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January 17, 2014

Barramundi in the Outback

On a fishing mission in Australia's Northern Territory

Wild Country

After walking the banks and casting to any likely fish hang, we’d pack up and lift off. The tide dropped noticeably as we moved among the rivers and creeks. We saw no boats and no other anglers.

Henier offered us periodic advice, though mostly he fished frantically — hoping for at least one barra to photograph. “The barra won’t hit it if it doesn’t look like wounded prey,” he told us. “So with lures, you need a twitch or some erratic action.”

Swapping out soft and hard lures, we worked every angle, as Frazier raked through his fly collection to find similar options. Soft rain fell, reminding us that we really should be getting soaked this time of year.

Eventually, Gilmour flew us back to our first spot, which was unrecognizable. The rushing river trickled in a muddy swath 10 feet below its now-clifflike banks.

Buffaloes and Barra

Late in the day, Gilmour flew us east over miles and miles of open marsh. We spotted a group of wild hogs and a few crocodiles. After about a half-hour, he touched the chopper down near Bamurru Plains lodge, scattering dozens of wallabies, and startling the lumbering water buffaloes that comprise the livestock for this working ranch, or “station.”

Frazier and I quickly fell for this eco-friendly, rustic‑though-fully-appointed resort. This is a prime place to base a fishing operation. When waters rise, manager John Cooper and his team use airboats to find the barra. For our visit, we’d employ an outboard-powered aluminum center-console.

The next morning we boarded the skiff and ran out Sampan Creek into Chambers Bay and the Arafura Sea. We motored east about 30 miles to a small flooded creek on the last of the incoming tide. Cooper tossed the anchor, and we began casting to the far side of a channel that was obvious only on the sounder.

“On the outgoing tide, mullet are going to come out, and the barra will fire up — hopefully,” Cooper said. “If not, we’ll go farther upstream.”

Cooper tied a Reidy’s Big B52 — olive green and clear — with a loop knot to about 3 feet of 60-pound-test leader. The tide slacked and turned, and the boat swung. Plumes of pluff mud roiled out from the river.

With no sign of barra, we pushed up-current. And there, tied off to a tree next to a “barrage” (a man-made weir that helps keep salt water from rising into the plains), I felt the pull from my first Australian fish. It turned out to be a bluenose salmon — a feisty blunt-faced threadfin species — but my spirits buoyed.

Quest Resolved

We dropped our (now topwater) lures into the rushing current and let them drift back toward a zone where, periodically, a mullet would flash at the surface. I watched a fish casually sip my plug, and — thinking it might be another bluenose — reeled calmly until the smallish barra jumped boat-side.

You would have thought we had all won a lottery.

I kept the fish’s head down while Cooper grabbed the landing net. He scooped the fish, and tagged and released it after multiple photographs.

From that point forward, all of our efforts focused on satisfying Frazier’s quest for a barra on fly. Cooper took us to a series of tiny drains where mere ribbons of water dropped off the flood plain. Frazier — now forced to dominate the bow position — showed us how to lay cast after perfect cast under branches and into tiny basins.

The following morning, we tried our first productive creek again, and Frazier hooked a bluenose salmon. The rains finally came, deluging us with our first wet-season downpour.

Cooper ran the boat back to Sampan and to the numerous small drains, searching for specific spots where completely different-color water emerged off the lush plains. Baitfish called “rainbows” tumbled out of one creek, and a small barra jumped just as Frazier’s fly tapped the water.

“Arrr, why didn’t you strip right then?” Cooper joked.

As the afternoon waned, Cooper ran to one more drain. Frazier — now well practiced at looping the line under the trees — laid a perfect cast and began to strip. The water erupted, and he came tight on a small barra.

We all whooped our approval as Cooper jumped for the net and boated the fish. No trophy fish landed during a wet, wet season could have caused the endorphin rush that small silver fish created.

Fishing, for us, had become a four-day adventure among new friends rallying for each other, putting all of our effort toward a goal while sharing a common love for untamable -wildness. The effort itself became the joy — and the success.