Coal Country Saratoga

Dave Magner heads west into central Queensland in search of southern saratoga.

The broad band of Queensland known as the Central Highlands and Coalfields region is a place of incredible contrast. In the wet season, monsoonal rains sweep in from the north bringing widespread flooding, often turning the countryside into a vast inland sea. Once the rains have gone, the baking sun rapidly dries out the landscape and the harsh grip of the dry season takes over. For much of the year, it’s hot and very, very dry in this part of Queensland. At first glance it would be easy to assume that such an arid area could hold little to interest an avid fly fisher. As often happens, however, first impressions are misleading, for scattered across this patchwork of paddocks and mining pits is a vast network of rivers that have evolved to cope with the seemingly endless cycles of deluge and drought. On the map these rivers may be little more than thin blue squiggly lines but to the people who carve out a living along their banks, they are the lifeblood of the region. To adventurous fly fishers these rivers and the fish they hold are as valuable as the vast seams of coal that drive the state’s booming mining industry. Ancient Predators For fly fishers, the star attraction of this region is undoubtedly the Dawson River barramundi — or saratoga, as they are more commonly known. The saratoga is a prehistoric looking fish, which makes perfect sense when you realise that they have been surviving in the rivers and waterholes of central Queensland since the time of the dinosaurs. The fact that they have changed so little across the millennia demonstrates just how perfectly they have adapted to their environmental niche. There is also little doubt that saratoga are one of this country’s premier indigenous fly rod targets (FL#83), filling much the same niche as trout do in more southern latitudes, and they naturally hold a great attraction to fly fishers who love to sight cast. Bank or Boat There are basically two ways to target saratoga in these outback waterways. The first, and probably the more adventurous of the two methods is to stalk them from the bank. The other approach is to fish from a small boat of some type. Land-based, the main attraction, apart from the obvious simplicity of being self-contained and mobile, is the improved ability to spot fish. Walking along the bank provides the extra elevation needed to pick out these sharp-eyed fish before they see you. The water in these outback rivers is often more turbid than you’d like for polaroiding, but if you walk slowly and watch carefully you will probably be amazed at how many fish you will spy hanging around structure or even out cruising in the open water. In fact, even quite turbid water can produce good sight fishing opportunities, as the fish appear to respond by simply patrolling even higher in the water column so they can keep an eye out for any potential prey that gets blown onto the surface. The obvious downside to fishing off the bank relates to the ability to get your fly in front of a fish once you’ve located it. Most of the banks are steep and tree-lined, with thick clumps of overhanging vegetation making fly-casting challenging to say the least. Sure, there will be times when fish can be located almost under your feet, allowing you to simply lower your fly down in front of them, but if you stick solely to this approach you’ll be forced to walk past a lot of fish. Where you can get down to the water’s edge, roll-casting really comes into its own. The majority of these rivers aren’t overly wide, and even a very modest caster like myself is able to roll cast sufficient distances to really increase the number of presentations in a day’s fishing. Luckily, saratoga are not as easily spooked by surface disturbances as some other species, and at times they even seem to be attracted to the noise of the line and fly being rolled out. Sometimes the fishing gods will smile upon you and fish will be found cruising in more open stretches where gaps in the trees provide enough room for a standard (or more likely steeple) cast. These opportunities are to be treasured and it’s such a joy to be able to spot the fish, fire out a pinpoint presentation and then watch the following show that unfolds. If walking the banks isn’t for you, then a small craft will open up so many more opportunities. There are a number of weirs scattered across the region and many have boat ramps which allow a small boat (with that all-important electric motor) to be launched. Personally, however, I much prefer to fish more secluded sections, so a kayak is my preferred platform due to its ability to be manhandled down to the water just about anywhere there is an opening. A small word of warning: the Rockhampton region is crocodile country and most of the waterways being fished are feeder streams for the Fitzroy River (see FL#95) which has a well-documented population of large lizards. Having said that, provided you head well upstream and/or well inland where distance and cooler temperatures restrict crocodile movement, encounters are unlikely but not impossible. I definitely wouldn’t recommend walking the banks, float tubing or kayaking in the freshwater section of the Fitzroy even as far out as its junction with the Dawson. Where it’s safe to kayak, getting out on the water certainly makes casting easier. Unfortunately, even standing in a kayak doesn’t seem to give you the necessary elevation to spot fish easily, so the best approach is to fish as a team, where one angler walks the banks and scouts out fish, before alerting the kayaker so they can get a fly in front of them. Fishing like this it’s quite possible to hook large numbers of fish over the course of a day’s fishing. While not nearly as much fun as sight casting, using the kayak to work over obvious structure like fallen timber or overhanging trees can also turn up quite a few fish. The biggest downside to blind fishing is that the by-catch of catfish will increase exponentially. I guess whether you consider this to be a good or bad thing really depends on your point of view. The local fork-tailed catfish are active predators in their own right and they almost grow big enough to be a danger to small children. They also pull like freight trains! The Gear Out Here One of the real joys of chasing saratoga on fly is that they don’t require the heavy-handed approach needed for larger tropical species (like barra). In the rivers and billabongs of central Queensland, a rod in the 6- to 8-weight range will have more than enough in reserve to handle even the largest toga. Obviously, rod selection often comes down to fly choice and luckily there’s no need to throw large, wind-resistant flies either. Smaller, slim-profile flies seem to elicit more confident strikes and offer better hookups than bigger and bulkier artificials. If you were restricted to just one rod, a 7-weight outfit would be a good all-round choice. In many ways, line selection is more important than rod weight. Casting from the bank will see you benefit from an aggressive taper, weight forward floating line, and over-lining the rod by at least one weight seems to help. I have recently used one of Rio’s new Jungle lines and found it suits conditions perfectly. While it’s probably not a make or break point, the dull colour of the Jungle line also seemed to blend in well with the water colour and general environment. Saratoga are such opportunistic predators that fly choice is rarely critical. A mix of floating and very slow sinking flies tied on size 2–4 hooks should have you covered. I’ve had plenty of success with ‘traditional’ deer hair (aka ‘Venison’) patterns and trout streamers such as Woolly Buggers, Zonkers and Fuzzy Wuzzies upsized to suit larger gaped hooks. My final advice concerns getting a solid hookup. Saratoga are notorious for having a very bony mouth structure (Nathan Johnson cheekily refers to them as ‘spotted bony tongue’) and there are precious few places for a hook point to find a hold. My best advice is to use flies tied on fine gauge stinger hooks with plenty of clearance, and strip-strike as though you are trying to start a stubborn second-hand lawn mower. It won’t guarantee a solid hook set, but it’s the most effective method I’ve found for getting connected and staying connected to these ancient fish. TIME & PLACE While this sort of fishing is available to anyone with a sense of adventure, given the sheer size of the Fitzroy catchment it makes sense to hire the services of a guide. I recently undertook a four-day central Queensland saratoga safari with Nathan Johnston of Rise Environmental and Guiding Service and can’t recommend this sort of trip highly enough. Nathan has an uncanny knack for spotting saratoga, and thanks to his background in environmental science he also has a unique understanding of the catchment. As a bonus, he has negotiated access to a number of properties across the region, which have very healthy populations of saratoga that rarely see other anglers. Apart from when the rivers are in flood, saratoga can be caught year-round in central Queensland, but the best fishing is during the cooler months. Not only is this likely to produce the best water quality, but it is also when the fish are most active during ‘office hours’ of mid-morning and into the afternoon. In other words, it’s peak sight-fishing time.

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