Top End NT

Many first-time visitors to our northern capital are disappointed by the fishing close to Darwin, especially if they don’t have access to a boat. This three-part series aims to improve your odds.

More than a few first-time visitors to Australia’s Top End seem to be under the impression that fish are so prolific and perpetually hungry in these tropical waters that they’ll have little trouble catching a feed. Many of these same eternal optimists go home disillusioned. The truth is, fishing close to Darwin, especially without access to a boat, is no push-over. You wouldn’t lob into Cairns or Townsville with zero local knowledge and expect to begin pulling fish from the shores of Trinity Inlet or the Ross River hand-over-fist, would you? So, why should Darwin be any different?

Taking on board the important reality check that recognises Darwin as a thriving city of well over 125,000 residents, with all the pressures that figure implies, is a pretty good starting point. So is realising that tourist numbers can swell that count by more than 50 per cent at certain times of the year. It’s a little unrealistic to expect champagne-standard “wilderness” fishing on the doorstep of an urban sprawl humming with close to a quarter of a million people!

Every angler who visits the Top End wants to catch a barra, but it's not always that easy, especially without a boat!

The trick lies in picking your spots, getting your timing right and selecting your target species, then investing exactly the same level of effort you would back home…

The mighty milkfish is a very worthy target!
The rocks at Darwin's East Point are a popular and sometimes productive land-based location.
The feisty little pikey bream is a much-overlooked northern target species.
Land-based hopefuls need to remain vigilant and constantly "crocodile aware" around Top End waters.

All that said, there is still great fishing to be had within an hour or so of the Northern Territory’s seat of government (often much closer), and some of it is available to land lubbers without the luxury of a boat. The trick lies in picking your spots, your timing and your target species, then investing exactly the same level of effort you would back home… as well as being willing to accept that failure is always a possibility up there, too. Some days you catch fish, some days you don’t.

None of this is meant to put hopefuls off having a go. When it fires, Darwin’s land-based fishing can be nothing short of spectacular. Chrome-plated barramundi, high-flying queenfish, line-stripping trevally and turbo-charged milkfish… They all swim in healthy numbers in Darwin’s metro’ waters. The trick lies in identifying when and where they will pass within casting range of the shore, and then choosing the optimum combination of tackle and technique needed to entice these fish to bite.

Perhaps the hardest mental shift that anglers from down south need to make when visiting or re-locating to Darwin involves coming to terms with the massive tides experienced up there, and also the huge variation in tidal movement and current flow rates between the neaps and the springs. The first tool any angler — land-based or otherwise — needs in this part of the world is a tide chart or a print-out of tides from the internet. Fortunately, every tackle shop in Darwin offers free tide charts, and you can also download them from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) website at: www.bom.gov.au/oceanography/tides/MAPS/nt.shtml

Neap tides occur around the half moons (first and last quarter of the moon), when tidal variations can shrink to less than a metre between high and low water. From that point, the tides quickly build over the following week towards the springs, which occur around or just after the full and new moon phases. During the twice-monthly springs, tidal variation from high to low water can be as much as seven and a half metres or even more. Think about it for a moment… That’s a vertical rise and fall in water level of almost 25 feet on the old scale!

As you can probably imagine, seven metres-plus of vertical movement in the ocean’s surface over a period of just six or seven hours generates an enormous amount of tidal current. It also dramatically alters the entire look and feel of the coastline. Places that were high and dry a few hours earlier — or even a hundred metres and more from the water’s edge — can become viable fishing spots at the top of a seven metre high tide. Conversely, that great low tide spot you fished at lunch time could be two hundred metres offshore and covered by more than six metres of water by sunset!

Coming to grips with the Top End’s tides and learning to work with them rather than fight against them is the single biggest step you can make towards angling success up north; whether you’re boat-based or shore bound.

Of course, the $64 million question is; what are the best tides for fishing around Darwin?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any cut-and-dried answer to that perennial query. I know it sounds like a cop-out, but the truth is that different tides work for different locations and species. However, here are a few important factors to consider:

Firstly, small tidal movements (neaps) tend to result in much cleaner, clearer water, while bigger tidal variations (springs) dirty up  the water noticeably. If the springs are combined with strong winds, the water gets even milkier.

Secondly, on neaps, the productive bite periods (when the fish are on the chew) can tend to be longer but much less intense. Fish often seem lethargic, disinterested or shy on the smaller neap tides. By contrast, bite periods are short, sharp and frenetic on the springs. There’s an old saying in the Territory that goes “no run, no fun”, and it tends to hold true. Saltwater fish up that way have evolved to make use of large tidal movements, and many of them generally seem less active or interested in feeding when there’s little or no flow.

As a rule of thumb, days with less tidal movement tend to be better for chasing pelagic species such as trevally, queenfish, mackerel and tuna, which are more likely to come well inshore while the water is clearer. On the other hand, bigger variations in tides (and the accompanying dirtier water) seem to suit barra, mangrove jacks, golden snapper (fingermark), blue salmon, estuary cod and the like. I also favour the bigger tides when berleying with bread for mullet, garfish and milkfish, as they carry your berley further and faster. Furthermore, a tide change (either the top or bottom) at dawn or dusk is often a very good thing for land-based fishing.

As a final word on tides, I’m not a big fan of the absolute maximums of movement at either end of the scale (tiny neaps or huge springs), and I also have a general preference for the week of tides building from the neaps towards the springs, favouring it over the following week; when the springs slide down to neaps. But trust me… there are as many theories in the Top End on what makes a great fishing tide as there are anglers. Feel free to add your own!

PART TWO: In the next part we’ll start looking at some specific locations and techniques for land-based fishing around Darwin.

The same Harbour creek mouth at high (left) and low (right) water on a medium-sized tide.
Darwin land-based legend, Hiroaki 'Hiro' Nakamura, fishing for barra in an urban backwater. Note that he hangs back from the water's edge, due to the threat of crocodile attack! Hiro's blog is an invaluable resource for anyone planning to fish from the shore around Darwin. You can follow it at http://secretbarramundi.blogspot.com/  or use the link in the info' box below.
Jo with a beautiful black-spot tuskfish taken from the rocks at Wagait Beach, across the Harbour from Darwin.
A school of golden trevally feeding hard close to the shoreline right in front of the Darwin CBD!


Hiroaki Nakamura — better known to his legion of fans simply as Hiro — is a Japanese-born Darwin resident who fishes from the shoreline around the northern capital at least several times every week, throughout the year. He has been doing this for many years, while keeping a very accurate and detailed diary of his results, which he nowadays shares freely via a popular blogsite.

Hiro’s blog is an invaluable resource for anyone planning to fish from the Darwin shoreline for any species, but especially those keen to add a barramundi to their land-based catch list in this part of the world.

You will find Hiro’s blog here, or you can follow his page on Facebook here.


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