, an ecosystem services winner

Ecosystem services is a big buzz word in the environmental sciences world at present. Essentially it relates to the various benefits an ecosystem provides to humans and the environment. The melaleuca provides various services including:

•   Premium bank side riparian vegetation. This tree thrives next to the water and doesn’t get wet feet. Its roots extend like a mat both into the bank and out into the water column.

•   Matted roots act to bind the bank together and inhibit erosion better than any man-made erosion geofabric.

•   Canopy provides shade, that keeps water temperatures cooler.

•   Roots draw up excess nitrogen and phosphorus, reducing the length and severity of toxic algae blooms during the dry season.

•   Vegetation provides shelter for animals and food for shrimps, crayfish and waterbugs.

•   Limbs provide vantage points for birds to sight prey.

•   Trunks and branches slow floodwaters down, reducing erosion.

•   Overhanging limbs and leaves harbour insects that deliver food directly to the saratoga.


Insightful Anglers – reflect on your fishing practices.

All good anglers are encouraged to consider the recently released recreational fishing self-assessment developed by Queensland Sportfishers. Insightful Anglers has been developed to strengthen conservation and integrity in sportfishing and is a self-assessment where you rate your fishing practices. Insightful Anglers uses a series of questions developed to help you work through the topics and principals of the National Code of Practice for recreational and sportfishing. Set aside some time today to reflect on your fishing practices and see if there is any room for improvement.

Find out more at: