It’s a bit of a head spin, and I can’t believe that I’m sitting here now, writing
about four 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
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
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 around 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 need at least two tackle bags – one for your hard-bodied lures
and one for your soft plastics.
As an adjunct to soft plastics, the last decade has 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.
In 2023, 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
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 2023, my boat is a customised River To Reef 5.0m Tommycutt fitted with
a high-performance 135hp Honda four-stroke. 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 sidescan and
downscan made a monumental difference to the way we fish now compared
to 40 years ago.
Of course, the most-recent development in fishing electronics has been the
awesome Live Target sonar technology which lets you see fish swimming
around and be able to cast to them.
It’s still very new but plenty of anglers are using it to deadly effect –
catching spectacular barra free swimming in open water.
Talk about a game changer!
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
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.
When this column first kicked off, 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 that takes place today.
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.
Kimmie Mychas won Champion Angler at the recent Darwin Billfish Classic – female anglers continue to kick goals, whilst an awesome billfish fishery has evolved in Darwin local waters.
Modern barra and blue sportfishers are 5-6.5m long, sport big reliable outboards, carry sophisticated marine electronics and often hang behind powerful 4WDs with the comfort of an upmarket family sedan.
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.
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 40 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, and 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 keelhauled.
Forty 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 are less than a dozen 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, as well as several major fishing lodges, camps and motherships – a mega-million-dollar contributor to the NT economy.
On the bluewater, football-field-sized concrete artificial reefs adorn our Darwin coastal waters.
Magnificent new boat ramps, adjoining car-parks and great facilities exist where there were just slippery mudbanks and rocky shallows 40 years ago.
And guess what: there were no Million Dollar Fish swimming around with red tags back then.
Hasn’t that been an unprecedented success in terms of the economic spinoff to the NT.
Interestingly, a Government initiative that took place in 1983 was a monetary incentive to try to get billfishing off the ground in NT waters.
It was called the “Billfish Bounty” and a $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.
Nowadays, 100s of anglers chase billfish successfully from Dundee Beach to the Tiwi Islands – just look at the success of the Penn Top End Billfish Series.
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 folklore.
An offshoot has been the number of women-only fishing competitions, and the surging interest in recreational fishing by the fairer sex.
Sadly, on a less-positive note, the myriad access issues to Aboriginal waters thanks to the Blue Mud Bay decision have been a complicated nightmare for Government, AFANT on behalf of anglers and, to a certain extent, the Northern Land Council and the traditional owners it represents.
This is the one area where recreational fishing is on the back foot.
Notwithstanding, 40 years ago, my first NT News fishing column was headed “COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS…We live in a paradise”.
There’s no doubt the fishing, particularly for barramundi, is even better now than it was back then, and we can still very much count our blessings.
A long time coming, the magnificent boat ramp built at Shady Camp is an example of the great infrastructure put in place for the NT recreational fishery in recent decades.
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 2022 Secret Women’s Business Barra Challenge winning Team Angry Bird’s Mel Ledingham and Emma Harbrow.
Now nearing the end of its 8th season, the Million Dollar Fish tourism campaign has been a great success. Just ask Kurt Williamson.
Forty years ago, it was unheard of to target tropical reef fish on metal jigs. Laura Tolmay with her ripper golden snapper.