Battling barra in awesome Awoonga
  |  First Published: February 2008

As soon as I found out Creek to Coast was headed back to Lake Awoonga late last year, there were two things I got to work on straight away. Firstly, I starting working out my casting arm; and secondly, I jumped on the phone to local barra whisperer Johnnie Mitchell.

With a hugely successful Barramundi stocking program, Lake Awoonga would have to be one of my favourite freshwater fishing destinations anywhere in Queensland, and no one knows this place like Johnnie.

The first time I fished Awoonga with John was in late 2005, when Dean Miller and I were shooting a special episode of Queensland Weekender based around Gladstone.

To say that was a good day doesn’t even begin to describe it. In just one afternoon I managed to bag a couple of meter-plus barra, only to be outdone by Dean’s epic 116cm monster that I’m still hearing about to this day.

As you would expect I was more than a bit excited about having another crack at the title. This time my partner in crime was former Queensland Origin fullback Gary ‘Badge’ Belcher.

For Badge this was his first ever barra expedition so obviously there were a few nerves, but after a couple pointers from Johnnie the Queenslander looked as confident with the rod and reel as he did with a footy tucked under his wing.

Gear wise, John reckons the biggest mistake most people make at Awoonga is to come under-gunned. We were rigged with 15kg braid (Johnnie reckons sometimes he goes for 2kg) and 50lb line with the drag wound right up to stop the barra doing the bolt after the strike.

In the first hour I was dusted a few times, twice cut off at the leader by those razor sharp gill rakes mid-jump. It was painful to watch, but good to see that there were fish out there. Then came the cry from the other end of the boat: “I’m on! I’m on! What do I do now?”

Badge had felt the instant heart-in-your-throat moment barra a famous for. Of course, a split second after the strike there came the yank as the fish made straight for the weeds.

After a good struggle, with Johnnie advising the whole way, Badge bagged his first barra – a healthy 65cm. With the big beast cradled in his arms, he ranked it up there crossing the try line in a game of footy, except without the crowd cheering him home.

Not long after, we had that fella back in the water and it was fish-on again. I must have dropped a hardbodied lure right on his head, because the second it hit the water we were in business. Another fun little tussle later and there was another 65cm fish in the boat. With both of us on the scoreboard, the pressure was off as far as shooting a storywas concerned. The rest of the arvo was just for fun.

With a sea breeze starting to come down on us, John decided to relocate to the far side of the lake where we could get a bit more protection and work a couple of his favourite holes. Johnnie employs a fair bit of strategy when it comes to chasing these fish. Whether soft plastics, hardbodies or diving and surface lures we rotated through the lot. He had us anchoring up, trolling ledges, fishing deep, fishing shallows, working the weed banks, all the while study the way the fish respond to each change of tactics.

After a few hours I reckon he had these fish well and truly sussed out. Then, whack! Badge was hit by something bigger this time, hanging around the end of the weed bed. Working the spin rod like a professional, Badge had his second fish of the day alongside the boat in no time. At just over 80cm he was the quintessential Awoonga barra. Built like a front rower across the shoulders, tail like a cricket bat, it was just a beautiful specimen.

You really can’t underestimate the value of Johnnie’s local knowledge of this massive body of water. After fishing Awoonga regularly for more than 12 years, he has a supreme understanding of how the different conditions affect what goes on below the surface.

After working with countless guides over the years I know it’s a tough gig. You have to be master of your craft and you need a lot of patience, but having said that I couldn’t see Johnnie doing anything else.

While the sun did its dash for the horizon, we decided it was full-time for our fishing adventure… until Badge showed why you couldn’t count the Queenslanders out until the final siren. He had a beauty on the line – and the fish wasn’t too happy about it either.

After realising he couldn’t pull Badge out of the boat, the fish headed up, launching a full half metre out of the water madly trying to shake the lure or cut the leader in a flurry of head and tail shakes. Another two huge jumps followed, the biggest fish of the day literally hanging on by a thread. We were all holding our breath.

Fortunately though, that was just about all he had left, and soon after we had him to the boat. At 85cm it was the biggest for the day and almost as big was Badge’s smile. The fullback was hooked and I’d had a ball just watching a newbie chalk up his first barra.

As we headed back to the ramp the conversation, like it did all day, revolved around the thrill of chasing these majestic fish: “did you see him hit…”, “how about that jump…”, “I thought we were gone when…”

It was another successful guided tour for Johnnie. We had a great fishing story for the show and Badge had joined the long, long list of people counting the days until their next day out on Lake Awoonga. If you want a guided tour, contact Johnnie Mitchell on 0429 723 757.

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