FISHING With Alex Julius
The Cobourg Peninsula is without doubt a jewel in the Top End recreational fishery.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and fish it many times in a period spanning more than 30 years.
My association with the region began not long after it was declared a national park; namely, the Gurig National Park.
A mate and I opened a small fishing safari camp on Smith Point at the eastern entrance to Port Essington.
It operated for just a couple of years because, in hindsight, we were before our time and bureaucratic red tape back then caused us to give it away.
A couple of years later, a much more grandiose tourist venture commenced on the western side of Port Essington: Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge. Although a spectacular, remote-area retreat, it changed hands several times, mainly because of the huge overheads associated with its unique location.
You see, to this day, Seven Spirit can only be accessed by sea or light aircraft; there is no road access.
About three years ago, Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge changed hands again.
New owners, Outback Spirit Tours, refurbished it at great expense and incorporated it into an amazing four-wheel-drive bus tour that operates right through Arnhem Land during the dry season.
However, dedicated fishing tours are available during the Runoff and the Build-up.
I’ve been lucky enough to check out the fishing a couple of times over the last year or so, including a recent foray when friends and I experienced some wonderful fishing.
The national park has had a name change to Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, but what hasn’t changed is the amazing fishing on offer.
The Cobourg north coast is famous for its pelagic fishery, especially Spanish mackerel, trevally species, queenfish and longtail tuna.
Our group travelled in two magnificent 7.6m sportfishers, and we experienced double and triple hook-ups trolling big, hard-body minnows like the Classic Bluewater and the new Killalure Saury.
However, my favourite fishing was jigging the bottom with metals and scented soft plastics.
There’s a lot of flat terrain offshore from Port Essington, but there’s also plenty of rubble.
This broken bottom is home to schools of big golden snapper, and they can be truly voracious.
There’s nothing like dropping down and yo-yoing a big softy and getting slammed by a 6kg-plus goldie which immediately erupts across the bottom and fights all the way to the boat with incredible stamina.
Big goldies are certainly one of the prized fish for Seven Spirit customers, and everyone peers over the side as a big fish first materialises a few metres down and then takes shape and colour as it nears the surface.
There’s a lot of celebration when a big one comes on board.
Mixed in regularly with big goldies were the Top End’s famous black jew – an anomaly because it is quite silver when it first comes into the boat.
Both these species are susceptible to barotrauma, which means that a fish brought to the surface from more than 10m is injured by the expansion of gases in its body due to a decrease in pressure.
Symptoms include: the fish’s stomach is pushed out through its mouth; the fish has a bloated stomach and bulging eyes; and the fish can't swim down from the surface.
We also caught some quality coral trout – my favourite table fish – and other interesting soft-plastic crunchers like blue bone and tricky snapper.
However, simply because we were pulling reefies from about 20m depth, there was no point fishing on after reaching our bag limit of two jewfish per person and three snapper per person because releasing fish excess to this would have been akin to giving them a death sentence.
After covering quite a few kilometres as we moved across different areas of broken bottom to find fish, and then battling runaway reefies in several blistering sessions, a few hours had already been clocked up.
This included processing our catch for the Lodge’s top chef.
With a 20km run across dead flat seas to Seven Spirit, we all agreed a cold beer in the lodge’s palm-fringed pool was a brilliant plan.
That was the end of the first day on the water.
Day two was just as frantic out on the blue, but we pulled stumps on the big goldies earlier and pushed into one of Cobourg’s many mangrove creeks to clock up a few barra and jacks.
It was as if nothing had changed from when I operated boats there three decades ago: in a brisk afternoon session, our two boats caught more than 50 barra, some quality threadfin salmon and plenty of mangrove jacks.
Several years ago when I was doing the Fishing North Australia series with Channel Nine, I coined the phrase: “How can you beat it?”
That pretty well sums up a fishing holiday at Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge.
1. The Cobourg coast is home to some of the Top End’s biggest golden snapper, and Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge’s head guide, Robbo Robinson, knows just where to find them.
2. Geoff Doig with a thumper Cobourg black jew.
3. Reef Doig’s coral trout was typical of those encountered out from Port Essington.
4. The new big Killalure Saury was smashed regularly by Cobourg’s Spanish mackerel.