Sunday Share - Chasing Dinosaurs

By Gus Lapin 12/09/2018

Eugene O'Dell has an obsession with Saratoga, after reading this I reckon it's time for a trip up north.

There is a rule of thumb in the NT when picking a particular waterway to target Togas and that is “Any waterway west of the Stuart Highway doesn’t hold Saratoga” and this rings true with the exception of Manton dam which holds some fairly hefty specimens. They are carnivorous opportunistic predators, with excellent eyesight, a large mouth with sharp teeth and a long body, flat on top with no dorsal spine. Their eyes are on top of the head and slightly sunk, helping them to be excellent surface feeders. They eat insects, small fish, frogs, small rodents, shrimps and yabbies and anything that may drop into the water and fit into their mouth.

There are two species of Saratoga found in Australia, Saratoga Jardini or Gulf Saratoga and the Saratoga Leichardti or Southern Saratoga. These two types of Saratoga, native to Australia are part of the family of ancient fishes Osteoglosidae (bony tongue) with relatives known as Arowana found in parts of Asia, South Africa and South America. Its most famous relative is the Arapaima or Arrowing Fish of the Amazon River.

It is generally thought that Saratoga spawn from September to early November. Females will brood a clutch of eggs in their oral cavity for around 10-14 days, the hatchlings will remain in the mothers’ oral cavity for another 4-5 weeks before getting big enough to leave and feed under their own steam.

The Southern or Leichardti Saratoga are found in the Fitzroy River system in Queensland. They can also be found in dams, rivers, billabongs or large pools and slow flowing sections of streams often near the surface or near shore among aquatic vegetation. They are brown to olive overall with a silvery sheen and 1 or 2 orange to pinkish spots on most scales.

The Jardini or Gulf Saratoga are found in the NT in the rivers draining east into the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Top End. Small pockets of Jardini live in the western flowing river systems of the Cape York Peninsula. It has a large mouth with chin barbels. They are dark brown to greenish above and lighter on the sides. Each scale has a reddish pink crescent-shaped mark on their scales.

There’s a lot to be said about the not so humble Saratoga and in the Top End they are regarded as the “other” glamour species when fishing the billabongs and freshwater waterways here in the NT. For me I regard them highly as a hard, and more often than not dirty fighter, especially when targeting them in the thick lily beds and snaggy areas they live in.

What’s the peak season for Saratoga in The Top End? This one is fairly easy to answer, although you can catch a toga any time of the year up here, I would definitely say the best time of year for Togas is in the build-up months of September right through to the end of November when the wet season kicks in and the fish start to spread out with the rising water and eventually flooding making access to them a little more difficult.

Getting into the nuts and bolts of fishing for these fish is a fairly simple affair, generally I’ll fish a seven weight with a floating line and preferably a fluorocarbon leader system, similarly if I’m being a bit lazy I’ll use an intermediate line but adjust my style to suit fishing surface flies. What flies do I use? Honestly I take my lead from bass fishing using gurglers, wiggle minnows, barra bunnies, toads and a few other creations of my own. Ultimately it’s up to the individual but the previous list are the stalwarts of my billabong fly box, other suggestions for flies would be divers, small cone head poppers even XL leeches, woolly buggers and Chernobyl ants, quite honestly anything you can fish the first couple of feet in the water column will suffice but weed guards are definitely a necessity on any fly you’re using. Something I have come to realise is the retrieve technique when fishing for toga is a long slow draw almost like drawing a bow they tend not to like an aggressive “bloop” retrieve, a slow continuous retrieve that creates a bow wave seems to be more effective, that said sometimes it does require a couple of short strips of the fly just to pique their interest especially in the cooler months of the Top End dry season.

When blind casting to Toga there isn’t much subtly involved, the delivery of the fly is there to mimic something that has fallen into the water and pique their interest, yes you can, and I have, sight cast to them and to watch them rush and eat the fly is quite spectacular especially when they are actively feeding on the surface and yes they will jump making it visually exciting to the angler as well. With an average size of 60cm the Togas up here provide all fisher folk, be it lure or fly, a very credible sport fishing adversary

Setting the hook on theses prehistoric animals can prove to be difficult at times as their name says they are not only bony tongues but also have a very bony mouth so the use of a strip strike is essential. Hook selection can be critical, my personal preference is a Gamakatsu B10S ranging from size 2 to size 2/0 depending on what they are eating at the time.

Fighting a Toga, once hooked can prove difficult, especially when you’re tussling with a larger model say 65cm and up. They are dirty fighters and will try everything to throw the hook, including biting lily stems and then twisting their bodies in an effort to dislodge the hook, yes it’s happened to me and it leaves you with the illusion of still being hooked up but in reality you’re having the fight of your life with a lily stem. Other tactics they will use are wrapping you up in a snag, to counter this tactic you can quite often give then a little slack in the line and the quite often swim off the snag which then enables you to continue the fight but, always remember “dirty fighters”. When fighting a Toga I will endeavour to get the fish up on the surface with its head out of the water in order to reduce the stress of the fight to the bare minimum, yes they are a fairly hardy fish but I prefer the fight to be short and sweet to be able to get a quick pic and then back in the water.

Those that know me would readily admit that I have a deep admiration for Saratoga, others would say it’s an addiction, why do I fish for them as opposed to barramundi like most fishos in the Territory? Quite simply I find them more of a challenge, you may say that’s a little single minded but where else can you chase a prehistoric fish in an landscape as epic as the Northern Territory, with the ochre reds mixed with vivid greens and crystal clear skies on a billabong somewhere more often than not with no one else around. The only thing better than catching one myself is watching others, particularly my southern mates, when they come to visit catch one. Seeing the sense of awe on a mate’s face when they get one of these awesome creatures to the net is more than enough for me to keep going back and chasing dinosaurs.