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Garry Smith FishTalk Tune in to ABC Radio's Garry Smith at his FishTalk web site for more local fishing news.

June 10, 2007


Friendship is the essence of a memorable fishing trip and during the past twenty five years exploring some incredible tropical waters I’ve been lucky enough to fish with some fine anglers. Mutual respect, trust and mateship make these occasions extra special as we have shared some of the best sport fishing this planet has to offer, and this story is about one such ‘special’ trip with two outstanding fishing guides….Terry Holman and Les Marsh.

I’ve known Terry for over twenty years and his fishing prowess is beyond question. It was no mistake that he was recently inducted into the Bransfords Fishing Hall of Fame for his uncanny ability to read any fishing situation and produce such consistent results . His client list is a who’s who of the international fishing community and includes the I.G.F.A President Rob Kramer whom he recently fished on the Daintree and had one of those top days catching barra. I have had the pleasure of his fishing company many times including a couple of Tournaments and have guided some of his clients when he was, as is often the case, over booked.

Les Marsh is a real piece of work…a top guy who enjoys a good time and can cast a lure with the best of them. He ran his own guiding business for some years and now runs the charter booking agency website ‘Fishing Cairns’, but still guides for Terry whenever he has the time. Les is an opportunistic angler who takes the time to observe…then cast his lure within a centimetre of it’s intended target before imparting such a provocative action that few fish can resist. Full of wit and always a ready smile Les worked for me at Bransfords for some time and I can tell you we’ve shared the odd laugh or two!

The occasion was a recent trip to Aurukun in May on board the M.V. Pikkuw (Insert link) run by Aurukun Wetland Charters. There were three other clients on board namely John & Cheryl Richmond and Warren Heycott. The skipper Bob Frazer, and his off side incumbent Ian ……… made up the balance of the team and in the absence of resident guide Tim O’Reilly it was up to us guys to share these duties. The Aurukun Wetlands comprise the rivers….Archer, Watson & Ward plus a couple of detached fisheries in the Kirk and Love Rivers, which when combined make up one of the most extensive, remote and unbelievable tropical fishing wonderlands imaginable.

The first few days of the trip flew by as we caught some memorable smaller barra, queenfish, mangrove jack etc. John, Cheryl and Warren enjoyed the experience of fishing these pristine waters so much I am sure they will book another trip, however the most stimulating part of this week long sojurn was a couple of days that Terry, Les and I spent exploring new country in areas that few anglers have ventured before.

A word of caution to anyone attempting remote area exploration is to ensure extra fuel and provisions are packed plus all safety equipment and medical kit. We took the time to do this and advised our skipper where we intended to go and what time to expect us back.

Setting off at first light our game plan was to travel as far as we could upstream BEFORE starting to fish, this way we could work our way back with the outgoing tidal influence. As I had some knowledge of the area I was the nominated guide….but in reality it was the blind leading the blind.

Amazing sights unfolded as we made our way 30 kilometres upstream. Wide sweeping bends with mangrove islands opened up into low lying flat land swamps that showed flooded gutters on the high tide. It was so tempting to stop and toss a few lures at these gutters but we knew they would fish better as the tide receaded and they began flowing back into the main channel . Barra usually lie in wait on the outside lip of the gutter waiting to pounce on the baitfish as they are washed out.

A virtual maze opened up and the early morning light made it difficult to pick out the deeper gutters and channels. We plotted our course on the Navman GPS to help with the return journey but it should be made clear that these wide / shallow big rivers of the Gulf are anything but hospitable to new chums and it is best to take a steady course rather than going flat out. The obvious signs of danger are when you observe rocks on the bank….which is a sure sign of a rock bar crossing the river. When the waters are flat calm the sign of ripples and swirls indicate shallow sandbars or underwater snags, and of course rippling water indicates a shallow rock bar. After years of fishing skinny water it all becomes instinctive but with three guides on board there was some welcome input from Les and Terry which helped us to chart a safe course.

Two of the Three Amigos….Terry Holman(l), and Les Marsh with their double hook up 85 cms. barra. Do they look happy???

Saratoga of this size don’t come along every day….but in Aurukun anything is possible.

The river forked at it’s extremities so we decided to take the left arm. Flocks of whistling ducks in their hundreds winged away as we approached, with the odd Burdekin in amongst them. Brumby’s galloped across the plains disturbed by our presence and a sight I have never seen before of eight Jabiru’s together herding up bait fish on a shallow sandbar. It could have been the Australian version of Jurassic Park and we felt privaliged to be there. Towards the end of this arm was a reeded shallow swamp and I could tell the other guys were keen to have a ‘flick’ as they both picked up their rods and just stared at me. This was a sure signpost for barra, and perhaps saratoga. Pulling up 30 metres short we glided in slowly before turning off the motor and drift. Terry and Les had their first casts underway before I could even find a lure as they began that provocative ‘twitch & retrieve’ using smaller surface lures. This method of more advanced luring keeps the lure in the ‘strike zone’ much longer and tempts barra to strike, even if they’re not that hungry. Terry was the first to connect and Les soon followed. Feisty little fish in the 40 to 50 cms. bracket that wouldn’t be short changed….good fun but not what we’d come all this way to find. I persuaded the guys, as reluctant as they were, that we should tie on bigger deep diving rattlers and chase some serious sized Snag barra.

The end of the arm was only another half kilometre upstream past a humungous rock bar. Where the waters almost trickled in from the shallows there was a drop off to around 3 metres which had an old crumbly snag nestled between it and the banking….another surefire signpost for barra as they often chase baitfish in the shallows on the higher tides then return to their deeper holes to rest. I clipped on a 3 metre plus Classic Barra purple colour, the guys kept on their smaller twitching lures……I could feel it was ‘Game on”.

Sitting back around ten metres from the snag I made my first cast in the midst of the tangled timbers, cranking the lure quickly down to a fair depth before ripping it in short sharp jerks to get the rattles working. I felt it trip over some timber, then some more …then B A N G, I was onto something much bigger than those swamp rats. A silver flash leapt right in the middle of the snag and headed downstream…a good sized barra in prime condition led me on a merry dance. As he jumped I laid back on my Loomis 666 and the pressure of my 30 lbs. braid took effect, I was in charge but only just. A top scrap followed and Terry ‘Boga Gripped’ a nice 85 cms. fish carefully belly lifting it in for a photo or two. What a great start to our day and both Terry and Les changed their lures so quickly they were both almost a blurr.

The master guide Terry Holman with his first over 80 cms. barra for the trip….he had a tough time losing several big barras but soon made up for lost

Fly fishing options are endless at Aurukun….this ( not so) Giant Herring gave Terry Holman a surprisingly good fight.

That snag produced another five fish to 75 cms. before we moved on to try soft plastics on the nearby rock bar. The shallow rock ledge jutted out five metres or so before it dropped off to a depth of ten metres. 130mm. Squidgey’s in the Drop Bear colour were tripped over the rocky bottom, where the sounder showed some fish life, but the only customers we found were catfish. Time prevented us from doing more work in this area with soft plastics which, I’m sure would have produced some XOS barra.

Motoring downstream we took a left turn at the nearby fork….this was the main channel and led us to an almost impassable shallow rock bar with water rippling over it’s craggy mass. We spread ourselves over the boat to maintain a level plane, lifted the motor and slowly worked our way up. Terry did the visual radar job directing me over some hairy looking rocks, but we made it and anchored up at the first snag in the deeper water just above this obstruction. Similar to the first ‘snag heaven’ we had just fished this tangled mass looked the business and on his first cast Terry hooked big momma! He strutted around the boat like a ballerina trying to keep this 90+ cm. barra under control. A sudden dash for the anchor rope was quashed as this master angler dipped his rod tip under the water and turned it’s head just in time….then it leapt a full metre into the air, what a sight! The fish was almost done and Terry led it towards the boat…then….the hook pulled. He looked up to the sky’s and muttered….”The story of my life” before checking his hooks then taking out his diamond sharpening tool to ‘touch up’ the points. A seasoned angler never let’s a lost fish get to him….it happens….even to the very best!

Eight fish later, and several jump offs we continued our trek onwards and upwards. Les was having a ball and set himself like a ‘pointer’ watching for it’s prey. Often he would see a ‘magic’ looking spot and point to it….then look at me in a begging pose hoping I would stop. Not that I didn’t want to but I knew that there would be better country upstream and time was marching on.

Cheryl Richmond enjoys her remote fishing trips and was especially proud of this 1.85 kilo mangrove jack taken in the Little Archer.

An incredibly silver barra…106 cms., taken whilst trolling the Love River by Keith Graham His next fish was a 20 kilo Queensland Groper.

The stretches began to shallow inbetween some deeper holes, then we came across a cut – through. When you see these spots where the river parts and a flood plain is visible it is usually deeper at the junction…always fish them! Snags often build up where the two meet and barras love it as they can take cover behind the snags against the current where baitfish are washed down…..easy prey! I took out the video camera and asked Terry to make a cast just knowing that he would hook up, and on the second cast he did…and it was a ‘horse’. As he set the hooks the big silver stallion arched his back out of the snagpile and headed towards the boat. Terry was up to the task and wound like fury to keep up with it and avoided giving it slack…’game on’ again! He fought it like a piscatorial athlete running around the boat holding his rod high to keep the pressure on….another jump, this fish was huge! Five minutes later the hook pulled again and this time Terry looked to the heavens again and said…”Why Me?” We all get days like this, but his frustrations were soon to disappear!

A gutter some way up this arm on the left was snag filled and in a back eddy. The slower run saw water back up around the snags which had to bring food for wary barras! I made the first cast and hooked into a 70 cms. fish, and, as I was bringing it to the net both Terry and Les hooked up to what seemed like bigger fish. I quickly released mine and took a vantage point up the front of the boat with the video camera to capture the action…..and what a sight it was as these two seasoned pro’s strutted their stuff. Rods and bodies were flying everywhere as they tried to keep these two leaping barra under control, both fish well over 80 cms. You can guess the ‘Yahoos’ as they brought them alongside and Terry cradle lifted them onto the boat. This time he looked up to the heavens and said…”Thankyou”, his gesture to the fish gods that had treated him so badly that day!

A sheer rock face five metres high greeted us past the next bend and no doubt had it’s fair share of fish working it but as the current began to speed up I knew we were getting to the upper limits of navigable waters and we just ‘had to’ make it to this final point. Exploring is addictive and I am fanatical about reaching a pre determined goal, especially in such remote waters that I am unlikely to fish for some time. The boys shook their heads at me many times that day as I passed some magnifiscent looking barra signposts but the shallow rapids beckoned and we were going to make it!

Les Marsh with his 68 cms. barra taken from a narrow channel of fast running water…..tough customers in this kind of country.

This 85 cms. barra was caught by Keith Graham in less than .5 metre of water belting through at 5 knots…..he lost his thumbprint in the process!

The river narrowed and the fast running clear waters indicated we were near the end. Again the motor was trimmed as we motored through ‘tiger country’ and the boys flicked to likely looking structure. Terry hooked into a big saratoga that leapt all over the place and led him around a couple of overhanging branches. I call these pre-historic looking creatures ‘snake fish’ as they twist every which way when hooked. It weighed 7 pounds on the old scale and gave us some top video footage and photos.

We reached the final pool where we couldn’t push up any further. I would advise any would be explorers NOT to try and pull the boat through these upstream pools as they DO contain crocs. My rule is if it’s fast, shallow and clear I’ll do it, but when it becomes a little deeper and the water gets murky it’s not worth risking. We tied up the boat and began to walk the banks.

Just like Lakefield in the run off, after the wet season, this stretch was picture perfect. Waters were being channelled through narrow rock strewn gutters opening up into wider shallower runs. The amount of food that had to be pushed downstream told us barra would be here in numbers…..and they were!

We spread out, Terry opting to wade over to an island with Les and I sticking to the main banking. As our casts hit the water our lures were ‘smashed’ by barra in the 65 to 75 cms range. We all seemed to be hooked up at the same time as these muscled up fish ripped line off and sped off downstream, fighting like fish twice their size. We were all ripped off, they were too good for us in this environment so a quick change to 40 pound Amnesia braid, heavier rods and 60 lbs. leader was in order.

Take two!!! The same scenario unfolded but this time we had more of an advantage and battled fish that fought like fury with the current in their favour. My scrap lasted five minutes before I grassed a 70 cm. silver barra, Les and Terry did the same. We’d found our ‘Fish Heaven’ and were savouring every moment as one fish after another gave us the fight of our lives.

The occasional sooty grunter latched on giving us yet another species for the day then Les, who was fishing a two metre rocky gutter, hooked a beauty and I saw him run up and down stream trying to stay connected. Comical to watch, he was oblivious to our laughs and finished the job off by landing a 68 cms barra, another fish I caught on video.

Casting to a small snag near a gutter Keith Graham hooked this 102 cms. barra using an F1.11 rattling slow sinking lure. Big barras still hunt in skinny

Warren Heycott caught this, his best queenfish to date, from a current line using a Stealth rattling minnow.

The boys walked further upstream and I decided to go back to the boat where the water was a little slower and deeper. I changed to a Tropical Rogue mid diving lure with brown and green tones, more of a freshwater colouration. First cast slightly upstream the lure was worked down and across the current, as it turned to wiggle it’s way back towards me C R A S H…it was monstered! I had heaps of drag on my Shimano Chronarch but couldn’t hold this fish…too big. I foolishly stuck my thumb onto the spool in an attempt to stop it but only succeeded in losing my thumbprint and pulling the hooks. Second cast the same happened except this time he wrapped me around a rock and snapped me off. I was determined to see how big these fish were and re-rigged with a 60 lb mono leader and an 80 lb tippet, tying the lure directly onto the line using a perfection loop. Third time lucky???? As I cast to the same spot I was ready for the take……B A N G! There she was and I gave it heaps, lifting my rod and walking backwards as I struck into this bruiser. Speeding off downstream again I barely hung on but with the “wind and walk” method managed to turn it’s head enough to force it into a backwater some ten metres downstream. Quickly I ran forward, winding all the way, and grabbed at the almost beached barra..Whew!!! At 85 cms. I guessed this was the biggest I could ever manage out of this fast running water and took several pics. and video footage for posterity. This was one of the best barra scraps I’ve ever had and I bored the guys stupid repeatedly telling them about this ‘scrap of a lifetime’.

Time marched on and we had to make a run for home. Terry & Les had caught a bunch more barra and sooties and were well pleased with their efforts….what a place…..what a day!

The GPS track I’d made on the way up helped us to navigate these wide, shallow channels home as we recalled the days adventure. Probably fifty plus barras hooked…..around 35 landed and three ‘horses’ lost. Barra of this size and consistency don’t come along every day and we savoured the occasion. We all get on so well and share this common passion for the greatest sport on earth…and agreed that we had to do this again, and soon! The banter on the boat was like a sketch from the Comedy Channel.

Space doesn’t permit me to mention in detail but we managed a 106 cms. barra and a 20 kilo queensland groper whilst trolling on the Love River using the Classic Pro Alternative rattling lure….or the last evening when Terry, Les and I drifted a spot close to the Pikkuw on the run out tide and caught 25 barra and 5 jacks….the best barra measuring 102 cms. Or the numerous mud crabs we devoured! This is an amazing place and I only hope it will be protected so future fisho’s can experience just how good tropical sport fishing can be.

Our sincere thanks to the crew of the Pikkuw run by Aurukun Fishing Charters and the welcome company of the other guests on board…..John & Cheryl Richmond and Warren Heycott who all helped to make this trip so memorable.

Keith Graham
W: Bransford Tackle

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