Every year in the darkest depths of winter, my old man packs up his camping car and heads a thousand kilometres north of Brisbane to the Burdekin Shire, a region just shy of Townsville in north Queensland.
This may be the sugar capital of Australia and a bird-watcher's paradise, but Dad doesn't go for the scenery. His mission is to catch up with his first-generation Italo-Aussie mate and hit the Barrattas, a legendary estuarine waterway that yields good sized barras (“barramundi” in everyday language) and succulent mud crabs.
The northern fish-off has been an annual pilgrimage for Dad since 1990 when he and Mum tossed in their jobs, packed up the van and took the grey nomad road north, stopping at Home Hill to catch up with their friends. They tried fishing in the Barrattas and got hooked.
The Barrattas, Morriseys and Haughton are creek systems that form part of the Bowling Green Bay (BGB) wetland complex and are full of fish species like barra, estuary cod, brim, grunta, whiting, mangrove jacks, and crabs.
While most recreational fisherman prefer the Haughton for its closer proximity to Townsville and its yellow no-go zone for the pros, Dad and his mate reckon the Barrattas are the best.
“When the 'barra are on, the pros come in for the chase,” Mo says. “Sometimes there are 40 boats in the river, other times there are only five or six. Still it's good fishing and I always come back with something.”
The trick according to locals is to fish under lurking trees or to troll the edges of the creek.
“A lot of locals fish the tides and know when the fish are coming in. They fish where trees are falling over. If they don't catch anything in five minutes, they pick up sticks and go to another spot.”
The maze of sand islands and tiny creeks, some with sharp snag-filled bends are confusing and Mo warns first timers against going out alone, especially as the water line can drop seven feet in a matter of hours.
“You could fish the Barrattas for a month and you still wouldn't know all the spots,” Mo says.
“Anyone who goes needs to have local knowledge. If you don't know the place you can get into a bit of strife.
“My mate has been fishing there for 40 years and could drive around blind folded. Still the tide dropped fast one time and caught us out. We were chewing up sand on the run home. You gotta know the area.”
The keen fisher duo use a cast net for bait, picking up spotty mullet or herring, prawns and squid.
“You can buy bait, but most of the time, we throw the cast net out and catch our own. Some people pump yabbies on the creek bank near the jetty.
“Don't worry about the crocs, you are up on a bank and pretty safe.”
A back water it may be, but the Barrattas has first-class facilities for launching and retrieving boats. After about 15 km of dirt road there's an excellent double concrete boat ramp to back the boat down. And two boats can go in at once.
So how is the fishing after the summer rain? According to Mo, the fish may have decreased slightly, but the crabs were plenty in the winter of 2014 and on his first day, he netted more than a kilogram of prawns.
“The prawns were meant to be for bait, but ended up on the dinner plate.”
The next day the pair = landed nearly 50 Barra, most around 10 to 12 kilograms each.
Crab is always on the menu too and last year Mo put out four pots and came back after a few hours of fishing with eight legal sized buck crabs.
“There are a lot of buck crabs crawling around. When the crabs are on, you can just about fling them into the boat.”
Based around the twin towns of Ayr and Home Hill, the Burdekin district is hailed for its friendly residents, great specialty stores and laidback lifestyle. With access to beach fishing, reef fishing and the winding estuaries, it also has one of the highest rates of boat ownership per capita in Australia.
Some of the best spots to access the estuary are:
Burdekin River – Great fishing and crabbing in the saltwater section of the river, access gained by Rita Island Road and Sandhills Road.
Haughton River – Good fishing near the ramp or the mouth. To get to the ramp, head to Giru, 32km North of Ayr and travel through the town, over the railway line and follow the line to the turn off to the ramp.
Barrattas – Turn off the Bruce Highway about 20km north of Ayr. Good fishing off the ramp before the mouth.
Plantation Creek – 13km from Ayr. Ideal for whiting, bream and flathead. There's a floating pontoon at the boat ramp.
Hell Hole Creek - located 20km out of Ayr, is a popular spot to land barramundi, grunter and mangrove jack. It's a short, tidal creek which gives boaties access to the mouth of the Burdekin River. The creek is mostly shallow, with one big 26 foot deep hole towards the mouth. There are about 20 fishing huts in the area for weekenders and a double concrete boat ramp used by hut owners and day trippers.
On an average weekend, there would be six to 10 trailers at the boat ramp. Over Christmas, Easter and long weekends, about 30 trailers will be parked there.
This sleepy little village at the mouth of the Burdekin River , 17km from Home Hill, is renowned for fishing, crabbing and laidback charm and the local caravan park is popular with southerners on their winter pilgrimage north. As well as barramundi, Groper Creek is home to mangrove jack, salmon, flathead, whiting and many other estuary species.
Word Count: 980
Author: Shelley Winkel
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