Down Under, King of Jungle Is a Barramundi : The Marlin Is Better Known, but This Gamefish Is the Most Popular One in Australia

Times Staff Writer

John Cross pulled his four-wheel-drive vehicle up to the ferry crossing, parked, and turned off the engine. He pointed to a large steel sign, posted about 15 feet from the edge of the Daintree.

"Beware of crocodiles," the sign said.

"When you see those signs on rivers in northern Australia, it usually means good barramundi fishing," said Cross, laughing. Cross and his brother, Barry, are Cairns-based light-tackle fishing guides, and were setting up for a short barramundi fishing outing on the Daintree, which flows from the wet highlands of Australia's Cape York Peninsula into the Coral Sea.

Barramundi, a combative, broad-shouldered cousin of the snook, is a jungle-rainforest river fish that grows to 60 pounds. In Australia, when a light-tackle fisherman talks about the king of the jungle, he's talking about barramundi.

But they only need to reach a third of that size to deliver a reasonable imitation of an underwater freight train, powerful enough to turn a light-tackle fishermen into a heavy-tackle fisherman.

"A lot of American freshwater bass fishermen come over here, thinking fishing for barramundi is pretty much like fishing for bass, but it's not," Cross said, unhitching the river skiff from his trailer.

"Barramundi fishing is precision casting. You need to put that lure just a couple of inches from the mangroves. Barramundi are pretty lazy. They'll hang in there on a mangrove root at a river's edge all day if they have to, waiting for something they can eat to drift by."

Several vehicles were in line at the ramp, waiting for the ferry boat, which was across the river, taking on cars. Two shirtless men in Australian bush hats sat in a pickup truck, with four Irish wolfhounds in the truck bed. The dogs, excited, barked happily. The two men were bow hunters.

"We're goin' pig huntin'," one said. "There's lots of feral pigs in the flats over there, across the river, and in the foothills. That's what these dogs like more than anything else, finding and chasing pigs."

The Daintree. Near its mouth, where the Cross brothers were rigging up two skiffs, it's a huge river, Mississippi-like in breadth and color. As is the case with dozens of other major rivers that drain the dense rain forests of the 500-mile-long York Peninsula, in Australia's northeast corner, the Daintree is home to Australia's most popular game fish.

"A lot of fishing visitors think marlin when they come to Australia, but barramundi is by far Australia's most popular game fish," John Cross said. "For one thing, marlin fishing is pretty expensive. For barramundi, all you need is a small boat, a good casting rod and lots of extra casting lures."

Besides being admired for its fighting qualities, the barramundi is considered unbeatable table fare, too. It's difficult to find a seafood restaurant anywhere in the country without barramundi on the menu, either barbecued as steaks or served as fillets, under spicy sauces.

Barramundi are found in nearly all of Australia's tropical rivers. It's a catadromous fish, maturing in fresh water and moving toward saltier water with the onset of southern hemisphere rainy seasons, to spawn in mud flats and estuary mouths.

The Japanese call barramundi akame, which means red eyes. The fish's eyes glow red at night and reflect red in sunlight. Barramundi have a weapon in addition to strength when they're fooled by a light-tackle fisherman's minnow or frog-imitation lure. Barramundi have sharp-edged gill plates, and can easily cut through fishing lines, as well as nets.

The Cairns-based Cross brothers were taking three Sydney doctors, who were attending a medical convention at nearby Port Douglas, on a half-day barramundi outing. As the old auto ferry chugged across the river, the Cross brothers' two aluminum skiffs--Aussies call them tinnies--embarked upstream, toward a hoped-for encounter with a big, angry barra, as Aussies call them.

The three Sydney doctors began casting plugs and lures at the mangrove roots at the water's edge--and spent much of their time trying to free their tangled lines from tree limbs.

"You need to put that lure within six inches of the tree," Barry Cross repeated, finally yanking a line free. "A foot away isn't good enough. They won't come out from the roots and chase anything. These fish have never had to work for anything to eat in their lives. There's lots for them to eat in these rivers."

Finally, after a dozen or so casts, one of the doctors made a connection with a barramundi. It was small to medium and thrashed wildly on the surface at first, then made lateral runs up and down the river bank, looking for shelter in a mangrove root, but was pulled away. The fish then sought deeper water and began battling under the skiff.

After a spirited five-minute fight, the five- to six-pound fish was unhooked and released.

The Cross brothers headed upstream another mile or two, passing a bend. Pointing at the waters of the sharp bend, Barry Cross told a gruesome tale.

"Four years ago, some woman made the mistake of going swimming here in the middle of the night," he said. "She got out to the middle of the river, and a big salty (saltwater crocodile) ate her," he said. "Took all of her but a few scraps. It was bloody awful.

"The Queensland wildlife officers came the next day, found the salty, and killed it. It was a 14-footer. That upset some people. Their feeling was anyone swimming in a river like this at night shouldn't be surprised to come up against a big salty."

Cross pointed out that crocodiles are another reason barramundi rarely leave the cover of mangrove roots. A tour boat filled with Japanese tourists came by. The passengers eagerly scanned the shores, looking for a riverbank crocodile to photograph. Cross motioned for the fishermen to stop casting while the tour boat's wake lapped at the shore.

"When a boat wake stirs the mangroves, forget about casting," he said. "The barras think it's from a salty going by. Your best chances are on flat water."

Cross also mentioned a key rule to observe when fishing Queensland's rivers: Do not go ashore.

"They (crocodiles) can show up from any direction, and you can't outrun them," he said. "And if you ever see a big pile of salt grass and dirt in the spring, look out. That's a salty's nest."

In mid-afternoon, the Daintree River seemed to teem with life. Two gray herons flew by overhead. Green parrot-like birds shrieked in tall cottonwood trees, set back off the river bank, behind the mangroves.

A school of small mullet splashed about in mid-river, under assault from an unseen enemy below. And above, a white-breasted sea eagle circled, studying the mullet and a school of two- to four-pound milkfish, a carp-like species, that swam slowly downstream, with the current.

Cross pointed to a large, dark mass near the top of a mangrove.

"That thing is a bush wasp nest," he said. "Very bad news. If those things get after you, you'd have to jump in the river."

But what about the salties? he was asked.

He shrugged, as if to indicate bush wasps could mean an even worse death.

An afternoon wind had put a small chop on the Daintree, and blown loose pale yellow flowers from the cottonwoods. On the river, they became a yellow, moving carpet.

The Daintree isn't a true jungle river. Agricultural development came to the area, about 70 miles north of Cairns, decades ago. In fact, the mangrove-cottownwood growth on both shores was only a facade, left long ago for appearance's sake. Cane fields were only a stone's throw away, beyond the trees.

Not far up the coast, however, a chain of wild, genuine rain forest rivers begins.

The Daintree is a taste, though, a taste of Queensland's rain forest rivers, and their promise of big fish, in seldom-fished waters.

The paved highway running north of Cairns on the coast of Queensland begins to fade away at the Daintree. From there, motorists are warned to take life support systems. It's three-days of 12-hour driving days, and many barramundi-laden rivers, they say, to Australia's northern tip, Cape York.

You'll never know what you'll catch in a Queensland river.

"Hey, what's this little guy doing in here?" Cross asked.

He'd thrown a lure at a favorite group of mangroves and been hit by what he thought was a small barramundi. Instead, it was a little barracuda--caught roughly 10 miles from where the river empties into the Coral Sea, a few miles south of Cape Tribulation.

"We see little ones in here every so often," Cross said. "They probably come up to chase mullet or something.

"It's only been in the last few years that we've discovered we have permit in some of these Queensland rivers," he added.

Permit are silvery, high-backed gamesters found in shallow Florida waters. Members of the jack family, permit are famed for their ferocity.

"We're not sure how to catch them yet," Cross said. "I guess we need some Florida fishermen to come down and show us. We do know they eat freshwater mussels in the rivers."

The doctors, who caught and released about half a dozen small barramundi, were soon back at the ferry crossing, and on their way back to Port Douglas.

"Well," said one, "we didn't set the world on fire with our fishing prowess, but I guess we should be happy we didn't encounter any angry salties, either."

" . . . or the bush wasps," said another.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°