Mangroves and mudcrabs

Steve Timmons | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 5
Lightning in the morning sky – a pearler of a day to go fishing.
Our northern correspondent gets taken for a ride up the river and comes back with an esky full of mud crabs and barra.

I’d been moping around home for a while. Ol’ Mate took back his gift of the rod and reel combo – as you do. The boat was in dry-dock and will be for sometime, while I’m hangin’ for the smell of bait and the wind in my face.

A phone call comes from Shoal Bay Boat Hire. Cliff has heard that I’m stranded at home kickin’ the dog.

“Listen bloke. How about coming out with me on Sunday morning and smellin’ the mangroves?”

“You beauty! What do I need?”

“Just bring your food and drink and Bob and I will take care of everything else. The tides are right so we have a four-hour window of opportunity.”

Shoal Bay is on the Howard River, all-up, about 40 minutes drive from Darwin city. Cliff and Lucy Watkins, together with Bob and Narelle Morris, took over the place in February, 2004.

The Howard River is tidal; in fact it is very tidal. So much so that some people who have been caught call it “No Water Bay”. Not only does the water rush in and out; sandbars and mud flats appear out of nowhere. If you don’t know the channels and tides, you could be stuck out here forever. So, why would a numbskull risk fishing here? If you know what you are doing, the results are spectacular.

Cliff and Bob have been fishing these waters for many years; they know what fishos want and cater for all types. But first, of course, you have to get here. That is not hard. From Darwin, take the Stuart Highway south – actually, you don’t have a choice; you can only go south from Darwin. When you get to the Howard Springs traffic lights, turn left into Gunn Point road. About 3.5km along, you will see a casuarina pine forest on the left. They don’t look anything like Christmas trees – no lights! Just here is a dirt track to your left that goes through the forest (look for a blue boat ramp sign). You will see a sign for Shoal Bay Boat Hire. This is a dusty track with potholes, which runs for about 14km.

Let’s get realistic. If the bitumen went all the way, the place would be fished out. This track was cut specifically to access Shoal Bay. As it runs through Crown land, no one accepts responsibility for it, thus it receives little or no maintenance.

Quite frankly, this could be why the fishing is so good: You’ve got to be serious to drive here. When driving along this track, look up into the trees – that’s right, look up – because that is where the boys have put the home-made signs. Wherever there is a fork in the road, there is a sign to follow. You will know when you get there because the road is flat and you will see buildings among trees and mowed grass.

Everyone must pass through Check-point Charlie. This land is privately owned and so is the boat ramp. Only those with bookings may enter.


So, what’s on offer? Well, I’m glad you asked. The boys have put together a little fisho’s paradise catering to everyone’s requirements. You can come here and hire a tinny that up to four people can wet a line in, or throw a pot from. Naturally, you need to book ahead. If you don’t have your own pots, you can hire them already baited. You can bring your own boat and launch it from their boat ramp for a nominal fee. Your car and contents will be safe and sound upon your return. You can set up camp here (un-powered sites only), or hire a tent and a generator. You can book a guided tour in one of their boats. Also – and this is different – you can book the boys to guide you to their secret spots in your own boat around the Howard River system, or you can take a guided reef fishing tour in their brand new blue water rig among the Vernon Islands.

For those with limited time who want results, try a fly-in and fly-out tour at Shoal Bay. You will be picked up from the airport, everything supplied, taken to the best spots, tackle supplied – hell, you don’t even have to bait your own hooks! There is dormitory-style accommodation on-site, so stay as long as you want. When you get back in, the boys will fillet your fish and cook your mud crabs, while you sit in the shade and sip on a cold one. You can even ring up and plan a holiday package for the whole family.

Now, that’s enough about you lot!

I’ve followed the signs and arrived at Checkpoint Charlie just before 7am, because that’s what Cliff told me to do. Cliff and Bob are down at the ramp helping locals with the irboats and organising people who are taking out hire boats. The sun is just rising over the mangroves and lighting up the mudflats. The tide is on its way in at around five knots and you can see where the channels are.

By the time I’ve got my gear out of the car and taken a couple of shots, the tide is high enough to get the hire boats underway. Locals are lining up in the car park to launch their boats. The sweet, longed-for smell of mangrove mud is blown up my nose by a cool tropical breeze that fills my body with vigor and excitement.

With all the hire boats launched and well underway, Cliff brings our boat up to the ramp, with everything ready; crab pots baited, fishing gear rigged, leaving just me, an esky and a camera case to load, then we’re off.

When Cliff gives a guided tour, he tells you a lot about the area. He points things out, like sandbars that have just gone under, where the channels are, which is the best way to go and what to expect when you get there.

First off, we need some live bait. We sail around the mouth of the Howard River to an inlet, which just happens to be marked in Fish Finder magazine (the workshop manual for Top End fishos) as Spot 5. Here Cliff drops a couple of pots into the incoming tide. You get a good feeling when the skipper is using barramundi for crab bait. We only have four crab pots (our limit is ten pots per boat).

We pull in to the bank, Cliff ties up and walks about 50 metres across the bank to the water coming into a creek and throws a cast net for mullet. I must say he’s got a good throw. I’m standing there watching this man do his magic, when I notice the cool mangrove mud oozing between my toes – I missed this so much.


In very quick time, Cliff has got over a dozen goodsize mullet for bait. These are kept in a bucket of water with a lid. Holes are drilled into it around 150mm from the top to allow water to flow through, so when you pull up, just drop the bucket over the side – yes, you do have to tie a rope to the bucket and the other end to the boat.

We are underway in about 20 minutes and head back to check the pots. The tide has risen about 200mm in this time; we pull up the two pots. The first one has a jenny in it.

Cliff explained to me that, while in the Territory we are allowed to keep jennys without eggs, a mud crab will grow from the size of a 50-cent piece to a keeper in around seven to nine weeks. Thus, keeping the breeders is foolish for the future of crabbing. However, when a jenny gets too big, she will kill any buck that tries to mate, thus stopping the cycle. So, if you catch a jenny that can fit her claws around your ankle – eat her.

The second pot has a good buck in it. I’m impressed. We head back out to the mouth, over near Tree Point to a place called simply The Rock, where a hire boat has flooded the engine. Cliff gets them going and gives them instructions not to use the choke again. Not surprisingly, The Rock is just what it sounds like – it’s a rock. It pokes out of the water at low tide and does not appear to be attached to anything and there is a deep hole at one end. This is a good spot for catching black jewfish, threadfin salmon, mackerel, queenfish, and trevally.

The tide is running a bit too fast today for bottom fishing, so Cliff takes me to a spot he knows up the Little Howard. This stretch, between the mouth of the Howard River and the mouth of the Little Howard is known by locals as the crabber’s golden mile. We set our four pots and Cliff gives me a show-and-tell tour up the Little Howard. This is not a big waterway, however it has some interesting views, lots of bends with eddies and backwaters, shade at the right time of day and, of course, a variety of tropical wildlife.

Shoal Bay and the Howard River system are renowned as great fishing areas. No one really knows why this is. Perhaps it is the maze of creeks, with low banks, which flood very easily, bringing an abundance of food from the vast flood plain into the system. We don’t really care do we? We just want to go out and score, eh?

Professional fishermen used to get their best catches in this area, then when netting in Darwin Harbour and Shoal Bay was banned in 1997, the locals had the fattest time catching just about everything that swims. Now that Cliff and Bob have come up with the goods, the place is accessible to all. You simply need to work out just how you want to go fishing – your boat or theirs – and give them a call.

We pull up in a quiet spot that has a little shade and Cliff shows me a trick that gets results. This is just common sense really, when you think about it.

The rig is simple. A treble hook and small sinker tied to the end of the line – the sinker is running type. One of the treble hooks is put through the live mullet, about three parts along the back, under the spine, so as not to kill the fish. Then about 600mm up the line, Cliff adds a piece of Styrofoam, attached with just a slot and a couple of winds – no knot. This acts as a float. Or you could use a ball float. Then comes the secret. Cliff throws the line over a small branch; just a twig really that is hanging near a snag. A small twig will break when the fish takes the float under, while a branch will give you problems getting the fish over it.

Using the water flow, the live bait, which is swimming, is kept just near the snag not far below the surface. As barra are mostly surface feeders (you can tell by the position of the eyes in their heads, but you already knew that, didn’t ya?), they are always looking up. We know that barra are ambush types and like to hide in snags. So we have a live mullet suspended in the water, the flow is directing it towards the snag and because the line is over a well-positioned twig, the bait can’t swim down the river away from the spot. Kind of makes a lot of sense really?

This sure beats throwing lures at trees and losing them (something I do a lot). Now we just crack a cold can and chat, while waiting for the fish to come out and grab the live bait. You can watch the live bait swimming and making the float bob up and down; this of course attracts the predators that we want to eat.


By the time I’d had half a lamb sandwich and most of the can, the float disappears under water. Cliff says, grab the rig, but don’t reef the flamin’ thing out of its face. Just lift the rod up, ‘cause the fish has already hooked itself. All you have to do is keep the line tight and wind it in.

Mate! That was the easiest 62cm barra that I’ve ever landed. Naturally, in the rush that happens when a reel starts singing at you, I dropped the can and spilt it (shame, shame, shame). I’ve looked at Cliff and said: “You’ve gotta be flamin’ kidding.”

“No mate, fairdinkum, that’s how it’s done out this way.”

We head upstream a bit further and rig-up again. Same thing; live mullet over the small branch and wait. The float goes under, the line goes tight and, crucially, this time I put my can in the holder. Lift the rod, Cliff grabs his line and moves it out of the way. A little larger fish this time; took me almost a whole minute to wind in this 68cm feast. I’m looking at Cliff in amazement; he raises a casual smile and a friendly wink, and then has a little chuckle.

You know, I’ve spent days flickin’ lures at trees and come up with naught. Then there’s the frustration of bird’s nests and endless de-hooking off vegetation. This seemed far too easy; in fact, it doesn’t seem at all sporting. Just sitting in the shade with a cold drink waiting for the barra to kamikaze.

As it turns out, I’ve already got three barra in the freezer for visitors. Us locals don’t bother with anything less than out of the river and into the pan and Chris and Bob seem to always have their quota at home (five in possession). We had better start back and check the pots.

You know, if a bloke was to take a camp stove and frying pan, he could fish all day. Fisheries might check your freezer if they’ve a mind to, but I doubt that they would pump your stomach!

We head back to the golden mile and pull our four crab pots. I’m sure that you are going to find this hard to believe – I did – but we actually caught 13 mud crabs. Add the two we got earlier, and that makes 15.

So here’s the score: Three jennys, plus two undersize, which, of course, we threw back. That leaves us with 10 bucks; all keepers. Well stone the flamin’ crows! For the first time ever, I’ve caught my bag limit. What is even more surprising, we were back at camp by 12 o’clock and the barbie is chockers with bright red mud crabs and sizzling barra.

Being the social sort of bloke that I am, I thought it would be impolite to leave in the heat of the day, so a bit of a chinwag was on the menu. Let’s add this up. If you are like me – not a good fisho – but you like to show your visitors a good time, consider leaving the boat at home and take them out to Shoal Bay and let Chris and Bob do all the work. This way you come home with head held high. This also leaves you the arvo to tell fish stories with your mates, who at this point in time, reckon that you are a bonza bloke. It worked for me!

You can ring Cliff or Bob at Shoal Bay Boat Hire on: (08) 8932 3640, or cruise to their website: