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January 17, 2014

Barramundi in the Outback

On a fishing mission in Australia's Northern Territory

Frazier and I — used to spotting snook among the -mangroves — were surprised to see our first barra tail up and poised vertically in a narrow space between roots, its bright silver body tipped by a black tail. “Their fins go black rather than gray or yellow when they feed,” Currell says.

Water flowing among the roots seemed almost stagnant compared with the rush of the main channel. Tides change anywhere from 5 to 23 feet four times a day in the NT, so the locations Currell fishes remain wholly and completely dependent on tide.

Whenever he saw a fish, Currell flipped his MJ Twitch bait just ahead of the barra and popped the plug; at first, he had no takers. He used a 4-foot leader of 40-pound -fluorocarbon to the braided main line.

Most Aussies don’t fish like this, Currell told us. Most generally troll for barramundi. With a fly angler on the boat, trolling wasn’t an option — I was secretly glad for that.

We crept into the mangroves again and heard a sullen smack well back in the trees. We saw several small, amusing fishes — archerfish that spit water at their prey and mudskippers that crawl about on land. Currell hooked and released a mangrove jack, very similar to our mangrove snapper.

Plugging the Drains

When the tide started falling, we fished the mouths of small creeks (called drains or gutters) and the drop-offs below expansive mud flats. Currell spotted a 21-inch fish cruising a bank and threw the plug. Without so much as a twitch, the water erupted; the barra thumped the lure in serious snook fashion.

“He was keen to feed,” Currell smiled, wrestling the fish on the light rod before it jumped like a mad gymnast, gyrated and spit the hook. “You land about half the ones you catch.”

Normally, in a wet, wet season, anglers might see 30 to 50 fish a day, hook about half that many, and land half again. We had seen three or four.

Along a dirty waterline fanning out from a mud delta, Currell hooked a 20-incher that briefly came aboard for review. Its large silver scales seemed tarponlike, though its body shape said snook. Its beady eyes glowed flaming pink at a certain angle to the sun. Currell released the sublegal fish into the river.

Flying Fishing

My father piloted small planes. My passion is helicopters, though I’ve never even attempted a lesson. So when I learned we’d be chopper-hopping to remote destinations along the barra trail, I barely contained my excitement.

Airborne Solutions picked us up at Skycity in a Robinson 44, four-person helicopter. Pilot Grant Gilmour had brought along our fishing guide, Andy Henier. With rods, tackle and cameras carefully placed in strategic locations, we lifted off to fly east along the coastline.

Barramundi spawn from September through March; their eggs and larvae require salt water, according to the Northern Territory’s fisheries biologists. Once the wet season ends, around May, the fish move back up the rivers. From the air, salt water clearly remained close to the coast — a sign of the unusual dryness — though plumes of muddy fresh water surrounded the river mouths even on high tide.

We set down gently on a pile of red sand next to a rushing river; its far bank lay just within casting distance. With such quick water, we sought eddies and nearshore structure — anywhere our lures could reach the strike zone before sweeping away.

Henier brought out some KO Tackle Tail Baitz segmented soft plastics and rigged them on 2 feet of 80-pound Jinkai leader. “There are fish longer than a meter in here,” he told us. (Adult barra easily top 50 pounds; the IGFA all-tackle world record weighed 98 pounds, 6 ounces.)

To prove his point, a big fish crashed a bait near the surface about midcreek, and Henier sprang toward the sound. I could hear fish popping bait across the river on a flooded mangrove flat. The sound of big barramundi would haunt us all day.