The Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation at Maningrida in Arnhem Land is a progressive organization that maintains control of its greatest asset – its heritage, including the land and the fishing. It constructed a modern fishing lodge, the Arnhemland Barramundi Nature Lodge, and leased it to skilled operators. NT fishing personality Alex Julius partnered with fishing guide Lindsay Mutimer and the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation to run the lodge.
The lodge is about 20 km out of Maningrida. Supplies to Maningrida come from Darwin by ferry, and a large boat ramp was built on the delta of the Liverpool River to accommodate the ferry.
The Liverpool is several kilometres across at the mouth, and several rivers that feed into it are bigger than most Victorian rivers. The rock bars near the entrance hold big barramundi, but tide is everything and the first morning I was there the water was too murky to work lures.
Lindsay decided to take a run upstream to get ahead of the tide and look for clear water. The river is lined with a dense, green fence of mangroves for the first few kilometres. Exposed mudflats have crocodiles, mouths ajar, as they inhale the early morning warmth, and the birdlife ranges from Burdekin ducks and waders to kites and sea-eagles.
After an hour of steady running we slowed and Lindsay edged the boat towards a couple of broken tree stumps, where a small drain fed out from the wetlands behind. The procedure was to cast a lure into the fallen timber, wait a few seconds, then twitch it a couple of times and retrieve. In this scenario, speed is nothing and Lindsay said: ‘You can’t retrieve too slowly for barra.’
Melbourne angler Geoff Guest had the first cast, and the action was instantaneous. Barra don’t simply inhale lures, it is more like an explosion followed by a couple of feet of polished pewter erupting from the tannin-coloured water.
The snag wasn’t big but we pulled half a dozen barra off it in about the same time it takes to boil a billy; then Lindsay decided to move on. At every likely snag, Lindsay manoeuvred the boat within casting range and the lures hit the water. Some snags produced more than others, and there was an occasional mangrove jack in the mix.
Several kilometres upstream and several hours later, we came across a large creek where the fishing was amazing. Working our way up the creek we came across a stretch lined with watercress and a smaller feed creek. Lindsay pointed to the mouth of the creek and we cast. Geoff pulled ten fish in ten casts.
On another trip with Lindsay, we motored even further upriver. Water level was dropping when Lindsay eased the boat into the bank and tied off. He wanted to try a billabong a few hundred metres from the river. The last time I was in the same area the grass was about a metre and a half high. Given the wildlife in this part of the country, particularly crocodiles, pigs and buffalo, I wasn’t comforted by the thought of walking through the long grass. But this time the locals had been practising land management here. All around us on the Maningrida escarpment were small smoke plumes, signs that the countryside was being singed and the grasses reduced.
To get to the billabong we worked our way across churned earth, sure signs that wild pigs had been destroying more of the environment. A couple of large divots, still soft, indicated the presence of water buffalo, but we saw neither pigs nor buffalo. What we did see could have come have come straight off a postcard. The billabong was picture perfect: lily pads, fallen trees and all of it flanked by short, green grasses. Brolgas, jabirus, Burdekin ducks and a host of other colourful birds were feeding in the shallows. The water looked inviting, it was hot and a swim would have gone down nicely.
Lindsay led the way, telling us to wait while he checked the edges, and decided we would fish on several slight rises along the bank. ‘Stay well clear of the water,’ he warned. ‘Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean there aren’t any crocs here.’ So much for a swim.
There were us anglers, looking at the water, seeking out snags and working out ways of luring the barra out from under the lily pads. Below the surface there was just as likely to be a log with teeth, edging its way along the bottom, looking upwards with one purpose in mind: catching an angler. We stayed on slightly higher ground and avoided walking near the soft, muddy edges.
We were using baitcasters, but deep swimming minnows gave way to surface poppers. The first cast produced a small tarpon, the second a barra. Almost every cast was a fish, and most of those fish were barra. We hooked and landed barra at will. It was a matter of cast the popper, let it sit, bloop it a couple of times and wind – if the take took that long! These weren’t metre-long fish, but in this picturesque water, the action was exhilarating. It was like fishing on a fish farm, except these fish were wild and the location remote.
The fish were also stunningly attractive – the most colourful barra I’ve come across. The fish had deep bronze backs and bright silver bellies so that when they lay side-on, their flanks glowed as if they were gold ingots.