Sampan Sunday – that’s what they are calling it, the day that at least 30 meterys were landed at the mouth of the flooded Mary River in the NT. This Barra bonanza happened on the neap tides when the clearer waters allow barra to see lures. From then on Shady Camp became a frenzy of boat traffic on a scale we’d never heard of. There were videos getting around of four year olds wrangling meterys while their dads lost their sh!t in excitement. A common comment was that the atmosphere between fishos that day was on a new level of comradery. Those lucky enough to be there knew they were witnessing something special.
This was only possible because a few weeks before the NT Government had lifted the seasonal closure for the Mary River that had been in place for 30 years. With the commercial barra nets removed from Chambers Bay the theory was that amateurs wouldn’t have an impact on the population of this iconic river system.
The next set of neap tides saw at least 100 trailers in the carpark and around 80 of those boats joined an aluminium conga line at Sampan, which along with Tommycut, is one of the two mouths of the Mary River. That many boats in the one place creates a spectacle. There were big fish caught but the stats were low compared to Sampan Sunday.
My partner Lena declared that after three years of fishing, it was her turn to catch a metery and with that mission in mind we locked in the next set of neaps and set our sights on finding a Shady Lady. Then the trip nearly didn’t happen. Late Friday arvo both Lena and our mate Tim who was joining us had to pull out. The boat was packed, the fridge was full of food and I was already on my way to the ramp. It was 8pm and I was contemplating the logistics of a solo mission but I still had an option. Danny is a fellow fishing tragic and regular aboard our floating campsite. I called practically begging him to be my decky. It was late notice but he was selfless enough to grab his rods and meet me at the Humpty Doo Tavern at 11pm. Not a good meeting spot on a Friday night… When I rolled into the carpark I found him getting harassed by drunk bogans describing their fishing prowess ` yeah I dropped a metery in that culvert behind the tavern ya c–t’.
With Danny safely in the car the fishing trip had officially begun. Now begins the story of how a chicken and leek pie produced one of my most memorable fishing experiences and broke the boats’ PB for biggest fish onboard.
By 1am we had reached the `ramp’ and I used the headlights of the ute to spot crocs and mudbanks. This area is well known for having one of the highest croc densities in the world and it’s the location for a doco that David Attenborough made on these modern dinosaurs. So when it came time to launch I was looking at any option to stay out of the black water. There’s no concrete or even gravel anywhere to be seen at this ramp. It’s just a matter of following the wheel tracks of the brave soldiers that have gone before and hoping there’s enough water to dodge the odd boulder that’s hiding in the current. It was shallow so I reversed way back into the murky flow and had to slam the brakes on to give the boat a nudge off the rollers.
As I ambled down to the waters’ edge Danny was yelling `quick get in the boat’. He had the spotlight trained on a 3m croc that had taken interest in us and it was moving in for a closer look. There was no way Danny could get the boat close enough to shore for me to avoid making a run for it through the knee deep water. If I held back the croc would have been closer and I would have lost my nerve. I went for it and it was like moses walking on water. The adrenaline had me feeling 16 again as I launched onto the bow of the boat and into safety while my 32 year old leg muscles strained. Those same muscles decided to remind me in the morning that I’m actually not a gymnast.
The plan was to get to the ocean and escape the mozzies so I switched on my new LED lightbar and lit up the river with 14000 lumens of white light. Even on a pitch black night I can still feel comfortable doing 40km/hr with this bit of boat bling on board. We passed some boats camping at Sampan which is about 35km from the ramp, and headed out into the ocean. Out there the lights were useless so I was relying on the GPS to take us to the jewie reef just a few k’s offshore.
Now we come back to the Chicken Pie. This was supposed to be a barra trip, so we didn’t pack any bait and throwing lures after such a journey was never going to happen. We decided to try for a catfish that we could fillet for jewie snacks and while rummaging through the fridge seeking a makeshift bait I found the pies that Lena had made for our adventure. We had breakfast pies with egg, bacon and smoked salmon and a couple of creamy chicken and leek pies to choose from. I wasn’t going to sacrifice smoked salmon for anything so the chicken pie was cracked open and a small bit of chicken was used to bait my whiting hook. This was a failure because the cooked chicken fell off and the pastry wouldn’t hold on the hook either. Frustrated and beaten, it was time to call it a night.
The next morning Danny awoke to the sound of a catfish grunting away. I’d had success! This one fell for a tiny piece of leek from the pie that I had gently threaded onto my hook. I knocked a couple of fillets off the cattie and it was game on. First up I landed a pretty respectable blue salmon, then a snapper and an even bigger salmon. The pressure was off, we were taking home a feed and the sun was only just up.
Low tide was at 9am so we made our way over to Tommycut for some barra trolling on the first push of the incoming tide. We weren’t alone and around 30 other boats had the same idea. The mouth and channel leading out of Tommycut are no more than 300m wide and this is where most fishos concentrate their efforts. It’s a constant stream of boat bling, big sounders and horsepower. There’s fashion too. I’m not just talking about the lurid long sleave shirts, or UV shielding terrorist style headwear, it also extends to lure selection. Big green Bombers seem to reign supreme at Shady.
Most boats troll with three lines and some were running three bombers. It’s all about confidence in the lure I guess, and after watching a girl in a nearby boat land a 103cm barra while using this tactic we were always running at least one bomber. We got hits but couldn’t stay connected, trolling can be demoralising at times. We gave up when the tide started pushing dirty water up into the river and headed back to the jewie reef. That was when the fun really began!!
It wasn’t as if the fishing was hot. We were using the GPS spot lock on the electric motor to move around the reef and drop our baits into areas where the sounder looked good. We actually changed position six times until we found the fish. There is no way we would have bothered to work such a large area of reef if there was an anchor involved. On this occasion I declared that I was going to put us in an area that didn’t look fishy and try some reverse psychology on the jewies. It worked. My bait was the first down and didn’t take long to take off for the horizon. The fish came up high to start with which had me calling it as a shark. Then the big, deep runs began and the tailbeats transferred through my little barra outfit while I thumbed the spool to keep what little line I had left. By now I was confident it was a jewie and the tug of war dragged us off position when the spot lock finally gave up. We’d travelled a few hundred meters by the time I got the fish into the boat. My arms were stretched and I struggled to lift her up for a photo. It was 103cm and a good solid black jewie of around 10kg.
Danny was getting twitchy so I followed our track up to the lucky spot. I was hoping for a bit of a rest but the bastard hooked up almost instantly. What happened next was more like marlin fishing and resulted in the biggest fish I’ve had in the boat.
Here’s Danny’s story of how it happened…
First of all, I should give a bit of historical context to the story that’s about to be spun. Dan is a great mate and long time fishing partner, but whenever I head out with him and his partner Lena, I am almost always painfully outfished. Those two are a dynamic duo when it comes to getting reels screaming and boats next to them frustrated. So as per usual, I was having a dog of a trip and Dan seemed to be hooking up every 5 minutes. Normally you could conveniently blame the equipment or the lure selection, but this time we were sharing a trolling rod and taking in turns who would be in control of the rod on each pass. We were both too stuffed to be imparting any action to lures, and just had them in the rod holder doing the fast trolling thing. Somehow, as soon as Dan had control of the rod the barra knew it was time to pay some attention and have a go. Unfortunately he couldn’t get any to stay connected.
Then Dan pulled up the 103 Jewie and I was thinking, “here we go again, time for Dan to rub my nose in it!”. But my mind quickly turned back to the hunt and I issued my request. “Get us back on the spot Dan!” So back we went, down went the electric motor and I dropped my leek-pie-eating catfish fillet down to the depths. Thirty seconds later my very undersized G Loomis barra stick with 30lb braid loaded up and started screaming off towards Timor. At this point I was getting a bit concerned about the line capacity of my Curado, because whatever was on the other end wasn’t stopping to take a breath.
My first guess was that this was a maxi-sized lemon shark, a pretty common catch around these parts. There were no head shakes, no big tail beats, so my excitement levels where pretty low at this point. I looked down at my emptying spool and saw I was already into my backing and getting a bit stressed about losing 50 bucks of braid, so I told Dan that it was time to start chasing whatever was towing us.
Up came the electric motor and the chase was on. But this thing just didn’t want to stop. I cranked the drag up to sunset and proceed to really put the pressure on. I figured I’d got enough line back, and was convinced at this point that it was a shark, so I wasn’t too concerned about it snapping off. I really couldn’t believe the bend in my poor rod. Barra rod’s just aren’t meant to look like that! Finally I felt like the behemoth was coming up, which was good because my arms were starting to feel like a few kgs of gelatine had been pumped into them.
Then we saw it! flanks of glimmering silver. And what flanks they were. I’ve caught a lot of sizeable jewies, but what we saw coming to the surface made us both instantly lose our s*#t. I was giggling like a little school girl, screaming “It’s a jewie! It’s a (expletive) JEWIE!” I knew that if I boated this fish it would be my biggest.
Now this is the point in the fight that a lot of big fish are lost. Anglers lose their cool and do stupid things. I was desperately trying to avoid these stupid things and just play it cool. Then the fish lunged straight under the boat practically pulling me in the water after it. My braid touched the edge of the hull and miraculously didn’t break! I thrust my rod into the water under the boat and managed to turn its head back towards me out of danger. There was five more minutes of chasing the big jewie around every side of the boat before Dan expertly gaffed in one shot, and then tried to lift it…and couldn’t. This was a two man fish! My arms were like jelly after the fight and I couldn’t hold onto it for any more than a couple of snaps. It measured 129cms and weighed in the vicinity of 30kgs.
From a gram of leek to 40 kilos of fish, in terms of trading up the food chain, we couldn’t have done much better. Definitely one for the legendary fishing trips scrapbook!
Thanks For reading!
Dan Firth and Danny Saunders. July 2015