Last year may have set a record for numbers, but for sheer size and quality of fish, this year's 2012 Club Marine Insurance Barra Nationals, on the NT's Daly River, will take some beating. By Rick Huckstepp
The cool south-easterly winds of the dry season were a fading memory as billowing cumulo-nimbus clouds formed over the Timor and Arafura Seas. Humidity was steadily on the rise and the Northern Territory's windswept coastal waters settled into a shimmering millpond.
The spring tides ebbed to neap and barramundi gathered in the shallow tepid waters near the mouths of northern NT's many coastal creeks and rivers.
A stand-out female fish of over a metre in length and with chrome-scaled sides ghosted around the rocks and snags, while an entourage of small male fish caressed her flanks with theirs; Mother Nature had triggered the annual spawn.
CYCLE OF LIFE
Some of the resulting fertilised eggs washed along the rocky coastline, eventually hatching into minute sprat that would take its chances amongst the lethal food chain that gathers in these parts each year for this and other seasonal feasts. The rest of the ripe ova was pushed up the rivers and creeks with the next incoming tide, getting caught in the reeds and debris along the way; oblivious to its temporary habitat and the small degree of sanctuary it offered.
The hot and humid conditions of the troppo season gave way to welcoming monsoon rains, which were in full swing by Christmas. Flood plains were inundated and billabongs filled, before flushing their weedy contents into the rising waters. Fish that had been calling those lily-covered waters home for the past three years spread far and wide, to try their luck in the risky game of life. The miniscule barramundi hatchlings moved into the floodwaters to take their place.
The fish departing the once safe havens of the flood plains exited with lots of algae, weed growth and other floating matter; prime diet for the mullet that had moved up from the coast to feed, with schools of saltwater barramundi in hot pursuit.
While the draining wet season waters teemed with fish, recreational anglers keen to catch a trophy barra spread far and wide. The catches were a mixture of dark-coloured billabong fish and silvery-chrome specimens from the saline waters of the coast.
Some of those anglers were competing in the 2011 Club Marine Barra Nationals, which you may have read about in this very magazine (Club Marine Vol. 26 No. 4). Ah yes, 2011 was a very good year for barramundi and anglers, thanks to a record wet season and the four-week postponement of the event due to a late passing cyclone, which had cranked up the Daly River into flood mode once more.
As the calendar flipped to 2012 the wet season was happening, but only just. Fits and spurts of rain interspersed with hot, humid periods put only a shallow layer of water over those flood plains. In many areas it wasn't enough to relieve the billabongs of their residents, nor to allow the newcomers entry to find sanctuary during the most fragile time of their lives. It looked set to be a mediocre wet season, and it was.
Anglers were in their usual numbers but the barra were not, though the quality of fish proved astounding, to say the least. Some 60 teams competed in the 2012 Club Marine Barra Nationals, the 17th run by Palmerston Game Fishing Club, with 180 anglers from all walks of life keen the catch the most or the biggest to take a place on stage at the end of the five-day competition.
Again held at the Banyan Farm on the banks of the Daly River, the tournament's organisation fell under the newly-appointed co-ordinating hand of Grant Edwards, with Ray Colley - organiser for the previous three tournaments - finally succumbing to the temptation to wet a line as a competitor.
The blistering pace at which the fish were caught in 2011 - around 400 on Day 1 alone - was a far cry from this year, where Day 1 realised just 147 fish. The next three days resulted in 138, 113, then 142 respectively.
Midway through this tournament, however, it became apparent that plenty of big fish were gracing the measuring boards. With a tournament record of 17 fish over a metre in length to beat, the record soon tumbled.
On Day 5 and with no scores yet made public, it was anyone's guess as to who was going to take top honours. With only 578 points between third and first place, Team Go Easy - comprising Richard and Michael Dickinson and Michael Beare - was doing anything but. It was pulling out all the stops to nail a metre fish, which would have sent it to the top of the ladder.
Classic Warlocks team members John Millyard, Trevor Robb and Steve Trembath were the ones to watch, however. With a number of previous victories in this tournament under its collective belt, it's a formidable fishing trio.
The start of fishing on the last day had Team Dead Fishy leading by a slender 240 points with 2836 points, with team members Roxanne Edwards, David Green and Charles Britton as serious as they get when it comes to tournament fishing.
By the time lines out was called at 3.30pm it was anyone's guess as to who would be going home with the goodies and the kudos, but when the ink had dried on the scoreboard it was Classic Warlocks in first place as Champion Overall Team, while team member Trevor Robb was crowned Champion Angler.
Team Dead Fishy ran second by a thin margin of 89 points and was awarded Champion Mixed Team, while Team Go Easy nailed the Champion Local Team award.
The largest catch of the tournament belonged to Russell Fry, with a 114cm monster. However, the length of the fish isn't perhaps as notable as the time it took him to catch his first metre barra: 22 years, three months and 24 days, to be exact! That's a long time to live in the Northern Territory without cracking the holy grail: 100cm of ballistic barramundi. Well done Russ; patience is a virtue.
Fishing continues to evolve and tournaments such as this one tease out fresh angling ideas that might otherwise lie dormant or be ridiculed. Last year saw anglers trade the snag-and-rock-bar-riddled river banks for the centre of the river, with no detriment to the volume of the catch. In fact, the U-turn in tactics actually resulted in a remarkable increase in captures.
This year much of the fishing was still midstream but the tempo of the troll had picked up. Boats were now dragging lures at mackerel trolling speeds of 9-10km/h and they continued to blitz the field; we live and learn.
This year more than ever also proved the point that barramundi are not spooked by boat traffic. At one point in the vicinity of Harey's Rock bar no less than 42 boats were trolling at high speed, crossing paths within rod lengths of each other's gunwales - but the fish kept on biting!
While 2011 set the record for fish numbers, 2012 was a record in sheer terms of quality. Of the 633 fish caught, 25 were a metre or more in length. No doubt 2013 will bring more surprises - let's hope a big wet and even more big fish are among them.
Those that hanker to catch a barra against the tranquillity that is the Daly River may contact Kerri and Wally Draper at the Banyan Farm - visit www.banyanfarm.com.au or call (08) 8978 2461.