Great fishing rivers flow through some of our best known cities: the Yarra in Melbourne, the Swan in Perth and the Derwent in Hobart, to name a few. One of the best city rivers I have come across is the Fitzroy, which runs through Rockhampton. Australia has very few waterways where you can catch metre-plus barramundi within casting range of a cappuccino machine. In terms of consistency in numbers and size, the Fitzroy is up with the best, and certainly better than most. Some Queensland friends tell me the Fitzroy consistently produces the biggest wild barramundi in Australia.
My first visit to the Fitzroy River took place early one October, just before the staging of the annual Rocky Barra Bounty, a tag- and-release barramundi fishing competition. The competition is based on the most metres of barramundi tagged, to ensure minimum impact on fish stocks.
I fished with a couple of local anglers, Mitch Lester and Neville Hewitt, who had each won the competition, or been involved in the winning teams. We fished downstream for about 10 km, casting lures around rock bars, snags and even an old factory pump house, without success.
Later in the day, we came back near the city and it was here that the barramundi proved more cooperative, especially near the main road bridge close to the city centre, where fish to about 75 cm were caught.
We were fishing our way upstream of the bridges, towards the saltwater barrage, when we spotted a chap floating in a large polystyrene packing box about the size required for a television set. He reached a small rock about 10 m off the riverbank, stepped out of his polystyrene dinghy and proceeded to fish from the rock.
‘Brave fellow,’ Mitch observed. ‘There are some mighty big crocs in this river. A few months back a croc attacked a racehorse that was being walked in the river.’ We hung around for a photo opportunity, but none was forthcoming.
We cast lures and then tried live prawns, which were caught in cast nets. These nets are excellent when it comes to catching live baits such as small fish. The barramundi didn’t like our lures as much as the fresh prawns. We worked the prawn baits near structures such as the bridges and rocks in the river and our catch was only limited by the number of prawns in the net.
Mitch and Neville fished as if we were in the competition, so everything was released. The practice came into vogue during the 1980s and has proven so popular that it has become a national pursuit.
The Rocky Barra Bounty started in 1998 to market Rockhampton as a fishing destination, and Rockhampton became the first city to adopt tag-and-release fishing for competitions. Participating anglers go to a compulsory briefing at the start of the event, where they are taught the correct procedures for catch and release. All entrants receive a fishing pack containing items for use during the competition, including line, lures and hooks, disposable camera, fish ruler, tagging equipment and data- logging forms. Captured fish must be photographed. The fish is then released back into the river and the catch phoned in. Points are awarded based on the combined length of fish caught and released. Kept fish do not count.
As well as promoting Rockhampton, the competition helps researchers compile research data. Concentrating the anglers for two days of fish-tagging provides them with valuable information that would otherwise take a long time to collect.
The final touch is that all profits from the event are used to restock the river with barramundi fingerlings, so the Fitzroy River will continue to provide excellent fishing in the future as well.