Pro fishing guide Tim O’Reilly takes a shallow dive into sight casting for wild barramundi.
The barramundi has been at the forefront of Australian sportfishing for decades. Lure and fly fisherman in particular love their aggressive nature and the ability to catch large specimens in shallow water. Barra have a tendency to stay at or near the surface as they drift with the tide or current, and they also sit high in the water column at times, making spotting them easier when anglers have the advantage of elevation.
For fisherman in a boat, on a riverbank or even a beach, sight casting for barra is one of the greatest spor t f ishing experiences on offer in northern Australia. It can take years of practice to consistently decipher the image of a barramundi in your surroundings. Once proficient and in the right circumstances, visual cast-andcaptures become a regular thing.
Inspiration for this article came from a great little session I had with clients, slowly idling into the current with the electric motor, picking off little barra under the mangrove line. The fish were easily visible in the clean green water, nose into a gentle current.
Finally, my two clients could understand the calls I had been making every day. Slow down…pause…pause…twitch, twitch, pause….BOOFA. Got him ooooonnnnn!
Casting had to be super accurate, as any casts falling behind or too far away from the fish were ignored.
The cleaner the water, the greater the sight-casting opportunities. Sighting barra cruising along a beach is near impossible without clean water. Finding beach cruisers normally involves fishing the top quarter of the tide, where clearer water laps against the shore and gutters or shallow rock provide ambush points. Early Autumn and late Spring tend to be the best times of year for finding barramundi out along the beaches.
Throughout northern Queensland, Cape York, the Northern Territory and some parts of the northern Kimberley coast, smaller tidal ranges allow for cleaner water, particularly around the neap tides or quarter-moon periods. Larger tidal flows associated with spring tides and areas with greater than 4m of tidal run can be tricky places to sight cast barramundi, in large part due to the level of sediment and tainted water clarity.
A keen eye should still be kept when fishing in slightly dirty or discoloured water as a yellow or dark barra tail will stand out against most backgrounds. Fisherman who are blindcasting can still be rewarded if they keep their eyes attuned and on the lookout for tell-tale signs. An example might include dirty water being flushed out of a tiny creek or drain with a dropping tide. A barra tail slowly undulating amid other debris, such as mangrove leaves and flotsam, is often enough to make a pinpoint cast just downstream and draw a strike.
Understanding how barramundi move is crucial to the artform of spotting them. They will regularly travel in groups and take up station at feeding points before moving again to find a comfortable hold. Quite often they will spread out to feed on the incoming tide and recongregate as the tide or current recedes. Although most moving barramundi will never be seen by anglers, opportunities usually present under favourable light and conditions.
Sight casting barra can work in pretty
average weather, however any kind of wind on the water’s surface renders the whole process almost pointless. Being lucky enough to find tailing fish might be the only exception. To actively sight cast barra, anglers will usually require warm, breezeless conditions, and will often hunt fish a long way upstream, in estuarine lakes, billabongs and lagoons – anywhere calmer water allows fish to comfortably sit at or near the surface.
Those easy-to-spot fish on the surface can be wary at times, often spooking or being fussy eaters. When right up on top, they are usually cruising or sunning themselves rather than feeding. If casting a surface presentation, make the cast long and in front of the fish. As the retrieve comes close, most barra will submerge before re-emerging directly under the lure. Slow down or dead stop it for a moment. Some of the best barra strikes come this way. A huge surface implosion on a stationary lure!
The image of a barra slightly underwater is very different from a fish right up on the surface. Sometimes it is the glimpse of an undulating yellow tail or simply a deepshape. These fish are usually a sucker for a surface lure or fly cast just ahead of them, as barramundi like to rise in the water column to feed. They will usually move around a metre or two before pouncing, using that huge suction-mouth to envelop prey.
As mentioned, it’s very important to have pauses and stops during a retrieve if sight casting barramundi. Any refusal should be followed up with another handful of casts. If there is one barra, there are usually more fish close by. Unless they feel the hook, a barra can often be annoyed into striking again. Repetition and persistence are needed when the fish can no longer be sighted.
Just as important as understanding where barra might be sighted is understanding where they won’t. Fish holding around rocks, reef and deeper structures are unlikely to rise to the surface. Fish holding in deeper, dirtier water are unlikely to be seen on top, nor if the surface water temperature is too high. However, when temperatures are high and current or tide is strong, loads of fish might drift and cruise near the surface. Accurate casting at cruising fish is crucial to success.
A huge proportion of sighted fish will be found on a shaded bank. Conversely, few fish will sit high in fully sunlit conditions. This eans lower sun angles often lead to bettersight-casting opportunities. The best times of day in my experience tend to be from around 8.00am to 11.00am and again from 3.00pm and 6.00pm. The smaller the system, the more this factor will play a part.
Fishing stealthily from the bank in the farthest reaches of remote creeks is my fishing nirvana. Usually places where you are just as likely to see a snake, spider, croc or a wild bull.
It might sound ridiculous to some readers, but listening for barramundi plays a huge part in sighting the fish. That distinctive ‘boof’; the sound of water and baitfish being imploded, can be sensed a long way off if hearing is attuned – being able to sense the direction of noise travel the instant it happens and focus on the spot with your eyes.
Another example is the distinctive underwater sound produced by a barramundi suddenly changing direction under the boat or expelling air from the swim bladder in a failed attempt at eating your lure. The best way to describe this sound is a ‘WHOOMPH!’ Keen barra fishers, especially those trying to sight cast fish, will seldom listen to music while fishing.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to score unbelievable conditions for barramundi sight fishing along the far northwest coast of the Cape. Barras were cruising along the beach in packs of similar size, happy to be outside the main river which was flowing fresh to the mouth. A huge number of tell-tale signs helped distinguish barramundi from other fish in the semi-clean water.
A mixture of yellow-tipped and deep brown tails could be made out with polaroid sunnies, slowly swimming a beat along the outside of a gutter around 30m from the beach. At times, only swirls could be made out, with characteristic oily-circular patterns forming just behind moving fish. Occasionally the forked tail of a threadfin salmon and the rounded tail of a barra chasing prawns and baitfish on the receding tide would cut through the knee-deep water.
Over a few mornings with both spinning rods and fly rods, we caught and dropped too many barra to count. Despite how plentiful the fish were, a few patterns to success were obvious. Spotting fish, visualising fish and understanding their movements was a huge part in catching them. Simply blind casting and staying in one spot was nowhere near as productive as actively walking and wading, casting at sighted fish.
Casting only at sighted fish might seem farfetched to many serious barra anglers, but if I am fishing by myself in the right conditions, I will often spend more time staring at the water then actually throwing casts. There is nothing worse than having your lure 20 metresaway when a big fan-tail slowly slips out of view in the other direction. Even some of the impoundment guys are getting good at sight casting giant barra in the right conditions on breezeless days around weed beds.
This is a seriously addictive form of fishing, and on those magical moments when it all comes together – conditions, clean water, steady or no current and hungry feeding fish – it is a recipe for rapture.
Next time you give barramundi fishing a go, consider spending more time moving slowly and trying to spot fish to cast at.
You just never know your luck!