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The Original Barra: Saratoga
  |  First Published: October 2010



I love chasing barra, but I have to admit that I’m kind of relieved when the season starts to die down. I no longer feel the pressure to get out on the local impoundments with tunnel vision towards barra, instead it gives me a chance to start chasing some of the other great species in the area.

We had recently been focussing on our flyfishing skills and were keen to catch a variety of species. We started targeting sooties and saratoga on lures a few years earlier so they were high on our target list.

It was late December when my best fishing companion, Kelvin McArthur (my dear old Dad), and I headed out the back of the sleepy little town of Sarina, in the Sarina Range. We set out to one of our favourite old freshwater haunts to target the ‘original’ freshwater barramundi – the mighty saratoga.

We have spent a lot of time over the years exploring this inland waterway; we have fished pretty much every waterhole from Funnel Creek down to the twin bridges past Conners River on the old inland highway. When we first started targeting the inland rivers, it didn’t take us long to start catching this famous historic fish. My first impression was ‘wow’; it is such a beautiful looking fish. It had an impressive golden yellowy green colour combined with its trademark red markings and, of course, its handsome little moustache. And with its flat back, its up swept bottom jaw, a beautiful pair of dorsal fins, this fish was majestic.

When we first targeted them many years ago we used light mono overhead gear, which quite frankly was rather ordinary. Not wanting to offend toga lovers out there, but these fish fought like old freshwater eels! They constantly wanted to back up on themselves by swimming backwards trying to get free of the hooks. They made a few runs here and there, and maybe even an odd jump, but for such a famous fish I thought it would put up more of a battle.

It wasn’t until I started targeting saratoga on fly that I got to appreciate everything this fish had to offer. For some reason, which I still don’t know why to this day, catching this ancient fish on terminal fly tackle is a totally different experience than on any other gear. It wasn’t just the fight, it was the whole visual package combined with the battle.

The saratoga first sneaks out from under cover and stealthy creeps up to your well presented fly, usually a Dahlberg Diver, has a quick look and a feel with its little moustache, and then gulps it down. After the hooks are securely set, comes an awesome display of aerial tricks, not just once but many times throughout the battle. This is followed by big powerful runs, while all the time trying to fight itself free and never giving up.

Toga Tactics

It had been several years since I last caught a toga on fly, so when we finally got near our favourite waterhole I could hardly fight back the excitement. I just love getting out into the mountain country away from the hustle and bustle of the local creeks and impoundments. It is defiantly one of the most enjoyable and relaxing ways to fish.

It was about 6.30am by the time we were quietly motoring under electric power in one of Dad’s little purpose-designed punts. We had a casual start to the morning, but it was still early enough to target some sooties. Sure enough the first snag I threw my little Jonesy at was smashed mid way back to the boat. It was a nice 40cm specimen that peeled the 15lb Rovex braid effortlessly off my reel before posing for the camera.

Three casts later and I felt that famous saratoga dead weight take on my rod. I new exactly what it was as I blurted out “Toga,” accompanied with a sharp jerk of my rod. It was only a small fish, about 60cm, so the 4-6kg Excalibur won the battle hands down. The 6wt 7’6” fly rods were poised from both ends of the boat as we took our positions targeting a side of the vessel. We zoned in on any potential hot spot where we would concentrate our efforts for a brief while until we were confident there was nothing there.

These hot spots were either snags, in which we had caught sooties or toga from before, or any gum trees that were generously hanging in the water. Gum trees with their leaves in the water are always an excellent holding place for this stealthy fish. They love nothing more than cruising around these areas, if the time is right, or hiding in the shadows under the foliage waiting for any lizards, insects, blossoms, or fish to drop in or swim past.

Saratoga have a legendary reputation as a great sport fish in Australia, especially on fly gear. When you’re catching these fish it’s nearly all visual; from first sighting them cruising out in the open or out to your fly, then seeing them take the fly and finally all the acrobatics as you try and land them. Put all that in an area as beautiful as the Central Queensland inland waterways and the feeling is beyond description.

It turned out to be a great morning, with Dad and I catching eight togas and 10 sooties, some of them on the fly. The sooties ranged from 45cm to a mere 15cm, and the saratoga were all around the 45cm to 65cm mark. One fairly new fallen tree produced a double hook up on a pair of little toga’s that left Dad and I smiling for quite some time.

We finished the morning session with our traditional billy tea and a bickie as we talked tactics and future trips as always. What a morning! – Matt McArthur

BY ANY OTHER NAME…

I was brought up targeting barramundi, it was a fish I knew well. I did catch other fish but every chance I got, and still get, was spent chasing this great fighting fish. The name barramundi had a distinct meaning to me as a young boy. That was until I caught my first saratoga.

Dad told me that the ‘old timers’ classed saratoga as the original barramundi – I was dumbfounded, and a little sceptical. But when I got home Dad flicked me an old fishing magazine, and true enough the very first article had what is now known as a saratoga labelled as a freshwater barramundi.

The word barramundi was taken from the Queensland Aboriginal dialect of Rockhampton meaning ‘large scaled river fish’, which referred to Dawson River saratoga. This label was changed in the 1980s to market the more popular, and more profitable, species Lates calcarifer, which is the species that we know as barramundi today.

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