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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.

November 23, 2009

FISHING THE KIMBERLEY’S …..TRIP OF A LIFETIME!

Keith Graham

When a good friend asks if you would like to spend two weeks exploring and fishing the Kimberley’s, and also bring a few mates along for the experience you just don’t hesitate in saying ‘YES’. It’s a place every red blooded sport fisho should visit at least once in a lifetime……and fishing is just the start of it!

It was ten years ago since I took my family to fish the Drysdale River in the heart of the Kimberley coast. Mum, Dad and three teenage kids flew in by float plane and landed well upstream between the sandstone sentinels and stayed in the ‘Croc Camp’ that was run by Al, a pro fisherman from South Aus. and his wife MJ. It was an amazing week for both fishing and exploring, and since that time I’ve tried to wangle another trip back. Karma can be a magical thing!

Hot on the heels of our successful DVD’s…’Bransfords the Last Ten Years Gone Fishing’ I’ve been working on a place to film Volume 3 and what better opportunity than this awesome location….so with camera in hand and three other fishing fanatics namely Bob Gibbins (Gibbo)…Matt ( Tit for Tat) Graham and Les (the Cleaner) Marsh we headed to Darwin to meet up with our skipper, Kerry.

Our home for the next 18 days was a fifty foot catamaran powered by twin Yanmar diesels and all the creature comforts needed. Having organised a full shopping list before we set off, (thanks Debbie), made it so much easier to collect provisions, and refreshments of course. Loading it all on the boat provided another challenge…Kerry reckoned we were set for a 4 week trip…(we wished). Settling down to a good meal and a few beers we chatted away about the plans for the coming days…excitement was running high!

Up bright and early the next morning we had only to buy some Jumbo blocks of ice and a few last minute necessities. I can warn you ‘Don’t try buying block ice in Darwin’! Les and I even went to the local ice works and were told that they didn’t sell BIG blocks because they lasted too long….Duh! So, after a 40 klm round trip we did manage to find some small blocks for our drinks esky. It was time to go!

With Darwin’s huge tides the marinas have lock gates to mediate the water levels, so you have to book a time to leave. Something different….moving a 50 footer into locks to be lowered to the harbour. That done we set course for the Little Moyle River, south of the famous Daly River, and steamed at a steady 8 knots.

It should be explained that the tides in these parts can be extreme….like 6 to 8 metres difference between high and low. The further we ventured into the Eastern Kimberley coast the tides weren’t quite so extreme, but for those who push even further West they can be ridiculous and safety becomes a priority in boat handling.

First light saw us slowly making our way up the Little Moyle. It was flat calm, (which was to be the trend for the entire trip), and the high tide covered most of the snags and camouflaged a very shallow entrance and although we were keen to make a start we waited for half tide down so we could read the waters better. Our two tinnies were lowered using the davit and all was prepared for our first foray of the trip.

It wasn’t prime time….three days before the last quarter moon and the fishing was slow. We tried trolling and managed a few cod and the odd jack but the barra were laying low. At low tide Kerry suggested we use the drag net to gather bait in the shallows…he prefers bait fishing claiming they always take a bait. He was right too….with half a bucket of mullet and sardines the crew fished from the back of our boat as the tide began making and cleaned up on bream, catfish, blue salmon and the odd tarpon and queenie. Nothing of any size but good action all the same.

The next morning Les and I ventured upstream to troll some deeper water we had scoped the day before. The river dog legged via a steep bank and created a back water, a top spot for barra to lie in wait. Using Barra Classics and RMG Scorpions in the 2 to 3 metre range we were tripping a snaggy bottom and just needed a ‘trigger’ to set them off! Les was in first with a nice 3 kilo silvery barra going apeshit and making life difficult……but with his Loomis rod and Chronarch low profile rig he handled the situation with ease. Interestingly the lure had hooked him on the side of the face……another tell tale that they weren’t really chewing well.

A dozen trolls later we had caught three more of similar size and dropped another 3. The moon wasn’t quite right and the next couple of days was going to send them ballistic, well, that’s what we convinced ourselves!

Gibbo and Matt had a similar morning….the odd strike here and there but nothing to write home about. By the following morning we would be gone and heading over the Gulf to the legendary Berkeley River.

After some breathtaking views of the sandstone sentinels guarding the entrance to the Berkeley we literally scraped out way into the mouth. I’m sure Kerry waxed the bottom of his hull otherwise we would never have got in there! The mangrove flats gave way to the towering sandstone cliffs as we motored upstream to check out the falls…well what was left of them during the dry season! The trickle was enough for us to top up our freshwater tanks and have a soak, with the customary beverage of course.

We had lunch and enjoyed the touristy thing for a while before remembering that we should check out the local fish population. Kerry, Gibbo and I piled in one boat and Mat & Les took the other, and as usual we headed off in different directions. Gibbo gave us one of these new fandangled radios so we could keep in touch and give each other the nod if a hot bite was found, but like all gadgets they were bloody useless and had a range from one end of our tinnie to the other.

A three hour session produced a couple of small queenies and one jack…again the fish were in lizard mode and even the huge schools of silver mullet never flinched due to predator interest. Later on the run out tide we all met up at the rivers mouth and tossed poppers….one good swirl from a GT or Queenie was all we could muster. We were resigned to waiting …and like all seasoned fishos had plenty of patience.

Absorbing the unparalleled scenery and tranquil atmosphere wasn’t easy but somehow we rose to the occasion and with yet another picture postcard sunset upon us we soaked a bait from the back of the boat and opened another bottle of red. Occasionally a fish would spoil the moment and one of us would have to get up and do battle, however catfish to 1.5 kilos never did cause a strained muscle.

Recovering from a slight hangover and still pigged out from a gourmet feed prepared by our very own ‘Grill Bitch’, Matt, we all voted to move on and set a course for the King George River, only a few hours steaming to the north.

It wouldn’t be hard to get used to this sedentary lifestyle. Without a care in the world, other than who’s job it was to put the beer on ice, flat seas, perfect weather and the thought of piscatorial pleasures yet to come I felt sure regular visitors to these parts were never likely to develop stomach ulcers!

Mid afternoon and we were entering the river mouth in awe of the vista ahead. We made way slowly up the gorge taking the time to fully appreciate the beauty that is the Kimberley. About 3 kilometres upstream, in the lee of the mangrove fringe we dropped anchor and piled into the tinnies to motor up the eastern arm towards the waterfalls.

Gibbo and I decided not to try the rope climb to the freshwater pool at the top of the trickling falls, (after the wet these falls are a raging torrent), the 25 metre accent too much for our knee injuries. I did however notice some bait flicking on a shallow rockbar just before the falls, so as the other guys grunted their way up I pointed Gibbo so he could cast to the likely spot…BANG, first cast he latched onto a good sized barra and I could hear some distant voices yahooing as they witnessed the fight from above. A 3 kilo plus barra came aboard for some pics before being released. I held back and urged Gibbo to keep casting in the same spot….again he scored…..then another barra…wow, how many were in this hole? A couple more hook ups and jump offs later they calmed down….I wish I could say the same for Gibbo!

It wasn’t too long before the guys were back down the rockface casting in ‘our’ spot. The swimming up in the fresh was good, and the views breathtaking but the call of rampaging barra was just too much and they didn’t want to miss out on the action.

Anchoring upstream that night in deeper water between 6o metre high escarpments provided a stunning backdrop for our evening meal and then breakfast. Les and I had planned a trolling run along the rock ledges reckoning that this was sure to ‘crack the code’. Yes….we did hook a couple of good sized barra and even boated some big jacks to 1.6 kilos but the fishing was still slow by Kimberley standards. Kerry found some willing cods, jacks and catfish whilst bait fishing under a float……whilst Matthew and Gibbo had moderate success trolling and flicking.

By any other standards this was memorable fishing but we knew the best was yet to come and that day showed us a mere glimpse of the fast and furious action that was to follow.

Les and Matthew ventured out the next morning and as the tide began to run out they experienced a window of opportunity along the mangrove clumps in the bays that had formed between the towering rock formations. For almost half an hour the bite was ‘on’ as jacks, barra and cod engulfed their lures. They were using suspending Rapala Shads and the fish just loved ‘em.

The moon was just about right and, as the Drysdale beckoned our expectations grew to bursting point.

Every river in these parts has it’s own personality and attraction and the Drysdale certainly didn’t disappoint. The wide mouth is interspersed with mangrove islands and large rocky bays. Progressing upstream through shallow sandbar country, massive boulders and rocks have been dumped to form channels and gutters. Spine tingling stuff for keen anglers…knowing full well what lay beneath.

The weather was still perfect and the days mainly calm. We poured over the maps to make sure we fanned the area so as not to miss any ‘fish heavens’….so many great looking spots to choose from, however we did have time on our side with the next 6 days booked in for this mighty river. It had been ten years ago since I had flown into this river with my family to spend a week at the ‘Alligator Camp’ with a lovely couple from Adelaide. We had such a great time and I wondered if any memories of specific fishing spots would flood back also whether the camp was still there. Matthew remembered hooking into a crocodile with his lure and catching a feisty saw shark….and of course the indelible memory of a ‘can crusher’ that was mounted on a post in the camp. Why on earth this gadget rated a mention I’ll never know…probably he remembered the competition between him and his sisters to crush any used cans within seconds.

Tentatively we began casting lures along the mangrove fringed islands…’twitching’ our F.1.11 and Stealth’s to tempt anything with fins. The cry of ‘I’m on’ became a regular feature of that afternoon as everything from G.T’s to Queenies…to Fingermark…Gold Spot Cod…Jacks and Barra all climbed on, everyone so full of life the fights were memorable. As quick as I released one fish over the side Les was into another, and so it went on. This was fishing at it’s best and what we had expected of the Kimberley.

Back at the boat the other guys had scored similar numbers as they drifted the rocky ledges with the tide, Matthew had scored a barra around 5 kilos. It was ‘game on’ and they couldn’t sleep that nigh they were so excited and fished away the hours catching a swag of catfish, small fingermark and got smashed with some o/s groper!

Kerry and Gibbo dragged the beach for bait the next morning and settled down to a heavy session near the mangroves. It was crazy the amount of fish they caught, literally as soon as the bait hit the water it was engulfed by one toothy predator or another. We pulled alongside for a chat and Les cast his Rooster popper close to their mangroves and nailed a three kilo barra……I won’t repeat what Kerry had to say but it was very rude!

What we did find was when the bite slowed using surface lures or standard Shads we’d tie on the suspending Bombers in the 3” and 4” sizes and they fire up again…amazing how many times we did this and extended the bite sometimes for a half hour or more.

One spot we named ‘Timber Creek,’ as it was ten feet high with flood timber brought down during a cyclonic wet, gave us some of our most memorable action. It was close quarters hand to hand combat with mega sized jacks and barra up to six kilos…with the odd queenie to 3 kilos thrown in for good measure! As we drifted into this back pocket it was dead…then as the tide began to run out it was on for young and old. We could cast anywhere in a ten metre circle and something would grab hold of the lure….then…as that angler fought the fish the boat would be pulled to another area and the same scenario would unfold. We all danced around the boat trying to save ourselves from being bricked by rampaging predators….some of the video footage I took of this is unreal. That session alone produced over forty fish…every one was released!

Four days on we decided to venture upstream...dodging sandbars and rocks right out in the middle of the river. The Alligator Camp was still there and the caretaker was a guy called Don. What a gentleman…he offered us a brew and told some tales of what had happened over the past ten years. We even traded him some fuel for groceries and yes….the can crusher was still there. I think Matthew took a dozen photos of it! It was great to see the camp was still in good condition and the memories did come flooding back.

Don mentioned some nearby canyons further down stream that were worth a cast or two for barra so we called in on the way back. These high sided sandstone pillaries held a huge school of diamond scaled mullet about a kilo each in size. They swam up and down its length warily as we waited for a ‘BOOF’, then Matthew spotted some barra lined up in the shadow of a large rock. There were a dozen of them or more and ranged in size up to around 1.3 metres…Wow. His rod was wielded like Excalibur and within a flash he’d made his first cast….and was onto a big one! We sat there dumbfounded as this silver streak jumped all over the rocks trying to find her freedom. Matthew gave it heaps and stopped it from making several blistering runs downstream as the fish tried its hardest to cut the leader on jagged rocks. The noises echoed off the canyon walls as we all encourage d him to land this beauty…..this style of fishing we named ‘Canyon Barra Fishing’, and how exciting it was.

That fish was filmed and photographed like few others on the trip and was the first of many that sultry afternoon. I kept video camera in hand as Matthew hooked and landed another….then Gibbo latched onto Big Momma and after a heart stopping fight brought it to his rock platform. It ended up being the biggest barra of the trip at around 1.1 metres,

Les soon followed with a metre sized fish then Matthew lost two…Gibbo lost one…and this is when I put the camera down and had my first cast. My first hooked fish scraped the lure off on a rock ledge, then the second one I hooked out wide made one spectacular jump about 1.5 metres out of the water then careered off to the right behind another mega sized rock and cut me off! Matthew saw the fish swim back to the depths then spit out my lure, which he retrieved. That was a good mannered barra!

The bite faded and all the guys walked upstream. I decided to put on a deeper diving lure, a Barra Classic 10+ in the purple colour. Finding some remote shadowy ledges that had not been tried I began to work them, using the ‘twitch & pause’ method. This keeps the lure in the strike zone longer and often entices strikes from semi interested fish. It worked and I hook one well over a metre and as it began to dance on the surface I began to shout…’HELP’……’HELP’. There was no way I could land this fish by myself as I’d cornered myself amongst steep rocks.

As I played her another large fish followed…it was a rock cod being inquisitive as it shadowed almost every move the big barra made. Fortunately Matthew heard the shout and came running with the video camera and captured some footage near the end of the fight. At around 105 cms. it was my best of the trip and a fish I will long remember…..my first landed ‘Canyon Barra’.

For a change of pace the next morning Don met us at the boat and guided us to some excellent Aboriginal rock art. We also cast poppers along the beachfront as Gibbo caught a flathead and Les & Matthew found some G.T’s and jacks. Don, Kerry and I sat on the beach and had a good chin wag!

More ‘hot’ bite sessions followed the next few days….what a paradise! If there’s better fishing anywhere on this planet I’d like to know where it is! Cruising back to Darwin it took us 26 hours non stop. I found it hard to leave such a place as the Kimberley and if you are a fisho….and you are contemplating making up a ‘Bucket List’….just make sure you put the Kimberleys near the top of that list.

At the time of going to press we have almost completed the editing on our DVD titled “Bransfords Fishing the Kimberleys’. Some of the footage is mind blowing!
















Keith Graham



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