Bagging ‘broodstock’ breeders to keep the barra flowing into Lake Kununurra

I cast a paddletail plastic, with a weedless hook and flasher, at a rock bar along the banks of the Lower Ord, writes Recfishwest Communications Officer Zach Relph.

One crank of the reel, then let the paddletail slowly flutter down… and bingo! The rod bends, line peels and an East Kimberley barra is acrobatically leaping out of the water.

The fight is over relatively quickly and while it isn’t a trophy fish, it’s an important capture that’ll play a role in ensuring the ongoing stocking of barra into a fishing gem, where monster specimens are caught on a regular basis – Lake Kununurra.

Article author Zach Relph joined the North Regional TAFE crew to catch barra broodstock on the Lower Ord.

A lake brimming with barra

The ongoing Lake Kununurra barramundi stocking program has just seen the one millionth barra fingerling stocked into the waterway since the program started in 2013.

Now local and visiting fishers are reaping the rewards with the chance to wet a line in a world-class sportfishery.

Brimming with barra, safe and accessible with no saltwater crocs, as well as being free of big tidal movements typical of Kimberley rivers, it’s easy to see why Lake Kununurra is a must-visit fishing location for anglers.

All million fish released into the lake have been hatched and reared at North Regional TAFE’s (NRT) Broome Aquaculture Centre, with its aquaculture experts influential in the program’s success.

The stocking program exists because barra are unable to successfully reproduce in the freshwater lake – they require saltwater to complete the breeding process.

WATCH: See the action from the broodstock collection

NRT oversee the well-managed stocking program along with Recfishwest, the Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

That’s why straight after the latest release of juvenile barra into the lake on 18 July, attended by 150 locals and holidaymakers, the NRT team was already casting its eye to the future – catching more fish for breeding purposes – or broodstock, as they are called.

“We need to collect male barra for our maturation tanks at the Broome Aquaculture Centre so we can keep stocking fish into Lake Kununurra,” NRT’s Milton Williams explained.

“Barra are born as males, but transition into females at about 80cm. At the moment, we’re running out of males so we need to collect more while we’re here in Kununurra.”

The State Government has committed funds to the program over the next three years through the COVID-19 recreational fishing recovery package.

This will ensure the fishing enjoyed on the lake by East Kimberley locals and travelling anglers will continue to go from strength-to-strength.

Anthony Aris, of North Regional TAFE, slowly retrieving a hardbody lure during the collection effort. Pictures: Zach Relph / Recfishwest

The stocking effort is dependent on maintaining the genetic background of the barra found near Kununurra to maintain the genetic purity.

“Some of the fish will want to eventually follow their natural breeding migration, meaning they’ll want to swim downstream to the saltwater to spawn,” Milton told Recfishwest.

“The fish that do this will make their way through the diversion dam and into the Lower Ord.”

Bagging the broodstock

With NRT on the search for more broodstock, Recfishwest joined Milton and TAFE acting regional manager Anthony Aris in pursuit of breedable barra late last month with the best method to catch them just happening to be rod and line!

Fishing with rod and reel – and barbless hooks to help minimise potential injury – is an effective broodstock collection method, reducing handling stress.

This ensures the fish are in optimal condition for transporting back to the Broome Aquaculture Centre.

Milton and Anthony, who both have long associations with this stocking program, were aiming to catch fish preferably 60cm or bigger – a more suitable size for captivity and breeding purposes.

This barra from the Lower Ord, caught by Milton Williams, will breed more barra for the Lake Kununurra barra stocking program.

Milton has been involved in the Lake Kununurra stocking program since its infancy and was part of initial broodstock collection a decade ago.

Having watched each of the fish stocked through the program grow from a hatchling, he has a close affinity with the barramundi in Lake Kununurra.

“From collecting broodstock 10 years ago to now playing a part in stocking one million barra is fantastic,” Milton said.

“As an avid fisherman, to see the program go full-cycle and visit Lake Kununurra myself to catch the fish and have guys regularly ring us to say they’ve caught 1m barra is very rewarding.”

Spawning success

A female barra in the wild can produce 30 million eggs across a spawning period.

However, barra eggs and larvae require saltwater for successful fertilisation and Lake Kununurra is freshwater, meaning the barra stocked cannot complete the breeding cycle in the 55km lake.

Multiple spawning events take place at the NRT hatchery throughout the year, with one female barramundi producing up to 10 million eggs in the hatchery.

Anthony watchfully monitors the oxygen tank on the research vessel to ensure the barra caught were fighting fit.

After eggs are fertilised, the TAFE team separate the fertilised eggs from the non-fertilised eggs – the fertilised eggs float, whereas the non-fertilised sink, making it easy to differentiate.

“We separate the eggs and place the fertilised eggs into a hatching tank where they hatch,” Milton said.

“Once we feed the fish with zooplankton enriched with algae for a few weeks until they are big enough to eat artificial food.

“The time between hatching to releasing generally takes about 50 days and they’re measuring about 50mm by this stage.”

Fishing for the future

Outside of their day-to-day duties at Broome’s Aquaculture Centre, Milton and Anthony are hooked on the allure of chasing barra across the Kimberley’s vast array of rivers and creeks.

The two mad-keen recfishers hadn’t fished the Lower Ord in late July previously, but quickly homed in on a daily bite-time – roughly between 3pm and 5pm – at the areas in which we were fishing.

Downstream of Buttons Crossing – over Ivanhoe Crossing – proved fruitful during the broodstock collection, especially in the late afternoon.

Full steam ahead! Anthony and Milton heading towards a rock bar on the Lower Ord which holds a lot of barra.

Around this time the barra weren’t overly fussy or shy when a lure such as a Samaki Vibelicious 70mm, Daiwa Double Clutch 90mm or a Zerek Flat Shad were flicked in their proximity.

While I initially thought the Lower Ord barra would be more inclined to take natural-coloured lures resembling the bait fish they predate, the sportfish still engulfed bright orange, pink and green lures.

Frustratingly, some of the smaller sized barra – in the 25cm to 40cm bracket – would inquisitively follow a lure to the boat without taking a swipe.

However, when they did hook-up – every treble or single hook used had crushed barbs – you knew about it, especially because I was relatively under-gunned fishing with a 20lb outfit.

Even small barra prove why the species’ power is revered by many fishers.

Stocking up on magnificent fishing experiences

Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland caught this 70cm barra on the Lower Ord during the broodstock collection.

Following the collection efforts, Milton and Anthony returned to Broome with 13 barramundi which would become broodstock for the ongoing stocking program at Lake Kununurra.

The fish were safely driven back to Broome in two tanks – the same tanks which initially transported the latest batch of 50-day-old fingerlings from the Broome Aquaculture Centre to Kununurra.

With the State Government funding set to see 400,000 barra stocked into the lake annually for the next three years, the hatchery team is already readying fish for the next batch of stocking.

So, if you’re looking for a new fishing experience in a magnificent, be sure to visit Lake Kununurra.

Chasing a sportfish iconic to northern Australia at a location abundant with barra, while surrounded by the picturesque setting is a sight to behold and an experience to relish.

With this trailblazing program entering another exciting chapter, Recfishwest is excited to see future catches of magnificent trophy barramundi from Lake Kununurra for many more years to come.

From little things, big things grow! This 105cm barra that Luke Koyts caught on Lake Kununurra shows the success of the stocking program.