Australia is a big place. But since most of us live in a handful of clusters around the coast, those pockets of humanity can be as crowded as anywhere else in the world.
When it comes to wetting a line, that can mean long waits at the boat ramp, while novices practise their trailer reversing and sometimes even a fist-fight with the dingbat who jumps the queue. And then, once you finally do get out on the water, all those people who were in the queue ahead of you are now waiting for you at that favourite ‘secret’ spot you always go to.
But what if we told you there was a place where you could fish for barramundi or any number of salt-water species and you’d have something like 650km of waterways to yourself in the process?
Sound good? Well, such a place exists.
It’s called the Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge and, as the only land-based operation with permission to fish the waters of the Aboriginal territory around Maningrida (about 400km west of Darwin on the mouth of the Liverpool River), apart from a handful of locals kids who fish from the shore, the only other competition you’ll have is the 17 other anglers that can be accommodated at the lodge at one time.
The lodge itself is 18km from the Maningrida township and was originally founded about the turn of this century as a water buffalo hunting lodge. Only problem was, nobody remembered to tell the buffalo to turn up for work, so the idea never really got off the ground. But a couple of years later, somebody had the bright idea to use the infrastructure as a fishing lodge.
The permits were granted and permanent tents erected on the existing concrete slabs. Add the workshop for keeping the boats running smoothly, a generator plant for power and a communal eating area with a kitchen, complete with a proper chef, and you have yourself a barra fishing paradise.
Located on the Liverpool River where it spreads to about a kilometre across and flows into the Arafura Sea, the operation gives visitors a great opportunity; they can either fish the rivers and creeks for barra, salmon or saratoga or head out into the bluewater and tackle queenfish, tuna, cod, Spanish mackerel, coral trout and more.
And that’s exactly what we did. A pretty stiff breeze made conditions a bit lumpy, but nothing the well-maintained fleet of 17ft, centre-console tinnies with 115hp outboards couldn’t handle.
As a bit of a bluewater newbie, I’d never hooked a tuna before, but I swear, on my first cast, and within about three seconds of the lure hitting the drink, I was on. I also now know why tuna are bullet-shaped; because the instant you feed them a treble, they take off like they’ve been shot out of an underwater cannon.
Then there are the queenies, which, in the understated vernacular of my guide for the day, Big Danny, “really play up”. And ain’t that the truth. I had a 1m queenie on the line for about 10 minutes, both of us wearing out as I reeled him closer to the boat and he dragged me back out again.
The only Spanish mack I hooked not only played me, he played me for a chump, dragging me under the reef and snapping the line.
Numerous bombies dot the seascape out here, but the guides know the area intimately and can get you close to the rocks to cast for queenies without putting anybody in danger.
And when you do throw a lure across the reef, you’ll probably have a fight on your hands as the queenies elbow each other out of the way to take the hook. At one point, a wave stood up just before hitting the reef, allowing us to see literally dozens of queenies inside the wave, like big silver peach slices suspended in salty green jelly.
It’s out in the blue that you’ll also see a remarkable symbiotic relationship in action. The tuna don’t always know where the tight-knit bait-fish ball is thrashing about. And while the birds can see the bait-ball from the air, it’s often too deep for them to do anything about it.
But – and this is the clever bit – the tuna can see extremely well; they can spot the birds on the wing and have learned that they’ll be right above the bait-ball. So, the tuna high-tail it over there at about 40km/h, hoeing in to the bait-fish and forcing them to the surface, where the birds then get stuck in. Brilliant, this nature stuff.
Of course, it’s the river system that really attracts fishermen because it’s here that the mighty barra hang out.
Over four days, we caught barra from roughly 50cm to just on 90cm and guests of the lodge regularly join the metre-plus club (which entitles them to a plaque in the mess hall). Techniques range from trolling to simple casting along the river banks and if you’re feeling really handy with the bait-caster, you can try a bit of finesse and attempt to tease the barra out from around the mangroves before they run behind a snag and make off with your lure.
We also tried a wide variety of lures, from deep bombers and hard plastics, soft plastics (including weedless) and pretty much everything in between. And switching lures definitely helps, because we landed fish on each type of tackle.
The best news is that you won’t have to wait too long to hook up. Not only are the barra present in big numbers, if a particular spot isn’t producing hits, your guide will soon move you on to another of his favourite spots.
In fact, these big, patient, passionate, suntanned blokes are worth their not inconsiderable weight in gold when it comes to finding barra (or any other species within the local waterways). They really do know the ropes in terms of the tides, weather, the water condition and where the fish might be hiding. They’ll help with rigging your gear and can provide plenty of info on what gear works, why it works and how to get the best from it.
You’ll probably find that over, say, a four-day period, you’ll be teamed up with four different guides. This isn’t a form of social engineering, rather a good way to expose you to all the tricks of the trade. See, each guide has his own tips, tricks and even favourite lures and fishing spots that he’ll be happy to share with you (if not with the other guides). These guys really do want to see you catch fish.
The bottom line is that even if you’re a bit of a novice at the barra-hunting game (as I was), you’re pretty much guaranteed of hooking up.
As well as all those skills, the guides (and everybody else involved with the lodge) are environmentally switched on and of the dozens of fish caught from our boat, we kept just one. Chef Mark gave us his wish-list of keepers each morning and once we’d filled his shopping list, everything else was released to fight another day.
As well as sustainable fishing, that also means there’s plenty of fresh fish for dinner each night.
MUDDIES ON THE MENU
The headwaters of the Liverpool are also chockers with mud crabs and one of the guides will be given the task of setting a few pots for the day, usually ensuring that an esky full of muddies also winds up on the lodge table at night.
Just in case you get tired of hauling fish into the boat (and Lord knows, anything’s technically possible), there are always plenty of other things to look at. The stunning coastline and river system aside, there’s a ton of wildlife getting around, too.
Again, the fact that you have the place more or less to yourself means that the critters around here seem happy to just hang around and have their photos taken.
There are any number of bird species, including black cockatoos, a variety of kookaburras and kingfishers, jabirus, terns, frigates and a host of water-fowl pretty much everywhere you look. And if you’re lucky, you might a see a water buffalo or two. At the right time of year, wild pigs can also be seen getting around.
HOW THE LODGE WORKS
If you’re thinking a trip to the Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge is about anything but fishing, think again.
Reveille is at 6:00am each day and the bus leaves for the boat ramp back in Maningrida at 7:00am sharp.
From there, you’re out on the water till 4:30pm, so anything that happens in those eight hours happens on board the tinny. It’s hot out there, so a long-sleeved shirt and a big hat is the go, but even then, you’ll be needing lots of sunblock (which is included in the deal).
Accommodation is in permanent tents, with the option of an ensuite-equipped model. Fans are fitted over each bed and the flow-through design means it’s not too hot at night. The beds themselves are very comfy (or maybe I was just exhausted from catching all those fish). And while there’s power, there’s no TV and no internet. You won’t miss either though – trust me. There’s also no mobile phone coverage at the camp, but there is Telstra coverage in Maningrida, so you can check in each day from the boat ramp.
All meals are included in the deal as well as your drinks at night with a beer (or two) at the end of each day and a glass of wine with dinner. Because the lodge is on `dry’ country, you can’t take alcohol in with you, but if you have special requests, the lodge can pre-arrange your tipple of choice to meet you there.
Out on the bluewater, there’s a good chance you’ll run across giant manta rays, sea turtles and even dolphins. Retrieve your catch too slowly and you might meet a shark as well.
And then there are the kings of this domain, the salt-water crocodiles. At low tide, these guys are literally on every mud-bank and they can also be spotted swimming beside your boat or crossing the river in front of you. Even if you’ve seen crocs in the wild before, first contact always quickens the pulse a little and the idea of using such a magnificent creature to hold your pants up just doesn’t seem right.
The other species you’ll invariably come into contact with is the Northern Territory mosquito, but each boat is equipped with a spray-can of stuff to address that pesky critter.
And while I think of it, a big thanks to the good folks from Airnorth for the friendly and efficient service from Darwin to Maningrida return.