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Northern Chopper Safaris

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The Kimberley, the Top End and Cape York have a number of locations where land-based fishing using helicopters is possible. There are always logistical challenges involved and choppers are very expensive, but the rewards of truly remote fishing can be unforgettable. Tim O’Reilly has some insights.

Our chopper touched down on a stretch of beach adjacent to a clear creek mouth, the pilot careful not to fly directly over the fishing hole at the front. A snaggy bank on the opposite side had water and baitfish filing past. Tarpon were rolling and a few prawns scattered from a muddy little drain just upstream a short distance from the bank. A giant, white-bellied sea eagle surveyed the scene from a dead tree close by.

The first lure touched down with a hefty splash and pop! Pop! Pop! A bow wave swum over to inspect the intruder and a large queenfish began tail walking across the pool, the lure flailing from its bony mouth.

A second lure was stopped after a few twitches and a yellowtailed silver flash boiled underneath. Moments slipped by before suddenly ‘boof!’ The lure imploded on the surface. First one dancing barra then two then three, before a couple of mangrove jacks showed up to the party.

These scenes typify a good day’s heli fishing when tide, conditions and hungry fish combine.

The first thing apparent from a chopper, missed from ground level, is just how vast the landscape and seascape are. Every second spent flying along the coast is a missed opportunity at fish seen scurrying below. Flying down shallow creeks and rivers gives ample opportunity to see places unreachable by boats – the home of rainforest, crocodiles, isolated fishing holes and impenetrable sand bars.

Throughout most of northern Australia, the least explored areas by fisherman remain the upstream reaches of creeks and rivers. Lagoons, swamps and billabongs hold some of the leastpressured fisheries. So much biomass exists beyond the reach of boats and 4WDs – places where poppers, fizzers, surface walkers and hungry fish have never met. Backwaters, where a plastic frog wound back at high speed might disappear forever, the powerful jaws of a red predator suddenly halting its retrieve.

Keen eyes are always on the lookout for permanent swamps and beach lagoons. Places where fish and bait has washed in at some stage and significant rains or cyclones will be needed for them to make it out again. These are often dark or murky waters and probably some of the most likely to hold crocodiles. Great care is needed not to become a bankside target for a hungry croc.

Casting surface lures into these foreboding pools is done with slow, intentional bloops of a popper, the sideways taptap- tap of a surface walker or the wind-tweak-pause of a fizzer. Barra can and will hit a lure right at the rod tip, so anticipation and steady hands are needed when the action happens. There are plenty of misses with this type of fishing, but the strikes alone are worth it.

The golden sheen of a freshwater barra or the yellow-tailed acrobatics of a saltwater fish are on display in these backwaters. It seems important to fish the isolated pools early and late in the day, where shade increases and the sun is not shining directly on the water’s surface. Putting in multiple casts in particularly likely spots is often required to get barra started and feeding, attracting other fish to the commotion.

Heading east of Darwin from Kakadu into Arnhem Land and then throughout the Gulf of Carpentaria, a pink-spotted and deeply bronzed fish is a favourite of heli fishers. Hiding in brackish waters, near-coastal lagoons and right into flooded billabongs, saratoga are a prehistoric link to past monsters.

Difficult to pursue, ’togas are a fantastic quarry, mainly due to their habitat. Places inaccessible both by boat and vehicle are usually those farthest upstream. Landing spots for a chopper are usually scarce, but can sometimes found in clear floodways. That first cast into the tail end of a secluded lagoon is always full of anticipation. Both barra and saratoga hate to see a free surface meal escape them.

Finding places where a rock bar is dividing sections of a river can be very productive while heli fishing. Baitfish congregate around these places as either the tide retreats or again starts to build. A change of tide often produces the hottest bite. The true pleasure of heli fishing involves staying if the fish are biting and leaving if they are not. A quiet day can sometimes be turned around in a short, inspirational bite. Being in the right spot as fish are transitioning is key.

These same rock bars and tiny causeways also separate freshwater pools from one another during the dry season. The downstream end of a pool especially will often hold examples of whatever predatory fish abound. Sooty grunter, saratoga, barramundi, tarpon and catfish are some of the more common. Most will be that little hungrier with isolation and warmer temperatures later in the dry.

Wherever possible, try not to leave fish to find fish.

Just like any fishing scenario, they are unlikely to bite everywhere all day. After an initial hot bite at any spot, the temptation can be to pack up and charge to the next spot. But if you really fish a location well, the numbers will add up and more consistency will be achieved.

As a guide on heli fish charters, the most challenging scenarios involve deciding on how long to give a location and when to leave a likely area on the fly-over. If you fished everything that looked good, you usually wouldn’t get very far. Sometimes this works. Sometimes you’ve gotta do the miles to get the smiles. It’s normally an ongoing discussion between the pilot and the guide for each location visited.

Only certain choppers are equipped with landing floats and the ability to fly distances over water. Visiting some of the remote islands and cays littered along the coast can be a spectacular addition to a heli trip if the pilot is able to land. Certain zoning, plus land and sea tenure will keep many places off the list, but the opportunities are there. Combining a swim with the chance to cast a line off a little stretch of paradise usually sticks in people’s minds.

Fishing these sorts of locations is best on a rising tide as fish transition in over the shallows. Whether it is sand, mud or reef flats, predators will come in and hunt shallow, especially in low light conditions. A range of trevally species and queenfish are often the targets in these scenarios, but a huge array of other possibilities exist. Giant herring, barracuda, coral trout, red bass, mangrove jack…it all depends on the stretch of coast and distance offshore.

So many fishing scenarios can be achieved with a chopper across the far north. But the greatest challenge is always landing and proximity to fishing spots. Anglers with a sense of adventure will have far more success than those who only fish within 50m of the chopper. A hand-held GPS is crucial and short walks to access remote pools, ponds and billabongs can really pay dividends. Fishing in pairs is advisable in these scenarios and tick-tacking along the bank until someone finds fish allows efforts to be quickly doubled. Remember, fish always attract other fish!

Discovering spots where floodplains, channels and drains bring plentiful food back into the main system has become famous in the Northern Territory as ‘The Runoff’. Thousands of likely spots combine with the end of the wet season to produce champagne fishing, usually where clean and murkier waters combine. Some coastal spots also work from around February through until May as saltmarshes and floodplains drain away, carrying baitfish and crustaceans with the flow.

A few scenic things really stick out when heli fishing. They normally come about traversing the coast and flying just high enough for safety.

The amount and diversity of stingray and shark activity is awe inspiring. Huge rays in groups of two and three are often patrolling the sand flats just offshore. Sometimes these groupings have GTs and queenies hanging off the back, and on occasion cobia. Landing the chopper and intercepting these roving packs is possible in calm, clear conditions.

Sadly, flying at this height also truly highlights the amount of shit littered along the coast. There is a scary biomass of plastic, bottles, lights, floats, thongs and various Asian haberdashery. It provides a very interesting focal point when traversing and pilots have always got an eye out for interesting stuff. Glass floats are getting hard to come across.

There’s a huge diversity and array of coastal headlands right across the north Australian coastline. Often shrouded in vine thicket, rainforest, mangrove or dense vegetation, these are some of the least visited places. Even boats find it challenging to access many headlands, so it leaves choppers with some fantastic land-based game opportunities. Mackerel, trevally, queenfish and a host of reef species exist across rocky headlands the coast over.

While heli fishing isn’t for everyone, travellers with plenty of money and not much time can find real value in it. I think every fisherman dreams of reaching farflung places in search of their quarry. This type of fishing requires experienced pilots, well-cared-for choppers and the right mix of cowboy and professionalism. Mustering pilots find their way into this style of flying, so strapping in with a healthy sense of adventure is a must.

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