A trip to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory just prior to Oz closing its borders to the outside world provided the opportunity to try something different, fly fishing wise. Research revealed that diamond scaled mullet could be caught from the shore and being a bit of a mullet buff I was keen to add another mullet species to the list. My mullet fishing in the U.K. relies on generic shrimp patterns tied on size 10 shrimp hooks to seduce mullet feeding in ankle deep water.

The situation in Darwin was somewhat different, mainly due to the presence of a nearby ‘feeding station’, where the public can pay to feed a variety of fish species with bread at the water’s edge. As a result, the local mullet population are very much switched on to bread and are happy to congregate offshore until feeding time. Interestingly, milkfish (a species at the very top of my wish list) are another species attracted by the free offerings!

Milkfish

Bread flies seemed the way to go and online discussions with Western Australian angler Gerhard Syste Vrijburg prior to my visit saw me amble through clawing heat and humidity towards the feeding station on the second morning, armed with local knowledge. I carried a 9wt outfit with 300 meters of backing on the reel, a loaf of Woolworth’s finest Wonder White and two bread flies kindly provided by Gerhard.

There is a ‘No Fishing’ zone each side of the feeding station to steer clear of and I chose the least treacherous descent to reach the water’s boulder strewn edge, avoiding a sheer cliff which would give even Bear Grylls palpitations. The water’s edge was as far as I was advised to go, in consideration of the local crocodile population.

Bread flies!

On arrival I glanced in to the turquoise water and thought that I could see a group of permit rushing around close to shore in 6 feet of water, then realised that the forked tails actually belonged to milkfish! Rapidly escalating excitement meant that I had to turn my back on the foraging fish while assembling the rod and hurriedly tying on a 20lb tapered fluorocarbon leader with a bread fly, before throwing a couple of slices of bread broken in to small pieces, literally five meters from shore. A few mullet came to feed, rather nervously, before the water erupted as the milkfish smashed the bread.

I missed the first three takes as a fish took the fly subsurface before releasing it. I was ready on the 4th cast! The line pulled tight rather like when a tarpon takes the fly. The fish shook its head and struggled furiously before taking off like a rocket, straight for a small mangrove bush some eighty meters distant in open water. The line caught the mangrove, which began to sway gently but the fish kept ploughing on for a further one hundred meters before the line went slack. The leader had snapped and the fly line was badly shredded. The mangrove stem was covered in barnacles!

Darwinian Sunset

Luckily I could still cast the short distance required to cover fish with my last bread fly. Another slice of Wonder White soon had them feeding in earnest again and a milkfish of around twelve pounds hammered the fly first cast. I had tightened the drag in an attempt to control the run on this occasion. All went well for the first 20m of brutal acceleration before the fish simply moved up a gear and snapped the leader. These fish are completely off the scale, like a strange mix of permit, bonefish and mullet.

If you think that permit are powerful then wait till you experience the first run from these silver beauties! Still shaking from the experience, I walked straight to the tackle shop by the hotel to enquire if they stocked bread flies on strong hooks. In fact, the shop went one better! Chris Hunt, a member of staff there, is a local fly fishing guide who specialises in milkfish. Thankfully Chris had a spare date the day before I was due to leave Darwin.

Murky estaury where many predators lurk

I met Chris at the boat ramp at 8.30am beneath an already scorching tropical sun and we were soon skipping across an aquamarine sea towards the first mark of the day. We dropped anchor at a known milkfish hotspot and while Chris set up the fish attracting bread trail we chatted about our recent trips to Cuba and Chris’s love of catching tarpon. Before long, a visible bulge in the surface signalled the approach of the days first customers some fifty meters away but these were diamond scaled mullet and although of a reasonable size, too small to swallow the # 2 tarpon hook which formed the bread fly. But the commotion created by the feeding mullet works in attracting any milkfish in the area. Still none came, despite prodigious amounts of Woolworths finest sandwich bread providing the carrot.

A large, waving brown back announced the arrival of a batfish amongst the mullet and Chris urged me to make a cast, because they ‘really go’! On six occasions I watched the fish swallow the fly but each time the strike came to nothing.

Sudden, vigorous splashing at the end of the bread trail had us both scanning the surface for the forked tails of milkfish but none were visible. The commotion drew closer and suddenly a golden trevally broke surface. I placed the bread fly a few feet from where it last rose and seconds later a silvery shape emerged from the blue to snatch the fly and I struck to meet solid resistance. Chris told me to bully the fish away from shore, where a host of snags lay in wait.

Nice Golden Trevally on the fly!

Sure enough, the GT ran hard for the rocks but the 9wt had the last say. I tried to reel in loose fly line but Chris advised me to play all fish encountered in this environment by hand if possible, to help in controlling their movements and frantic dashes. I steered the fish towards deep, snag free water and a few minutes later Chris tailed my first golden trevally.


The milkfish remained elusive but another, huge batfish came to dine at Chris’s table. I saw a large brown shape subsurface before it rose to the bread trail and covered it instantly. It rose from the depths once more and I watched it inhale the fly. This time I struck perfectly and felt solid weight before the fish turned to run for shore. Remembering Chris’ advice, I prepared to play the fish by hand but was completely unprepared for the incredible strength and speed of the Batfish.

It’s a long time since I last suffered line burn and Chris heard a few new ‘Pommy’ words as a result. The 9wt rod bent under incredible strain as I pressured the fish away from shore, fully aware that I was fishing 15lb tippet! The fish used its deep body to harness any available current and an arduous struggle was underway. By digging the butt into my stomach I managed to gradually wear the fish down(at the cost of a heavily bruised beer belly) and brought the fish alongside the boat for Chris to tail. At this point the fish turned its body and the hook pulled!

Shortly after, we heard a huge splash behind the boat. Chris asked if I had seen which type of fish was responsible and I replied no but I could see a patch of black water where the fish had broken surface. Chris informed me that a queenfish had just attacked a squid, hence the dark, inky water!

Queenfish

The tide emptied faster than an Aussie pint glass and despite the late arrival of a lone, huge milkfish who remained beyond casting range, our chance had gone. It was time to relocate to the mangrove channels in search of Australia’s iconic fish, the barramundi.


The mangrove channels are quite different to those of Cuba and form steep sided, muddy banks which fall away sharply from the mangroves, which sit high above the water as the tide falls. Baitfish find shelter in the strip of coloured water along the edge of the banks, where they hide from prowling barramundi. Chris dropped anchor between two small mud bars where baitfish visibly broke the surface. Further up channel we could hear evidence of barramundi smashing bait.

The sound was rather like two pieces of wood being struck together, created by the barramundi’s cavernous mouth opening to inhale small fish. A primeval sound in a primeval setting. Saltwater crocs were our constant companion and now was not a good time to fall overboard.

The splashing drew closer and Chris instructed me to cast tight to the bank and retrieve the baitfish pattern in short, slow strips. Once the fly left the band of muddy water, roughly six meters from the bank, it was time to recast.  This was blind fishing in coloured water with the emphasis on keeping the fly in the danger zone as much as possible, so involved quick, repetitive casting with a minimum of false casts.

A simple baitfish imitation is all thats required

After an hour of incessant casting in mind numbing heat, I suggested to Chris that fishing can surprise you at moments just like this, when your concentration starts to lapse and your belief begins to wane, that’s exactly when a fish can……BANG. Barramundi on!! The fish really thumped the fly and then jumped like a tarpon. In fact the whole fight was very tarponesque, with the necessity to drop the rod as the fish prepared to jump in its attempts to throw the hook. The fight was quite brutal in the confines of the mangrove channel but highly enjoyable. The barra measured 60cm, my first on fly.

Activity in the margins was ramping up and a few casts later the fly was mugged once more as a powerful fish led me a merry dance in the shrinking channel.  This time the assailant was a queenfish, another new species for me on the fly.

The tide soon bottomed out and the session drew to a hot and humid conclusion as we waved farewell to our audience of black kites, crocs, sea eagles and white breasted eagles. Chris is a top guide, Darwin is an incredible place and I will certainly return for some unfinished business with the milkfish!

Barramundi in the estuary
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