Dam Busters

Last year I escaped Tasmania’s winter to work in Gladstone on the Queensland coast. On the weekends I became a tourist and explored this part of the country with my co-worker Peter Johnson.

In August we decided to venture further and took the 5-hour drive to the town of Mackay. Unlike Peter, site-seeing for me usually involves a fly rod, so before we left Gladstone I searched the Internet for any fresh-water fishing options around Mackay. A small impoundment stocked with barramundi looked promising, and being so close to town, Peter and his wife were happy to drop me off for the day while they explored Mackay.

75dambusters

First Look
Kinchant Dam covers 920 hectares at full capacity. It was built in the 70s to service town water and irrigation. The Mackay Area Fish Stocking Association started releasing barra in 2000 and my research indicated these fish had grown to impressive size.

At first sight Kinchant looked like a man-made billabong. Thick water lilies grew out from the shallow lake margins and I couldn’t see any flooded trees. With private farmland surrounding more than 50% of the margins, accessing the water by foot was limited to the dam wall and the area in front of the Kinchant Waters Leisure Resort. The resort provides a variety of accommodation options for holidaymakers and from what I could see these were mostly people who enjoyed riding jet skies and water skiing. I could see a handful of anglers in boats seeking out the quieter pockets of the dam during the busiest part of the day, but not a fly fisher in sight.

I explored a couple of kilometres of the shore on foot, wade-polaroidng about a kilometre of that. I saw plenty of catfish and a few sooty grunter and spangled perch, but no barra. My two o’clock pick-up was getting close so I left the water to climb a high bank near a pump station, thinking I would just sit there for 5 or 10 minutes to see if anything swam into my aquarium-like view.

As though written in the script, a very big shape slowly glided from the depths and a metre-plus barra materialise before my eyes. Quickly ripping some fly line off the reel I made the cast, leading the fish by two or three metres. The barra was barely moving as it slowly entered the bay. A few short pulsing strips brought the Bendback fly to life, making the fish follow briefly before turning away to continue its inspection of the little bay. I changed flies and waited to see if it would return, like a trout working its beat. It came back twice, but with each new fly it became less interested and then never returned.

This little encounter brought back fond memories of the barra in the billabongs of Kakadu National Park, swimming amongst the weed or resting tail-up with a weedy blanket over their heads. The potential of this new water had grown exponentially. If I could see fish like this from the shore, the opportunities to see fish from a boat would be ten fold. Like a man possessed, I took the very next opportunity to fly home to Tasmania and tow my 5-metre flats boat back to Gladstone.

Harro’s Bendbacks
I’d spent some time with Rod Harrison in August of 2010, having been inspired by his ‘Barefoot Barra’ story (FL#52) in which he described sight fishing for winter barra in the weedy bays of Lake Awoonga.

As a guide and teacher Harro didn’t disappoint: it was a pleasure spending time with an Australian fishing legend. Many of his barra tips would prove invaluable at Kinchant, the best of these being his use of Bendback Deceivers, tied on soft-plastic worm hooks. This was a revelation in my eyes and straight away I could see the snag-proof potential of using a hook such as this. But what I didn’t expect was the erratic action the hook gave the fly. With every strip it would kick from side to side while rising at the same time. The pause saw it straighten back up and slowly fall like a wounded baitfish.

Harro was kind enough to show me how he ties this new style of Bendback, with chartreuse and white being his go-to fly. Tied with a bit more bucktail over the hook point, the flies are dynamite when bounced over the branches of snags or skated over the lily pads and pulled through the finer weed growing on the lake floor.

Return To Kinchant
I was determined that work commitments on the Saturday of the October long-weekend were not going to deter me from making the return trip to Kinchant. I managed to leave town by 6 p.m. and by 11:30 had the boat in the water and was making my way across Kinchant dam in the black night of the new moon. Tired from the drive, I anchored up in amongst some water lilies and rolled out the swag to get a few hours sleep before daylight.

I woke early to the familiar sound of a spinning rod cutting through the air as it propelled a lure out into the water. I opened the swag to see a lone angler in a small punt drifting past in the early morning mist. The thought of being late never sits well with me, so that was all the incentive I needed to get out of bed and start exploring the lake.

It was now 9 a.m., the sky was blue and there wasn’t a breath of wind. I was standing on the rear poling platform using the handheld wireless remote of the electric outboard to quietly move the boat across a shallow weedy bay. In my other hand I had a 12-weight rod and floating line, ready to make a cast. Tied to the end of the fly line was a 9-foot leader made up of a 60 lb butt section, 20 lb mid section and a 60 lb fluorocarbon shock tippet. The fly was a freshly tied chartreuse and white Bendback, on a size 4/0 worm hook, of course!

The water level had dropped, from 90% in August to 80% in October. The clarity was exceptional once again, allowing me to see small schools of baitfish feeding amongst the undulating carpet of weed that formed channels, hollows and shaded areas alongside the taller stands of weed growth. Catfish, spangled perch and the occasional sooty grunter stood-out over the weed, even in depths down to 3 metres. 

I was moving quite quickly to cover some water, when the inevitable happened as a large barra, which must have been pushing the 90 cm mark, spooked from beneath the boat. I slowed the boat down to the lowest speed on the electric outboard and continued with the sun at my back.

The next sign of a fish was a barra’s tail, sticking out of the weed, gently finning to keep the head of the fish buried deep into the weed. The barra was about 2 metres down and 6 metres out from the bow of the boat. I decided to try to wake it up by sinking the fly into the weed close to where its head might be. My plan worked and the startled fish swam out and slowly made its way across the front of the boat, oblivious to my presence as it woke from its slumber. I lifted the fly out of the weed and cast across the boat, leading the fish by 3 metres. The barra turned towards the fly and took one look at me standing on the poling platform, and bolted.

The next fish I found was a sitter, swimming 15 metres out, in about a metre of water, but I managed to screw this one up too, by landing the fly too close. Another lesson learned, so I lengthened the leader to 12 feet.

On the next fish my cast was on the money, so I introduced it to the barra strip retrieve — two short sharp strips, followed by a pause. The barra followed for a couple of metres with the fly just above its nose. Its gills flared momentarily as it hesitated, and then within a millisecond it had inhaled the fly during the pause and then blown it back out just as fast, sending the slightest bump through the line and leaving me with a weightless strip-strike. I vented my frustration with a few expletives of disbelief. as I came to grips with another opportunity wasted. I was really hoping this was the emotional low before the high!

It was approaching 12 o’clock, the air temperature had risen to around 36 degrees and the wind had picked up, putting a welcome ripple across the water. As I drifted down the edge of some water lilies in about 3 metres of water, a fish materialised as it swam through a weedy depression. A quick cast had the fly in the water sinking down to its level. As it approached I consciously started a continuous series of short sharp strips without introducing a pause. The fly kicked into life with its unique side-to-side swimming action triggering the fish to turn and suck it in. The line jolted tight with the hook point taking hold as soon as its mouth closed on the fly.

The barra wasn’t too happy with this outcome and quickly removed the loose line from the deck. It left the water momentarily with an angry jump, leaving a sizable hole upon re-entry. Its next move was to swim into the nearest weed mass. I gave chase with the electric motor at full throttle, pulling the line up through the weed as I followed its path; managing to stay connected long enough to get the net under a magnificent 95 cm barra with a beautiful golden bronze complexion. Without a doubt, one of the nicest looking freshwater barramundi I had ever seen.

Breaking The Metre
The following week I was back at Kinchant with a new game plan. I had purchased a small foldout table at the hardware store to become a forward casting stool. I had used these in Florida earlier in the year to spot tarpon a little further out from the boat. For me, sight fishing to these Kinchant barra sits somewhere between tarpon fishing and boat-polaroiding for trout, which are two things I really enjoy.

The second thing I changed was to drop down to an 8-weight rod with a clear sink-tip line to lighten up my presentation and to improve accuracy. I maintained the 12-ft leader and had tied a fresh selection of Bendbacks on size 4/0 Gamakatsu worm hooks. I did try the slightly finer gauge 4/0 Owner worm hooks but found these fish would open them up and come off within seconds of a savage take.

On the water, my makeshift forward casting stool was working a treat, so I no longer had the full length of the boat between the fish and me. The constant retrieve was seeing more hook-ups and less of the suck-and-spit these fish are so good at.

Too Good
On my last day the weather and the fishing was just too good to stop for lunch. After giving chase and landing a fish of 103 cm, I returned to my drift and continued scanning the water. Noticing the tail of a barra protruding out into the sun from under a small stand of water lilies, I cast the fly to the other side of the lilies and allowed it to sink. The tail suddenly disappeared as I began stripping the fly over the thick weed growth within a metre of the surface.

All of a sudden the fish swam out into the sunlight and vacuumed up the pulsing fly. The line slapped up against the rod as the hook point buried into that bucket mouth on a solid strip-strike. All hell broke loose as the fish erupted in protest, pulling line from my grip during the strike. The sudden release of tight line sent a half hitch around my reel, which immediately locked everything up.

As luck would have it, the fish chose a path back down the side of the boat, allowing me a few precious seconds to prise the line off the reel. I fought the barra in open water for about 5 minutes until it turned back towards the mass of lily pads growing out from the shore. I applied as much side strain as I dared to turn this fish but it had its mind made up and was in the thick of it within seconds. Going straight into preservation mode, I backed off the drag as the line was pulled through the tightly woven mass of lilies.

This was a place where no electric outboard could follow, so when the fish had stopped taking line I checked the depth to see if I could get out of the boat, but it was well over my head. I reluctantly laid my rod down onto the deck, making sure it was pointing in the same direction as the fish, then poled through the lily pads for a couple of metres, then stopped to lean over the side of the boat to break a path through the lilies to recover a metre or so of fly line.

This continued for some time, with the wind blowing the boat back off the lilies and making it very difficult to recover line. I would gain a metre, and the fish would take two more. At one stage I had the rod in one hand and the push pole in the other as I fought against the wind and the fish at the same time. I contemplated breaking the fish off, but couldn’t be sure how big it was, so I persevered until I had the boat over the fish and the leader in my hand. I located the hidden fish by running my hand down the line into the lilies, where it was kicking and surging in protest. Feeling its lower jaw, I grabbed hold with a vice-like grip, pulling the fish up to the surface. Its head was huge and its body seemed never ending as I pulled more and more of its length out of the weeds. Grabbing the net in my other hand, I slid the fish into it with a sigh of relief, and disbelief at what had just unfolded. The barra measured 113 cm and was the largest I’d ever caught.

That was me done. One very happy angler. So after a few photos the boat was back on the trailer and I was making my way back to Tasmania with a very big grin on my face.

From FlyLife Issue 75