The Big Trip – Planning

It’s that time of year again – Barra season opening is something to look forward to as of February 1st. Out of a habit started while at university, a February trip to northern QLD  is again on the cards.

This time of year can be a tough time fishing wise, what with the potential for cyclones and certainty of heavy rain at some stage during a trip – if not for the entirety (as February 2010 found us). Even so, there is no reason that a trip during a potentially less-than-comfortable time of year can’t be a success. All it takes is good planning.

The aim of this article is to provide a first instalment of things to consider when planning a trip away. My aim is to outline the generic approach I take to planning and I will incorporate useful bits and pieces learned through undertaking a variety of trips – so if fishing isn’t necessarily your thing please don’t give up yet! The principles are the same regardless of whether you are chasing fish or planning a sight-seeing venture.

Bad weather is always bad, but planning ahead will ensure you get the most out of your trip
Bad weather is always bad, but planning ahead will ensure you get the most out of your trip

As a quick summary, I will be covering the base stages of planning; from deciding what it is you want to do to setting goals for the trip and doing the necessary research. The next article will address preparation and travel.

What Floats your Boat?

As obvious as it may seem, the first stage of any adventure is deciding what you want to do. As many people could attest, I’m a classic for getting carried away with grand schemes and vague ideas that are unlikely to eventuate without sitting down and working out what I really want to get done.

Start listing the things you want to do - a backlog of magazines are a great place to start
Start listing the things you want to do – a backlog of magazines are a great place to start

To help this process you need to set yourself some goals. The first time I went to QLD I wanted to travel as far north along the coastline as I could and chase fish in spectacular places. And I wanted to catch a barra. We travelled the coast for a month camping in the scrub and living off whatever we caught; stopping off in Seaforth, Cardwell and Cooktown – which was the limit for my 2WD hilux at that time of year. We worked hard in pelting rain the entire time; but we caught a couple of barramundi as well as varied other species.

The second time I went, being pressed for time, we gave it our all for two weeks at Cardwell. My target species was mangrove jack – and we got a few good ones. We also caught some cracking barra and even though we had a mishap – getting our boat motor and a heap of lures stolen – the trip was a good one.

This time around, having a bit more knowledge under my belt, I’m going to broaden my wishlist a little. The one species we didn’t land last time was the jungle perch. I will be making a concerted effort to rectify this. In addition, I want to try for a queenfish and a few more trevally, and I would love to see a threadfin salmon. While I’m there I should probably also try to finally catch the local bread-and-butter species: grunter (AKA javelinfish).

So having those target species, I know that I will have to work out the freshwater, beaches and sand flats; in addition to continuing the search for a metre barra! With that variety of species, breaking things into components and thinking ahead is most likely to put you in casting range.

Research, Research, Research

I’m lucky now in that I have the benefit of experience during two previous trips to QLD. While that in no way makes me very knowledgeable in regards to fishing up there, I have a little better understanding of what I can hope to achieve. But if I were going somewhere I hadn’t been before, this is how I would start going about it.

  1. 1.      Get to know the target

Unless you are just keen on heading to a particular location and taking whatever is on offer, you are going to have to choose your destination based on whether or not the species you are after occurs there. This can obviously be a daunting task for some species without local knowledge, but you can piece things together by starting broad and narrowing down.

For example, the barramundi occurs in coastal fresh and saltwater habitats throughout northern Australia. It goes without saying, however, that some locations hold more or better fish than others. This has as much to do with fishing pressure as environmental conditions, so there is plenty to think about. These days, google is a good place to start.

Barra turn up all over the place up north - work out where you can specifically target them
Barra turn up all over the place up north – work out where you can specifically target them (and wear an appropriate hat)

Obviously, the internet and fishing forums have changed the way we hunt down information and there is plenty of great stuff out there. But, if like me, the rats nest that is a fishing forum makes your eyes glaze then don’t despair. The printed word still works! If you happen to have access to stacks of old fishing magazines then start there – I’m lucky enough to have gotten in with the right people when starting out and was given untold numbers of back issues. The articles in these are a perfect place to start filtering.

Sitting back over the Christmas break I started flicking through magazine contents pages to see what was relevant. Sure enough, the September 2007 issue of Modern Fishing Magazine had a great article on chasing jungle perch. Luckily for me, the Cardwell region is bang in the middle of top notch JP habitat!

  1. 2.      Locate your area

Once you have worked out what makes your target species tick, you will have probably started to form a few ideas on where you want to find them. For me, the first step is generally to find the most remote place I can within the known range of the species, and then see if I can actually get there.

This was the exact approach Dick and I took on our inaugural north-coast NSW jack fishing adventure last year.  I’m not going to give the name of the place away, but I will say that proximity to towns and difficulty of access factored heavily in the decision. When a couple of blokes on motorbikes turned up, stared slack-jawed at the old hilux and us sitting back with a beer and said “how did you get that in here? We were flat out getting in on the bikes!” I knew we had chosen the right place. And while we didn’t land a jack, we got smoked by some beauties.

Use a range of sources when planning a trip - and hard copy maps are hard to beat
Use a range of sources when planning a trip – and hard copy maps are hard to beat

Google Earth is a fantastic tool for scanning the landscape and finding likely spots. It is probably the best way to quickly scope out a region from afar and see what’s going on. A few print outs of the aerial photography are also really useful in identifying key landmarks when you are out and about.

That being said, there is no way I can overestimate the importance of topographic maps for when you actually get out there. I will cover these in a bit more detail in the next article, so don’t forget about them.

  1. 3.      Learn the lay of the land

Once you have selected your location you will want to start determining where you can get to and how. The lay of the land may have already fed into selecting your location. Accessibility is a key factor in determining the success of any trip and needs to be given serious consideration. Roads, rivers, ridgelines. These features are likely to be what you will use to move within a landscape, so make sure you can get to them.

I headed out into the backblocks of Victoria in 2012 in search of Sambar. A long and winding road into the forest found my planned route blocked by a logging camp so I decided to leave the vehicle at the end of the track on the next ridgeline east, follow it out on foot and cut back across the valley and to my intended ridge. That would get me down to the lower country and some semi-open river flats that would be easier to stalk.

After half a day of scrambling through thickets on a mountain side, I decided that it wasn’t feasible to travel from ridge to ridge. Stuck to the ridgeline I was on, I took that as far as I thought I would be able to pack a deer out in the week that I had, and set up camp. The deer were there, but stuck on top of a ridge with solid scrub on either side and the only water half an hour straight down into the gully didn’t make for ‘silent’ hunting.

Hard going to get to, but the places you might find can be pretty amazing
Hard going to get to, but the places you might find can be pretty amazing

Don’t get me wrong, waking up an hour before first light and listening to a powerful owl calling from the adjacent basin, watching gang gang cockatoos feed above me during the day, and inspecting the stags rub tree next to my tent still made a great trip, but next time I’m going to take the canoe across Lake Dartmouth and get to my valley flats via the water.

Having topographic maps allowed me to change plans when I couldn’t take my original route. Thorough planning may have made a better trip. I don’t think you can know the land too well.

  1. 4.      Find out what lives where

If you are taking on a range of challenges during your trip, then it is best to know a good deal about each of them. Species specific research will feed into understanding the landscape and flow on to identifying places that those species are most likely to be found in. Use this knowledge to form basic plans.

When I feel like a stroll, I can go and chase jungle perch and sooty grunter in the mountain streams. Hitting creek junctions and mouths during the last stages of a run-out and the first stages of run-in tides are likely to put my lure in range of actively feeding predators like barramundi. Drifting sand flats and walking beaches at high tide might locate cruising queenies and trevally.

Having a basic knowledge of species ecology will go a long way towards tightening a line on one of them.

The only jungle perch captured to date - from a cast net off the Cardwell jetty. It took lots of rain to get it there
The only jungle perch captured to date – from a cast net off the Cardwell jetty. It took lots of rain to get it there

The Heart of the Issue

With all this planning it seems easy to fall into the trap of becoming too rigid. Don’t get like this. Have bare-bones ‘fail-safe’ plans as a base line, but if something presents itself, well, the best laid plans… The point of having an idea of where to find things is to feel confident at the outset. Confidence goes a long way in finding success.

The next article will cover preparation, packing and travel considerations for the big trip. Stay tuned!

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