In Australia’s tropical north January traditionally heralds the start of the wet season and more often than not that means rain. It’s also the time of the year when most fisherman switch their efforts away from their piscatorial pursuits and focus on the more mundane tasks such as reel services and changing rusty old trebles on their favourite lures.
It’s fair to say fishing options are limited at this time of the year as monsoonal storms lash the surrounding countryside. Offshore the ocean typically takes on the appearance of a chocolate washing machine and inland heavy rain on the sun parched flood plains results in an influx of dirty water into the major river systems. None of these scenarios sound particularly attractive from an angler’s point of view and it is easy to see why January is often referred to as “maintenance month”. However, for those in the know, this time of the year can provide small windows of opportunity to experience some absolutely mind blowing barramundi fishing, this fishing isn’t just limited to those with a boat, these heavy flushes of water provide opportunity for the land based angler as well.
The First Flush
The general rule of thumb for barra fisherman is not to go fishing when a river is rising. This is generally true, although an exception to this rule is during the first flush. This is a term coined for the first time a billabong or lake spills over for the year and consequently overflows into adjoining streams and rivers. More often than not this first flush of water brings with it a bounty of bait fish which have been landlocked for the duration of the dry season. For many of these species their pre-programmed migratory lifecycle drives them to exit the relative safety of their dry season retreats and head for the saltwater reaches where hungry post spawn barramundi lay in wait.
These windows of opportunity generally only last a few days or sometimes as little as a few hours, so timing and local knowledge is critical. Switched on anglers closely monitor the rainfall and water heights of their favourite catchments on the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) website and know exactly when a certain river is set to fire.
It’s a well known fact that barramundi are primarily ambush predators who like nothing better than strategically stationing themselves adjacent to the current, awaiting unsuspecting prey to come to them. This is no more apparent than during the first flush where hungry barra line up at creek mouths like drunken night clubbers at a kebab cart, in anticipation of an easy feed. Creek mouths where there is a distinct colour change are always worth a cast or two, especially if there is bait present.
Creeks fed by billabongs and lakes are by far the most productive areas to target and a quick look on Google Earth or a topographical map can help establish where you should be focusing your efforts. Escarpment or spring fed creeks don’t seem to hold the same density of bait as those that form out of deep segmented water bodies.
Bridges and road culverts are great places to take advantage of the first flush and I’ve had some memorable sessions practically casting off the side of the road. Barra will generally sit behind pylons and culverts in the back eddies awaiting baitfish to funnel past. When the water levels are right it is often quite easy to spend a full day simply driving down the highway, stopping at prospective spots along the way for a cast. Just watch out for passing cars and trucks on your back cast.
Spillways and barrages can also offer phenomenal fishing action if you time it right. The key is to be there just as the water starts to flow over and if by chance that coincides with a spring high tide it’s usually game on.
Matching the Hatch
During the first flush barramundi can become totally fixated on specific bait species and point blank refuse to eat anything that doesn’t closely resemble their preferred prey. I have had many frustrating trips where the barra were boofing and rolling all around me and nothing I threw at them even received a look. Whether you reside in WA, QLD or the NT it goes without saying that you should pay particular attention to any visible bait in the area and rustle through your tackle box and attempt to imitate it as best you can.
Often during the first flush the predominant prey are tiny post larval bait fish species such as bony bream or rainbow fish, which form small schools in the top few centimetres of the water column. It never ceases to amaze me how a metre plus barra capable of inhaling a fish half its size can get its kicks by eating a rainbow fish barely 1cm long. When barra are feeding on these micro baits the only effective lures I have found are small lightly weighted white soft plastics wound slowly across the surface and small hard bodies more akin to what you would use for trout or bream. Fly fishing can also be quite effect at times although more often than not you are fishing in tight fast flowing water which poses a challenge in itself.
The biggest issue when using micro lures for barra is the strength of the hardware necessary to subdue them. It’s near on impossible to beef up a trout lure while maintaining its sexy action. One of my favourite micro lures that you can slightly retrofit is the Rapala Countdown, although I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had the bib and internal wire ripped right out of the lure by a good fish.
Occasionally the prey species will be eel tail catfish, which form dense black schools and generally hug the bottom as they exit the billabongs. When barra are feeding on eel tails the telltale signs of feeding will be depth charge like implosions deep in the water column. Once again imitation is the key and black curly tailed soft plastics grubbed along the bottom have been effective more than once in this situation.
In many rivers across the top end the first flush often washes millions of wriggling tadpoles off the fertile flood plains funnelling them into the main rivers. If you are lucky enough to experience this phenomenon, be prepared for a display of rapid fire boofing as schools of ravenous barra line up at the creek mouths for an easy feed. In this scenario small black soft plastics and black hard bodies do the trick, although if you really want to have some fun try a small black popper or surface slider to get the blood pumping.
Out of habit, I generally use a small low profile bait caster loaded with 30lb Fins braid and 40lb leader on a short single-handed rod capable of extracting big barra from tight places. I prefer short rods for this style of fishing as I commonly fish from the bank and amongst thick vegetation. However, I have recently started experimenting with light to medium spin outfits which are perfect for casting the lightly weighted lures often required.
A trip out at this time of the year will generally be dictated by the weather and needn’t be a fully blown expedition. I usually focus my attention closer to home and have uncovered many productive spots right on my doorstep. All it takes is a bit of research and a keen eye on the rainfall and river heights. It’s also a good idea to pack a rain coat as invariably you will get rained on at some stage or another which I believe is a small price to pay to start the year off with a barra.
It’s not only barramundi that are on the move at this time of the year, saltwater crocodiles are also active and take advantage of the rising water levels to venture into new areas. Care must be taken especially when land based fishing.