Sight Fishing for Trophy Barra

John Haenke gears up for Queensland’s impoundment barramundi

The barramundi, arguably Australia’s most iconic sport fish, has always been at the top of my list of natives to chase on fly. I’ve been fly fishing for them since the mid 1970s when I lived in Darwin, and I still get as much of a thrill out of catching them as I did back then. Barra are found in many environments and habitats, from coastal headlands and inshore reefs to shallow mangrove-lined flats and creeks, coastal and inland rivers, lagoons and billabongs. They have also been successfully stocked into freshwater lakes across Northern Australia, providing world-class recreational sport fishing in many regional areas. A recent search on the Internet revealed at least 19 impoundments in Queensland alone, stocked with fingerlings by various water-boards, clubs and stocking groups. This is largely funded by the Stocked Impoundments Permit Scheme, so you will need a permit in most impoundments, but they’re very affordable. Arriving at one of these impoundments for the first time can be very daunting. Most of them cover very large areas, some as large as Sydney Harbour, so there is a lot of water mixed in with the fish. The usual reaction is… where do I start? FINDING IMPOUNDMENT BARRA Water temperature is all-important when trying to locate fish in these large bodies of water. For a barramundi, 28°C is where they are comfortable, active and aggressive, so the time of year plays an important part in where to find them. Water temperatures during the cooler months can get down around 19°C; anything less than 18°C for a couple of weeks can kill barra. Average temperatures up in the shallows during the day at this time of year can vary from around 20 to 24°C. The fish can be very lethargic at these cooler temperatures, often sunning themselves with their backs and tails out of the water to warm up, but a well presented fly in front of them will usually get eaten… strip-strike and hang on! In summer they can be found in deeper, cooler water during the day, and often move into the shallows at night to feed. But I prefer to fish for them in winter on sunny days when they come into the shallows looking for warmer water. With a good pair of polarising sunglasses you can sight cast to individual fish. For me, sight fishing for big barra is about as good as it gets. Apart from the water temperature, another important consideration is food availability. Most of the shallows have extensive weed beds full of baitfish, crustaceans, frogs and ducklings — a veritable smorgasbord for barra. It’s a bit like my Labrador who hangs around the kitchen waiting for food to fall on the floor in front of his nose — he knows this is where all the food is — likewise the barra in the weed beds. Put two and two together — water temperature and food — and at this time of year, generally between May and September, you could well have the fly fishing experience of a lifetime, sight-fishing for trophy barra! BARRA BOATS For those thinking about travelling to an impoundment without a boat, shore-based fishing isn’t really an option. Most of them have very limited access, and there is often heavy undergrowth around the edges — eastern browns and taipans are fairly common. So you really need a boat, ideally one with plenty of deck casting space and a shallow draft that will get you into the zone. From a boat you have the advantage of blind fishing the outer edges of the weed beds where they drop off into the deeper water. During the course of a typical day, it is usually a mix of both sight fishing in the shallows and blind fishing the deeper edges. A quality sounder can also help to locate barra in the deeper water along the outside of the weed edges. I often turn mine off when up in the shallows as I’m sure barra do pick up on the ticking of the transducer and the sound of the electric in really shallow water. Like any fish, if they pick up on something unusual, particularly in more pressured water, they can shut down. Being aware of, and trying to reduce any noises, clunks or banging through the hull, even moving around excessively in the boat, can make a big difference. Be stealthy in the shallows. If you find an ambush point where fish are moving through, tying off on a tree, or quietly dropping a plonk anchor is usually a better option than spot-locking on an electric. PINK THINGS Of the many flies in different shapes, sizes and forms that a barramundi will eat, I’ll narrow it down to my favourite patterns for shallow water weedy areas in impoundments. What we need is something that a barra wants to eat, that has a weed guard, that has hang time when fishing sub-surface, or floats if they are boofing off the top, and most importantly has a good hook-up rate. There is a lot of water to cover out there and you don’t want any refusals if you can avoid it — so keep it simple. My go to sub-surface pattern is the tried and proven Whistler in the Pink Thing colour. In my opinion and experience, it simply gets more bites and catches more fish. Thank you Graham White for coming up with this colour variation — I think it still stands head and shoulders above the rest on barra. If tied correctly on a suitable hook it has good hang time when fishing sub-surface. Barra love a fly that suspends naturally in front of their face, and the slightest twitch gets those hackles moving. Even shut-down fish will usually eat with a good presentation. I’ve tried many different colour variations, and in my view pink and white still gets more bites! There are weed guards and there are weed guards, some good, some not so good. For these fish in the shallow weed beds, my choice is the two nylon sprigs of approximately 30 lb breaking strain — they crush easily, giving a good hook set and hook-up rate compared to other styles, and they still kick the fly up when fishing in and around weed beds to stop most fouling. The natural materials in the Whistler patterns give you more hook exposure as well. Synthetic materials do tend to be a bit stiffer, and when used with worm-style hooks they are certainly very snag proof and weed proof, but the hook-up rate is not as good. Choice of hook is important on this fly. It will affect the sink rate — less hang if a heavy hook is used. There are plenty of suitable hooks on the market these days. Ideally a hook that is sharp and strong, with a fine gauge is best. I use smaller hooks than most people for barra — usually a 2/0 Gamakatsu SL12, sometimes 4/0 — the reason again is hang time, and better hook up rate. It’s worth tying some of these with a rattle too — it helps to get their attention. FAT BOYS The other fly that can be very effective on these shallow impoundment barra is Peter Morse’s floating version of the Fat Boy. Used with a subtle walk-the-dog style retrieve in the shallows where stealth and subtlety are important, this fly can be deadly, producing explosive surface strikes. I don’t think colour matters as much, as it is the profile and action that gets the reaction. Again you need to match hook size and weight so that you get the right amount of floatation. I’ve been using Gamakatsu SL12 in 4/0 with foam tied into the inside of the mesh tubing, and testing the floatation in a bucket. Expect some missed strikes with these. The hook-up rate isn’t as good but it is a very exciting way to fish. Try this fly when the barra are boofing up on the surface. RETRIEVES & TACKLE I recommend using a double-handed retrieve with the rod under arm when fishing sub-surface and on the surface for these fish. They do seem to prefer a constant retrieve. Not only does this eliminate trout strikes, it also eliminates those missed bites that happen between strips, and barra are masters at that. They are a powerful fish, so hooks, leaders, rods and reels need to be up to the task. The standard leader I normally use consists of 40 lb butt section tapered to 30 lb, 20 lb, with a 60 lb bite tippet. Make sure it is a hard abrasion resistant material, total length around 9 to 10 feet. Sometimes I shorten the total length if it is windy. It’s a good idea to make the bite tippet longer than a couple of feet — I’ve lost fish when they swallowed the fly, turned and swam directly away. A bit more length in the bite tippet doesn’t hurt — generally speaking they aren’t leader shy. Needless to say, good knots are very important, make sure they are locked down properly. The Slim Beauty is a great knot for joining heavy bite tippet material to lighter leader. If fishing near timber, then a 10- weight would be my preferred rod. However, if it’s a tough day and there is a lot of blind casting involved, a 9-weight can be useful in more open water. It’s usually a short-range, tough battle once hooked up. It’s a good idea to have as little fly line on the deck after casting as possible — the sooner you get the fish under control and onto the reel with a good drag setting, the better. No need for too much backing, but a reel with a large arbor and good drag will do the job. If using surface flies, a full length floating line suited to the tropics and capable of throwing large flies is what you need. When using sub-surface flies, a floating line with a sink tip will get down deep enough along the edges. SIGHT FISHING Fly fishing to barramundi in the impoundments can be very rewarding, and if casting to big powerful fish in shallow water is your thing, then this is a very visual and exciting way to fish. But it can be hard work when conditions are not ideal for sight fishing, and there are times when a lot of casting is required. Even though many of these fish are well over a metre in size, they can be difficult to see. Often it is just a telltale flick of a fin or tail in the weed; sometimes it’s the whole back and tail out of the water. With tough visibly, and if the fish isn’t moving, it can be difficult to work out which end is which. You also need to judge their mood. Sometimes they will swim a couple of metres to eat a fly, other times they might spook. Even when barra are shut down, if you can see them you can read their mood. Watch how the fish reacts to the fly, there’s still a good chance you’ll get a bite. This is what keeps me coming back time and again. Barramundi have all the attributes of a great sport fish. They can be very aggressive — once you’ve experienced that unmistakable tug through a fly line you will never forget the feeling. They grow to a very substantial size, are a very handsome fish that jumps and puts up a spectacular fight, and they can be caught in many habitats and exotic locations throughout Northern Australia. We are very fortunate to be able to fish for barramundi in these stocked impoundments, as well as in the diverse natural environments they normally inhabit.

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