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Posted 22th March 2024

How to Catch Saltwater Barramundi: a beginner’s guide

How to Catch Saltwater Barramundi: a beginner’s guide
How to Catch Saltwater Barramundi: a beginner’s guide

By Robert Thornton 

No Australian sportfish has a following quite like the barramundi. These powerful fish, with their wily hunting habits, huge growth potential and tendency to jump high when hooked have earned themselves a place in Aussie fishing folklore.

While large specimens can be caught from stocked impoundments, it’s in their natural habitat that they are arguably at their best. These humid and mangrove-rich environments are home to many species, but barra take top spot in many fishing brains.

Learning the area-specific habits of these wild fish so you can catch them consistently takes years and even decades of time on the water. That said, wrapping your head around some of their more general traits will give you a good start. If you want to learn how to catch saltwater barra, especially around pressured fisheries near cities, you need to do your research. This blog will hopefully give you a jump start on that journey, as there is just so much to learn. So, whether you’re looking to catch a barra from the concrete-strewn canals on the Gold Coast or the spectacular rivers in the Kimberly wilderness, let’s dive in!

Totally wild

Barramundi have a rich history in this country, with their name being an anglicisation of a word from an Aboriginal language of the Rockhampton district meaning ‘large-scaled fish’. To some original custodians they are a totemic animal, however for most otrhers their flesh is an important food source and their bones and scales useful for making tools, jewellery and possibly even weapons. To European settlers they also provided a reliable food source, however it’s in recreational angling that they gained their contemporary following.

Barramundi can and do inhabit a range of environments across the northern half of Australia’s coastline, including landlocked freshwater lagoons, small tidal creeks, large estuaries and bays, beaches and headlands, and even open ocean at times! Most adult barramundi, however, spend much of their time moving between estuaries, river mouths and headlands, where there is an abundance of food and at least a small fresh component to the water’s salinity. With that said, it is thought that some barramundi populations have become established where little or no freshwater is present in the area.

A fast-growing species, barra have been recorded to over 1.5m, though most wild-caught fish average around 60-80cm. It’s also around this size that barramundi change sex from male to female, with most wild specimens over 80cm tending to be female.

During the build-up to the monsoon, usually sometime in November or December, mature males will migrate to downstream towards rivers mouths where larger females spend much of their time. Once spawning has occurred the newly hatched fry swim upriver, utilising any floodwaters to access freshwater lagoons, billabongs or oxbow lakes.

Once these freshwater bodies are cut-off from the main system in the dry season, the youngsters can enjoy relative safety and an abundance of ‘baby food’ like insects, tiny shrimps, small fish, frogs and so on. Juveniles may spend a few years in these ‘nurseries’, but once they reach a mature size of around 40-50cm, they too get the urge to migrate downstream and the cycle goes on.

Where are the barra?

Finding these fish in any given estuary is never easy, however there are rules that most barra seem to adhere to. Someone who knows this well is Daiwa Australia’s very own Jack Mitchell, who lives in the Mackay area.

Jack has spent countless hours in his local estuaries, and while he acknowledges that there are many factors that influence where they will be, he usually only focuses on a few key things.

“I like to find clean water,” Jack explains, “I’ve found that they like to school up in clean water, and any holes with clean water very often hold schooling barra.”

Like many across northern Australia Jack’s local estuaries are relatively turbid as a result of large tides. An interesting point to note is that barramundi in clearer systems (usually further south) are known to seek out more turbid water.

In any case, schooling fish will always be easier to find using a sounder, ideally with forward-facing or side-scan sonar technology, though it can also be done without a sounder if you know what you’re looking for.

“After that I like to find things like nearby pressure points and drop-offs,” he goes on, “little areas that will create bite windows at certain stages of the tide.”

The aim is to identify areas where the barra can rest or feed, depending on the stage of the tide. Once barra find an area where they can do these two things at their convenience they’ll stay put for months at times.

“At the moment [late summer] with all the fresh, creeks are pretty dirty,” he explains, “so I like to move out along the coast and even around the islands to find cleaner water.”

“Big dirty water lines are what you want, and I find that fish like to sit on them and feed.”

As the year goes on and the dry season takes a hold, the creeks and rivers will start to clean up. While many larger females will continue to live and feed toward the mouths and headlands, the bulk of the population will tend to move back into the rivers and creeks.

“I like to look for the three deepest sections of a creek during winter,” Jack says, “it’s in these areas that you’ll tend to find schooled barra in winter.”

“As we come out of winter – just before closure –  that’s probably best time to chase them,” he says, “the water’s still clean, most fish are still in the creeks, we get smaller tides, and I just find that’s the best time to chase them.”

“They can be fussy fish, but that’s where I start,” he adds.

Catching barra

One of the most appealing things about these fish is how receptive they are to a range of techniques, but that doesn’t make them an easy fish to catch by any means. A good understanding of different presentations, as well as where and when they work best is key when learning how to catch barra. Let’s first look at bait fishing!

Salties on bait

Bait fishing for barra is a tried-and-true method, and most of the time live bait is preferred for this highly predatory species.

In the wild barramundi have adapted to dine on many freshwater, estuarine and marine organisms, so the best bait will always be something that occurs naturally in the immediate area.

In the estuaries, bays and around headlands, common estuary forage will be your best baits. Prawns, mullet, whiting, gar and herring are the staples for bait soakers in the estuaries where around 90% of bait fishing for barra occurs. In areas closer to the freshwater yabbies, cherabin and live freshwater fish (where legal) are a better option, whereas out on the beaches and closer to the ocean live squid and even small reef fish (again, where legal) can outshine more traditional livies.

A simple running sinker rig is sufficient for barra, with a single 3/0-6/0 size suicide, octopus, live bait or circle style hook. You’ll only want  enough weight to hold it in the current, and a monofilament or fluorocarbon trace of at least 40lb. Saltiga X-Link is an excellent hard-wearing trace material when live baiting for barramundi.

Sending a livey between 60-120mm into an area holding barra will often draw interest and provided you can find an area like the ones mentioned above, you’ll be in with a very good chance of nailing one of these icons.

 

Salties on lures

Targeting these fish with lures is where they get their status as a premier sportfish, and Jack has his lure fishing down to a science. Barra will eat all sorts of things, but there are a couple that most barra nuts won’t leave home without. Jack is no different in that regard.

“At the start of season [February] I go for prawn imitations,” he explains, “a lot of the time that’s a lure I’ll start with anyway, as it’s nice and subtle, it’s not going to spook or irritate them too much, there’s no noise and it’s nice and natural.”

“With prawn imitations I’m almost always working them with a slow roll.”

If prawn soft plastics aren’t working, Jack changes his tact a little to lures with more presence, shine and rattle.

“I’ll go between a jerkbait like the Current Master DR or EXDR [extra-deep running] and a paddle-tail plastic like the Bait Junkie Minnow in 4.2 or 6.2,” he explains.

“I’ll sometimes go up to a 9” paddle-tail if I’m chasing really big fish!”

These are Jack’s main weapons for salties, however some anglers find success using soft vibes like the Steez Soft Shell 90, especially if they are sitting deep or near the bottom. Others (including Jack) also like to use topwater presentations, with a weedless rigged Kikker Curly ideal for snaggy terrain, and a Slippery Dog 97 perfect for imitating a prawn fleeing danger on the surface in more open areas.

“If I’m just having a leisure fish my favourite technique is to target headlands and flats with topwater lures,” Jack says, “It’s sometimes possible to sight cast these fish as well.”

With most of these presentations Jack like to run a baitcaster set-up, as this style if fishing is all about being able to feel exactly what’s happening on the end of your line. The direct contact you can get with a decent baitcaster reel is why many barra anglers prefer these machines.

“For general barra fishing I like a rod around 7ft in length,” he says, “not too long for jerk baiting, but it’s also got that bit of length where you can throw a plastic further.”

“For more specific stuff, my jerkbaiting rod is usually around 6’6”,” he goes on, “so I can aggressively jerk the rod and not have it slap water constantly.”

“My ideal prawn or paddle-tail rod is something around 7’6” – great for casting but not too long that it’s hard to use in tighter structure,” he explains.

Longer rods are also excellent for setting hooks when running weedless plastics, as the angler has more leverage than with a shorter rod. 

“I go for a baitcaster with a 6.3:1 gear ratio,” Jack explains, “and I normally run 20lb braid and a 50lb fluorocarbon leader as a minimum.”

“The new Saltiga X-Link has been great,” he continues, “I’ve been throwing 60lb in the dams and haven’t had it fail yet, but in salt you need to go harder on them, so I generally step up to 70lb.”

Jack tends to run Tatula rods and reels for his barramundi fishing, with a Tatula 200 reel ideal for a range of applications. The Tatula rod range is very comprehensive, but following Jack’s logic, the 661MHFB medium-heavy model is an excellent allrounder for any beginner barra anglers, and well within most peoples’ price range.

Why so salty?

There are so many reasons to add a saltwater barra to your bucket list, as while they’re an awesome sporting proposition in stocked lakes, there’s just something about wild fish that needs to be experienced.

“On average I’d say salties fight harder [than dam fish],” Jack says, “I’ve definitely had dam fish go super hard, but I guess salties have a harder life, constantly moving around and fighting the current – they have to be more active.”

When you consider the predators that these fish have to dodge in their daily life, such as sharks, crocodiles and even bigger barra, it’s no surprise that these wily fish have adapted to become somewhat tougher than their lake-dwelling counterparts.

Recent technological advancements in tackle and electronics coupled with greater protection for these iconic sportfish means there’s no better time than right now to see what all the fuss is about! It might not be easy at first, but when you finally have that silver slab lying exhausted in the landing net beside the boat, you’ll understand why some anglers dedicate so many hours to these wonderful fish.

 

 

 

 

           

           

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