Barra in the sticks
MY INTEREST in barramundi kicked off from the QFM cover in May of this year, with ad rep Trent Butler holding a fat barra from Teemburra Dam, west of Mackay. Spurred on by some tantalising images of recent catches emailed to me by QFM's Mackay correspondent Keith Day, I drafted an action plan that saw the Kampe fishing team leave Brisbane for Teemburra Dam. We left Brisbane, the wife's tinnie in tow, at 4am and finally reached the Pinnacle Hotel, 53km west of Mackay, at 5pm.
There was an hour or more of light left so we rigged the fly rods and headed straight to the dam, 9km away. Although well down from maximum capacity Teemburra still held plenty of water, with the Lowrance X29's display showing 12m of water under the hull in the first bay. With a wary eye on the sounder, we moved very carefully under electric power through towering forests of dead timber.
Strangers to barra fishing (the only live barra we'd seen were in fish tanks) our learning curve was very steep. Armed with G.Loomis fly rods in 9wt and 10wt respectively and set up with Scientific Anglers intermediate sink rate fly lines on our standard tuna reels (the drag a necessity, definitely not the backing) I'd tied our flies at the end of a 1.5m Siglon Sinking Fluorocarbon Low Viz 13.9kg breaking strain leader. I relied upon the usual braided loops to connect leader and fly line and although I was to find that a couple of fish did tear the leaders off the loops - my fault, I should have re-tied the knots after a couple of fish were taken - the ever reliable loops came through successfully.
The first 40-minute session that evening was a stunner. I had a totally out of control barra in extremely heavy timber skull drag the rod almost under the boat and mercifully, the tippet parted at the fly before the rod touched the gunwale. The next fish grabbed the fly and took it straight around a tree a metre from where the hook-up occurred and was gone in an instant. A look at the leaders showed that the last 15cm was badly chafed in both instances so we upgraded the final sections with 40cm of 20kg Siglon Sinking fluorocarbon material. The stronger tippet did the job and there were no more break offs due to the leader being cut by sharp gill rakers. There were to be plenty more fish lost, of course, but not through that particular cause.
Over dinner at the Pinnacle Hotel that night (incidentally, the food there was top shelf) we decided that some revised tactics were called for. Sticking to the same game plan of fishing in timbered areas we would try to first find enough space in which to play a fish before casting the fly. The fish were keen to play, there was no doubt about it, but we needed some working space to get the hurt going towards them and not us. But, in such heavily timbered arms it was no easy matter. As a barra habitat, this dam sure does offer the fish a lot of cover.
That said, the idea was basically sound once put into practice and so long as we could find around 10m of open space, with the boat pushed onto the bank, the angler on the rod could maintain enough control over the hooked fish to subdue it. Most times.
The tactic that worked for us was to lob the fly (sometimes it would be necessary to roll cast due to the timber on the bank) a rod length or two behind the boat and give it around three seconds to sink before commencing a slow strip/stop style retrieve. If a fish was present it would not take many casts to get it aroused and the odd big boil of water or gold flash deep below the stern of the boat was an indication of a fish keen to play and within a cast or two it would be on.
Playing the fish in the confined areas we worked - take a look at the photo - was always virtually a two-handed job with the tuna reel's drag set to near lock-up point because if a fish scored 3-4m of line it would often make it to a snag and wrap the line around a branch with great speed. Not once did we retrieve a snagged line with a barra still attached. Most times, the fly was gone too.
I found these fish a tremendous challenge on the fly rod given their strength, determination and surprising turn of speed. The instant a fish hooked-up it had to be controlled and, to be frank, I found it tough going. As a scrawny old bloke with hardly any muscle tone (for years I thought that manual labour was the name of a Spanish bull fighter) the only way I could keep some semblance of control during these knockout bouts was to keep the rod butt locked in against my chest and use the rod strictly as a lever with only the tip section bending to any great degree. The fighting butt on the ten weight G.Loomis Cross Current rod and the rod's huge reserves of power were a blessing and although my chest hurt a bit at times I did not end up bruised!
We all found the rod-butt-on-chest tactic to be the winning one. If the rod arm moved out away from the chest during the first few seconds of a fight the fish could then exert so much leverage that Denise and I, in particular, would then be very lucky to regain control. Scotty is a strong young bloke and his efforts on the rod were an exercise in determination and quick thinking, although we did see one massive snag bound fish straighten a 4/0 Gamakatsu hook when he side strained the rod with both hands.
Now for the flies. Keith Day advised me that the main food items in Teemburra Dam were spangled perch and bony bream so the flies I tied roughly resembled Lefty's Deceivers although large Pink Things also took a few fish. All flies were tied on 4/0 Gamakatsu SL125 Big Game hooks which are tuna-strong. I employed a barred-tail (six feathers) in the tails of the Deceiver style flies plus lashings of gold or green up front to give plenty of movement, plus flash, to the forward areas of the flies.
Can a fly outfish a lure? It's hard to say, but know this… very few jumping barra were able to shake the fly loose given it's small mass. We lost most fish simply because we could not control them around snags, the reel handle hit a shirtsleeve, the fly line burnt fingers badly etc, etc. The list is endless. Adrenalin pumping stuff, all of it!
Teemburra barra are reported to be running to a metre in length and in the vicinity of 12kg+ in weight. Although we might have hooked fish of that size on a couple of occasions, the hook-up was over so quickly that we just did not see the fish at all. That notwithstanding, my view is that if a team of city slickers totally unfamiliar with these great fish, and their habitat, can take enough fish to leave everyone very satisfied then so can any other keen fly angler.
First you'll need a Stocked Impoundment Permit. A boat is a necessity in Teemburra Dam - as is the case in other barra-stocked dams where the fish live in heavy cover - and our small tinny proved ideal. Take plenty of flies or make them up there, as I did. Additional useful gear included the trusty electric outboard and a battery charger, a set of gloves with which to grab a barra once it comes to the boat for a weigh in and lots of spare tippet material. A sounder provides great peace of mind in new waters.
We enjoyed tremendous hospitality from the folk at the Pinnacle Hotel. Meals were incredibly good and great value. Additionally, we enjoyed some great feeds of Teemburra barra cooked by staff there. Like most impoundment fish, the barra benefited from a day of refrigeration prior to cooking. Impoundment barra not good to eat? Or don't fight? Think again.
The Pinnacle Hotel - 9km from the dam - can be contacted on (07) 4958 5207. If you plan a trip, make sure to book well in advance or you could be disappointed.Reads: 563