Tiwi Island Surprise

Joshua Hutchins heads to the Northern Territory with more than barramundi in mind

The Tiwi Islands, literal translation ‘two islands’, lie north of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Made up of Melville and Bathurst islands, they are a beautiful, remote and appealing part of Australia, especially when it comes to fishing.
My interest had been piqued over the last few years when I had seen the Tiwis mentioned in articles and films. However, the focus had always been on fishing the rivers, creeks and blue water. As incredible as that looked, I was always left wondering: ‘Why don’t people fish the flats? Maybe there’s nothing there.’
Six months ago I noticed that Darwin based angler James Everett Crane had caught a respectable Anak permit in the Tiwi Islands. I was curious to find out more and messaged him.
‘Nice Permit mate, did you see many there?’
‘Thanks mate, that place is a paradise, we didn’t get to fish for long as I was on holiday with my family. But one morning I went out with the lodge manager and we found a school of 50 tailing, and I caught my first ever permit, Soooo stoked.’
I found out James was staying at the Tiwi Island Retreat, and I started putting the wheels in motion.
Darwin in November, the build-up to the wet season, can be hot, very hot. And despite some local guides assuring me November was a terrible time to visit, I decided to go anyway.
Credit to the locals, they love their barramundi and are damn good at catching them, but seeing the available flats on Google Maps before the trip, there had to be more than just barra. Clearwater flats, sandy expanses and channels at the mouths of several of the rivers and creeks — it was loaded with potential. I was keen to explore more and couldn’t resist giving it a go.
I invited Steve Avramoski and Pier Nissotti on the trip. My pitch was underwhelming, but honest: ‘It will be hot, really hot. I’m not sure what the fishing will be like, but I can promise cold beer.’ We booked our flights soon after — unsure, curious and excited.
Our flight to the Tiwi Islands was incredible. After arriving in Darwin, we made our way onto a small Cessna aircraft. We sat enthralled at the maze of blue-green ocean below and clear blue skies above. Dodging some distant storms, we landed on the dirt runway close to the lodge. It rained that afternoon, but to my amazement it was the only rain we saw all week.
We settled into our accommodation and relaxed — easy to do in a place like Tiwi, especially when there was beer on tap.
From the get-go it was made clear that this was not a ‘Fly Fishing’ lodge. We were not fishing from fly fishing boats, or fishing with fly fishing guides. Shock horror? Not really. I was excited to learn from the locals while also exploring the options ourselves.
Rowan and his partner Siggy are the managers of Tiwi Island Retreat and immediately made us feel welcome. Rowan was the lodge manager James had referred to when he caught that first permit, so of course we had plenty of questions. His responses were open but non-committal: ‘Mate, I know barra, but that permit might have been a fluke, I can take you to the spot.’ He was a good guide in the making — already covering his back.
The next day we rigged up for barra fishing, while also having a flats set-up just in case. We had faith in Rowan to deliver. We made our way to where the previous permit was caught but the tide was too full and the water slightly murky. We’d already sighted three crocs in the river mouth — this was not going to be a time for wading.
Continuing up the creek we began looking for barramundi. I could tell that Rowan was immediately confident again. He pointed out likely areas: standing dead trees where the old riverbank had washed away; fallen trees that were fully submerged in the creek; snake drains in the muddy bank where fish waited to ambush their prey. It was immediately productive with barramundi, mangrove jacks, tarpon and threadfin salmon on the line.
Pier, the sensible one of the group, didn’t have too much interest in permit. His aim was to catch barramundi. And catch them he did, with the first ten minutes landing him a stunning fish close to 80 cm.
We kept the process simple: arrive at a potential snag or drain and work flies in close to the most likely holding points. With barra and snags it pays
to cast as close to the structure as
possible. Strip-strip, pause, strip-strip, pause.
We heard Pier call out, ‘I’m on!’ but he didn’t need to. That first barra was leaping clear of the water attached to his 9-weight. It’s always a good feeling to watch someone catch their first of a particular species, but especially when it’s such an iconic Australian fish. It was a great start to the week.
Pier, knowing very little about anything other than trout flies, immediately fell in love with ‘Beechies Barra Bomber’. And I don’t blame him, that fly went on to claim the most and the biggest barras of the trip.
Things can happen quickly in salt water. Often the peak time for barra to bite will last only a couple of hours at most. In the case of the Tiwis, as the tides got bigger throughout the course of our trip, the best flats fishing was an hour before low tide and an hour after. Beyond this time the current on the flats was harder to manage and more water meant fish were harder to find. It pays to plan out your day.
Some days we prioritised exploring the creeks, others we focused on the flats. Flats days are often impacted by the amount of sunshine, but we were lucky to have clear skies for most of the trip with good sight fishing
Generally we would spend part of the day up in the creeks, and time our run to be out onto the flats before the water was too low to exit (we nearly got stuck one day). In our case we made a plan each day so Pier could catch his barramundi, while Steve and I worked on catching permit on
the flats.
I always believe in keeping things simple, and my approach to finding permit is no different. Search for areas that look ‘permity’ (that’s the technical term) and be prepared to wait and watch — sometimes a lot.
In the case of the Tiwis, permity areas included clear water (to spot them), shallow flats, and sand bars or channels near river mouths. In many northern Australian situations these will be the simplest starting points to locate permit. You’re likely to find them on the last of the run out tide, at low tide, or the first of the run in.
On day two of our trip we decided to visit one of the flats I’d seen on pre-trip google mapping. The permit were there, but we’d spent a bit too long on the barra in the morning and missed the best window on the flats — the tide was already too high.
The following day we returned, earlier in the tide. We immediately found a school of a dozen permit towards the end of a sand bar. They were likely waiting for the tide to rise before moving further onto the flats. First cast into the school and we were on. We landed that fish, and moments after release, landed another. They were both on an Alphexo Crab (FL#102), a fly I have huge confidence in when chasing permit. My preferred colours are: clear sand, white crab; yellow sand, tan crab/yellow legs.
As the tide came in, the current became stronger across the flats. Permit began to appear from everywhere, making their way through the sandy channels and feeding across the shallows. Within an hour the current was so strong it was time to move on.
We returned the following day with the same success — two more permit landed. Steve caught his first permit early, on the slack tide, as schools of permit gathered in the shallows. Another first for the trip, and an exciting moment for Steve.
Although not generally regarded as a permit destination, the Tiwi Islands not only proved excellent on that front, but as an all-round fishery too. Numerous barramundi and schools of mangrove jacks provided some of the best river fishing I’d experienced in the north.
The weather remained kind as we loaded back into the Cessna for Darwin. Tiwi Island Retreat staff had been honest on the fly fishing front and we had come in with low expectations. Sometimes these are the best trips. The Tiwis over delivered and left us wanting to stay for more. This place has a bright future!

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