Top of the Tide

Top of the Tide fishing for Barramundi on Spring Tides in tidal creeks and barrages can land massive metre-plus Barra, but requires local knowledge and skills.

Barra Fisherman Nathan Litjens has extensive experience chasing barramundi in the tropical, tidal waters of the Northern Territory. In these three articles he explains how to make the most of these unique conditions along the NT coastal rivers.

“TOT, to Darwin dwellers might bring up images of things other than fishing, but to the switched-on Barra angler, the Top of the Tide or TOT for short can be a time of rich fishing opportunities.”

Top of the Tide Barramundi

So, what do I mean by Top of the Tide (TOT)? For the newcomers, it’s the time at the peak of the tide when it has finished creeping in and is just about to turn and fall again. It’s a time of slack water, and if you’ve picked the right tides and places lots of big, boofing Barra feeding on baitfish soup.

Here I will focus on three types of locality that are different in many ways, but are remarkably similar to fish.

The first is the humble Coastal Creek. At the end of the Wet Season, the coastal floodplains are drained by small mangrove-lined creeks that empty directly into the sea. Around Shady Camp, the most famous are Swim, Carmor and Marsh Creeks.

Mudflats become feeding grounds at the Top of the Tide.

The second area we will focus on is the vast areas of salt flats and dead timber such as those higher up in the Shady Camp system, especially those that drain into Tommycut Creek. These are typically dead flat, muddy, salty areas that have a coating of saltwater couch grass and dead trees. They are drained by many small creeks that are like a maze to navigate. At a glance, I would say these places look almost post-apocalyptic.

The third is the barrages, such as those so well known to those that fish Shady Camp. Good Barra are caught at TOT

Despite appearances, very large captures of fish happen in these areas on the correct tides.

So what makes a good tide? Typically you want the big tides, normally the biggest Spring tides in the cycle.

How to fish the top of the tide
Fishing the Top of the Tide Barramundi feeding grounds in the tidal mudflats and creeks of the Mary River for massive metre-plus barra.

Spring Tides gives access to Tidal Mudflats

Look for the biggest Spring tides in the cycle to gain access to baitfish feeding grounds. Water needs to cover the flats within these systems to attract the baitfish. The baitfish are a vital link, as obvious as it may sound. They are what attract the Barra in the first place, but we need to understand the reason the baitfish enter the system at all.

The nutrient-rich mud has been sitting moist in the baking hot sun, and a myriad of tiny organisms such as bacteria, algae and other single-celled life forms have been reproducing like mad, carpeting the mud in a thin film.

On the low tide you will see Fiddler Crabs sifting through this rich mud, picking out the food with their mouthparts, but it’s during the high tide that the baitfish such as mullet and scats will move up over these very shallow flats and swallow gob fulls of this rather unlikely food source, expelling clouds of mud from their gills and rear ends. While they are up there gorging themselves on these few tides that allow it, the predators will be waiting patiently in the channels for the tide to fall just slightly and force the baitfish away from the safety of the flats. If tea-coloured freshwater is present, you will likely see schools of Rainbowfish on the move as well.

Top of the Tide Barra.

The Barrages are slightly different. They hold Barra because the bait is there, but the main baitfish types you will find at the end of the Wet are clouds of migrating Tarpon and Rainbowfish. Large schools of mullet don’t tend to arrive until the Runoff is nearly over.

As soon as that tide turns and starts heading out, the massacre begins. Leaping schools of mullet with charged-up Barra hot on their tails and the inevitable loud “boofs” that follow are par of the course. Rainbowfish will sit in the back eddies, making sudden dashes to move upstream and get systematically demolished by packs of Barra that simply slurp them off the surface.

Secret spots are tightly guarded by guides that know them. Finding them and working out exactly when and how to fish them has taken years of practice. But, as a general rule I would say to head up high into the systems, but not quite so far as to get stranded if you are fishing the salt flat areas and pick a likely looking junction where two or more creeks meet.

Coastal creeks are often very good at the mouths, where you either tie up or anchor and await the turn of the tide. In both cases you generally want some tea-coloured freshwater draining into the main channel just before the tide turns.