THE BARRA’PRENTICE TRIUMPANT IN THE TOP END

Every year, a gaggle of girls descend onto Corroboree Billabong in the Top End with one goal in mind… taking home the trophy from the Secret Womens Business Barramundi Challenge, a fantastic tournament run by the Palmerston Game Fishing Club with the intention of being a “safe” place for women to gain skills and confidence, so that they can fish competently beside their male counterparts.

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This is about the size of most barra we found.

It’s a premiere stage, with a prize pool to make any angler drool. In fact, two of my bucket-list items were represented in this year’s bootie: Heli-fishing and a stint at Dhippiri Barramundi Lodge in Arnhem Land. Yep! I had my beady eyes on the prize from the get-go, but I knew we southerners were at a distinct disadvantage. It had been a full year since I had wet a line on the ‘Bong (as we affectionately call Corroboree) and even longer for my good friend and fishing colleague, Vicki Lear.

Fish need to be 40cm to score in the SWB Barra Challenge. This one’s not gonna cut it!
Fish need to be 40cm to score in the SWB Barra Challenge. This one’s not gonna cut it!

But our team, The Barra’Prentice was never about taking out tournaments, so the time between visits doesn’t weigh too heavily.

“What’s the point of The Barra’Prentice, then?” I hear you ask.

Fair question… and one I’ll happily answer, given that the good folk at Mad Keen are a loyal supporter.

Vicki Lear flicks a lure in close quarters, working a weed edge.
Vicki Lear flicks a lure in close quarters, working a weed edge.

The Barra’Prentice is a mentoring team, founded by Vicki and myself with the vision of raising the profile of women’s fishing and develop skills and confidence of mentees through a yearlong program. We find an enthusiastic “beginner”, who has a demonstrated passion for her new-found sport, but who hasn’t yet learned the finer (or even broader) aspects.

We take them under our wing and work with them to become self-sufficient anglers — from backing a trailer, through tying all knots, working all styles of lures, casting accuracy and even teamwork. We even teach them to pick out their own birds nests and retrieve their own snags. As you can imagine, the SWB Barra Challenge is the perfect “graduation ceremony” for our girls, which is why it is the pinnacle of our yearly quest.

2017 ‘Prentice, Bec Roberts back the boat down the ramp… Like.A.Boss!
2017 ‘Prentice, Bec Roberts back the boat down the ramp… Like.A.Boss!

 

This year, our ‘Prentice was a young woman named Bec Roberts, from Mount Kembla. Bec was a true sport, never shirking a challenge and the results showed her dedication. We had so much faith in her, in fact, that neither Vicki nor I backed the trailer once during the tournament! Bec took on the challenge of the dual lane boat ramp, with all the pressure of long line-ups and scrutinizing eyes, and nailed it every time.

She also contributed to our score on each day of the Challenge! Absolute golden girl.

The fishing was tough. We were so hopeful, following the first decent Wet Season in four or so years, but our hopes were dashed by a fish-kill just two months prior to the comp.

Bec and Vicki celebrate another successful capture. Vicki on the rod and Bec on the net… it takes a team to win a tournament.
Bec and Vicki celebrate another successful capture. Vicki on the rod and Bec on the net… it takes a team to win a tournament.

We rocked up to the billabong a day earlier than most, just to give ourselves some time to explore the waterway. Corroboree is a lot bigger than most would expect — and the fishing options are vast.

After one and a half days of pre-fishing, we only knew two things for certain: scoring barra were going to be few and far between (so much so that we weren’t going to target them at all); and where NOT to fish! We were no more clued into where the fish were than we were when we first launched. There was one part of the billabong that we hadn’t had time to explore yet, so we agreed to start there for Day One and just continue “pre-fishing”.

After the Registration Night official business and shenanigans were over, we had a team huddle back at our room. That’s when we hatched our plan… it was called “Plan A” and it was to go out and catch a fish.

Bec caught her first-ever saratoga during the SWB Barra Challenge. Not a bad specimen, either!
Bec caught her first-ever saratoga during the SWB Barra Challenge. Not a bad specimen, either!

That was it. Go out and catch a fish.

Then, once that was done, we would go back to the beginning. There was no “Plan B”.

As it turns out, this simple, tongue-in-cheek approach kept us sane. It was HOT, with a strong, burning wind being the only relief from the humidity.

On the morning of Day One, we crept at a painfully slow putt through the pre-dawn fog for and hour and a half, guided by the track we laid down on our Lowrance the day before. A team member stood at the bow, keeping a designated bank in the spotlight, but it didn’t make the going much easier. Those night trips through cuttings and channels are very anxious times.

Our starting spot was determined by the clock… wherever we got to by five minutes to lines-in. Three different lures flew towards an unknown bank in the pitch black and splashed to break the silence.

Our only barra during the tournament measured 49cm.
Our only barra during the tournament measured 49cm.

Nothing on that retrieve. In fact, nothing really until the sun’s first flush snuggled up against the lilies and the pandanus that surrounded us. As our eyes were finally able to see, so the billabong stretched and yawned.

All the action was back in the lilies and so we plugged away with surface lures. Vicki’s Scum Frog was attracting attention, but was failing to hook up. I downsized to a Squidy Ridgeback, rigged weedles with a sinker in the loop. That was making the inhabitants move, but not in the way I wanted… so I took off the sinker.

The very next cast, I had a hungry strike! I missed it, but we all knew that we’d found a tactic that would work.

With the sun up, we looked around and all agreed that the bank on the other side looked like a better option. That move proved a masterstroke and we were on the board within minutes!

Our ‘Prentice, Bec Roberts, gets a ribbing whilst driving the boat. Hey, it’s all in the fun!
Our ‘Prentice, Bec Roberts, gets a ribbing whilst driving the boat. Hey, it’s all in the fun!

I won’t pretend that it was red-hot fishing, but we were averaging a scoring saratoga each hour (saratoga earn half points in the tournament). I can’t tell you our surprise when one of our ‘toga came up chrome! Our Day One 49cm barra was very welcome… and the only one we got for whole the tournament.

Jo, the fish juggler!
Jo, the fish juggler!

At the end of the first day, we had twelve scoring fish. “Not enough”, we thought. The Billabong is a tough mistress though and we found ourselves in the unlikely position of riding out the next day in the yellow jersey… with me running close second for Champion Angler! No one expected that! As the only full interstate team, we are always long odds.

I woke up nervous… it becomes a mind game when you are leading.

Happy? You bet! Champion Angler for 2017 — Jo Starling.
Happy? You bet! Champion Angler for 2017 — Jo Starling.

We didn’t stray from Plan A, or from our bank. For one and a half days, that little stretch of water entertained us, with cranky crocs, graceful herons and feisty fish. Every fish was caught casting unweighted, weedless-rigged plastics deep into the lilies and working them back. Every strike was visual, with fish nosing the bottom of lily pads to push our offerings into the water, so that they could “have at it”. It was incredible fun!

An early morning saratoga for Bec on Day Two.
An early morning saratoga for Bec on Day Two.

By lunchtime on Day Two, though, we’d worn it out. With eight saratoga added to the score sheet, we felt the weight of impending failure heavy on our shoulders. We buzzed around the ‘Bong for another four hours, but didn’t turn a scale. All we could do was hope that others found it as frustrating as us.

Fishaholics R Us! A stunning shot of a searching Bec at sunrise.
Fishaholics R Us! A stunning shot of a searching Bec at sunrise.

Presentation was a riot and the talk was all about the champions from the past two years, Team Skirts Ditchin’ Work, and the great day they’d had. They’d come back with gusto! There was a real buzz… everyone knew that the game was ON!, My anxiety was palpable. It seemed to take an eternity to get down to the pointy end… but when the Skirts were called in second, our table erupted! We had pulled off the unthinkable! Our southern team had taken a clean sweep, with yours truly being named Champion Angler and The Barra’Prentice crowned Champion Team for 2017!

And yes, BOTH bucket-list items are getting ticked off this coming year!

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Tournament organisers, Chrissie Hurren (left) and Kris Noble (right) flank the Barra’Prentice after the winning announcement was made.
KEEPING UP WITH THE STARLINGS : SWB – September 2017