By Brenton Mostert.
The first time I stepped foot in the crystal-clear waters of a far north Queensland jungle stream I was completely captivated by the pristine conditions, the dense rainforest and towering fig trees, the echoing sound of the birds singing up in the canopy, the constant flow of tepid water running over moss covered rocks and the anticipation of wild native jungle perch sitting in ambush waiting in cover for its prey to come floating down the rapids. From that day on the jungle perch had my interest and attention like no other species I had targeted previously and the hunt for that unicorn, that 50cm JP was on.
After traveling around Australia in 2011 I fell in love with the Far North Queensland coastline and settled in Cairns in 2013. Since that time I have spent a lot of time fishing, exploring, and learning about these fish and their habits and habitat.
Jungle perch once ranged from Cape York to Northern NSW but the steady decline in their population over the last 60 years has seen them almost completely disappear from the southern part of their range, mainly because of human interference and manmade structures that prevent these fish from making their annual wet season spawning run down into brackish waters. Although there are breading programs now in place to restock these fish back into some southern river systems jungle perch are rarely seen south of the Proserpine region. That said jungle perch are quite abundant from around the Daintree to Townsville regions. Although we have good healthy wild fish stocks in our northern regions and the Queensland recreational fishing size and bag limits state you may keep one fish up to 35cm. These fish are a very slow growing species and should be protected and released for future generations.
Jungle perch inhabit just about every creek and river system from Townsville to Cape Tribulation that will allow the fish to move freely throughout the entire system from the top of the freshwater to the salt or brackish water. From my experience I've found that you will often catch a lot more fish in the lower shallow freshwater sections of larger systems where you will also come across mangrove jack, sooty and khaki grunter and the odd small barramundi. Although you can still catch the odd large jungle perch, these areas often hold smaller JP's and will hang in small groups. It is not uncommon to see a pack of four or five JP chasing after a lure. These lower freshwater sections of creeks have quite significant differences from system to system for example some creeks will wind through relatively flat country and sugarcane paddocks and have very sandy bottoms where the water is incredibly clear and the grass often overhangs the creek edges creating cover. The visual strikes over these sandy bottoms can be spectacular.
Some creeks will be in dense rainforest and muddy or rocky banks with tight overhanging branches and often in places like this the water may not be as clear depending on the time of year. Most of these types of areas can be walked either up in or beside the water and in some deeper systems a small tinny or canoe is handy. Fishing these lower sections of creek can be quite productive and entertaining with more variety of species and its not uncommon to catch 20 or 30 fish in a day and in some cases well above that. When fishing lower sections of creek particularly in deeper darker sections it is very Important to be croc wise don’t ever make the mistake of thinking the big saltys are not in the fresh water because they are. But this doesn't mean you should be scared to go out and explore, it just means you should be aware and be smart around the water.
In my experience by far the best places to go and target large jungle perch is in the upper reaches of creeks. Jungle perch like to elevate themselves. Which means they will swim as far as they can upriver until a major waterfall stops them from getting any further in that system. Not always but in most cases, you can fish an entire river system or tributary and the biggest fish will be up in the top three or four pools. This for me is what makes jungle perch fishing so special because often these places are incredibly difficult to get to. Most FNQ creeks tail up into the Great Dividing Range with harsh terrain and thick rainforest. It involves a lot of walking up rapids, rocks and boulders and sometimes swimming across deeper pools or through gorges. There are generally no tracks, and unless you have a helicopter there is only one way in and out and that is to walk up the creek or through the scrub.
Obviously, some systems are longer than others and you may reach the final pools within a few km and others may take you a full day or even two or three days to walk. It is so important to keep track of time and remember how long it took you to get where you are and leave a good amount of time to get yourself back out before night fall because it is so easy to get that next bend syndrome where you just want to know what is around the next corner. Fish will often shoot up small side creeks and tributaries of the main creek, sometimes no wider than a meter. These are always worth walking up because they can sometimes still hold large fish and open up into large pools. Often when heading up into the range you will follow long sections of creek that are nothing but shallow rapids and fairly unfishable water, don’t let this deter you in almost every creek as you get hirer the creek will elevate then flatten out in sections leaving large pools which will hold good fish. Unlike the lower sections often there will only be one dominate fish in each pool that will own that pool.
A question I am often asked is how big does a waterfall have to be before a fish cannot get up it. Although there is not a great deal of solid information on jungle perch spawning it is believed that they shoot down to breed in the brackish water on the biggest rains of the wet season and all this happens over a couple of weeks and then they swim back up while the water level is still exceedingly high.
So basically, if you're standing at a small waterfall that you think maybe a fish couldn’t jump up, you would have to imagen where the water level would be during a big wet. Generally, if the fall is a large strait drop, they will not get past it but if the fall is cascading, a strong healthy fish will find a way. My simple rule is if you're unsure keep going. I have found some of my biggest perch past points I was unsure fish would be able to get too.
The best advice I can give someone who wants to go out and target jungle perch is to take a mate, pick a day, pick a creek, grab a rod and go explore you can't not learn something from doing this. It's as simple as that. For me walking up and exploring these jungle creeks gives me such a great sense of adventure and appreciation for nature, some of the things you see in the rainforest are just visually breathtaking. And in some places you get the feeling that you are the only person that has ever been there. Appreciate that moment because it's a truely special thing. Following these creeks up can be extremely harsh on your body and I would certainly not recommend it if you're not relatively fit and healthy.
How to Catch Them
The most productive way to target JP's is to cast small hard body subsurface lures, surface lures and soft plastics, anywhere in the range of 30 to 100mm. Fly fishing can also be quite productive, although they can be easily spooked by the fly line. Long leaders and good casts from be hide cover can be very effective and minimising your chances of spooking fish. Their diet consists of small crustations, yabbies, cherabin, frogs, cicadas, small lizards, spiders, march flies insects and small fish, and they have also been known to eat small berries and figs. I think when Jp's are hungry they will just about eat anything put in front of them.
I have witnessed moments where jungle perch will follow cows alongside a small creek and eat the grasshoppers as they are disturbed and jump into the water. Generally, jungle perch are an excellent predatory fish and will attack most lures with aggression and most of the time colour and lure choice is not important. But when the fish are a little shut down, I tend to try to match the hatch so to speak and use natural colors that they often see in their environment (e.g. if there is a march fly hatch or cicada hatch ill use black or green). If figs and berries are in fruit, I'll throw red, and my go-to lure when I'm struggling to get a bite is the spangle perch coloured Daiwa Presso Minnow. By far my favourite way to target JP's is using surface lures. Watching a solid JP charging down a surface lure in crystal clear water is incredible to watch and its very hard to beat. Most of the year I only fish surface apart from when I can clearly see that the fish are not committing. Often in the cooler months I'll start with a subsurface lure until the air temperature starts to heat up at around 10 am. You will often see fish following your surface lure out and darting back and fourth underneath it but not eating. I put that down to the fish not wanting to gulp cold air and often I'll switch up to subsurface and get the fish to commit.
Like most fish in flowing water jungle perch sit with their head facing up stream waiting for prey to come floating past. So it's always important to walk and cast up stream. If you're walking downstream you're simply not in the game, the fish will see you coming long before you get to them. You will more often than not find fish at the front of deeper pools closest to where current is flowing into them. JP's will always sit in a spot where it is easiest to for them to get food but also the closest point to cover where they can quickly hide from predators.
You always have to assume there is more than one fish in each pool and the dominant fish is in the best position. This is were being able to read the river and putting in a good cast is important in making sure you land your lure in the best spot because with jungle perch they will generally only have a crack at your lure once and once you catch one fish in a pool the others will spook. This can sometimes be the difference between catching a small fish or a 40cm + fish. Jungle perch fight quite well and will often try and head under rocks or down rapids and small waterfalls. Their first initial run after the strike is often the biggest and it's important to have a firm enough drag to get a good hook set but enough for them to make a decent run without busting you off. JP's will almost always eat the lure and turn instantly so they generally hook themselves and a hard strike is not really necessary.
There are a few things that you have to keep a good eye out for in the jungle one is obviously snakes. There are a lot of red bellied black snakes around these rivers particularly when you come across clearings with lots of sunlight in rocky areas. I see at least one snake every trip and sometimes three or four. Around the lower reaches particularly around sugarcane paddocks coastal tipans are a real threat, although uncommon, it is one of the world's most deadliest snakes.
The gympie gympie stinging tree is quite common around creeks especially around large clearings in the canopy that let a lot of sunlight in. The stinging tree will certainly ruin your day if you happen to brush past it. There are four species of stinging tree in Australia. It is important to do you research and know exactly what it looks like to avoid it. The sting can leave thousands of tiny glass like microscopic needles in your skin that inject a venom so potent It can last for months and can be excruciatingly painful.
If you ever get stung the worst thing you can do is rub the area because it will break off all the needles and leave them in your skin. I always carry wax strips to remove the needles, but this will not neutralize the pain as the peptide will remain in your skin, but it will decrease the duration of the pain if you manage to remove the majority of the needles. There really is a lot of things that could potentially go wrong doing long jungle walks so it is so important to always let someone know where you are going.
Rod: 2-5 kg rod is about as heavy as I will go and I'll most often use a 1-4 kg four-piece rod that I can break down and carry in a backpack. On longer trips I'll carry a spare rod for backup.
Reel: 2000 size spin reel. I tend to find that in the harsh terrain you're constantly falling over and dropping your gear so I would recommend not breaking the bank on your JP reels and just buying something that is mid-range in quality.
Line: 8 or 10 lb J-Braid. I have fished 4 and 6 lb in the past but I find it’s a bit light when fish are running over rocks and timber. The line is so fine these days I find you can still get a really good cast with 10lb.
The single most important thing I always take with me is a handheld EPIRB. A lot of the time I fish solo and could be many kilometers up a remote creek, if I break a leg or get bitten by a venomous snake up there I'm pretty much stuffed so I always make sure I am carrying an epirb. They are about $300 from BCF and worth every penny for peace of mind for you and your family.
A little first aid kit in a dry bag. Pressure bandage for snake bites, wound dressings, wax strips for stinging tree ect. Just enough to get you out of trouble but keep it light.
Optional a handheld GPS can be handy if you have made your way into a creek through the bush if you don’t time your return trip home it can be difficult to find your way out if it gets dark. Its also good to keep track of creeks that you have fished and want to re visit.
Small plastic lightweight torch or head lamp. Trust me it gets very dark under the canopy of the rainforest, and it is quite easy to get lost and disorientated.
A good pair of shoes with rock spikes. I am yet to find a really good pair that I like. Generally most boots will only get you three or four trips before they are stuffed. If you don’t want to spend the money, crocs are a fairly good allrounder. Ankle high neoprene socks work well to keep the sand out and protect your feet.
A water proof backpack or light weight dry bags inside you back pack, light weight braid scissors, flint, a sharp knife, pliers for removing barbs, split ring pliers and upgraded hooks essential, lip grips for those bigger pools with nowhere to land a fish, 12 lb fluorocarbon leader, and a good set of gators to protect your legs against stinging trees or snake bite.
If you have any questions about jungle perch fishing feel free to DM me on instagram at @el_baito_slayo
I really hope this helps you on your next JP mission Thank you for reading and good luck.