The annual wet season in the Northern Territory often fills the flood plains to capacity – and then some – in good years, the abundant waters drowning the undergrowth nurtured by Mother Nature the previous season.
For many years I lived in the NT, running trailer boat fishing charters and capitalising on the ‘run-off’; the phenomenon that occurs when the incessant rains suddenly stop. As the flood plain water levels drop, the H2O pours into the many small cracks, gutters, creeks and rivers, carrying with it that season’s offspring in the form of fish, frogs, bugs, snakes, small crocodiles and insects that come to rely on this habitat to give them a haven while they are in their early stages of life.
Barramundi, and all creatures below them in this unforgiving food chain, seek the shelter of the flooded plains before the volume and strength of water flow forces them back to the main streams, which must, in survival terms, seem like piscatorial versions of the Bronx!
It is at these gutters, drains, creeks and rivers that I spent thousands of hours coaching anglers, novice and expert, in the art of catching barramundi on lures and fly. While it was sometimes like shooting fish in a bathtub, on other occasions the sheer volume of live food exiting those shallow systems made catching these wary fish on artificial lures a formidable challenge.
When it became too tough at the drains, we’d revert to trolling the downstream banks of the main systems, often snagging good fish that ran out of water higher up. They were also now fair game for the larger crocodiles that are abundant across the Top End.
It was during those extended trolling sessions that I thought about all those fish that didn’t go with the flow, so to speak, and were now marooned in holes and billabongs on the flood plains until the next wet season lifted them out or they perished as the waters disappeared.
These fish can range in size anywhere from 7 to 14kg as they continue to grow, gorging on the myriad of baitfish and other wildlife that share their captivity. And successive poor wet seasons can extend their imprisonment, allowing them to blossom into fat, trophy-size fish in the 20kgplus range.
Over the past decade, the Northern Territory’s Conservation Commission has been invading these flood plains with D9 bulldozers, blocking off creeks and drains that allow the tidal saltwater to intrude into the paperbark forests, with the result that they eventually turn into a timber wasteland.
From what I had been told by the old timers who used to shoot buffalo and crocodile as they eked out an existence in one of the toughest environments in this country, the flood plains many years ago were a series of waterholes or billabongs. The influx of the Asian water buffalo saw a population explosion and with so many roaming the plains; once one hole dried up, they moved enmass to another. The passages between became small rivulets during the wet season and before long they deepened to creek stature. As one joined the other, a watery link was established between a coast that enjoys spring tides to eight metres and the very billabongs that created the haven for all things small and wet during their tender years. The flood plains drained more quickly, the saltwater entered and the result was an environment heading for a sure death.
These walls of earth pushed up by bulldozers are referred to as ‘barrage walls’ and their integrity is often compromised by the very power exerted by millions of hectares of water pushing against them. Invariably, they break and when they do, they are repaired at a later date, the ‘dozers leaving a dusty trail as they smash their way back to the original site.
I have seen siltation accelerating in the creek systems over the years, a result of broken barrage walls and dozer activity, but in reality Mother Nature is probably reclaiming and rebuilding what she once had with the help of those big web tracks.
Being so remote and ensconced on a floodplain devoid of vehicle tracks, those now deep creeks hold back water at the barrage wall and once again we have billabongs.
It has been 20 years since I first moved to the Northern Territory. Only recently did I get the chance to have a look at what was happening right next to me all those years ago when I idled my boat along the river banks in search of trophysized barramundi.
Albatross Helicopters is based at Noonamah, on the Stuart Highway, south of the Arnhem Highway, which itself leads on to Kakadu National Park.
This chopper company specialises in mustering cattle and buffalo, but has, more recently, branched out into fishing and sightseeing.
Under the banner of Extreme Helicopter Fishing Adventures, the company runs a variety of choppers with two- to four-seats, with ‘gun’ pilots who spend a lot of their time flying under overhanging trees, flushing animals from the foliage. They can really make a bird boogie and just being with these guys in the bubble is exhilarating to say the least.
It was a chance meeting with Darwin Got One tackle store proprietor, Craig Grosvenor, that showed me what I had been missing out on all these years. It is Craig’s brother, Mark who owns Albatross Helicopters and one thing led to the other so that, before I knew it, I was choppering over a low fog on the Mary River flood plain. With Nikons firmly strapped around the neck, the apertures that were once adorned with doors bristled with fishing rod tips. This was not planned to be a full-on assault on the flood plain’s trapped barramundi population. It was, though, a reconnoiter to investigate the region’s ‘fish-ability’, with a view to taking a trip even more extreme, where we would take a Bell Jet Ranger and hop the coastline from Darwin through the Kimberley. We would fish our way down the coast using the many fantastic guides that situate themselves along some of Australia’s most rugged coastline. But in the meantime, a seven-hour jaunt was enough to give me a taste of things to come. And I have to say that seeing those billabongs while hanging out of the door of a helicopter added a certain excitement to the experience.
A massive storm the night before we lifted off gave the floodplain a good dampening. Also well dampened was the target billabong; one that was way back from the top of Tommy Cut Creek, an old fishing haunt of mine renown for big barra. There were ample fish to seventy-odd centimetres and it was great to take in the remoteness of the location and appreciate that we were probably going to be the last anglers to visit the area until the following year. Due to NT fishing management regulations, the area would be closed to anglers from October 1.
What was especially interesting to one who has fished plenty of stagnant billabongs for Australia’s tropical iconic sports fish, was that these fish were not dark in colour, as would be expected. Nor did they take on the smell of their surroundings, as barra normally would in a billabong situation. Mostly, they were more on the silver side; a colour synonymous with coastal barramundi rather than those stranded in freshwater for the past year. The tidal look of the floodplain in the vicinity of the water was the dead giveaway. Even supposedly land-locked, the tidal pressures were forcing a ‘seep’ under the barrage walls and, in fact, we were fishing a tidal pool.
With our feet looking like we’d been in an earthquake mudslide, we lifted off in our four-seat Robin R44 and headed for the coast. There were buffaloes, pigs and crocodiles galore, for as far as the eye could see. It made for spectacular viewing as we thundered over the plains.
Travelling along the coast, we checked out some isolated creeks that appear on topographical maps, but not on maritime charts. There were rock bars, then came the massive mouth of the Adelaide River and the all-but gone remnants of one of the Territory’s first settlements at Escape Cliffs as well as ancient aboriginal stone fish traps that were dotted along the coast.
The Blue Holes on the Vernon Islands to Darwin’s North look like a diver’s paradise and The Rock at Shoal Bay is another eye-opener. I spent many a session marooned here between a two- and six-metre tide in the humid build-up to the wet season in September, when I’d nail big chrome-coloured barra. The massive electrical storms hammering across the sand to where we fished a puddle on one side of The Rock would definitely get our attention! Now a brief visit on the wrong tide was a good memory jerker. I’ll be back again one day, but phew… I have had some close shaves up here with Thor, the God of Thunder, over the years. Having now had the advantage of a quick getaway via a whirly bird, I have to say I really appreciate the benefits of heli-fishing NT-style.
Navigating back to Noonamah, I had a nostalgic hover over my old property, which, ironically, was about the same distance from the hanger as the land-locked billabongs were from my old creek trolls – and I never knew either existed!
That well-coined phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” springs to mind.
Albatross Helicopters operates flights out of the Monsoon Café at Litchfield National Park and also the Jabiru Airport, in Kakadu National Park. The company also flies from its hangars at Noonamah, just south on the Stuart Highway, from the Noonamah pub. This is about 40km from Darwin City. The aforementioned two locations would make an ideal adjunct to a family holiday in the Northern Territory.
The cost of a trip is $550.00 per person per half day and that involves four hours fishing and choppering. With the speed these birds get across the floodplain, an early morning trip to some fantastic locations is well within reach. After seeing the country from a helicopter, the fish are a bonus! Further enquiries may be made to: Albatross Helicopters, tel (08) 8988 5081, fax (08) 8988 5083. Postal address: PO Box 2157, Palmerston, NT 0831. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.albatrosshelicopters.com.au.