by Michael Tropiano •
As a somewhat accomplished fisher in WA’s South West, I recently moved up north and stepped into life in the Kimberley. Of course, catching a few more barra was high on the agenda, but after realising I’d missed the peak barra fishing time by several months and a handful of failed solo missions, I went back to the drawing board. Many of the methods I had used so successfully in the South West to catch fish were not working in this new arena, so I swallowed my pride and tracked down a few local ‘barra gurus’.
After spending a few hours at the local watering hole with these guys — in a session that was later termed the ‘barra council’ — they shared with me some simple barramundi fishing wisdom that has now got me catching barra year round. While I’m nowhere near barra guru status yet myself, I would like to share with you some simple tips, so that if you’re a southerner spending some time up in the north this winter, this quick barra council will have you to successfully catching one of Australia’s most iconic fish.
First things first… barra science. As a marine scientist I have always been fascinated by the fish I target and have generally found that this knowledge can give you that extra edge over the fish — or at the very least something to talk about when the fish aren’t biting. Barramundi are one of only a handful of species that can survive in both full salt and freshwater. As a fisher, this means that the environments you can target them in varies greatly from oyster-encrusted rocks at the mouth of a major river or estuary, to a small isolated freshwater billabong down a dusty 4WD track.
Barra are also a unique fish, in that they actually change sex throughout their life cycle. They are first born as males and as they grow they change into females, generally around the 80cm mark, which is a fish around 4 years old (but this can vary greatly).
The bigger a female gets, the more eggs she can produce, with the big metre plus girls producing over 32 million eggs a year! So protecting big females means loads more barra to catch, it’s a pretty simple equation!
We are lucky in WA that our rules protect these big girls, with all fish over 80cm required to be released. This is fatastic, as it gives us the best chance of catching that Holy Grail of barra fishing — a metre long fish — while also allowing us to take home and cook up a feed of good eating size fish.
Barra will spawn in saltwater during the wet season and once the little baby barra hatch they slowly work their way upstream and across floodplains to safe, food rich areas. This movement across floodplains during the wet is one of the reasons you can catch Barra in billabongs, which at the time you fish them in the dry season, can be be completely isolated water bodies. Barra can grow to 40cm in their first year and quickly move off the bottom of the food chain as they grow into a veracious predator that will have a go at and eat almost anything that moves up to half their body size. While barra are a top predator that will eat almost anything that will fit in their mouths (including baby crocs and water birds), they are largely piscivorous, which means they mainly eat fish.
Whether it’s by boat or land, when you first start looking for barra you will realise there is so much promising ground that just has to be holding barra, that it can become overwhelming working out where to fish. The first thing to realise is that barra move around, a lot! It’s not unheard of for a barra to travel hundreds of kilometres in its lifetime, so it’s more than likely that at some stage most of this promising ground will hold fish, however the key to success is working out exactly when the fish will feeding there. Over the whole season, the wet season weather patterns with its warmer waters and plentiful food are the biggest factor influencing barra movement and behaviour, but from day to day, the most important factor influencing saltwater barra activity is the tides.
The tides in the Kimberley are some of the biggest tides on the planet. Their strength means they concentrate weaker swimmers like baitfish in certain areas, while also controlling the access for these vulnerable smaller fishes to safer waters such as mangrove forests and creeks. To give you an example of their impact, a spot that is full of bait and barra activity in the morning can be a dried out mud flat by the afternoon!
As we now know, barra predominantly feed on fish and above all, mullet are their favourite, so if you can find the mullet, you will find your barra. The mullet spend their days constantly playing a cat-and-mouse game of escape the barra. As a general rule, this involves a daily movement from the deeper waters that they are forced into on a low tide up into the safety of shallow creeks, snags and the complex maze of roots of a mangrove forest as the tide rises. This cat-and-mouse game means that as the water just starts to rise at the change of the tide, the mullet will start to make their run upriver and creek systems.
At this stage of the game the mouths of creeks and rivers can go absolutely ballistic for barra, which are hot on the tail of the fleeing mullet. Once this bite shuts down, and the water continues to rise, you can join the barra in chasing the mullet upstream. As the mullet search for protected waters upstream in the mangroves and shallow rock pools, they will often have to play a dangerous waiting game before the tide comes up enough to give them access to these areas. Just before the water level is high enough for the mullet to get into safer waters, they are often concentrated into corners of small creeks, which soon become all you can eat buffets for any barra in the area. Once the tide rises enough and the surviving mullet make it into the safety of the mangrove roots, I have generally found that the fishing action will slow down a bit. However as the tide soon begins to fall, the game starts up again in reverse and it’s back on.
As far as what structures to fish, snags, rocks and creek mouths will all work at different times and tides, so it’s worth giving all a go to find the fish. Again, the most important thing is understanding how the water currents will bring food to the structure you choose to fish. If there is a back eddy created where water is flowing in the opposite direction of the main current flow, then this is a great start, as this type of water movement in particular can concentrate fish. Also, do not be afraid of fishing shallow waters. Structures in 0.5-1.5m provide plenty of water for barra and are always worth a cheeky flick.
If you are coming up north to escape winter and are serious about catching your first barra or want to boost your success rate, then before you leave you must get yourself a throw net (and netting licence) and some lessons from someone who can throw one.
Fresh mullet is irresistible to a barra, and the only way to get them is with a throw net. Fishing with fresh mullet can be a busy pastime as jacks, trevally, sharks and every other predator trying to get in for a piece of the action. While the by-catch is often welcome, this often means that your hard-earned fresh bait supplies can quickly be diminish. Even more frustrating is that at times mullet can be notoriously difficult to catch. Being every predators’ favourite food means they are extremely well adapted to not only water-based attacks, but are also the masters at avoiding aerial assaults from ospreys, sea eagles and throw netters! On days when they are hard to catch, getting a good haul can seriously cut into prime fishing time.
If you have ever been involved in a conversation around fishing for barra, then it’s more than likely it was lure fishing for barra which drove the conversation. Flicking lures is one of the most popular and effective methods of fishing for barra. It has the distinct advantage of allowing you to cover more ground, which can help you find the fish when they aren’t out actively hunting.
Barra are often termed a ‘lazy’ fish — which I think is a bit harsh on a top predator that covers such big distance – but what is meant by this term is that when barra are not in a feeding frenzy they can be incredibly hard to coax into a bite.
However, if the right lure is placed in just the right spot a barra still can’t resist the urge and will often be persuaded into biting. When they are in this lazy mood, a slow retrieve with small twiches and sometimes very long pauses is needed.
Another important tip to remember is to keep casting. They say it can sometimes be 1000 casts for a barra, and they aren’t wrong. Those who keep putting in the casts and push through the tough times when the fishing is quiet are generally the ones that catch the most fish.
Putting ‘barra council’ into practice
If you’ve seen the The Castle, then you will understand when I say that Dale Kerigan’s lawyer put it best when he said, “it’s the vibe of the thing.” Once you start to put some of these pieces of the puzzle together you will develop a 6th sense known to those that possess it as the barra vibe.
This sense will allow you to work out when and where the barra will be feeding, giving you the best chances at catching these elusive fish. As a fisher, you will naturally be developing this sense over time without even realising it, but when you start paying closer attention to it and trying to understand the your target in more depth, you can use it to more actively seek out fish. For example, as you develop your barra vibe you might find a big school of mullet, but notice that they are cruising very slowly and confidently around, concluding that they most likely are not being hunted by big barra — where on the contrary if you found a only a couple of mullet, but they look as nervous as a tailender when Mitchell Stark is steaming in, then it’s likely there are a few big barra hiding below giving them some grief.
It’s important to remember that like us humans, all fish are individuals and have their own individual behaviours. So while this barra council shares some generalisations that I have found work really well for me, my biggest lesson I have learnt when fishing for barra is keep trying new things, and it’s always worth putting in a couple casts where you don’t expect the fish to be. I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon, but on so many occasions I have seen casts that land in the least likely looking spot pick up some of the best fish.
Hopefully this article has set you on the path to becoming a barra guru yourself and I look forward to you one day sitting me down and returning the favour the next time we meet for a barra council!