Groote Eylandt: Is This Australia’s Best Fishing Spot?
Not everyone has heard of Groote Elyandt in the Northern Territory, but fishermen-in-the-know sure have. But why are they not so keen to share it?
I still have fond memories of fishing with my grandmother on the Murray River back in the 1960s, before the invasion of European carp. We would sit on a massive river gum root coaxing tiny translucent shrimps onto little hooks in our quest for callop, cod or catfish.
We never caught many, but that wasn’t the point. River fishing is about patience, perseverance and simple conversation. Consequently, I never really developed the necessary skills to call myself a proper fisherman. But then I went to Groote Eylandt.
Named by the early Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644, Groote Eylandt (Large Island) in the Northern Territory is actually the fourth largest island of Australia and about half the size of the next biggest, Kangaroo Island. It’s known for its rich manganese deposits and the long habitation of the land by the Warnindhilyagwa people.
For many years Groote enjoyed blissful isolation and has only recently hosted guests who come to see the excellent rock art and to fish.
Sport fishing across the Top End has long been known as some of the best anywhere in the world, thanks mainly to the legendary and elusive barramundi (Lates calcarifer) or Asian sea bass, a massive predatory fish that easily grows to more than a metre and weighs 60kg or more. The mighty ‘barra’ love to hang out in estuaries and tidal billabongs all around Arnhem Land and down as far as Broome, none of which there are on Groote.
As I fly in on the tiny AirNorth airliner from Darwin – the 90-minute flight is the only way to access Groote – I can see the rugged shoreline and rocky beaches and I imagine the complex underwater topography and what may lurk in those pristine waters.
Groote’s isolation has allowed it to nurture a healthy marine ecosystem, one that is replete with predator species such as snapper, giant trevally, nannygai, queenfish and sharks. Yes, as much as they might suffer from poor PR, sharks are a critical ingredient in any fully-functioning ecosystem.
From the tiny dusty airstrip, I am transferred 20 minutes to the Groote Eylandt Lodge along with a few FIFO blokes who’ll be sweating it out at the mine where the massive dump trucks and shovels dig the valuable manganese ore, the predominant source of capital. This valuable, coal-like metal has been mined here since 1964 and is a vital ingredient in modern steel-making.
Royalties are paid to the local Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC) and some of these funds are used for community projects and developments like Groote Eylandt Lodge, the adjacent arts centre and two state-of-the-art, twin 150hp-powered boats, custom built in the USA and decorated with local indigenous motifs.
I settle into a very comfortable ‘glamping’ style tented accommodation, an easy stone’s throw from the beach. The sound of the surf combatting the hard rocky shore is curiously soothing and I’m lulled into a welcome nap before my first fishing excursion.
But it isn’t long before I’m woken from a pleasant slumber by a massive silhouette standing in the doorway.
“Knock! Knock!,” says Scott Wurramarrba in the absence of a hard door. Scott is a local elder and a minor mountain of a bloke with a barbed wire beard and a shearer’s handshake. He’s the real deal.
“The nose is a bit of a giveaway,” he jokes, pointing to a large, but unusually slender nasal appendage, “my dad was Greek.”
In a well-rehearsed process, Scott launches one of the boats from its trailer and loads refreshments and fishing tackle for a solid afternoon’s fishing. The two big outboards are soon on song, racing us across the choppy waters and out to Scott’s favourite fishing spots.
“Righto!,” announces Scott after a while, “let’s get stuck in.”
At our first location, we trail lures behind the boat and no sooner are the hooks wet and we’re on.
“Get ‘em in!” Scott urges me as I fumble with the reel. I haven’t put on my waist bucket, so the end of the rod starts to dig into my tender bits as I struggle to land what I’m certain is my biggest fish ever.
“Don’t back off, keep the line tight … “
Whatever it is, it has plenty of life in it as I pull on the rod and reel it in a couple of metres at a time. Scott has the net and the gaff hook ready and he seems almost about to leap over the side with his weapons to get this monster on board.
A flash of silver teases me in the clear waters below as the excited animal fights to the last. But then, all of a sudden, the agitated antics of my fish are gone, and I’m left with a massive deadweight like I’ve hooked a refrigerator.
“Bugger!” is not what Scott exclaimed as he took the reel from my sore hands to land whatever had taken over my lure. A shark, around two metres, had taken the fish before I could get it close enough to the boat.
“You have to be quick,” Scott reminds me. “These guys will have your fish as quick as a flash.”
For the next two days, we fight, curse and lament, but still land an impressive array of fish that keeps the chefs busy and our tummies full.
(Lead image: Aerial of Groote Eylandt / image: Groote Eylandt Lodge)
Published 07 March, 2019