Jardine River Feature – Tom Smith July 2016

I want to tell you about the Jardine River but I don’t quite know where to start. I suppose, for the car-topping winter-dodger, the beginning of your Jardine River experience will be the exorbitant fee you’ll be charged to travel the 50 or so meters on a well-worn cable ferry to the other side.

This ferry fee is actually the means through which the local council acquires a large chuck of its budget; in the Northern Peninsula Area, native title rights determine occupancy and there is no free hold land ownership-therefore no rate collection on property… Back to the ferry crossing… There is a lot of history at this particular juncture of your travels. What presently comes to mind is a story of a local man who, a long time ago, used to take tourist money as a dare to swim the breadth of the river. This particular story involved a territorial estuarine crocodile and a sorry ending. Here is a clue about the Jardine itself-despite its crystal clear, sandy-bottom allure, it’s a real croc hotspot. Swim with extreme caution, or better yet, not at all. However swimming shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind when faced with this iconic stretch of water-if you have a car-topper perched on top of the old fourby, then to you and me this if fishing ground my friend!

It’s a pretty cool thing to have a major, iconic freshwater river like the Jardine in such close proximity to the saltwater sportsfishing mecca of the Torres Strait-it was only the other weekend that a mate and I drifted the banks targeting saratoga, and landing plenty! The Jardine is an all-weather option and our choice to fish its freshwater reaches was the result of a patch of seriously strong wind that,wouldn’t you know, timed its arrival for the weekend. Saratoga are not the only targets in the Jardine of course, and as the fresh becomes brackish in the down-stream reaches you should have very little trouble encountering barramundi and queenfish, the latter of which can often be caught in sizes well over the meter and in as little as one meter of water. The real beauty of the Jardine for the car-topping winter-dodger is that because you’ve only got a small one, you’re in for a lot of fun, and not even 30 knots of a sandblasting south-easterly will keep your keel dry.

The savvy car-topping winter-dodger should experience very little hassle when accessing the Jardine River. Your choice of where to wet your keel should however reflect careful consideration of two factors-primarily what you intend to target, and the wind forecast. If you are a numbers kind of angler and like the idea of catching a couple dozen saratoga in magnificent surrounds; from under lazily slouching paperbarks and loosely-packed lillypads, then the ferry crossing or the Jardine pump station provide convenient bank-launcheswith immediate ‘toga action; wind will not factor into your considerations in this scenario. However, if you’re more of salty sea dog, with a preference for barramundi and monster queenfish, you will experience greater satisfaction by conquering the coastal run from Seisia to the Jardine mouth, or by navigating the narrow 4wd track to the river mouth camping area and executing a bank-launch. I would advise against the coastal run to the mouth unless conditions are ideal. The stretch between Muttee Head and the Jardine Mouth are notorious for a steep, narrow swell imparted by a combination of a north-easterly wind that tracks along the coastline, working against currents of up to 7 knots. It is impossible to determine if the extent of these condition from the Seisia boat ramp, which is a smooth water, safe anchorage, but trust in my warning that this can often be hazardous for even the most experienced winter-dodging sea dog.

Keep it simple, stupid-it’s the name of the game when saratoga fishing the Jardine.This system is loaded with saratoga and the ‘markers’ for finding them are so glaringly obvious that it is, well, stupid!Lillypads, shade and low-lying leafy branches-saratoga are seriously the most predictable lure-taking species EVER; don’t even waste a cast if the target doesn’t have at least two of the three markers mentioned-fear not though, there are thousands of ideal saratoga hovels along the Jardine’s bank and you wouldn’t drift more than 100m without a lillypad-shrouded, shady snag taunting your casting arm! Due to the tight quarters usually occupied by saratoga, the only practical way to drop artificials on their heads is with weedless-rigged plastics. I run a 4 inch Zman minnow on a weedless worm hook, unweighted, and see no good reason why I would ever change my approach-it’s stupidly simple, deadly as hell. There are a couple very practical advantages to using worm hooks over lightly weighted jig heads-for one, the unweighted worm hook literally guarantees top-water hits every time, so there’s that, but the reason why you are really winning by using a worm hook is that they are often a finer gauge wire than jig heads and that equals a much, much higher hook up rate when dealing with saratoga-the only fish with a harder jaw than Rocky Balboa! This kind of lure fishing is as back-to-basics as you can get, and it is extremely rewarding! There is the risk that you will enjoy yourself so much you might even forget that there are barra downstream too!

Barramundi are an infrequent capture in the upper, freshwater reaches of the Jardine. Water in this sweet water section is very pristine and pure-there is no abundance of nutrients to support significant volumes of baitfish, therefore it is not an environment conducive of supporting a plentiful barra population.Fortunately, the Jardine riveractually has a separate, saltwater arm just inside the mouth that branches westward. This muddy, mangrove, fringed estuary is where you can expect to encounter barramundi-in satisfying size and volume. The mouth of the Jardine is wide and shallow, so much so that late in the dry season, on a big tide, it is possible to walk straight across it’s shallow, narrow, interweaving channelswithout fear of impending death-by-croc. Trivial as this may sound, it helps reinforce my following point: the necessary effort to successfully fish the saltwater arm requires commitment of being ‘locked in’ for the low-there is simply no way around it. Once inside this estuary, and committed to the low, the most obvious barra-esque features are the small creek/drains on your port side bank. These drains offer good run, colour changes, and are snag-laden. I’m a sucker for a generously scented soft-plastic presentation, but on occasions when water clarity is poor, a loud jerk bait would be my preference. In recent times, the shifting sands of the Jardine mouth seem to have backed-up, presenting a more narrowed and shallower mouth than is normally encountered. As a car-topping winter-dodger,my advice would be to sacrifice fishing the saltwater arm on the first low-tide period encountered in preference of scoping out the present lay of the sand (and the lay of the big estuarine crocs). While doing so you might as well take advantage of the abundant monster queenfish that patrol the shallow flats inside the mouth-with a decent pair of polarized sunglasses they shouldn’t be too hard to find!

If there is a better queenfish fishery than the Jardine River mouth-I’d like to hear about it. To my knowledge this would have to be the queenfish capital of the world. To put this in perspective, a handful of 1100mm queenfishis a good way to warm the drag washers on the light spin gear when passing by-they are rarely one of my target species anymore. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with monster queenfish, only that they are so ubiquitous I now treat them as ‘session savers’. Nevertheless, for the car-topping winter-dodger, fishing from a small platform in shallow water, they would have to be one of the best (if not the best) readily accessible sportfish going! In the Jardine, the queenfish obviously take advantage of the top-half of the tide-roaming the flats for all manner of baitfish. As the tide begins to drop and forces bait into the channels, fast-trolling the prominent current line-in the direction of the flow is an infallible method for scoring XOS Queenfish. This section of river may only be 5 ft (sometimes less) so be equipped with plenty of shallow diving lures. A key tip that I can offer the car-topping winter-dodger is to ensure that you maintain your troll run until you troll straight over the steep, 30ft ledge that traverses the outermost edge of the Jardine’s river mouth sandbars; this is a good time to have rods in the relative safety of your hands-your sounder (if you have one) should prove the value of this recommendation as you discover a litany of arches holding on this ledge. If water conditions beyond this 30ft drop offer a comfortable drift, jigging with large soft vibes will provide you with the queenfish experience of a lifetime! In this depth sharks are notorious and are sure to add an extra visual dimension to the challenge of landing your fish intact. Water clarity is generally pretty good in the sections of the Jardine described above, and for queenfishI have certainly found that colour is paramount-in this particular circumstance white is tight!

If, for some unknown reason, have maintained a lacklustre opinion of the Jardine’s fishing options it may be worth knowing of the spectacular landlocked billabong that is reasonably accessible to the fit-and-abled car-topping winter-dodger. The billabong itself is a snaking, lillypad covered, paperbark-fringed oasis. It is a good double-cast at its greatest width and can be explored on foot for kilometres. At some point in time the billabong must have had some significant value to Cape York locals, which is evident in the remnants of what appears to have once been quite an elaborate permanent camp, complete with a water tank tower, cement slab and even a permanently wired ceiling fan (a Cape York necessity). The other significant aspect of this dilapidated camp is that it is an indicator for the shortest direct distance from the Jardine river bank to the billabong. Getting to this relatively secret spot is surprisingly uncomplicated: launch your car-topper at the Jardine pump station, follow the river downstream for exactly 3.5 km and tie off on the port side bank. You will immediately notice the old camp, which is set back in the bush only about 50m. From this camp, walk a south-westerly course for no more than 500m-by this point, if you haven’t reached the billabong, you have really gotten your bearings wrong! The majority of the billabong is situated to the north-west of your first point of contact, and is a waterway extending for a good many kilometres. Fish-holding structure is prolific throughout its entirety, however croc wise habits are sure to cancel out a great deal of would-be casts. My attempts at lure fishing this billabong have produced good surface action from saratoga, but no barra-yet. Nevertheless, my assumption that the billabong feeds directly into the Jardine in the midst of prolonged wet season rain leads me to believe there must be landlocked billabong barra in there. Regardless of the diversity of species you encounter, this somewhat secret, often forgotten billabong is an interesting change of pace that adds variety to your travels.

The Jardine River is a lure fishing playground car-topping winter-dodger. Whether your preference is for the fresh or saltwater environment, the Jardine offers enthusiastic lure-taking species to cure your itch. The myriad of access points along this river allows you to fish on in spite of unfavourable weather. The upper reaches are loaded with saratoga, while the brackish water and expansive mouth provide decent opportunities at barra and the ever-present monster queenfish. Realistically, the only risk to consistent fishing action is distraction caused by the picturesque surrounds-particularly if you choose to explore the freshwater reaches or secret landlocked billabong. The car-topping winter-dodger should always keep the Jardine River in mind- at the very least as a back-up plan to keep a bend in your during windy weather and hazardous marine conditions. Here is adecent challenge that I put to you-see if you can tame the Jardine River trifecta of aerial opponents: saratoga, queenfish and the mighty barra! It’ll be time well spent even if you drop every fish you hook…