The Mary River system is about three hours’ drive east of Darwin. The Mary River breaks up into a system of billabongs and creeks that would be called rivers in southern Australia.
Two of the largest waterways are Sampan and Tommycut creeks, which flow out of the famous Corroboree Billabong. These waters are reputed to hold the biggest crocodiles in the Territory, which was why I felt uncomfortable when standing up to my thighs in water at the Shady Camp boat ramp in the predawn grey. I wasn’t concerned about the crocodile cruising the water less than 100 m away. I was uneasy about what I couldn’t see … knowing there was an even bigger croc hanging about the place, somewhere. I saw it the day before.
I was with Dean McFarlane who runs Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge. Heavy rains had turned the Mary River system into a gigantic floodplain and the boat ramp was under a couple of metres of water, so we were forced to launch the 6 m tinnie from the road, which was why I was standing nervously in water.
A few other boats had already launched. We took off down Sampan Creek as Dean decided we would fish some of the creek mouths in Chambers Bay. He said barramundi line up at these creeks to feed on mullet and prawns as they come downstream. To get there we had to cross into Tommycut Creek and run down to the mouth before motoring east along Chambers Bay, a run that took the better part of an hour.
Small creeks were draining into the bay and we first tied off the boat at Marsh Creek and started casting lures. Dean’s father, Rod, hooked a big barramundi, but the treble hooks pulled free as the fish ran under the boat. We hooked another couple of barra, and an angler on another boat, anchored less than 50 m behind us, hooked a metre- long fish.
Leaving Marsh Creek, we worked back along the coast to a small creek, not much bigger than a drain, where the water at the mouth was alive with popeye mullet. Barramundi were feeding on the frenzied mullet on the surface.
The action was so intense that as we slowly motored towards the creek mouth, a barra came out of the water headlong into the side of the boat!
Offshore in Chambers Bay, isolated reef systems hold solid populations of mulloway and golden snapper. The fish are prolific, so long as you know where to drop a line.
Dean found a likely reef and we dropped our baits straight to the bottom about 6 m below, and then wound up about 30 cm to avoid the sinker snagging on the seabed. The first indication was a tap-tap on the line, then the 15 kg rod buckled over and the reel drag system howled as a metre-long slab of silvery scales scoffed bait and scarpered.
These mulloway ran hard and long, and when brought close to the boat they always made a dive for the anchor rope, or the prop on the outboard. Nevertheless, coming across so many mulloway in the middle of the day in relatively shallow water was an experience bordering on surreal.
At the height of the hot bite, another boat came over and dropped anchor no more than 25 m away. I thought the action a little rude. Dean seemed unconcerned – the boat driver was a friend of his, another local fishing guide. As the chatter ran across the water between the boats, one of the anglers dropped his bait over the side. He was using shark fillet, a bait popular with northern mulloway anglers. I would never have thought of using shark fillet, but if I did, I would take the skin off before putting it on the hook, unlike this angler. But it proved effective, and he soon had a 15 kg mulloway flapping onboard.
With the tide getting low, we headed back up Tommycut Creek and then crossed into Sampan Creek via a small channel that is a narrow, overgrown series of S-bends a couple of kilometres long. The temperature was about 40°C and a breeze was appreciated.
We arrived at Sampan Creek and made a sharp right turn upstream towards Shady Camp, about 30 km as the crow flies from Chambers Bay. We were hot and thirsty when a mirage floated before us: a boat decked out with umbrellas labelled ‘Peters Ice Cream’. It was Darwin- based fishing guide Dean Blackler, who had anchored close to the bank out from a small drain.
As we pulled up, we saw his crew hard at it, with barramundi coming in on almost every cast. The fish averaged 50–60 cm and the action was consistent. As we watched, Melbourne angler Murray Smallhorn cast his soft plastic lure to a line of discoloured water at the mouth of the drain, the line indicating the demarcation between the fresh drain water and the saline river water. Barramundi sat on this line, feeding on small fish and crustaceans being washed off the floodplain. Murray’s lure sank; he gave it a slight lift and hooked up a 5.5 kg barramundi.