Darwin barramundi fishing guide Nathan explains how to catch barra in the Top End with the right tackle and trolling techniques.
Trolling for Barra has got a bad rap over the years, often labelled as the 'easy' way to catch fish.
As a guide, I find it a relatively stress-free way to get clients onto good fish and to cover loads of water- and get a lot less tangles and backlashes- but is it really as simple as dragging a lure behind a boat and cracking open a cold one?
As we'll discuss here, there is a little more to it than meets the eye.
Billabong Barra are fished for with standard Barramundi gear. A six foot rod rated 6-8kg coupled with a small baitcaster reel and 30lb braid is about right for starters. Braid should be brightly coloured so it can be seen by the skipper and anglers. This helps avoid tangles and makes it easy to see where the lures are. Leader choice is important. We generally use 55lb Schneider, but when the water is clear it can spook fish, so at times we will change to 40lb Fluorocarbon or Black Magic Tough Trace and find hookups increase- but with lighter lines, clients have to be more careful. If the water is dirty, you can get away with heavier leaders as the fish can't see them. Avoid those clumsy black clip-on wire traces if you actually want to catch good numbers of fish.
Oh, this is shaky ground! Lure choice is often closely guarded by guides and gun recreational anglers, as it can matter so much at times. Different lures work at different times- or for different people. Jason Bettles, a friend and colleague of mine can have cracker days using the H-Char colour in the Reidy's Little Lucifer, while it only produces a few fish for me. On some days, I can have amazing results on the Avocado RMG Scorpion in the 1m- bib, and they're all big fish too.
Soft plastic "swimbaits" are, at times absolutely dynamite, especially later in the season when the water drops and the fine aquatic weeds die back on the mud banks.
The debate on lure colour has been raging on for some time now. In clear water with a visibility of over 20cm it can make the difference, but in filthy water I believe the fish can't see colour and go on movement alone. Sticking with what you're confident with is a good start, but don't be afraid to experiment either.
The depth of lures is absolutely vital. Most of our trolling in Corroboree is done in 5-7 feet of water. Other areas like Hardie's Lagoon require deeper lures as the water is often 10-15 feet deep. The general rule is to use lures that will (usually) not hit the bottom, as they foul up with weeds. Use lures that clear the bottom by a foot or so and you'll be in business. There are exceptions though, and we'll explore those soon.
Every billabong and lagoon in the Darwin barramundi fishing scene is different. There is so much habitat to explore in each and every one. A sounder is essential for consistent success, as is the knowledge to use it properly. Think like a fish. It makes sense but few people think of where a Barramundi would like to be. They are ambush predators and use cover to their advantage to pounce out on prey. Yes, in some instances they do drift over open bottom- but it's for a reason- there is food there. Use your instincts to determine when they would be in each place. Use a thermometer to find the best water- around 24-28 degrees is good. Crocodiles also like the warmer water on cold mornings, as do the insects.
I've found good numbers of Barra where the File Snakes have been most active. You'll see their heads poking up like ugly tortoises from time to time - often in large numbers. They follow the baitfish and warmer water in the cold months, so keep an eye out for them.
These are found in many Top End billabongs, and finding them in the vast floodplains is not always easy. You'll either need to stumble on them by accident (unlikely) or seek local advice. On cold mornings Barramundi will congregate on them. Care and stealth is needed not to spook these fish, and you'll often not see them on the sounder as they will be wedged among the rocks. You'll usually get only a couple of passes before the remaining fish glide into the depths.
Along the banks in the shallows are beds of pond weed and ribbon weed. You'll need to troll so close that the lures are hitting it every few seconds. Fish sit right among it, and for most of the season this is where we get the bulk of our fish. You want your lures within a foot of the weed edge, or you probably won't get much at all.
These vast patches of pink-flowered Lotus are home to many fish, but trolling them is very hard as you often cannot get close enough to the structure as there are fingers of lotus pads poking out into the water- and you're likely to find that the water along the edge is over 12 feet deep. If you can troll them, give it a go but expect to lose fish to the stems. Better off casting at these.
Surprising producers of big fish, shallow mud bays are often only 5 feet deep or less. Barra congregate to feed on Cherabins and Redclaw Crayfish, as when they are hooked they cough them up. This is where I will often troll Swim Shads and noisy hard-bodied lures on the bottom. Lures are trolled in such a way that they smash and grub their way along the bottom to make a heap of disturbance. Strikes are hard, and this is where we often get big fish.
In some lagoons, there are deep banks under overhanging Pandanus thickets. Suss them out on your sounder as fish often sit hard against the bank in such places. They're worth a shot if the shallows are not producing.
Grass and other plants often grow in such a way that they spread over the surface. They look like they're on solid ground, but get to know what these areas look like and you can cut corners to bring lures under them. Big Saratoga and Barramundi dwell there.
Trolling successfully requires some real skill. It is true in the tropics that 90% of anglers account for 10% of the fish caught. It's that 10% of anglers that get the real results. We'll see poor souls that have been fishing for five days and caught nothing at all, while those same days, the guides and gun recreationals have cleaned up.
Get your lure to the fish. Barramundi are lazy and do not like going out of their way for a feed. You need to get your lure into the strike zone- that means reading the water and using the depth of the lure to your advantage and sweeping it right past the Barramundi's nose. We see so many anglers trolling the middle of the billabongs in open water, or in crap places. We rarely see them hook up.
Work your lures. Sitting the rod in a holder is a sure-fire way to get weed on the hooks, and to not entice too many fish to strike. Don't be lazy, hold the rod and work that lure erratically. You'll get far more fish.
I often have four clients trolling at the same time. Managing those lines is fairly easy. The two anglers at the back of the boat, on the skipper's signal put their lures in the water and free-spool the reels (no thumbing the reels or casting.) When a couple of metres have been let out, the two at the front then do the same. Around 30-50m is let out, and on the skipper's signal, all reels are put into gear at the same time and fishing begins. The two at the back keep their rods vertical, while the two at the front hold them out to the sides. If done correctly, it's easy to manage four lines.
Watch the rod tip, or feel through the rod. You'll be fishing by feel most of the time, this is where good quality graphite and braid makes so much sense. A vibrating rod means all is well with the lure. A dull action or no action means weed, mud or a tangle. Whipping the rod hard will get rid of weed and mud 90% of the time, and it will alert other anglers in the case of a tangle.
Trolling speed should be slow- around 3kph is a good start. In some cases I'll go as slow as 2kph, especially when fishing trolled plastics so they just tick over the bottom. If you have a big engine that won't idle any lower than 5kph, you'll need to install some sort of drogue or electric motor- or do what we do and take the boat in and out of gear.
While you are fishing, be sure to consider other anglers too. Read some basic rules on Darwin Barramundi billabong fishing
Longtoms, Sleepy Cod and Tarpon are regular bycatch.
Conclusion: Once mastered, billabong trolling is a fantastic way to rack up a good score of Barramundi, especially if casting space on board is limited or you have inexperienced crew.
It's a great way to get kids into fishing, too. Best of luck and I'll see you on the water.