At about three weeks out from my wife giving birth, I had put the proverbial boat cover on and was settled in the thought there would be a significantly reduced fishing and hunting schedule in the short term. As soon as I had that thought, the phone rang. It was my great mate and long-term Northern Territory barra guide and tackle designer Ben Currell: “Can you get up here next week? I’ve got a few days between charters and want to go fishing.”
Well, you would think given the circumstances that would probably be a straight ‘no’ but somehow (with a very chill partner and some flexibility at work), a week later I was on a flight with one of my great cod buddies, Chris Galea from GFab Engineering. Chris makes all manner of well thought-out gear to help the growing number of live sonar users out there and, as this was to be a trip where we specifically targeted big barra on live sonar, this was a perfect pairing. Touching down in Darwin, if we weren’t already keen, Benny sent a message from his sat phone for us to pick up some more XL jig heads as he had been destroying them all week on big barra. It was absolute music to our ears and anticipation was now fever pitch.
The Mission Begins – Let’s Talk Tactics
Arriving at Shady Camp, Ben went into the finer details of what the plan was. The bulk of our efforts would be using live sonar to target larger fish as they rode high in the water in and out of the system with the tides. Getting the lure in precisely the right spot was going to be crucial to triggering a bite as the water was particularly dirty. Given that usual barra behaviour is they won’t chase a lure too much out of their immediate zone, the dirty water made this even more of an issue so being accurate with the cast and pace of the retrieve was going to be the most important thing.
The Game Changer – Live Sonar
It’s no secret that live sonar is extremely successful and puts more fish in the boat. In any format (down, forward or scout) I’ve found it to be an amazing learning tool and definitely a distinct advantage over blind casting or other non-live sonar formats. As one of the Simrad pro team, I am used to Simrad / Lowrance ActiveTarget but nearly all my use has been in forward mode on Murray cod and golden perch in impoundments. This mode really lets you run the lure at the desired depth in the water above a fish but it’s a bit vague if you are running the lure over a fish’s head or tail; it’s certainly the main downside of forward along with a pretty narrow beam. Ben explained that we would be using scout mode, which I was very keen to experience. Ben’s view is that the scout mode was both superior to forward and crucial to keep up with the fast-moving barra and monitor the track of the lure to present it in the precise zone to trigger a bite. The downside of scout mode is that tracking the depth of the fish and the lure is harder, the upside is that tracking fish is a whole lot easier and there is little doubt which direction the fish is facing, which is a great aid to presentation. I guess the advantages of forward, down and scout suit different situations.
On the Water
Onto the actual fishing. On-water it was certainly busy in the typical style of run-off fishing, where boats tend to congregate in specific areas of the system. It was clear there were three distinct styles in favour: the trollers, those anchored or spot-locked on specific zones blind casting, and plenty using live sonar actively looking for fish to cast at. There were almost equal numbers for each style, which highlights the growth of live sonar in only a couple of short years. Getting used to the fishing plan took a little while, and I was a little surprised just how fast barra move with the tide. Basically, look at the speed of the current as the minimum speed they are progressing, which means you need to lead your cast a hell of a lot longer than you think at the start. As there were three of us fishing, one big advantage was that if a cast landed in the wrong spot you could immediately learn from that result and make adjustments on a follow-up – but you usually only got a couple of shots before the fish was gone down tide. The adjustments always called for casting further ahead than the last cast – the speed of movement was amazing!
Over four days of casting it was clear the ideal presentation was with a fish travelling at 90 degrees across the path of the lure and less favourable were casts that came over the shoulder or front-on which often resulted in a spooked fish. This was all good in theory, but with the speed of movement of the fish and drag of the line and lure in the water it takes a bit of experience, accuracy and luck to get it just right. What was painfully obvious was that even when you presented a lure in seemingly the perfect spot, many, many fish refuse or don’t see your lure or show a half interest and turn away from the lure a moment after appearing like a bite was imminent. Very frustrating!
Scoping can be both boring and frustrating at times but the information it gives you is priceless. Knowing there are no fish present can be as valuable as knowing it’s time to cast. It was also clear that the fish came through in waves, sometimes a couple at a time, others 10 or more and often right up the middle of the river at speed. For the most part at our stage of the moon (coming off the spring tides) these fish weren’t really feeding much at all, apart from a very small window on slack water when it appeared they would switch on. They could, however, be caught by getting a reaction anytime in the tide. While we did fish a variety of suspending jerk baits that did get results, the most consistent success came from fishing 5 and 7-inch Irukandji plastics in the paddle and boot tail styles rigged on either XL weedless or traditional jig heads with a treble attached to the tow point, most hook-ups occurring on the treble with the smaller (5-inch) bait probably slightly outshining others. We got multiple fish each day, not staggering numbers but when you saw the quality there were no complaints. We did as well as any boat on the river, which is a pretty good sign you are doing OK. The final day was interesting, after a fishless (for me) morning where it seemed I was always just off the pace, the afternoon things really clicked with three big barra and some equally big threadies in rapid succession, pretty much because I was nailing my casts and reading the water a little better.
The success of live sonar is unquestionable but success is usually not instant – there is always some learning to do. This opportunity to go head-on with some live sonar experts was a situation not to be missed. Aside from the technical aspects covered above, over the course of the four days plenty of good barra came on board in the 90cm to one-metre class and more than 20 big threadies. Like any trip of this nature some good fish were lost along the way with a couple to some of the best jig heads on the market failing. Barra are tough on gear!