Unlock the fishing potential of tropical creeks…
The light tackle sport fishing in some of the more remote creeks and estuaries around Australia’s Top End can be downright unbelievable. Fanatic anglers literally travel across the globe to wet a line in these pristine waterways.
We’ve all seen photos and footage of tremendous catches from up north. The way some of these places are presented, you could be forgiven for thinking you simply need to rock up, launch the tinnie and the fish will throw themselves at you.
The truth is that while epic fish catching sessions are absolutely on the cards for first time visitors to the Top End, you’d be well serviced to go in with a plan – and preferably plans B, C and D!
While instant gratification is not guaranteed, doing your research on any new spot you plan to fish, and doing your best to wrangle a little local knowledge, will go a long way towards making your first session an unforgettable one.
TIME AND TIDE
Get chatting to any local Top End fisho, and you’ll notice quickly that tides are a central component of life up north. A lunar clock by which all must abide.
The longer you spend in the tropics, the more in sync with tide phases you’ll find yourself. Not only can the swing of the tides predict when and where the bait and the fish might be at a particular moment, they define the waters you can fish and areas you can access.
Getting caught out by a quickly dropping tide and having to wait four hours in an open tinnie in the blistering Arnhem Land sun to get back to the boat ramp is not much fun…
The same applies after dark in bull shark and croc infested north Queensland estuaries, this I’ve learnt personally.
One of the primary ways of using the tides to your advantage when fishing tropical creeks is to use them to pinpoint concentrations of baitfish. Find the bait, and the predators won’t be far off.
In any creek or tributary that opens up into a bay or directly to the ocean, the resident mullet, garfish and prawns will be flushed from upstream on a falling tide.
Predators including big queenfish, barramundi, GTs, golden, tealeaf, gold spot and diamond trevally will often congregate en masse around the creek mouth to gorge on the conveyor belt of prey.
During the last hour or two of a big run out tide, bait concentrations are at their highest in the creek’s lower reaches. Locate some of the deeper holes where predators wait in ambush, and you can tap into unbelievable feeding frenzies.
On a recent trip to the Gulf coast of Cape York, the above tactic was employed with great success around the mouth of an unassuming little tributary that’s generally bypassed by local fishos for richer grounds further afield.
In one standout session, we beached the tinnie just by the entrance to the creek ninety minutes before the bottom of the tide and cast feather jigs and soft plastics into a deep hole just a few metres from shore.
In an hour and a half of blistering action we lost count after at least a dozen double hookups and releasing well over 40 fish. Mangrove jack, six species of trevally and some solid queenfish over the metre mark were crashing lures as soon as they hit the water.
As soon as the tidal flow faltered, the bait dissipated and the fish moved on like they were never there.
A lot of southern fishos head north with a specific ‘glamour’ target species like barramundi or mangrove jack in mind.
It’s absolutely worth putting in the effort to figure out and catch your target species, but learning to cast a wider net can save otherwise slow sessions or turn good trips great.
The level of biodiversity in these tropical estuarine ecosystems is pretty phenomenal. While similar waterways in more southerly latitudes might only support a handful of predator species, many tropical systems will support dozens of different species of fish, all filling similar niches and competing for the same resources.
Just because the mangrove jack or barra might be difficult to locate on a given day, doesn’t mean that the fingermark, threadfin salmon, estuary cod, golden trevally or mud crabs won’t be willing to play ball.
It’s worth having a couple of different rods rigged with different lure types, and if you’re fishing with others, switching presentations and trying different techniques until something works is the way to go.
FIND THE STRUCTURE, FIND THE FISH
Even in tropical systems teeming with life, it can be easy to waste time hammering fruitless patches of river if you don’t know the lay of the land.
Any tidbits of local info that can be gleaned at the campground, tackle shop or boat ramp are worth chasing up in order to find a starting point. If you end up going in blind, it’s time to put your fishing knowledge to the test.
As in any waterway, areas of structure will likely hold more fish than otherwise barren stretches of water over a uniform sandy or muddy bottom. Riverside rockbars likely extend beneath the water and are an obvious starting point.
Fallen timber, overhanging snags and mangroves are all worthy of a few casts, as are bridge pylons, jetties or any sort of reefy structure that could ostensibly provide cover for baitfish to hide in or predators to lay in wait.
If hard structure is difficult to come by, even minor inconsistencies like the drop offs along the edges of sand banks or mud flats can be a start. The outer edges of bends in the creek will likely be scoured out by heavy flows and can offer deeper holes for predators to wait in ambush.
If you’ve got a sounder on your boat it will be your most useful tool for tracking down promising subsurface terrain. If not, visual cues and trial and error will get you where you need to go.
Slow trolling a couple of different diving minnows behind the boat is a surefire way to boost your catch rate while scoping out any new waterway.
A shallow diving minnow like a Bomber or Reidy’s B52, ran alongside a deeper living option like a Flatz Rat, allows you to prospect most of the water column while moving about and looking for clues.
It’s an active way of sussing out an unknown system and a really effective way of covering a lot of water and locating areas that are holding fish.
You’ll want to keep an eye on your depth sounder and ideally run a deeper diving minnow that swims close to the depth of the water you’re in, as well as a shallow running option either on the surface or midwater.
Once you find some likely looking terrain or start getting some hits, you can either continue trolling or switch to casting lures or even setting live baits.
There’s dozens of techniques that will work to catch fish in tropical creeks and estuaries around the Top End, but when hitting the water to fish a new spot for the first time, it’s hard to go past the effectiveness of trolling a spread of proven lures to track down fish and zone in on the action.