When people talk about fishing the estuaries in the top end of Australia, there are two species at the forefront of the conversation; barramundi and mangrove jacks. Well known for their explosive displays of power, ferocious strikes and impressive sizes, these two species are eagerly sought after by local and travelling anglers alike. The lure of big chrome silver flanks and lightning fast red flashes keep fishos coming back time and time again. The best part about targeting these two mangrove maulers is they live more or less shoulder to shoulder!
While specifically targeting barra and mangrove jacks does require a bit of preparation and planning, it’s not as hard as many anglers make out. Regardless of whether you’re land-based or have access to a boat, fishos of all skill levels have the opportunity to get their arms stretched by some northern brawlers. To help fine-tune your approach, here’s a few tips to point you in the right direction.
While being referred to as ‘northern species’ both barra and jacks have quite large distribution zones. For jacks, this range extends all the way down to the Victorian border on the east coast and for barra, down to the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane. While these southern boundaries do produce fish on occasions, their numbers are nowhere near as prolific as the northern extremities. In fact, due to their preference for inhabiting warm waters, the further north you travel, the higher the concentrations of fish. So, if you’re keen to give them a proper trip, head as far north as possible!
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Whether it be naturally occurring or man-made, these two species are very much structure oriented. Not only do they use it to hide out of the current and from predators, the structure often attracts baitfish and other tasty morsels for the barra and jacks to ambush. With that in mind, angling efforts should be focused towards fishing these areas of structure and to put the bait or lure right on their noses.
From the man-made side of things, rock walls, boat ramps, pontoons, bridges, pylons, jetties, wharves and wrecks are all ideal fish holding structure. Many of which will be accessible and fishable without the need for a boat. The more naturally occurring structures like snags, rockbars, ledges, deep holes and eddies usually require the use of a boat to get to, but can produce great catches of fish once you find where they are hanging.
In either scenario, look for areas that are holding bait, and are exposed to tidal currents as both species use the current to help them ambush prey as it is swept past. Keep in mind, barra and jacks will often be sitting very close to, if not inside the structure, so be prepared to fish your presentation as close as possible.
Given the unforgiving habitat these species live in, outfits need to be well and truly up to the task of putting the brakes on a fish heading for home. It’s for that reason many anglers opt for baitcaster setups, which gives them the option to ‘thumb lock’ the reel to add extra pressure during critical stages of the fight. While they can be a little tricky to master at first, they’re a lot more accurate when it comes to pinpoint casting precision, which is ideal for getting lures and baits deep into the strike zone.
Baitcasters in the 200 size class spooled with 30-50lb braid, matched with a 6-10kg baitcast rod should be ample stopping power to handle most encounters. But don’t be surprised if you still cop a beating from time to time! Leader strength can vary a lot depending on the severity of the structure being fished, though 40-60lb is a good starting point. If you’re getting busted off a lot, continue to increase the leader size until you catch the culprit!
Both barra and jacks are very much predatory species and as such respond better to livebaits than any other bait. Livebaits such as mullet, garfish, herring and prawns are top of the menu. With Qld’s relaxed netting laws, livebaits can be collected quickly and efficiently with a cast net and then transported to the fishing spot. The healthier and livelier your bait, the better your results, so ensure you keep your hard-earned livies in good condition.
The rig for fishing the livebaits is quite simple, just fish with a single or snelled hook rig, 50-80cm trace, a swivel and running ball sinker. Alternatively, livies can be fished under a float. In either case, hook size will depend on the size and species of bait, but will generally be around the 2/0-5/0 mark. Mangrove jacks will sometimes respond to a dead bait, but to maximise your chances at either species, livebaits are definitely the go.
Lure fishing for these two species is an exciting and active way of attracting a hookup. Because of their predatory instincts, both barra and jacks find it very difficult to resist a well-presented lure worked past their noses. Lure presentations can come in a variety of different forms, including hard bodies and soft plastics, as well as surface and subsurface lures. In any instance, lures in the 70-120mm range, in a baitfish or prawn style imitation will generally get eaten. Some popular options being the Zerek live Shrimp, Zman 5in SwimmerZ, Zman Diesel Minnow, Lucky Craft Pointer, Smith Cherry Blood and Lucky Craft G-Splash. Aside from the soft plastics, it’s advised to upgrade terminal tackle (hooks and split rings) before heading out. Both species are renowned for finding weaknesses in gear and winning their freedom.
Lure retrieves can vary from twitchy and erratic, all the way to a slow and steady slow roll. It really does depend on the mood of the fish. Constantly changing up your retrieve until you start to produce results is a great way of finding out what’s working on the day. As a general rule, don’t be in a hurry to move your lure out of the strike zone too quickly, keep it up there and in their faces for as long as possible.
Here’s the fun part, after you get everything right and find yourself connected to an angry barra or jack, it’s time to really put your foot down and keep them away from the snags. Most fights are won or epically lost in the first 10 seconds, so be prepared to use all your angling prowess to keep that fish from running you back into the nasty stuff. Before you cast, make sure you have checked your knots and tightened up your drag, you may only get one shot before they bust you off!
Barramundi and mangrove jacks are iconic Australian species that thrive in North Queensland’s coastal estuaries. Being formidable targets on rod and reel only adds to the attraction of reeling in one of these beasts. As with any fishing in North Queensland waters, keep your wits about you and stay safe, there are plenty of nasties up there that can ruin your day. Good luck and tight lines – hope you nail a few!
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