I have penned plenty of articles about the Mackay’s great freshwater fishing, both in the Pioneer River and our three dams, but we have yet another ace up our sleeve as an alternative - saratoga.
While ‘togas aren’t stocked in our dams, apart from a couple of dozen released in Eungella Dam about 20 years ago by the DPI, they are available within an hour or so drive of Mackay.
Older readers will remember those infamous wet season traffic stoppers at Funnel Creek, Prospect Creek and Connors River on the old inland highway between Sarina and Marlborough. Saratoga are found in all three of these waterways, right up to the top of the Sarina Range. These waterways all drain into the Mackenzie/Fitzroy system and the southern strain of ‘togas occur naturally throughout. Since the downstream dams were built and have restricted the barra movements upstream, ‘togas are now the kings of the creeks.
While the ‘togas are quite widespread, they don’t get much fishing pressure, as most of the creeks and rivers run through private grazing properties and obviously permission has to be granted before trying to fish these spots. I have been privileged to fish many streams and lagoons over the years and have encountered most of the ‘togas range.
There are a couple of spots right beside the road bridges where it’s possible to score a ‘toga, but these obviously get more fishing pressure although a lot of that is baitfishing aimed at goldies or jewies. Don’t forget that ‘togas are a cruising fish and will travel many kilometres up and down a waterhole on the lookout for a feed.
I prefer lure or flyfishing and in these systems because there is the added chance of tangling with a good-sized sooty or yellowbelly. You never know just one of these days barra may even be again caught in these headwaters as they used to be many years ago.
These creeks and rivers are fairly close to their natural state as the dams are many kilometres downstream. Most of them tend to dry back into waterholes with interconnecting riffles and sandbanks during winter. Some of these holes can be several kilometres long, surprisingly deep, and offer some really top habitats for the fish.
One feature common to all systems is the abundance of large trees overhanging the water’s edge with some old logs or fallen trees in the water. Mackay’s saratoga are the same as everywhere else and patrol along beats under the trees and along submerged logs. They’re fairly easy to spot cruising along because they spend a lot of time right on the surface.
The middle of the day is a great time for spotting, but a poor time choice for fishing. Like most freshwater fish, the best times to chase ‘togas is early of a morning or late in the afternoon. A good day would be to fish from daylight until about 9:30am, rest up until about 4:00pm and fish until dark. I’ve never tried this but was told around 30 years ago that ‘togas are dynamite at night around the full moon. This is another one of those projects I have to try out one of these days.
Be careful selecting a campsite (and make sure you have the necessary permission), as these creeks rise very rapidly, and debris 15m up in trees shows just how much water can pour down them. This is a problem from December to May, so keep this is mind.
While many fish can be caught from the banks, a boat is a definite asset. Small canoes, kayaks, and car-toppers are all suitable and open up kilometres of water to the angler. For flyfishers I suggest a small punt would be ideal and give more stability when casting. A small electric comes in really handy for this type of fishing, and allows anglers to mooch along quietly without alerting the fish.
I have found the best set-up to be two anglers working together, with one operating the electric and fishing when possible and the other concentrating on doing most of the casting. The anglers alternate positions from time to time to give both a fair go at catching a fish.
The trick is to position the boat a comfortable cast away from the bank, so the lure/fly can be placed either in under the shade trees or along the shade line. Because of the overhanging trees, overhead casts aren’t a good idea but casting from the side or underhand is the way to go. That way the lure/fly can be punched in right up to the bank.
Any tree or log running down into the water should be worked over thoroughly, ‘togas will happily cruise open water, but they can also sit tight on a snag. They use snags as both resting places or as ambush spots. Casting accuracy really helps here so the angler can work the lure/fly right beside the cover and hopefully entice a response.
Try fishing the shade line towards the middle of the creek, especially if the trees hang down near to or actually in the water. Here the fish have enough shade to feel comfortable, good water depth and an ambush spot, with the possibility of cicadas or other insects falling into the water.
Because of ‘togas surface feeding habits, small poppers or surface flies are productive. However, don't ignore other types or you are likely to miss out on the action. Shallow diving minnows, slow sinking flies and unweighted plastics should all be in your repertoire when tackling ‘togas, as quite often the fish will scoff a lure/fly down half a metre whilst ignoring surface presentations.
My suggestion is to keep the lure size down to about 75mm maximum and use those with a fairly strong action at slow speeds. Any small barra lure will do the trick. Remember that for a good part of the year the water will hardly be flowing so lake style barra lures will work well. I recommend some Reidy’s Little Lucifers , StumpJumpers with the shallow bib, Rapala Fat Raps and Shad Raps, and similar lures. Try colours that are darker along the back and lighter on the belly and don’t ignore the old freshwater combos of black and yellow and black and gold as they work well on ‘togas.
For surface lures stick to small poppers and fizzers like tiny torpedoes as they seem to turn on the ‘togas go switch. Check these lures over carefully as many of them are designed for smaller fish and have very flimsy hooks. I recommend replacing them with better quality hooks and rings to avoid a disappointing gear failure.
For the fly angler, a couple of foam bodied poppers, a Garside Gurgler or two and a few Dahlbergs should be in your gear. Smaller minnow styles like Deceivers, Bend Backs and the like will also be handy. A slow or medium 8wt sink line will handle ‘togas and still provide plenty of fun for the angler. A single action reel is all that is needed as there won’t be scorching 100m runs with most of the action being at pretty close quarters. This obviously makes for a great spectacle as ‘togas spend a fair amount of time airborne once hooked.
For the plastic brigade, there are heaps of styles that will suit ‘toga fishing. Surface lures like Scum Frogs can be a big hit and Stick Baits worked off the rod tip should also score well. Try unweighted shad styles or ones with just a smidgen of weight on the nose to keep the action going through the plastic. Worms, grubs and similar that can be worked near the surface and unweighted are as sure a bet as you get in fishing.
Most ‘togas can be landed on 4-6kg gear and I suggest a landing net or an Environet to release your catch. Saratoga aren’t prolific breeders so it is very important to treat them as a catch and release species to ensure that this important and attractive native species continues on into the future.
So if you are around Mackay, as a visitor or a local, and you’re looking for a change, I hope this has whetted your appetite to try something a bit different. Give it a go I am sure that even if you don’t score lots of fish, you will enjoy the peace and tranquillity of true bushland areas.Reads: 4559