In an untamed land, the name Wildman River is enough to stir the cockles of any adventure- loving angler. Being told the river is inaccessible by road and that it will take about two hours fast running in a boat to get there only adds to the anticipation.
It was my last day fishing in the Mary River system and I was once again with Dean and his father Rod. It was dark when we launched Dean’s boat at Shady Camp. This time the river was so low that we had to wade to put the boat in – not the most comfortable feeling given the many pairs of red eyes that glowed in the beams of the car headlights. The trip was slow for the first couple of kilometres as we strained our eyes looking for sandbars. The poor light conditions made observation tricky. Several times, what we thought were sandbars turned out to be crocodiles so big their backs were humped like camels.
After travelling downriver for 30 minutes, we entered Chambers Bay. To avoid the shallow mudflats, Dean motored several kilometres offshore before turning east to run along the coast past Point Stuart and then into Finke Bay.
An hour later we entered the mouth of Wildman River. This is a big river: there are no mudflats or breaks in the mangrove-lined banks, and the vegetation is so tall and thick it can be claustrophobic, despite the water being 150 m wide.
About 20 km upriver, we came to a junction. Another boat had come in ahead of us and the crew were already catching barramundi on nearly every cast. We dropped the anchor a little upriver of their boat. Dean said to cast the lures as close to the snags and overhanging mangroves as possible. The first barra came on the first cast, and soon we were enjoying triple hook- ups of 65–80 cm fish.
Loud cheers came from the other boat and I turned to see a huge burst of spray as a metre-plus barra went skyrocketing out of the tannin- coloured water. Melbourne angler Chris Memery had hit the jackpot, hooking into one of the bigger fish Dean had assured us were there. The whopper took off around the boat and headed for the safety of the mangroves, but Chris managed to turn it with centimetres to spare. The barra then put on more aerobatics and head-shaking as it attempted to throw the lure, but the hooks held firm and eventually Dan netted it. It was 16.3 kg and 1.1 m long. After photographs it was released to fight another day.
Barely 10 mins passed and I hooked a barra that was a tad shorter, but weighing in a kilogram heavier at 17.23 kg.
A few more casts and Rod hooked a big fish, but he was too close to the mangroves and he couldn’t stop it before it dragged his lure and line down through the mangrove roots, snapping the 24 kg braid. The mangrove was shaking as the fish tried to free itself.
There was no breeze where we fished and after several hours sweating in the 40°C heat, our hands were so slippery that holding the rods and fighting fish was difficult. Nevertheless, we persisted. It isn’t that often that you come across a barra bite so hot with fish of that quality.