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Timing is everything when it comes to fishing the far north, especially if you want to enjoy the experience. Mike O’Neil explains how.
Timing is Everything


No one's plan fits all. That’s something you find when you try and plan a fishing trip to Australia’s tropical north. Basically, you need to consider the variables, such as prevailing winds, tides and season before you make a booking.
Explosive fishing can be had during the build-up to the wet season, through the wet season, and post-wet.
If you are lucky enough to live in the Territory, the fishing options are many and you can choose your fishing times to suit the day-to-day conditions. However, for us southerners, it’s a case of making the best calculated plan possible, after considering all options, and then making a run for it.
Take a pre-wet trip as an example. The trick is to leave it as LATE as possible because the fishing improves considerably the closer it gets to the wet. But, and it’s a big but, you need to go early enough so you can get in and out without getting stuck there for the duration.
October/November, I believe are the pick of the pre-wet months. Sure it gets bloody hot, but the humidity is no worse than in the immediate post-wet.
The Daly and Limmen rivers are top of my Northern Territory favourite haunts list. Previously, I have always fished the post-wet periods, always trying to time the trip to coincide with the last of the wet season rains, usually March or April. While there have been a couple of trips washed out, most have always turned on some spectacular action while fishing the run-offs along the Daly.
There was one year that had all the markings of a disastrous trip. We were greeted by chocolate water licking the high banks of the Daly and surging up gullies we had never seen before from water level. The river was a raging torrent, swirling and boiling her way around trees and carving out new courses. At seven metres above the crossing, the Daly was far from inviting.
We pitched our camp amongst the bamboo stand, adjacent to the cleaning tables, at Woolianna Park. The water was barely metres from us and we had a few nervous sleeps, listening to the roar of crocs and other night noises.
Fishing seemed out of the question and we all were more than a tad disappointed with our predicament. Should we stay, or should we pack up and look elsewhere? That was the question on everyone’s lips.
The next morning I spoke to a young indigenous chap, who was sitting, watching the muddy waters rush by.
“G’day mate,” I greeted him. “Looks like the fishin’s buggered, eh?”
“Yeahmate,” he said, running his words together. “No bloody good now, but be bloody good soon. River drop this much (indicating the length of his body), maybe two, four days. Fish bite their bloody 'eads off.”
We stayed and had some of the best barra action I have experienced in more than two decades of fishing the Territory and Queensland’s Gulf and Cape areas.

Some years, the wet is not much more than a damp and it takes a lot more work to plan a successful trip.
I have found during these periods the Daly fishes better during or just after the big spring tides, which push big mobs of water some 90 kilometres up from the mouth, pulling debris (and food) from the banks and filling up all the small creeks and drains. It’s these creeks and drains where barra congregate to ambush baitfish as they are flushed out of their hideaways.
Fishing at this time of year has its own special appeal, but there are also some drawbacks. While the temperature has started to decrease March and April (around 340C), the humidity is a real killer; mosquitoes as big as March flies are thicker than fairies in a fantasy.
In contrast, fishing the north just before the wet rolls in has many advantages.
Although it is hotter during November (400C) the humidity is nowhere near as savage; there is more room for error in picking the time (you just need to make sure you don’t go too late); there are very few mosquitoes; and with more species on the chew, there are more fishing options.
But it’s horses for courses. While the Daly seems to fish better around those spring tides, it’s the opposite at the Limmen. I found this out the hard way on my most recent trip.
We went in November 2008 – the first time we had opted to go during the build-up – and I planned it to coincide with the big tides. And while the Limmen tides are nowhere as big as those in the Daly, we soon learned that the neap tides fish the best.
The Limmen is a huge river and collects a heap of water. It runs out with a vengeance, at times creating large pressure waves in some of its narrow necks, particularly when there is a bit of wind to assist.
A times, there is only one tide to fish… it runs in all night and out all day and the fish only turn on during a very small window of opportunity.

Trip planning doesn’t end with picking a destination and the best time to fish. Paramount to a successful northern fishing trip is vehicle and boat preparation. Everything has to be in good mechanical working order before you roll out the gate.
If you find something suspect, fix it before you leave, it’s a lot easier than attempting to do it on the road.
Also make sure your equipment is properly serviced before you head out.
Most mechanical mishaps on the road eat into your precious fishing time. And mates become rather agitated sitting around waiting for you to get something fixed, especially when it could have been avoided with a bit more care.
While it is impossible to carry spares for everything, it’s worth carrying what you can. Heading to the Limmen I have spare fuel; oil; air filters; two spare tyres for vehicle and boat trailer; engine oil (vehicle and outboard); electrical wire and appropriate connectors.
I also carry duct tape, comprehensive tool kit, tie wire, a set of trailer bearings and grease, spare trailer spring, two spare props and 40-litres of fresh water.
While most of the trip through to the Limmen is on reasonable sealed roads, the Barkley Highway can throw up a few surprises. And then there is the Nathan River Road, which, depending on when it was last graded, can be a real killer for trailer boat rigs.
On previous trips I have seen solid trailers and popular four-wheel-drives lose plenty of body parts yet, surprisingly enough, when I was there last November, it was pretty damn good.
Then there is the road into the Limmen Bight River fishing camp. While it, too, was okay on my most recent trip, it has in the past been a real killer.
Heading into the Limmen for a pre-wet trip takes several creek crossings out of the equation. With the exception of the Limmen River crossing (a concrete causeway), all are pretty much dry.
I know a lot of blokes who have done the big NT barra trip and who would laugh at the amount of preparation and spares I have suggested. They would tell you they have, “Been there, done that… and didn’t have to carry on with all that crap”.
But as sure as Santa’s a fat man, the day I don’t is the day our trip will go belly-up.
While many travelling fishos fish the Limmen with small tinnies ferried in on top of fourbies, usually towing a robust van, you will also see plenty of boats in the 4.75 to 6-metre range.
On our last trip, I towed my 4.75 Quintrex Legend while my fishing mate Brad Baldwin dragged a 4.5m Bluefin. Both were mated to 60hp Yammie four-strokes.
These boats proved to be an ideal size for this area, allowing you to fish up all the creeks and channels with enough scope to slip out to Maria Island and the reefs off the island’s southern end.
The down-river run from the fishing camp is 32km and then it’s another 20km to the island. On a good day, when the surface is like a mirror, you can travel out at WOT speed… but this usually only occurs at the bottom or top of the tides. In between, the current and wind always seem to be at odds with each other, stirring up wicked chop.

The entrance channel of the Limmen River is very shallow and extends for some five kilometres seaward.
Mud flats line each side of the channel, which varies between one and two metres. Lobbing at the river mouth on a big run-out tide with 20 knots of wind pushing against it can set the old sphincter muscle quivering but it does make for some interesting boating.
While it’s comforting to know that the mudflats either side of you are only 20 metres away and covered by just a few inches of water, the thought of monster saurians waiting for a feed is not.
Sometimes, even though you make all the right choices, no amount of planning can insulate you against Mother Nature. There always will be trips that turn pear-shaped for one reason or another… like the trade winds forgetting to shut down during October/November or the wet season taking a poke at May.
Add these obstacles to on-the-road mishaps and you start to wonder: ‘Is it all worth it?’ Well, the answer is, YES!

There are a number of fishing/camping sites set up along Daly the river. Woolianna Daly Tourist Park has always been our choice. It offers an all-tide, all-river-height boat ramp for four-wheel drives, there are powered and un-powered sites for tents and caravans, a swimming pool to soak away the heat of the day, fuel plus basic supplies and ice.
This campsite also has a public phone box; clean, modern amenities and coin-operated washing machines.
A powered camp site during our last stay cost around 0 per week for two people. If you don’t mind spending some bucks for ‘top end’ accommodation, you can stay in the park’s units and there is even a house on-site for rent.
Woolianna is one of the more accessible camping areas when fishing the top end, with sealed roads all the way except for the final 20km, which is usually two-wheel drive accessible.
Where is it? From Darwin or Katherine, you turn on to Dorat Road south of Adelaide River, then on to the Daly River Road, then on to Woolianna Road. The park is some 250km from Darwin and 270km from Katherine.
The Limmen River fishing camp offers a more remote adventure. You have to contend with the Nathan River Road and the track into camp.
Once there you have basic (very basic) amenities, which include pit toilets, and open-roof showers with hot water supplied via a donkey set up… if you want a hot shower, stoke the fire; a warm shower is on tap if you shower before the sun goes down.
The dirt boat ramp changes every season, but is more than capable of handling boats up to six metres.
When fishing the Limmen, we usually hire one of the air-conditioned dongers, which sleep six. The kitchen, which comprises a sink, large gas ring, large barbecue plate and fridge, is undercover at front of the donger. There’s a table setting for six.
October/November last year, the dongers cost our fishing group around 0 for the week or around a day each for our crew of five. It seems a very sweet deal as you collapse through the donger door and crank up the air conditioning. Powered and unpowered camp sites are also available and start at around a day.
The Limmen has fuel on site, albeit around 20 cents per litre dearer than anywhere else, but considering the terrain the traditional owners cart the stuff over, it’s cheap.
Basic supplies such as salt, flour, frozen bread and long life milk, ice and black sauce are available.
While Woolianna can be safely described as a tropical oasis, the Limmen can’t… but you just gotta love it for its harsh face and exceptional fishing options from river to reef.

Travelling from the east coast take whichever route you like up through Queensland to Camooweal, and head out along the Barkley Highway to the Barkley Homestead Roadhouse.
Fuel up and hang a right on to the Tablelands Highway and watch out for the ghost of Slim Dusty in the ‘lights coming over the hill’.
Head straight up to Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford and fuel up again before heading out on the Nathan River Road for around 160km. As you cross the Cox River, the Limmen Bight Fishing Camp track snakes away on the right. Take it easy and watch out for spring-busters concealed in the bulldust.


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