In outback Queensland’s sparsely populated Gulf Country lies a little town every fisherman 4x4 traveller should add to the bucket list.
When people hear Mount Isa, fishing isn’t what immediately comes to mind. Images of arid landscapes, broad-hatted stockmen slouched on gangly horses and intensive mining activity cloak the thoughts of top-class freshwater fishing. And yet, Mount Isa is actually a wonderful destination for keen or even semi-keen anglers.
Mount Isa provides the ideal base for exploring two of Australia’s loveliest man-made lakes or freshwater impoundments. The first and by far the best known of these is Lake Moondarra, located just 15km from the town’s centre and a favourite aquatic playground for about 20,000 Isa residents, especially during the intense heat of summer. Much less publicised is Lake Julius, situated another 100km or so north along the twisting Leichhardt River as it flows (albeit intermittently) towards the distant Gulf of Carpentaria.
Lake Moondarra has been stocked with hatchery-bred barramundi for many years, and at times has produced reasonable numbers for angling hopefuls, including quite a few trophies for over the magic metre mark. The local fish-stocking group is especially active, and help host a wonderful Fishing Classic at the end of October each year. The popular event sees hundreds of entrants try their hand at a spot of fishing, each hoping to score a barra over the course of the busy weekend – very few succeed. Typically, only a handful of these highly sought-after fish are taken, among the much more prolific (and willing) longtoms, catfish and grunter. Sadly, successive wet season floods, coupled with less-than-optimum stocking levels, have actually seen a decline in the lake’s already low barra catch rates.
Construction of Julius Dam was completed in 1976, with the lake created to provide water for local irrigation, and back-up Moondarra as a water supply for Mount Isa’s considerable domestic and mining demands. The Lake’s recreational value is officially rated as secondary, but is nonetheless important.
The 18.3 metre concrete buttress dam wall at Julius is located downstream at the junction of the Leichhardt River and Paroo Creek. When full, the lake has a surface area of around 1,255ha, with an average depth of close to nine metres. Much of this beautiful body of green-hued water is framed by steep red hills and ochre cliffs dotted with clumps of vegetation. There are dense strands of paperbarks along the water’s edge in many places, adding to the idyllic outback appearance.
Lake Julius has a well-earned reputation for being one of Australia’s best and most consistent sooty grunter or ‘black bream’ fisheries, and it certainly didn’t disappoint during our brief, one-day visit. Although we failed to tangle with any of the lake’s legendary 50 to 60cm black-flanked bruisers, we did catch a string of solid grunter up in the low to mid 40cm range. Thanks to their amazing thick-set build, these hump-shouldered fish are especially heavy for their length and pull like wild bull when hooked on reasonably light tackle! They were a real handful when pinned close to snags or weed beds, demanding stiff drags and white-knuckled fighting tactics.
While there are some shore-based opportunities around this lake, you really need a boat, kayak or canoe to tap into the best of the sooty grunter action. Although it’s not a huge dam by southern standards, there are plenty of twisting arms, coves and bays to explore – we certainly didn’t see all it has to offer during our day on the water.
It’s worth noting that freshwater crocodiles are quite common in the lake, but there’s virtually no chance of encountering a lost salty this far inland, so canoeing and kayaking are safe enough options.
Sooty grunters respond well to bait such as earth worms, locally caught shrimp, frozen saltwater prawns or even strips of steak and chicken. Unfortunately, so do the lake’s prolific fork-tailed catfish. For this reason, most serious sooty hunters prefer to use lures or flies.
There are reportedly a few barra present in Lake Julius (mostly escapees from Moondarra that have made their tortuous way downstream during floods) but encounters with these fish are rare and we certainly didn’t come across any. Not that it mattered, as we had an absolute ball catching and releasing a string of lovely sooties. We also got stitched up and broken off by a couple of beauties in the snags.
Lake Julius had been on my ‘must visit’ list for several years and it was great to finally tick it off. Something tells me I’ll be back there before too long. It’s just that kind of place.
How to get there
Lake Moondarra lies just 15km from downtown Mount Isa over sealed roads. By contrast, Lake Julius is about 100km north of the Isa, with about three quarters of that distance being over a dirt road of variable quality. Check conditions in town first before making the trip. Be particularly wary of wandering stock and wildlife, especially at dusk and dawn.
When to visit
Travel in this region can be problematic and river levels are prone to rapid fluctuations during the northern Wet Season: from December until March, or even as late as early April. Daytime temperatures may also be extreme in summer. The best weather combinations and fishing tends to occur from August until early November and again in late April and May. Cold nights from June to August reduce the fish activity (and catch-ability).
Camping is only allowed on the shores of Lake Moondarra during the annual Fishing Classic. At other times, visitors should seek accommodation 15 minutes or so away in town, at one of Mt Isa’s many caravan parks, motels or hotels. The status of camping at Lake Julius seems to vary over time (and depends on who you talk to). It’s generally agreed that camping is permitted below the dam wall, near the (usually) dry river crossing. Camping is not encouraged on the lake shore itself.
Planning a fishing trip? Find and book accommodation in Mount Isa.