by Lee Brake
Over the last few weeks Lee has been sharing a few tips and tricks picked up while fishing with Eclipse FNQ Charters in Cape York. This week, he's back with a sure-fire barra technique that saw cricket-score catches most days.
Lee's best topwalker-caught fish of the trip: 71cm of Reidy's J-Walker crunching barra.
I've always loved surface lures, but after returning from Cape York and my week on Eclipse, I am now a quivering, salivating surface fishing addict. It all began on the second day of our adventure when we were lucky enough to have local resident and ex-guide Dave 'Lumpy' Milson fishing with the old man and me in one of the Eclipse's 5m custom plate tenders.
The tide was half out and the water had started exiting the mangroves in a big way. Dave had us looking for a 'working' drain, meaning one that was pumping water out into the main current and acting as a one-way exit ramp for bait leaving the safety of the mangrove canopy. Such drains are often marked by a ballooning patch of dirty water, but not always; sometimes it can be harder to tell.
Barra would often hit the topwalkers from below so hard that they'd get airborne!
The drain we were looking at was a large one that had no ballooning colour change and after a dozen unmolested casts we were about to move on. Dave saw something though, and it gave him pause. He pointed out a small patch of foamy bubbles on the water's surface and we could clearly see that the drain's flow was indeed taking the foam outwards. 'Let's stay and give it a few casts,' he said. 'That foam could well have been from a barra feeding under the surface.'
A topwalker double. Dave with his Mi Dog barra in the foreground and Graham Brake with a little rat on a Rapala Skitterwalk.
We weren't about to argue and so quickly positioned the boat so as to allow a wide angle of casts at the drain mouth. Dave tied on a Jonesy's Mi Dog topwalker. These small, hand-made, cigar-shaped lures dart back and forth across the surface like a pop-eye mullet, mudskipper or floundering baitfish – they attract attention from a wide area.
Our "mate" the croc with his first victim. Most times the barra were easy to keep clear of him, but this time one smashed the lure and jumped straight into those jaws!
The lure clip-clopped its way about a metre across the edge of the drain and... boof! It disappeared in a frothy spray of white water. The drain was working! From that point on, almost every cast got a follow, swirl, chop, boof or hook-up. It was pure piscatorial mayhem – and that was before the croc came out of the drain, attracted by the sound of chopping fish and clip-clopping lures. He ended up being a huge nuisance. He would not only chase down lures, but also two unlucky barra that jumped into his jaws and were never heard from again.
We quickly learnt a few lessons from watching the barra and listening to Lumpy. Firstly, a slow, consistent side-to-side action created by controlled downward twitches of the rod tip was better than a super erratic one; secondly, barra would hit the lure over and over, so it paid to work all the way back to the edge of the boat; and thirdly, that surface lures actually out-fish divers at times and are probably the best lure to use to see if fish are working in an area.
That one session easily saw one hundred fish hooked (not all landed) on surface lures and it set the theme for the week's falling tide periods. Drains became our number one fishing ground and the standout lures included Jonesy's Mi Dog, Rapala Skitter Walks, Reidy's J-Walkers and River 2 Sea Rovers. Most of these fish weren't huge; the average was probably around 50cm, but they were in chaotic numbers and were ravenous. Eventually, around half way through our trip, I managed a 71cm on a little Reidy's J-Walker prototype lure. It was an unpainted body that Colin from Reidy's had given me and I'd put a few strokes of Nikko pen on it – seems colour and looks matter little.
At the top of the tide, long-casting topwalkers over the flats is an ideal way to draw the attention of cruising predators like this massive, metre-plus queenfish.
Small, lightweight, graphite baitcaster rods are the weapons of choice for topwalkers when casting into drains. Braided line is a must, as it imparts each twitch of the rod tip into the lure (the stretch of mono will absorb much of this action). In saying that though, topwalkers are ideal for long-casting and probing the endless mangrove flats at high tide. Try using a 7' spin stick to rip these fish-finding lures way out in front of the boat as you sneak along with the electric. Queenfish, barra, salmon, trevally, mangrove jack and giant herring all love a topwalker and will come charging over to investigate.
It wasn't just barra that smashed the topwalkers. Droggy took this jack on a drain mouth later in the trip on a Tangodancer.
The best times to use topwalkers is either during low light periods – dawn and dusk – or around dirty water areas like drain mouths. Fish like barra will rarely cruise open, crystal clear water looking for a feed, and if they do, they will spook easily. Dirty water is the key, especially if there is a colour change that will act as an ambush point. Dawn and dusk sessions can also be red hot and that goes for freshwater as well as salt. Fishing billabongs, impoundments and freshwater streams at dawn with small topwalkers is the ideal way to catch saratoga, bass, sooty grunter, barra and jungle perch.
It's all amazing fun and the visual aspect of seeing that fish materialise behind a lure and unleash a deep chop or boof is about as thrilling as fishing gets. Try it some time.
Fish hard and stay safe.
For more information on fishing the Tip's remote rivers like we did, or to book a trip of your own, check out http://www.eclipsefnq.com.au/
Lee managed to capture some of the thrilling surface action on video. Check out Jonesy's Mi Dog dodging that cheeky croc and the race between two surface lures to see which returns to the boat safely.