The opening of the east coast barra season, on 1 February, is obviously the topic on most anglers’ minds and the lead-up reports have been promising.
Anglers and divers have reported good numbers of small male and large female barra on the headlands north of Cairns. Hopefully, there will be a significant rain event to trigger the barra to finish spawning and disperse throughout their entire range. When they congregate on the headlands they are too easy for the pro netters to target.
Chasing barra on the headlands, or around the estuary mouths, with live mullet, sardines or prawns, on dawn and dusk, will see you in with a good chance, depending on the prevailing conditions. If there has been recent heavy rain, focus efforts around the headlands to the north and south of Cairns. Once the rivers settle, shift to these areas, with the mouths of systems the best bet.
Night fishing for barra is always a good option, as they are often quite active in the evenings. When dawn or dusk coincides with a falling tide, focus on the mouths of drains and areas of shallow mangroves, especially if they are near deep water. Barra will patrol the mangrove line, feeding on bait being forced out of the mangroves by the receding water.
They will also feed along a mangrove edge that is hundreds of metres from deep water but it takes a lot more care getting to the mangrove line without disturbing them. An electric motor is virtually essential for this type of fishing. This technique works best when luring, as you are more mobile, but live baiting can also work if you are patient. You will hear the barra and jacks feeding in the mangroves and along the edge if they are active. If there has been no sound of predators feeding or any action on the rod after half an hour, go look for another location.
The estuaries will produce plenty of action, besides barra, if the conditions are right. If the rivers are in flood, then forget about it until they start to settle. As the water clears, work from the mouth, upstream, with the improving water conditions. Few fish like to stay in heavy freshwater, clogged with red mud.
Mangrove jack are more freshwater tolerant than most fish, so they will be the first fish to target as the systems settle. Focus your efforts with small lures and live baits around heavy rock and snag structures that have a fair bit of current on them.
Jacks will sit in heavy cover and ambush passing bait. If live baiting, a float is very effective, as it allows you to gradually get the bait closer to the structure with less chance of snagging up. When luring, gradually cast deeper into the structure. A slow jerky retrieve, which allows the lure to stay close to cover longer, is best with hard-bodied lures and prawn imitations. Little twitches of the rod tip is all it takes to induce a strike. With soft plastics, fish them with as little weight as you can get away with and allow them to sink slowly with an occasional slow lift of the rod tip to change the swimming speed and angle. Super slow retrieves combined with a lift and sink technique can be dynamite on jacks. The same techniques work just as effectively on barra.
If the systems are clear, then fingermark will be active in the deep holes, especially around the top of the tide. Mullet, sardines and prawns fished on a dropper rig are the top live bait options. Look for structure in water over 5m deep and position the boat so baits are sitting as close as possible to the snags/rocks but not in them. Set your drag as firmly as your line class will allow, sit the rod in a holder with the reel engaged and wait for the rod to double over. A minimum of 30lb braid with 30lb fluorocarbon leader is necessary to have a fighting chance against this brute of a fish – Think mangrove jack on steroids!
Blue and king salmon can also be caught along the foreshore, especially if there are prawns or lots of bait schools about. The odd grunter, estuary cod, bream, flathead and trevally will also be on offer for bait soakers, especially around the river mouths and coastal flats, on the rising tide. There will be plenty of vermin between good fish, so be prepared for lots of catfish, small sharks, shovel-nose rays and stingrays.
The annual prawn run can take off in February, depending on the conditions, so be ready to swing into action if word gets out. Anglers are often tight lipped about prawns, so if you don’t have reliable sources, carry a cast net in the boot of the car and have a few throws on the way home, whenever possible. They can be here one day and gone the next, so it pays to be Johnny on the spot.
The esplanade flats, mouth of the Cairns inlet and Second, Machans and Holloways beaches are the easiest to get to spots, with places further afield like Cooya, Newell and southern end of Four Mile beach, popular prawning locations.
Always wear full protective clothing and shoes, even when using a cast net. The more ‘out there’ prawn chasers use drag nets but encounters with crocs, stingers and sharks are always a distinct possibility.
With the rain and river rises, mud crabs will be flushed to the mouths. Look for better concentrations of saltwater; out along the foreshore mangrove edges and even along the open beaches.
In these conditions, it’s always worth dropping in a few pots on the way to your favourite fishing spot. If you can see the floats from where you fish, it will reduce the chance of share farming, which is an increasing problem in all areas.
Some years, February can have patches of calm weather and even periods of light northeasterlies, which make a trip to the reef possible. If heading offshore be extra careful of floating debris, especially if there has been flooding in the previous weeks. Night travel is fraught with danger, so stick to daylight movement. Have at least one person, in addition to the skipper, on log watch. It’s not the log poking half a metre skywards that gets you, there will often be concentrations of logs along current lines. I have been through log patches kilometres wide where it was only safe to travel at displacement speed.
Smatterings of trout, nannygai, sweetlip, trevally, reef jacks and stripeys will be biting but generally not in great numbers. The best time is leading into the new and full moons, if the weather coincides. Deeper water is generally a better option, with 30m+ the best bet.
Look for pelagic action around the demarcation line where the fresh meets the salt, which is usually marked with floating logs and/or a colour change. Trolling lures along this edge can be productive at times. Mac and longtail tuna schools will be further out in the clear water. Look for bait schools on the sounder, or birds working, and concentrate your efforts in these areas.
The odd big homer Spanish mackerel can still be caught, particularly on live baits like fusilier. Homer Spaniards are the big solitary fish that stay in an area when the majority of fish migrate. There is always the odd 40lb+ homer cruising around any good mackerel structure, so always have a mackerel rig at the ready.Reads: 1772