It was no wonder then that at a recent Saturday afternoon gathering of mates at the Keppel Bay Sailing Club (KBSC), the conversation soon got around to fishing. In particular the most recent bout of poor weather, with strong winds and rain, along with the opening of the 2019 barra season the previous day.
Those gathered were hard-nosed, regular fishers, of many years experience. Most were of recreational pursuits only, but two were from a background of former commercial net fishing, who would regularly boast, “we are better fishermen now, here in the comfort of the club, than we ever were out amongst the mud, mozzies and mangroves.” The rest of us agreed with a - “that’s bloody-well right!”
The stories were the same amongst this motley crew. I added my bit, informing them in the first instance that, “I didn’t catch a bloody fish on opening day!” And added, more to the point that, “I didn’t even get a hit!” There was mock concern all around. With some even offering to buy me another beer, just to – “drown my sorrows”. A roar of laughter erupted. Then the jibes started in earnest.
“I thought you looked a bit sunburnt, Bill. Spend a bit of time in the sun did we?” More laughter.
“I noticed your long face, Bill, when you walked in. I thought that it was because you needed a hair cut to raise your ears.” Said another. More raucous laughter. Good to be amongst mates!
Then the serious questions as the boys got down to forensically assess the situation of weather and lack of caught fish. For I was not the only one to do poorly.
There is a lot that goes into the catching of a fish. This “lot” includes such things as tides, phases of the moon, seasonal changes, weather conditions such as wind, rain and temperature and barometric pressure amongst other things. The list goes on. To be a regular, successful fisher, it is important to understand such issues. To understand, not only how the fish act and move under normal conditions, when the phases are stable, but further, how the fish act and move when these conditions are abjectly affected and changing rapidly. Flooding and strong winds are two such factors that cause these effects. Both were relevant on opening day, 2019, here on the Capricorn Coast.
All of these points were thrown on the table at the club. Much was known, and proven, fact. Other was anecdotal. All was explanatory! And it was interesting to note the differing opinions expressed by the line fishers as to that of the former net boys, when discussing the prime fishing tides of each. Those opinions could be summed up by saying, “a fish won’t be caught in a net unless it’s moving.” And that goes for both – the fish, and/or, the net! On the other side of the fishing ledger, “a fleeting target, is a hard target unless it can be ambushed!” Both opinions come down to tides and conditions, and how each group target their intended catch!
Tides and Phases of the Moon
The tides of the 1st February 2019 were, what are commonly referred to by fishers as, “mid-phase tides”.That is to say, they occurred on one of those days between the four phases of the Moon – New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon and Last Quarter. It must be recognised by anglers that these phase terms refer to the “position of the Moon” in its 29 day (approx.) lunar cycle around the earth. The easiest way to remember them and know what the tides are doing as far as making or, dropping off, as we commonly refer, is that a “quarter moon phase” will appear in the sky as a “Half Moon”. This is because the moon is at 90 degrees to our position and is in half shadow of Earth –a rule of thumb to go by, Half Moon on the right when looking South, First Quarter, Half Moon on the left, Last Quarter. The neap tides; that is, those tides with a high “Low” and a low “High”, resulting in minimal tidal range variation, occur on the quarter moon phases. This is due to the fact that the gravitational forces of the Sun and Moon are acting against one another, spreading the surface tension of the fluid ocean more evenly.
In the case of the opening day of the barra season, the tides of the 1st February 2019 fell mid-way between the Last Quarter phase of the January Full Moon and the New Moon phase of the 5thFebruary. Simply put in fishing terms, “making tides, four days after the neaps, leading up to the New Moon”. From a recreational fishers perspective, these can be very productive tides, especially in an offshore environment. However, they can be very difficult tides to fish when targeting the creeks, rivers and estuaries. The reason; they are the tides that start the major movement of water leading up to the spring tides. With the result, they flood hard, ebb even harder, concentrate the fish, and offer a very short “bite time”. Those that understand this and know how to work with such conditions will be successful
But it takes a lot of effort and often years of experience fishing the one area to become familiar with the effects of tidal movement. There are very few who can get a place “wired” in one day, even if they have available all the latest technology. Barra love these tides. But there are caveats!
During the neap tide period, fish are lethargic. And for very good reason - water movement is at a minimum. Gravitational pull is at a minimum, and natural atmospheric conditions of wind, rain, humidity and even temperature are generally stable. Life is seemingly good for fish like the barra. During these times they can often be seen just idly finning away beside some form of cover, or casually cruising along under the shade offered by an overhanging mangrove, or cotton wood tree, before gliding away into the shadows to rest. They are often frustratingly hard to catch under these conditions. But they have to eat. The question is – when?
At the other end of the scale (no pun intended!!) the baitfish, normally hunted by the barramundi, are seemingly oblivious to even the existence of the barra, let alone their proximity. Baitfish can be seen spread out across the mudflats, scattered amongst the small rills and sand drifts still flooded by the “high” low tide, or hanging idly behind scant cover scattered along a deeper channel – sometimes even in the company of predators such as barramundi! Life is also good for the baitfish. But all that quickly changes as the tides begin to build and the movement of water increases.
Fish feel the increase in gravitational pull. They also feel the pressure of the increase in water flow and any increase in atmospheric pressure that generally occurs around this phase of the moon. And they act accordingly. They are forced to be active, and with this extra activity, they feed. For the lure, or bait fisher, the first and second tides after the neaps are the tides to target. The fish begin to school up and move, stopping along the way at feeding stations. The length of time that they spend at each station (ambush site) is dependent on the strength of the tidal flow and how rapidly the water is rising, or falling. On these first two tides after the neaps, there is generally enough time for the angler to work out and target the ambush points. For most fishers, the 1st February tides were two tides too late!
As the tides increase to the mid-phase, fish, especially barra, will move extensively throughout the creeks, rivers, or estuary, and even bays. Studies, through the electronic monitoring of micro chipped tagged fish, show that barra will move as much as 18km, one way, on these making mid-phase tides. Then return along almost the same path, to the same aggregation point, on the ebb tide - a round trip of some 36kms. And they feed along the way. For the rec fisher tossing a lure, or presenting a frisky live bait, it is a case of being in the right place at the right time, or suffer the possibility/probably of missing out. And the right place is as important as the right time. To labour this point.
This tidal fish movement can be as dramatic, as it is, extensive. I have seen barra move into a Gulf of Carpentaria creek on a making mid- phase tide and it sounded like a war zone. And it was, if you were in the water. There were literally thousands of fish “boofing” and “crashing” into schools of baitfish and prawns that were scattering (even onto the banks) in all directions to avoid the carnage. And then in turn, they, the barramundi predators, were being grabbed and eaten by ravaging crocodiles. No place for the weak! It was not hard to catch a fish!
But this movement can also be less dramatic and less extensive.
Barra will often take up residence in a section, or sections, of a creek, river, estuary or bay, as the tides begin to build to the mid-phase cycle. They find an area that provides good bait aggregations, feeding stations and resting stations, right throughout the tidal range. Here they will sit out a tidal phase (multiple tides between moon phase), gathering only at those points which give them the advantage to ambush their prey at prime times according to water movement. Once in these areas, the movement within any given tide might only be a few metres, or it might be a hundred metres. It is usually gentle movement with the fish just “appearing” (although they have been in the area all the time), less visual (except when a fish smashes a baitfish from the surface) and very specific (prime feeding time).
To be successful, the intending angler needs to work out those sections of the creek, river, estuary, or bay that are holding fish (there will be several in any given system). Then find out at what stage of the tide the barra are feeding. It is also important to note, not only when these bite times occur, but also, where they occur along which section of creek/river where the fish are holding, as there will be a slight variations due to such things as, water depth, available cover, the movement and aggregation of baitfish/prawns and even direction of wind.
These are what I call “stable phases”. When they occur, they are predictable and over time, can be learnt, so as to provide good fishing and consistent results. They are the conditions that are driven by nature and the principles that drive them are applicable in every facet of our fishing. As stated earlier in this article – “understanding them is the first step to understanding how fish will move and act when these stable phases are abjectly affected and changing rapidly”.
Abject Changes - Floods
Flooding in a system is both a blessing and a curse for the angler, especially for those chasing barramundi. Floods upset the pattern of the normal, stable conditions. They force the barra to find places within the flooded areas that will provide initial stability, protection and food. To find such places they must move. They become an easy target for the commercial net fisher at these times and a difficult moving target for the line fisher – bait and lure alike. But it is not all bad news.
Barra will find their attractants in these flooded conditions. Some fish, previously land-locked, will move to those more saline areas at the mouths of major estuaries, or around headlands adjacent to bays and estuaries and undertake a spawning if conditions and numbers are about right. The floodwaters fill coastal saline swamps and wetlands that, in turn, become nursery areas for the barramundi fry. Others will begin to move back upstream taking up positions that are favourable as conditions change. It is a time of rapid movement of fish, and the angler needs to change their tactics as these conditions change. It is also a time of replenishment.
Barra will move with the initial flush. The floods of late January, early February 2013 in the Fitzroy River demonstrated this when the fish, growing big and fat, upstream of the Rocky Barrage, moved downstream with the floodwaters. More than 40 tonnes of fish were taken in commercial nets during that initial run. The hopes of most line fishers went with the flow. But the fish didn’t necessarily leave the river, or the Fitzroy Delta.
Barra will stabilise. By that I mean - they find conditions amongst the floodwaters that suit. Barra can survive in both fresh and salt water. However, they need an adjustment period when transferring from fresh to salt, and vice versa. Barra will find a section of stream where they can make this adjustment and feel comfortable. They will remain there a while, before moving on. The length of time in any one area, and future movement, does depend however, on how the flood performs.
For the fisher, this is a time to explore those more saline areas at the head of the flood where the intrusion of saltwater is at its greatest. In the Fitzroy, during the 2013 floods, the fish were gathered between Thompsons Point, Barramundi Creek and around onto Long Beach to the north and from Keppel Rocks down beyond Sea Hill, into The Narrows and Connors Creek to the south and east. Some very good catches of barra were made by the line fisher in these areas during that stabilisation period.
The Fitzroy River and its environs is now a net-free zone under government legislation. It is a marvellous fishery that will only get better given time and good management. But it has its moods. Even those, like the motley crew from the KBSC, who have years of fishing the river are still learning. What does that say to the rest of us?