How to fish tropical creeks and rivers.

The lurid natural palette of the Cape York coastline must be seen to be believed.

A lot of anglers that head north to fish the rivers and creeks of the Top End for the first time seem to set themselves up with unrealistic expectations.

This isn’t because the fishing up there isn’t spectacular, it often is, but just because you’re in the tropics the fish won’t necessarily jump into your boat of their own accord.

It’s necessary to go in with a plan and a tactical approach, and many fishos are often shocked just how effective the gear and techniques they use back home are when applied to our northern sport fish.

Our Top End creeks are some of the best places in the world to go fishing. Many of these waterways are teeming with life and it’s not out of the question to head out and catch a dozen or more different species in a single session.

Oftentimes, southern anglers head north with a bad case of tunnel vision, focussing all of their energy on targeting iconic species like barramundi and mangrove jack.

These fish are a ton o’ fun on the end of a line, but don’t forget about the packs of hungry queenfish and giant herring, tarpon, estuary cod and the dozens of trevally species that are pushing each other out of the way to gulp down your lure.



The NT’s remote, pristine river systems are home to some of the healthiest barra stocks on earth.

In much the same way as the mulloway or jewfish is considered the top dog in the estuaries around the southern half of the country, the barramundi fills a similar niche up north.

This revered sport fish is wily and tough, and landing a decent specimen from a wild creek or river is no mean feat.

Decent barra fight hard and spectacularly and are pretty good on the plate too, so it’s certainly worth having a crack at landing one if you find yourself in the right place at the right time.

Almost as renowned as the barra is the mangrove jack. These rusty-flanked warriors are found in warm water creeks and estuaries from northern New South Wales all the way up to the Territory and sure put up a hell of a fight.

True to their name, jacks are generally found hanging tight the mangrove-lined banks of creeks and rivers, but can be tempted away from their snags with precision cast lures and wriggling live baits.


Mangrove jack are one of the most prized targets in tropical creeks and estuaries – every decent sized jack is a great capture!

The queenfish is one of the most prevalent species in many northern waterways, and marauding packs of small to mid-sized queenies can often be found patrolling the sandy flats near the mouths of Top End creeks.

Queenfish are usually all too happy to nail a trolled diver, soft plastic or metal slug, and have saved the day for plenty of anglers on slow days when other species didn’t want to play.

Tarpon and giant herring would have to be two of the fastest swimming fish around, and they’re often found side by side in the same creeks and rivers.

These tropical speedsters don’t grow very large, but they more than make up for their diminutive size with the stunning pace at which they can hit your lure and melt line from your spool.

You’ll often see both species harassing schools of baitfish in the shallows, and if you can manage to fire off an accurate cast into the midst of their feeding frenzy, you could be in for a helluva fight.

There’s got to be a dozen or more species of trevally that frequent our top End creeks and estuaries, and they’re all usually up for a tussle.

Giant, golden, diamond, big eye, blue spot, tea leaf and brassy trevally often hunt in packs around sandy drop offs and rock bars, and are all willing to nail a lure or bait flicked in their general direction.

The great thing about trevally is the size of their family tree – I reckon I’ve caught at least one new species for each fishing trip to the Top End.



A feisty barra meets the net in a last ditch attempt at freedom.

While the total biomass of a tropical estuary is likely larger than a similarly sized southern waterway, and the action can at times seem much more consistent, a lot of things work just the same as they do down south.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, remember that a lot of higher order predators like barramundi and mangrove jacks like to ambush their prey from the cover of a snag or rock wall.

On hot, sunny days, predators will often hide out in the shadows formed by overhanging banks, trees or mangrove clusters. Focus your casts tightly around this sort of structure when targeting these species.

Other species like trevally and queenfish are happier to hunt in open water away from a river’s banks. These species can often be found harassing schools of baitfish around sandy drop offs and near the mouths of waterways.


Queenfish are a Top End classic and tangling with these feisty speedsters on light tackle is a huge rush.

A great way to scout out some action when not much appears to be going on is to slow troll a couple of lures in order to find the fish. A couple of mid-sized diving minnows trolled alongside the banks of a creek is a great way to try to elicit a strike from any predators you may happen upon.

It’s a good idea to have two rods on hand per angler so that each fisho can have a trolling outfit set up as well as another casting outfit ready to go should feeding fish present themselves on the surface.



Medium weight spinning tackle is plenty strong enough to tangle with the majority of tropical estuary dwellers – you’ll want to beef up your gear when targeting larger barramundi and mangrove jack.

A short, stiff overhead rod around 5’6”-6’6″ in length, matched to a baitcaster reel spooled with 30lb braid is a great all rounder combo for use in tropical creeks and estuaries.

This sort of setup is perfect for accurately casting lightweight lures at snags and doubles as an awesome lightweight trolling outfit.

It’s a great idea to have a second, longer spin rod around 7’ in length matched to a medium threadline reel loaded with 15 or 20lb braid for distance casting.

A setup like this is perfect for casting soft plastics or small metal slices long distances – just what you need when a school of queenies or tarpon pops up on the surface harassing baitfish on the other side of the river.

When casting lures tight amongst the snags, it’s a good idea to go reasonably heavy when rigging up. I like to use 30lb mainline matched to a rod’s length of 40lb fluorocarbon.

Occasionally you’ll hook an unstoppable barra that will bust you off on this sort of gear, and if this happens more than once it’s probably time to pick up a 50lb outfit and beef up your leaders with some 60 or 80lb fluoro.

I prefer to fish lighter with my soft plastic rod, as this outfit is generally used to target cleaner fighting surface fish like queenies and tarpon. 15 or 20lb mainline is more than enough, and a rod’s length of 20lb fluorocarbon should provide all the abrasion resistance you need.

Fishing a Top End creek is about as much fun as you can have in a boat. These waterways are some of the prettiest spots you could hope to wile away an afternoon, and the action is often red hot.

It’s well within the reach of even the most mediocre angler to boat a whole heap of new species and to bring home a haul of tasty fillets to boot, so next time you make it up to the tropics, be sure to bring the fishing gear and factor in a couple of sessions.


Keep a keen eye out for the snapping handbags when patrolling the banks of tropical waterways.


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