35th Anniversary Fishing With Alex Julius
It’s an old cliché, but I can’t believe I’m sitting here now, writing about three and a half decades of contributing this fishing column, when I can still remember clearly typing the very first one in February 1983.
I suppose, when you reflect on how the Territory recreational fishing scene has evolved since the early 1980s, it becomes easier to comprehend the passing of the years.
Back then in mid-February, I’d be monitoring the wet season and, in particular, my favourite Daly River; getting my gear ready for when the Wet finished and the river started dropping in what has since become known as the Runoff.
You couldn’t be blamed for thinking there’s no change from then to now on that one, and you’d be right; it’s only the circumstances that have changed.
Back then, monitoring when the wet season ended and the Runoff would begin was simply a matter of stepping outside each morning in late February and looking for sunshine and blue skies.
If you got that, you’d declare the Wet over, give it another week, then fight your way through the flooded crossings on the totally-unsealed Daly River Road.
Back then, mine was a typical barra rig for fishing the rivers: an old petrol-engine Landcruiser ute – an ex-Telecom orange one – with a metal canopy, bench seats, no air, boat rollers on top for the 12 foot punt, and a piece of form-ply attached to the tailgate for clamping on the 15hp outboard.
Except for a couple of dilapidated dongas at the Daly River pub – and the tyranny of pub owner Ma Fareweather that went along with a visit there – there was no such thing as accommodation on the river.
Those in the know about the great fishing to be had down the Daly in receding flood would all camp at Brown’s Creek which, nowadays, is inaccessible and closed to camping.
On a typical March weekend, when the Runoff was under way, there’d be a dozen camps at the most; but if you snuck down mid-week, often as not you’d have the river to yourself.
In those days, the typical barra outfit comprised a hollow fibreglass baitcasting rod, Abu 6000 reel with plastic bushes instead of bearings and 6kg monofilament line.
Today the rods are feather-weight, high-modulus graphite, multi-ball-bearing, silky-smooth Shimano baitcasters and threadlines rule the roost, and 10-15kg braid line seems like it’s been round forever.
In 1983, four-inch Nilsies took up half the tackle box, but you’d also never be without some six-inch Nilsies, some Nilsmaster Spearheads, a Rebel or Rapala minnow, and a couple of Bill Norman Chuggerflash poppers.
Today, lure selection has become a nightmare.
The variations in shape, size, depth, action and colour available in barra lures practically defies Googling.
Just take a stroll down the lure wall of any Darwin tackle shop and you’ll see what I mean.
And what about the soft plastics revolution?
Nowadays you almost need two Planos tackle bags – one for your hard-bodied lures and one for your soft plastics.
As an adjunct to soft plastics, the last few years have seen a huge array of soft vibes coming onto the market.
With the advent of the microchip, the world-wide web, smart phones and (it was going to be said soon enough in this column) “Social Media”, monitoring the wet season is now a case of hitting the “Oz Radar” on your device and checking out the Darwin and Katherine radars.
As far as the Runoff goes, nowadays it seems to start with the first serious rains, and not after the very last bout of monsoonal rainfall.
Just look at what’s been going on for the last couple of weeks: dozens of boats plied the mouths of the Finniss and Mary Rivers while some anglers launched onto the flooded Arnhem Highway to access the Adelaide River!
For a few, their efforts paid off with some pretty cool barra fishing.
In 2018, the typical barra rig might still be a Landcruiser, but it most likely will be fully-automatic, with a twin-turbo V6 or V8, and all the internal comfort, smoothness and handling of an upmarket family sedan.
As far as car-toppers go, buggered if I can remember the last time I saw one on top of a vehicle with NT number plates.
Today the recreational barra fishery is all about 4.3 to 6.5m stylish, painted, aluminium trailer boats, powered by super-quiet outboards, up to a whopping 300hp.
In 1983, my pop-rivetted 3.6m punt had three hard, bench seats which rattled under the thrust of a two-stroke 15hp Mariner which itself oiled up the plugs after prolonged trolling.
In 2018, my boat is a customised River To Reef 5.0m Tommycutt fitted with a high-performance 150hp Evinrude E-TEC. For me, it is the perfect boat for both barra and blue, and typical within the Top End angling scene.
Moving onto the evolution of marine electronics, hasn’t that made a monumental difference to the way we fish now compared to 35 years ago. It’s made a huge difference just in the last five years.
Not only can we reliably detect fish and structure with our sonar units, unbelievably including what fish and structure there are on either side of the boat, but with our GPS units we can also navigate off the satellites so precisely that we can return to a spot in the middle of the ocean time after time.
How cool is it that you can see a barra 10 metres to one side of your boat, mark it and then track back over it using the GPS co-ordinates?
And what about those “smart” electric outboards that have a built-in GPS and can hold you in the one spot even more precisely than an anchor… and now even self-deploy via a remote.
For barramundi, and many other popular Top End recreational fishing species, avoiding the sharp end of a hook is a lot tougher nowadays than it was 35 years ago.
Hand in hand with the huge advancements in fishing equipment and technology since the early ’80s have been the actual changes in the management and development of the NT recreational fishery itself.
For long-time Territorians like myself, clearly the biggest influence has been the recognition by respective Governments of the immense importance of the recreational fishery for both social and economic reasons.
The current Government, through its Fisheries Minister, espouses this all the time.
It hasn’t just happened overnight – it’s required an ongoing committed effort on the part of many individuals, mainly through their involvement with the Amateur Fishermen’s Association NT.
Actually, I wouldn’t mind a dollar for every time I’ve mentioned AFANT in this column over the last 35 years.
Look where it is now compared to 1983 when the committee would meet on someone’s back verandah and hardly be taken seriously either by Government officials or commercial fishermen.
Through the work of AFANT and the individuals who have provided their voluntary time for AFANT, Government and bureaucratic thinking in the NT changed dramatically.
The outcomes have been incredible.
Just in respect of barramundi, there have been 12 significant river and estuary closures to commercial netting, a series of commercial barramundi licence buy-back schemes, a major recreational fishing access program, widespread retention of fishing rights in Kakadu National Park, impoundment stocking, scientific research programs dedicated specifically to recreational barramundi fishing, school and community educational programs and the consequent enormous economic and social benefits derived by the Northern Territory.
In the early ‘80s, there were no bag limits and anglers would invariably kill any big female barra they caught; do that today and you’re likely to get lynched.
Thirty-five years ago, there were more than 110 commercial barramundi licences operating in the NT, and only one professional barramundi fishing guide.
Following successive licence buy-back schemes, today there is only the equivalent of 10.7 commercial barra licences, based on 10x100 metre units for a full licence.
Major river closures and licence buy-back schemes are the main reasons why everyone seems to be catching big barra nowadays… visionary management that mainly took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I can tell you that metreys were a much-more-scarce commodity back then.
Today there are over 100 registered fishing tour operators, including several fulltime guided operations – a mega-million-dollar contributor to the NT economy.
On the bluewater, artificial reefs adorn our harbour and the Darwin coastline, a credit to various administrations and, of course, AFANT.
Magnificent new boat ramps, adjoining car-parks and great facilities exist where there were none 35 years ago.
And guess what: there were no Million Dollar Fish swimming around with red tags back then.
A product of just the last three years, hasn’t that been an unprecedented success in terms of the economic spinoff to the NT.
And how timely that the “Lucky 13” was caught just this week?
Interestingly, a Government initiative that took place in 1983 was a dollar incentive to try to get billfishing off the ground in NT waters.
It was called the “Billfish Bounty” and $2000 “reward” was offered for the capture of each of the first five marlin off our coast and $1000 for each of the first five sailfish.
I remember it only too well as the very first sailfish came aboard my boat on a Darwin Game Fishing Club competition at the Bathurst Trench.
Caught by old mate Lindsay Kidd, it was a monster sail at 40kg and 3 metres long, and may still be the biggest sailfish ever caught in NT waters.
It took all of four years for the 10 fish in the Billfish Bounty to be caught, the last a 62.5kg black marlin in November 1987.
Ironically, although over the decades since the Billfish Bounty there have been glimpses of a significant Top End sailfish and black marlin game-fishery developing close to Darwin, it really wasn’t until just last year that we seemed to have nailed it off the Dundee coast.
The first freshwater game fishing tournament held in Australia was the Barra Classic in 1982.
Since then, there’s been a proliferation of major fishing competitions across the Top End, some now etched into Top End angling history.
An offshoot has been the number of women-only fishing competitions, and the surging interest in recreational fishing by the fairer sex.
Compared to last century, there are so many more women nowadays who own their own boat and know how to use it.
Thirty-five years ago, my first NT News fishing column was headed “COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS…We live in a paradise”.
Today there are so many more of us getting out there and chasing a fish as often as possible.
There’s no doubt the fishing, particularly for barramundi, is even better now than it was back then, and very much a part of our great lifestyle.
1. In the very early ‘80s, Top End anglers fished the big rivers from tiny car-topper tinnies and big fish were unceremoniously gaffed and killed, a far cry from the catch and release of these special female breeders that takes place today.
2. AJ with a big female Daly River barra, cradled to minimise stress and released promptly to “breed” another day.
3. A V8 Landcruiser belts along the Roper Highway with the River To Reef 5.0m Tommycutt in tow. Note the size of that Lowrance HDS16 Carbon fish finder. Gone are the days of the car-topping tinnie.
4. Circa 1984: Lindsay Kidd with the first sailfish captured in the then NT Government’s Billfish Bounty, a scheme devised to establish a viable sailfish and marlin game-fishery.
5. It’s November 2011 and more than 200 boats floated off the Stokes Hill Wharf to protest the Australian Marine Conservation Society/Pew Trust consortium’s recreational fishing no-go, no-take zone wish list.
6. A long time coming, the magnificent boat ramp built at Shady Camp last year is an example of the great infrastructure put in place for the NT recreational fishery in recent decades.
7. The last 10 years could easily be labelled the Decade of the Female Angler, with more all-women fishing competitions established and so many more women owning their own boat and knowing how to use it. Pictured are Roma Dainius, Dee Cox and Rocky Edwards with a beaut barra from the award-winning Secret Women’s Business Barra Challenge.
8. Bluewater sportfishing across the Top End blossomed over the last 35 years… thanks to new techniques and a massive growth in the fishing tour industry.
9. This 72cm Million Dollar Fish was caught by Craig “Curly” Saxelby in Season 2 of the highly-successful Tourism NT campaign. He and his mates, Christian Ehling and Dazza Nelson, agreed that, if one of them catches a tagged fish, the catcher gets 8K and the other two get a grand each.