Gulf Barra Oyssey - 2011

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2011


Since building the new 7.5m diesel powered Origin I had been keen on an extended trip to a remote area to sample Queensland's best fishing. A couple of options were floated; option 1 was to tow to Karumba with a couple of smaller boats to fish the rivers north of Karumba and option 2 was to tow to Cooktown to fish the reefs around Lizard Island. We opted for #1, but I will do #2 some day.

With Karumba locked in, some serious planning got under way. How much water, food, beer, fuel for Alchemy and petrol for the tenders/generator would be needed for the two weeks at sea?

The Odyssey Begins
The Gulf Barra Odyssey began in ernest with the drive from Townsville to Karumba. Our small convoy of three cars and boats left Townsville at 0300. Our first stop was Greenvale for breaky and fuel, then Mount Surprise; Georgetown for lunch then on to Karumba Point servo for the big fuel up.
                               The convoy west of Hervey's Range

We then headed over to the Gulf Country Caravan Park to tie down the fuel drums and load up for the morning's launch.


Drinking water planning
With four aboard we allowed 4 litres of drinking water per person per day, plus a bit for showers. Alchemy has a 100 litre fresh water tank, so for the extra I froze down five x 20 litres drums of fresh plus numerous 1.25 litre soft drink and 2 litre milk bottles. Our fresh supplies ended up at about 250 litres.

Fuel planning
I had never towed another boat behind Alchemy so had no idea of our fuel burn for this trip as I had planned on towing Bob's 520 Fisher and my 3.9m tinnie. In the end we took a stab at 700 litres of diesel. 500 in the main tank and 200 in jerry cans. My thinking was that when we arrived at the first anchorage I would top the tank and work out our consumption, enabling an accurate plan for the rest of the voyage. For Bob's boat; "Mundoo" he had 250 litres and for my tinnie and generator another 200 litres = 450 litres of petrol. It was a good sales day at the Karumba Point servo when we arrived!

Food and beer planning
The food planning was Pam's domain and she catered perfectly. Pam catered enough food for a meal every second night. The rest would have to be fish or crabs. Instead of bread we took wraps which were perfect for lunch with cold meats plus also great with fresh fish, cheese and tartare sauce. Clearly one of the trip highlights. We had wheetbix for breaky most mornings with two bacon and egg indulgences. All the milk and perishable meats/pre-cooked meals were frozen before the trip and loaded into Alchemy's 100 litre freezer. The miscellaneous cold foods were split between Alchemy's 100 litre fridge and the 400 litre fish box which had all the frozen drinking water. So far as the beer goes.... there was just enough though the frozen drinking water ensured the first few days supply was frosty.There were snacks such as peanuts and muesli bars for us to take out in the tenders plus a supply of icy poles. We didn't want for anything in food/drink terms.

The Emergency Plan
Given the remoteness of the area we were exploring and the unknown VHF coverage we opted to hire a satellite phone (Google SatCom, located in Townsville). This was relatively cheap insurance at $200 for the two weeks, plus call charges. We also spoke with Bruce from Karumba VMR. Bruce was a wealth of knowledge and advice. Every few days we sent Bruce an SMS from the sat phone to confirm our location and status. The other advantage of the sat phone was that I got my wife to SMS us the weather forecasts, allowing us to better plan our return voyage.

The open sea leg plan
The original plan was for Alchemy to tow Mundoo and my tinnie at between 6 and 7 knots when moving from Karumba to the first spot, and likewise for any moves between the systems we wanted to fish. This went out the window on day one; the worst day and most incident packed day of the trip.

By the time we launched at Karumba and cleared the Norman River leads there was already a 5 to 10 knot breeze behind us. About an hour after clearing the Norman River leads we stopped for a break. When the slack on Mundoo's tow rope took up Mundoo and tinnie decided not to follow. I turned Alchemy around so Bob could board Mundoo to reattach the tow rope but when Bob tried to re-board Alchemy the surging waves forced Mundoo into the stern of Alchemy. Bob tried to fend off but his leg was wedged between the two boats injuring his knee badly. After some time it was decided that Bob would have to swim back from Mundoo as we felt this was the safest way of getting him back aboard.

A few hours later we were north of the Smithburn River with a solid 20 knots on our tail when the tinnie tow rope broke. Learning #1 - ensure you don't skimp on tow rope size. After Bob's experience I decided to swim for the tinnie and drive it alongside Alchemy; which I hoped would provide some protection from the nasty short sharp sea that had developed. Learning #2 - ensure every boat has an easy access for climbing aboard for swimmers. I was able to scramble aboard over the tinnies transom using the outboard cav plate as a step. I quickly got the tinnie motor started and raced up alongside Alchemy for the last 5km to Van Diemens Inlet. Running parallel to the coast was sort of ok as Alchemy provided some protection from the SW'ly sea (though at one point I thought "this isn't too bad" and ran ahead of Alchemy about 100m. Bad move as I quickly realised the sea was at least 1.5m so I turned and scarpered back to the lee of Alchemy), but when Mike pointed toward the coast and we swung to shore my protection was gone. Alchemy was still towing Mundoo and running at 6 knots, but I needed to be planning to handle the beam sea in the tinnie, so I shot off making for a gap in the breaking waves a couple of km ahead. Fortunately we had arrived not long before the top of the tide and we were able to slip straight into the inlet over the outer banks.

After day one's events the open sea tow plan was scrapped. We decided Bob would need to drive Mundoo solo and Alchemy to tow the tinnie. This would impact our petrol supplies as we never budgeted for Mundoo running solo at speed up the coast and ultimately back to Karumba but it was the only safe method. Learning #3 - it is much better to cruise at speed for the sea worthy vessels than trying to tow.

Van Diemen's Inlet
After our event packed first day we decided to stay put in Van Diemen's Inlet (VDI) for a couple of nights. It hadn't featured on our planning and we only shot in there as the light was fading on a dismal first day but VDI turned out to be a great system and much bigger than we expected. From the Karumba town ramp it was about 75km so I was pleased when I could only jam 60 litres of diesel into Alchemy's fuel tank. Once that was done and breakfast out of the way we headed off for a fish. Bob the barra magnet already had five barra boated by the time Mike and I got underway.




Mike and I struggled to find a fish until Bob called us up on the VHF to "the stick". The stick was just that. A none de-script frail bit of timber, but on a deepish bend. The stick was loaded with barra and after day one my boat had released about a dozen barra and Mundoo about 25. We kept a couple of salmon for dinner that night and to bait the pots.




The next morning we pulled the four pots to find a great feed of crabs. VDI had turned out to be an excellent stop-over. It was producing quality fish, crabs and anchorage plus had an awesome sandy mouth that the tide raced over at dusk which produced several more fish on poppers for us, including some great salmon.


Despite this we were keen to explore further north so we set our sights on Duck creek; only about 20km further north.

Duck Creek
After our tribulations at sea on day one we were keen for an easy run and to see how Alchemy would go towing the tinnie at speed. We slipped out of VDI at 0700 and arrived off Duck with a falling tide at 0830. The run up was great. Mundoo had no problems but the most pleasing aspect was Alchemy's ability to plane at 18 knots towing the 3.9m tinnie. We mucked about a bit trying to find the entrance to Duck and decided we'd found it. Mundoo was ahead sounding out the channel but only found shallow water, as did Alchemy. Alchemy with her deeper draft found the sand firmly so Mundoo cast a tow rope and I lifted the bravo 2 leg in the vain hope Mundoo could tow us in. It wasn't to be. Alchemy and Mundoo spent a good eight hours on their sides waiting for the tide to flood. We made in to to Duck about 1700. Bob, Pam and Mike chose to walk the flats looking for fish but their zero result vindicated my decision to stay aboard Alchemy to sleep, then have a few quiet beers.......




Duck creek had a great sandy beach to the north and an awesome looking mangrove lined southern bank at the mouth. We fished all these areas for more barra and salmon, and again baited the pots for more crabs.

For each of the two nights we spent at Duck we took advantage of the sandy beach for a fire at dusk; one of which we used to bake lamb shanks in Bob's camp oven and the next to boil up six nice muddies. The fishing at Duck was slow compared to VDI so after two nights we again set our sights further north. The Gilbert was to be our next destination.



The Gilbert River
The Gilbert was another 35km north and we made an early start. On arrival we found a vast expanse of muddy water and shallow banks. Finding an entrance here was going to be very hard. Bob poked around with Mundoo but couldn't find the four foot of depth I had asked for. I wanted this depth as we were again facing an out going tide and I thought I'd anchor off in deeper water and wait for the late afternoon tide rather than go aground again. It was about then that a pro crabber (Gary) cruised up alongside for a chat. Gary was on his way back to camp from Karumba, loaded with supplies. Gary asked if we were trying to enter the Gilbert, then shot off to check out a couple of marks at the entrance. Gary quickly returned and offered us his hand held GPS; complete with track to follow into the Gilbert. We gratefully accepted and began following the snaking track over the Gilbert's shallow outer banks. The shallowest spot was about 0.8m, a fair bit less than the ideal 1.2m but we pressed on and made it in without incident. We steamed upstream about a mile before dropping the pick on a wide sheltered bend. We had been dumping our petrol supplies ashore, but there wasn't any sandy beach here so we strapped them on to the side decks of Alchemy. The empties were strapped on to the hard top.


It wasn't long after dropping the pick that we were off for a fish. We ranged from the flats around the mouth where Bob and Pam scored some great barra in excess of 80cm, to the drains and side creeks.


We hadn't seen any box jellyfish in the previous two spots, but this changed in the Gilbert. Mike spotted a couple toward the mouth one morning, which quickly turned into dozens cruising past the tinnie on the ebb tide. A close watch was then kept on our braided lines and crab pot lines. It was around the drains toward the mouth that Mike scored a few nice barra around the 70cm range. Later that day we fished some great timber upstream of Alchemy. At dusk the barra we smashing poppers and stick baits. Almost the most memorable session of the trip.

So, why wasn't this the most memorable session of the trip? Bob had been toiling to find a meter class barra and reckons he and Pam both dropped one on a stick at the Gilbert mouth flats, but it was the Sunday afternoon and both tenders had made there way further upstream.

Mike and I chose to shoot even further up and found a beaut looking creek. Not far inside this creeks mouth we cast to some good looking timber, but without success after a few dozen casts we were about to move on. It was now that I fired a great cast in tight and Mike said "that deserves a fish"; apparently the fish agreed. After a few winds into the retrieve my green B52 stopped; presumably snagged, but as I lifted my rod tip to try to work the B52 off the snag the lure moved a bit. I thought I was free, but then the lure took off. Some 30 meters later a big barra's head and shoulders appeared; too big to jump cleanly we knew this was a great fish. Mike worked the Minn Kota to keep the tinnie mid stream and I regularly changed the line direction in an effort to keep the big barra from making it back to cover. Some 15 minutes later our tactics paid off and Mike cleanly netted the big barra.
Mike struggled to lift the net from the water, but once he did we worked quickly to remove the barbless trebles, measure and take a few quick photos; then she was returned to the water and swum until strong enough to swim away. The big barra measured 117cm and I estimate the weight at a bit over 20kg. Truly a fish of a life time and extremely satisfying to have caught her on a cast lure in the wild.




Gulf Hazards: Crocodiles, Box Jellyfish and Storms
We didn't see, or see any sign of crocs during the first week, but within a few days of the second week we found six. One very solid specimen in the Gilbert which was too wary for a photo but the slide was big enough to indicate this was a serious lizard.

Then there was this fella. He was sunning himself on the beach at the mouth of VDI. We only spotted him as we approached in Mundoo to walk the beach again to cast poppers for our last afternoon in the Gulf. He moved on, we fished but we kept a good distance back from the waters edge.
During the first week we had numerous storms and one in the second week; all apart of the build up to the wet. None with any rain, but plenty of lightning and one in particular came with a cold change and strong winds. We found the best way to deal with these was to anchor Mundoo off a few hundred meters away and to swing the tinnie off Alchemy's stern on the tow rope. Here is Mundoo anchored off while we await a storm preceded by a bush fire. Extreme conditions!


Box jellyfish are a real threat if you don't keep your eyes open. They are relatively easy to see in the water, but I would never jump in to go ashore or drag the tinnie unless completely covered. It is also wise to keep an eye on your braid when retrieving lures in case your line passes through ones tentacles. We regularly wore sun gloves for sun protection but these too would offer protection from stings. Each boat also carried a first aid kit including vinegar. 



Returning to Karumba
Our time in the Gilbert was up, so we made plans for an early start to run back to VDI for our last two nights. The run down was uneventful and given we now had the mouth sussed out we planned all the way into VDI easily. 

By now our petrol supplies were running low, so to save fuel we all piled into Mundoo for an assault on the stick. Again the stick didn't disappoint, but we cut our stay short due to an approaching storm.



The next day we did the same, except we took Alchemy up to the stick and towed the tenders to ensure we had enough petrol for Mundoo to run back to Karumba, and the stick fired again.




Our last session in VDI and the Gulf was a fishless one casting poppers from the beach at the mouth,though we did score some nice muddies and watched a beautiful sunset.

The final leg was the run back to Karumba. We left VDI at 0600 and we arrived back at the Karumba ramp at 0830. This gave us the day to unload and wash the boats, plus re-pack for the 950km drive back to Townsville. We were also fortunate enough to run into Gary and Bruce at the Sunset Hotel on our final night. I would strongly recommend speaking with Bruce at VMR Karumba before planning a trip like this as he has a wealth of information plus a great bloke. 


The "highway" heading east toward Georgetown.







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