Trolling for Barramundi

Barramundi are without a doubt the iconic sportfish in the Northern half of the country. They have the ability to hit hard, jump, destroy tackle and grow to an impressive size. Nothing in north Australian estuary fishing compares to witnessing a big barra in full flight, gills flared and mouth open, trying to dislodge your lure. After this the angler is either experiencing the sheer euphoria of landing their trophy, or the gut-wrenching disappointment of seeing her swim to freedom. The high and lows of trophy barra fishing are responsible for the life-long addiction suffered by any anglers lucky enough to come into contact with a big girl.

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Life cycle

All barramundi are born male, many then travel upstream to the freshwater reaches of rivers or seasonally landlocked waterways. Some travel back and forward between the salt and fresh over their lifespan, while others remain in the tidal reaches. Usually once a fish has reached a breeding size it will continue to reside in the saltwater for the remainder of its life cycle. Later in their lives, all fish then turn female and carry on spawning until they meet their end. Generally any fish over 95cm will be a big breeding female, although they are known to change sex at a smaller size.

Seasons

In Queensland, barramundi are closed to targeting by anglers from midday November 1 to midday February 1  or midday October 7 (2013 onwards) to midday February 1 in the Gulf of Carpentaria. These closed seasons enable fish to carry out their breeding cycle unhindered. Some anglers continue to target these breeding fish, stating that as long as the fish is released then no harm is done. This is incredibly near-sighted. Any fish which has undergone the rigors of capture could potentially reabsorb their eggs due to stress. Aside from this, no catch and release method ensures a 100% survival rate. While in the Northern Territory, areas recognised as prime spawning grounds are closed to fishing completely over the period from October 1 to February 1. These areas are from Shady Camp barrage downstream encompassing both Sampan and Tommycut Creeks and some distance seaward, and from Moon Billabong outlet on the Daly River downstream to a line between Cliff Head and the Reynolds River (check current fisheries regulations, as they do change periodically). While these seasons should not be fished, the 2 months either side provide the most favourable conditions in which to target a big female barra. While they can be captured year round, this article will focus on techniques effective through this prime period.

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Distribution

The southernmost extremities for barra extend to the Gold Coast in the east and Shark Bay in the west, although they only realistically become a viable target from the Great Sandy Straights north across the top end and down to Exmouth.

Habitat

Large female barra inhabit a wide range of coastal habitats, such as deep and shallow reefs, tidal flats, rock bars, snag piles, drop offs, current breaks, creek mouths and deep estuarine holes. By nature these fish tend to feed briefly over a period of ideal conditions, although this is not always the case. These conditions are determined by a range of factors including season, tidal flow, water clarity, moon position, barometric pressure and light. Each individual location will produce good results based on its own combination of these factors. Time on the water is the only method of ascertaining the ideal conditions for each location, along with keeping a diary of results and recording these environmental factors to cross reference with fishing success or failure.

Tactics

Due to a barramundi’s plethora of prey animals, including mullet, garfish, tarpon, prawns, sardines and crabs, along with their wide range of habitat, there is a whole host of methods with which to target your quarry. Lure selection and boat action are the determining factors in instigating a bite from any present fish.

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Shallow Trolling 0-3m

When trolling, the shallow areas to target range from shallow tidal flats to drop offs, shallow snags and current breaks. In these locations, selecting a lure which will run roughly ½ to ¾ of the water depth is usually ideal. The size of the lure should be selected after paying attention to any present baitfish which are visible. If this is not possible, a shallow diving hardbody lure or comparable soft plastic between 100mm and 200mm will usually be somewhere around the ideal size. Boat speed and action may vary from 12km per hour down to slow trolling with the vessel in and out of gear. The behaviour of any present bait should give an indication to the most successful troll speed. If no prey animals are present, mixing it up until favouring results are obtained is a prudent option. At whatever speed it can pay to jig the rod while moving. Try a variety of jigging methods to see what works.

Deep Trolling

Deep trolling is a situation where your depth sounder is your eyes and ears; it is where side imaging and high end electronics really excel. When targeting deeper structure, such as rock bars, drop offs, bottom corrugations and deep snags. The proximity of you lure to the given structure is paramount. Fish in these areas are not only feeding, but sheltering from the current, therefore a lure must be presented as near as possible or even bumping into and along said structure. This is the world of deep divers and heavily-rigged, weedless soft plastics. Opt for a diving lure which will run right at the depth of your chosen snag pile, rock bar or bottom contour. In this situation, the larger the bib for a lure’s given trolling depth, the more snag resistant it will be. Simply troll into the current as slowly as possible, working your motor in and out of gear seems to be the most effective method. In the case of both hard and soft lures, continue to release more line until you can feel the lure periodically making contact with the structure. Once running depth has been established, jig the rod violently as much as possible, this is the action with both entices strikes and reduces the number of times the lure grabs the snags or rocks.

Tackle

When trolling for barra the most effective tool for both controlling your lure and fish is a casting reel, spooled with braid and a hard mono or fluorocarbon leader. This is then matched to a comparable graphite casting rod. Rod strength is determined by the line weight chosen, while the length of rod is up to an angler’s personal preference. Line weights are dictated by the given location in which you are targeting fish. Wide open locations with no line-shredding obstacles are best fished with 20 or 30lb main line and 50 to 60lb leader. Lighter drags (just enough to drive the hooks home) can be fished in these areas and result in less fish lost to leader chafe or pulled hooked. If targeting areas abounding in rocks and snags it is best to opt for 30 to 50lb mainline and 60 to 80lb leader. Drags in these locations should be amped up in order to have the leverage to turn a fish’s head away from structure.

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Lures and Colours

In clear water, a natural colour – ideally matching the local bait population – is preferred. A selection of lures incorporating silver, gold, olive, brown, black or white sees an angler covering most scenarios. I personally prefer a bright belly and red gills on all my lures, both in clear and dirty water. In more turbid waters, greens, pinks, yellows, red heads, blacks or a combination of these colours are effective.

Top 5 Lures

Reidy’s Big B52
Luckycraft Pointer 100XD
Reidy’s Judge
Maria Fake Bait 130
16A Bomber
(Note: it pays to upgrade to the heaviest trebles and split rings possible while still enabling the lure to float or suspend.)

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Fighting

As mentioned earlier, fighting style is dictated by the surrounding environment. When fishing open areas, the softer you fight a fish, the more likely that fish is to enter the net. However, when a fish is heading for structure, the angler must do anything in his or her power to stop that fish. Tight drags, sideways pull and thumbing the spool may be the only method. If a fish does happen to reach its goal but remains attached, an effective method of recovering the fish is to free spool the reel and clear the line of the given obstacle before commencing the fight. The majority of barra will jump at some stage throughout the fight. This is when your lure is most likely to be dislodged and thrown unceremoniously in the air. Keeping a low rod angle negates this to some extent, but not entirely. When reaching the latter stages of the fight, it is important not to rush the situation. Ideally a fish will spend all its energy a safe distance from the boat. Barramundi have a nasty habit of surging beneath a vessel which endangers the line of being cut by the hull or prop. When a fish is spent it will generally roll on the surface and sideplane in; it is the angler’s responsibility to guide the fish into the waiting, partially submerged, rubberised net.

Release

Once a fish is captured, it should be the aim of the angler to work fast and minimise time in which the big girl is removed from the water. Lip grips are great for this, they are secured in the mouth (almost impossible to release) while the occupants of the vessel organise cameras or measuring devices. A fish should always be supported from below, NEVER having force exerted on the bottom jaw or throat. When its time to let her go simply, place her gently back in the water and either swim her by hand or with the aid of the boat idling forward. As strength begins to return to the fish she will begin to bite down on the angler’s hand or grip and fight more against her restraints. For the absolute best chance of survival it pays to drive away from the capture area while swimming the fish and release her near a bankside structure if possible. This removes the fish from the area in which it has been sending out distress signals, which is like ringing a dinner bell for any shark or crocodile in the area. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a potential 120cm+ fish flailing on the surface with its tail bitten off.

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Conservation

These larger specimens are the future of the fishery. Any fish over 75cm is potentially a breeding animal and should be treated with the utmost respect. Not only do these fish represent reproductive value, but their table quality seriously diminishes as they grow large. A barely-legal barramundi is far superior on a plate to a big breeding female.

Bycatch

When targeting trophy barra, the most often fish encountered is the king threadfin. These fish pull hard, at times jump and taste great. Along with threadies, you may encounter mangrove jacks, golden snapper, blue threadfin, estuary cod, QLD groper, black jewfish and monstrous salmon-tail catfish. The majority of these fish (excluding the catfish and the protected QLD groper) are superb eating and certainly a reward for releasing all those big breeding barramundi.

Conclusion

The learning curve is steep when targeting these trophies and it may be a long road to your metre-long fish. Or you may get lucky and reach the mark in the first 5 minutes of targeting them (as has been the case many times for passengers on my vessel). The only way to find out is to hitch up the boat and get amongst them.

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