South Alligator River

Barramundi caught on the South Alligator River, Steve Cooper

Adventure is what the NT is about. Be prepared to go home with more than fishing memories. The flora and fauna are full of unexpected excitement too. In this raw environment, anything that swims, walks or flies – including anglers – has the potential to be a meal for something else.

One of the most popular areas for anglers is the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park. Kakadu covers more than 20 000 sq km and is a vast network of floodplains interwoven by drains, creeks and rivers, and teems with myriad birds and crocodiles.

During the wet season, from about December to February, monsoonal rains sweep down from the north and the floodplains vanish under an inland sea. Sometime in March or April, the water begins pouring off the plains. This runoff is a trigger that brings barramundi and other fish like threadfin salmon, mangrove jack and longtom on the bite.

The only boat ramp on the South Alligator River is downstream of the Arnhem Highway bridge, about 45 km west of Jabiru. Like all ramps in this part of the world, this one is long; its tidal range exceeds 3 m.

I fished here with Shannon Summerton of Kakadu Fishing Tours in a 6 m, flat-bottomed boat powered by a 130-horsepower four- stroke outboard. Our method was trolling bibbed minnow lures close to the riverbanks and over rock bars for barramundi.

When the fishing slowed in the main river, we motored up Nourlangie Creek to a rock bar, with the tide falling. This narrow waterway is highly regarded for its barramundi fishing. We were on the downstream side of the rock bar and another boat was upstream of the rocks. The water was still pouring out, almost roaring, but the level had fallen so that neither boat could cross the bar.

As the tide was nearing the end of its cycle Shannon said: ‘Listen to what happens.’ At the very end of the tide, as the flow stopped, an abrupt silence lasted for a minute or so. It was as if someone turned a tap off. Then the gurgling started again as water began pouring back into the creek.

As we fished, a 2.5 m crocodile hunted nearby. The croc swam with one leg outstretched and its claws visible out of the water, working its way along the bank and an eddy. Shannon explained that whenever a fish such as a mullet touched its leg, the croc would swing its head in the hope of catching it.

We caught a few barra and returned to the South Alligator, heading upstream. We’d often see ‘logs’ swimming across the river, sunning along the banks and one large croc worked its way up a small tributary, the head and tail of a shark protruding from its jaws.

The river changed from a wide expanse lined with exposed mudflats to one where wetland grasses camouflaged the riverbank. Crocodiles and mud gave way to jabirus, Burdekin ducks and lush, swampy wetlands.

Upstream, a clearly marked area defines where boats are not allowed to enter, but there is enough fishing water for this not to be a problem.

Like most anglers, we spent most of the day trolling.

At the top of the river an angler hooked up and his barra leapt out of the water close to our boat. He was worrying about his boat drifting into the edge of the river, and then fiddled around too long trying to organise his net. We knew he was going to lose that fish: it was just a matter of time.

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