Secret Creek – Stephen Polzin – Nov 15

Living in Cairns I have access to some terrific fishing at times.  I’ve heard it said that if you can’t catch it around Cairns then it’s probably not worth catching.  I reckon it’s a pretty fair statement, however there will always be exceptions.  One such exception is the mighty Northern Saratoga.  Recently I had an opportunity to head well north of Cairns to waters bursting with Saratoga of all sizes.  The only condition was I had to keep the location a secret…

I’d been having an afternoon drink with my neighbour Dave when he mentioned he had a trip north planned with a group of mates.  Dave had access to a special little water-way that gets very little fishing pressure, though it was reinforced that the exact location should remain a secret.  There happened to be a spot spare so without hesitation I jumped on board.

Dave and his mates principally target Barra on his northern trips, but I was more interested in tales of the big “vermin” Saratoga that would routinely interrupt his Barra sessions.  “They’re that thick sometimes you’re lure can’t get through to the Barra!”  Dave said.  Hmmm, well that sounds alright to me!

There are two species of Saratoga in Australia, those being the Southern Saratoga (Scleropages leichardti) and the Northern Saratoga (Scleropages jardinii).  The Southern Saratoga is native to the Fitzroy River system and is stocked in some southern impoundments, while the Northern Saratoga is found throughout Northern Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The two fish have minor differences in appearance, with the Northern Saratoga being moderately heavier for a given length.

That night, I hopped onto Google Earth and checked out the area we would be fishing.  A moderately sized river with freshwater reaches winding well inland.  There were also a few isolated waterholes that caught my eye.  Surely they’d be worth some attention, but I’d never find them without a GPS.  A couple days later I was busily loading satellite maps onto my new Garmin Etrex 20x.  This handheld GPS unit is tiny, but has a remarkably high resolution colour screen and can display satellite maps in full detail.  Just the thing for finding waterholes and checking for fishable sections of riverbank.

As the trip drew closer I packed up the Troopy and put my tinny on the roof.  With some luck I’d still manage some Barra from the boat, but my main aim was to walk the riverbanks and waterholes targeting Saratoga on light spin and fly if possible.   A week plus travelling time would allow me to explore a lot of ground and hopefully find some fish.

On the day of the trip the three vehicles in our group headed north from Cairns at 4am, each with a tinny strapped to the roof.  It would be over 12 hours before we reached our destination and hurriedly set about putting the camp together.  It had been a big day hammering across endless corrugated dirt roads but morale was high and I looked forward to chasing a fish in the morning.

The next day, dawn found me rushing down a quick breakfast before jumping into the Troopy.  I’d found some great looking bank sections on the little Garmin a few kms from camp and was keen to check them out.

On arrival I readied my 2500 Shimano Twin-Power spooled with 15lb braid.  This was mounted on a 7ft Pflueger spin rod and makes for a sweet freshwater cape outfit.  Using a relatively light outfit gets a good fight out of the smaller fish whilst still having a hope against the regularly encountered Barra and larger Toga in these waters.  Being relatively unfished waters, I tied on some 35lb Schneider for leader, hoping that such a heavy leader wouldn’t spook the eagle eyed Toga’s.  As I would be walking the bank in crocodile country, any fish would need to be dragged out of the water so the heavier leader helped avoid break-offs.  Finally I tied on a little Cultiva Tango Dancer stickbait and I was away.

I carefully made my way to the water’s edge, eyes scanning for any flat-dogs or snapping handbags.  The section of river was only about 20 metres wide and littered with fallen trees and log jams.   A wave of excitement washed over me.  Damn this looked fishy!!  I moved to a clearer section of bank where I could cast unimpeded and sent the little tango dancer down the side of a big fallen tree.

Surface lures like stickbaits, fizzers and poppers are prime lures for Saratoga.  They are a fish that spend most of their time just underneath the surface, often holding station beside a submerged tree branch or water lily.   With big eyes at the top of their heads, they’re always looking up for any insects, lizards, frogs or any other prey that may fall into the water or try to venture across it.   A good pair of polarizing sunglasses is essential for spotting fish, and my Mako sunnies fit the bill nicely.

I commenced a slow “walk the dog” twitching retrieve, with the lure changing direction on each pause, like a confused prey.  Twitch, twitch, twitch, BOOM!!  In a flash of gold and showering spray I was on to a solid fish in the 60cm range.  A couple of gyrating leaps followed before I managed to steer the ‘Toga towards the bank.  Most Saratoga encounters in such tight snag-laden country are over in less than a minute.  Either you get the ‘Toga coming towards you on the strike, or you get buried on the nearest log which may be only centimetres away.

After dragging the ‘Toga up the steep bank and flicking out the hooks, he was off back to his log.  Saratoga are strictly a sportfish in Australia, being full of fine bones and while I haven’t tried to eat one, I’ve been assured they taste terrible.  A second cast went unrewarded and I moved on, making my way along the bank.

The next hour or so presented some of the most exhilarating surface fishing I’ve encountered.  Creeping along the bank I could clearly see Saratoga hanging under tree branches and beside logs.  It was just a matter of landing the lure a foot or so away from the fish and most often a strike would come within moments of the lure touching down.  It was really first class, with almost every cast gaining interest, and I lost count of the amount of ‘Toga hooked and landed.  A few Barra also got in on the action, with their unmistakable “Boof” on the surface shattering the silence.

The action was non-stop, and I was on cloud nine as I came to a very fishy looking bend.  I made my way to the sandy shallow bank on the inside of the bend.  It was nice and open, with enough room to get the fly-rod out.  Oh well, maybe a few casts with the spin rod first.  The edge of the sand bank dropped away to the outside of the bend which was littered with big fallen trees.  The perfect haunt for both Barra and ‘Toga.  First cast made five twitches before my stickbait disappeared in a BOOF, as a Barra around 70cm belted the lure.  After being landed and released, my second cast was hit by a Saratoga of similar proportions.  This fish darted away though and scratched off the lure on a nearby tree.  Oh well, ‘Toga have hard, bony mouths which make for a fairly dismal hook-up rate. Light lures like the little Tango Dancer make it harder for Saratoga to throw them, particularly when matched with super-fine Owner trebles. Fortunately there was more where that came from.

After checking the hooks on my stickbait I looked up to prepare my next cast.  Standing maybe two metres from the waters’ edge I scanned the far bank when some movement to the left of me caught my eye.  I changed focus and froze, my heart pounding in my ears.  A croc!  No more than five metres away, three metres of Salty was aimed right at me and slowly, quietly paddling towards me.  Adrenaline coursed through my veins and I yelled out, filling the air with expletives I thought I had forgotten.  My legs kicked into gear and I ran, scraping through the scrub and scrambling to higher ground, not daring to look back.  I didn’t stop running, and I don’t think I took a breath, until I got back to the Troopy.

Damn, that was a wake-up call.  There I had been, fishing in water so fresh you could drink it, when something else thought I might make a tasty meal.  I drove back to the camp and found the other guys back after a successful morning chasing Barra from the boats well down stream.  I had a beer and related my story, catching “vermin” and being admired by the “wildlife”.  It was a couple of beers later before I stopped shaking.

Over the next few days I had several more awesome sessions on the Saratoga in Secret Creek.  Somehow I managed to keep the little Tango Dancer, which was so successful I didn’t feel the need to change it (though now it’s missing most of its paint).  Unfortunately my fly-rod stayed in the Troopy, as the thick scrub was incompatible with my casting abilities, but I had no regrets.  I ended the trip having caught my fill of the mighty Northern Saratoga, with most sessions yielding upwards of twenty fish, with often double that amount shaking the hooks free.  Sure, you can’t catch them in Cairns, but they’re a fantastic sportfish well worth catching!!