Top End terrors

Rick Huckstepp | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 4
Felicity Ward holds her biggest everbarra, caught during the Nats.
With no shortage of monster fish and the idyllic backdrop of the NT’s Daly River, the 2011 Club Marine Barra Nationals was hard to beat.

The Daly River is a prized jewel among the Northern Territory’s extensive river systems, touted by many gun anglers as holding the most potential for the biggest barramundi. They’re partly correct, too, depending on the time of the year, although the Daly must share top billing with a number of other big Top End watercourses on this score.

The South and East Alligator, the Adelaide and the Victoria Rivers all produce monster barra, and every year these fertile waterways produce any number of personal bests and record fish.

Where the Daly does outscore its rivals is its sheer beauty. It’s the prettiest river of the bunch, teeming with bird life and often fringed with dense, overhanging foliage that offers protection from the searing northern sun, and with clean running water for much of the year that is cleansed by a strong tidal push. There are, however, plenty of sandbars to admire, too – which are often viewed at close range, after a distracted skipper has parked his vessel atop one, at speed!

Oh, and let’s not forget its large population of estuarine salt water crocodiles, plus a healthy smattering of the relatively harmless freshwater (Johnson River) crocodiles to add to the mix.


Take an aerial view of the Daly River, and its surrounding flood plains seemingly stretch for 100km, pock marked by billabongs that soon become lost under the inland sea of freshwater that swamps the Top End during each wet season.

This inundation allows the fish that have been spawned in those waterholes to exit into the main river system, as they face their first perilous years in what is an incredibly hostile environment.

Local aboriginal legend tells us that when the pink flowers off the bombax (or silk cotton) tree float down the Daly River, the big barramundi are lurking between its banks.

And so they were during the recent 2011 Palmerston Game Fishing Club’s 16th Club Marine Barra Nationals (both the flowers and the big fish!).

In this author’s opinion, this event is arguably the premium tournament for barra anglers in this country. This year it had been postponed due to a late cyclone, which dumped an extra metre of water into the catchment in early April.

This pushed the wet season rainfall to a total of nearly 3.5m, causing the Daly to break its banks for the second time this wet.

The low level river crossing at the Daly River township is the benchmark by which the floods are measured. It is not unusual for the river to be 13m above that and remain in a flooded state for a couple of months – all the better for the fish and other aquatic life that call these waters home.


This late May start to the tournament was at the opposite side of the tide cycle normally chosen by the organisers, and subsequently many thought this would result in poor numbers of fish on the scoreboard.

Not so. The preferred start to the tournament has always been around the neap or slack tide and then anglers fish the increasing tides for six days. They busy themselves casting and trolling lures armed with barbless hooks, with all fish photographed on the measuring board and then released.

Typically, the snags are worked at close quarters, with casting accuracy a prerequisite to success. If trolling, unless the lure is bumping through the timber below, you may as well be back at camp having a beer. Never has ‘being in the strike zone’ been so important.

As it turned out, competitors were fishing the back of the big tides down to the slack water – but the fish weren’t where they were supposed to be!

Being astute hunters, anglers soon worked out the fish were cruising the river away from the snag-infested banks, and while the waters there could be 3-8m in depth, the fish weren’t far below the surface. In fact, many were caught right in the middle of the river.

With big schools of large mullet of a variety of species scattered throughout the system, matching the lures to the taste of the local barramundi proved the undoing of many anglers.

Lures up to 190mm in length, with shallow diving bibs that allowed them to run just a couple of metres down, accounted for many quality fish – and I mean many!

Some 58 teams took to the water, with most comprising three anglers and a few boats running just two.


Only fish over 40cm were eligible to score and a whopping 2069 of those graced the measuring boards over five days of fishing. An incredible 17 of those fish were over the magical 1m mark – a tally that has only been matched once before in this tournament’s 16-year history.

While every angler strove to catch one of these ‘meteries’, a prize of a smart boat, motor and trailer package donated by Territory Marine was the goal, but the fish to win it had to be 125cm or longer. There was one such fish caught – on the orientation day by an observer. That kept the competitors on tenterhooks for the week, in the knowledge it was still freely swimming the river system somewhere.

So where do so many anglers eat and sleep on the banks this mighty river?

Kerry and Wally Draper at the Banyan Farm have handled the logistics for this tournament for more than a decade, and a more relaxed place you will never find.

Lots of shade under native and mango trees, some air-conditioned cabins, spacious powered campsites, five-star cooking and dining facilities and hot showers to boot.

Not to mention their own single-lane boat ramp and a pontoon set-up at the river bank to moor competitor’s boats, negating the need to retrieve each night. The boats sit there under a flood-lit night sky, under the watchful eye of a caretaker.


The prize pool was split between local and interstate teams and teams comprising a mixture of both.

Top End Tackle won the local team award, with a massive 8427 points, some 2838 points ahead of the next best local team, the Polar Bears.

Classic Warlocks won the mixed team award, with 5233 points and Team Barra Busters took out the champion interstate team, with 4417 points.

Shane Compain, skipper of the Top End Tackle team, took out the champion angler award, with 3958 points.

Having fished a few of these tournaments and photographed and filmed most of the rest, each year fails to disappoint. The organisation gets better by the year and now with Club Marine on board as the naming right sponsor, the sky is the limit for this veritable feast of barra-fighting bliss.

Feel like a taste of Daly River action? The Banyan Farm can be contacted on (08) 8978 2461.