Johnston River

A barramundi caught from the Johnston River, Steve Cooper

In December, the NT is hot. All around us, thunderstorms were brewing and in the distance, a solid black curtain of heavy rain was pelting down on Goose Creek. It was the start of the wet season, when monsoonal rains dump so much water that rivers flood, turning low-lying areas into inland seas. The build-up to the Wet brings on the barramundi, but the humidity takes its toll and anglers need to drink fluids constantly to avoid dehydration. Some days are so humid that if you want a wash all you need to do is grab a bar of soap and start rubbing – sweat creates the lather.

I was in a boat with fishing guide Mick Chick and Mark Pettini, captain of English County Cricket Club Essex, and Steve Threlfall, who seems to be here whenever I arrive. We were in a narrow creek, lined on each bank by a dense forest of tall, evergreen mangrove trees, their gnarled roots forming an impenetrable jumble of sticks. There was no breeze; the only wind coming from anglers waving rods as they cast soft plastic lures into snags. The fishing was steady and we were hooking mangrove jack, barramundi and golden snapper. I casually asked Mick for the name of the creek.

‘Baxters Creek,’ was the response.

‘Who was Baxter?’ I asked.

‘Mike Baxter,’ he replied.

I should have known better – Mike Baxter owns Melville Island Lodge and in typical guide-speak, when you ask for the name of a small water that has no name, it is invariably called after the lodge owner. To be fair to Mick, this creek is one of possibly several hundred unnamed creeks that run off the Johnston River. We fished other small offshoots, and each one was called ‘Baxters’, number one, number two, and so on.

We were staying about 40 km upriver at a small lodge that is an offshoot of the main Melville Island Lodge at Milikapati. It’s remote, but has several air-conditioned containers, beds, showers, hot meals and cold drinks. It was refreshing at the end of a long day on the water to sit around and chat in a wilderness environment with few discomforts. Most importantly, it offers quick access to an awesome, fish-rich environment.

On this day, we fished long and hard and ended up catching plenty. Our fish count stopped before lunch, and by my reckoning was over 50. Our best barra of the day measured 87 cm.

But the day had begun miserably, with the barramundi refusing to cooperate. After we had tried every colour, type and shape of bibbed minnow lure on board, Trelly brought out several packets of soft plastic lures – Berkley Gulp stick baits. We had already tried another well-known brand of soft plastic lures without success, so I didn’t hold much hope.

The mangroves are large and overhanging near the creek entrance and Mick held the boat out from a likely looking small cove riddled with dead timber. Trelly cast his ‘Nuclear Chicken’ Gulp into the dead timber, allowed it to sink to the bottom then tightened his line and lifted his rod tip to jump the lure off the bottom about 30 cm. As the lure sank again, a mangrove jack slammed it. Trelly hooked the fish and as he fought it to the boat, a school of jacks followed.

A second cast hooked a golden snapper, by which time Mark and I were exchanging our bibbed minnows for quarter-ounce jig heads with Gulp lures. What followed was pleasant chaos; multiple hook-ups were the norm as jacks, snapper, cod and barramundi were caught; a contrast to the tedium earlier in the day.

For four days straight, we started each morning casting minnow lures into snags. This was successful because it seems there was always a hot bite first up. When the fishing slowed, after an hour or so, we converted to soft plastics and stayed with them for the rest of the day. The list of species grew to include barracuda and Queensland groper. It was a consistently hot bite during a particularly slow period. Anglers on another boat were equally frustrated, but when they learned what we were doing, they followed suit and their catch rate shot up.

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