Fishers from across the world converge on the Fitzroy River to chase barramundi.
Fishers from across the world converge on the Fitzroy River to chase barramundi.

Catch me if you can at CQ fishing hotspot

THEY are slipperier than Houdini, have more lives than the average feline and are known to embark on epic adventures to rival Disney's loveable but forgetful Dory.

"Actually, some are just as forgetful as Dory," says Bill Sawynok, a man who has made it his mission to track the adventures of Australia's most well-known fish, including the "charismatic" barramundi that lures anglers from all corners of the globe.

Managing arguably the world's largest voluntary tag-and-release scheme, boasting a database of more than 1.2 million fish across Queensland, Bill has enough fish tales for a blockbuster trilogy. Three decades' worth, in fact.

Over that time even he has been gobsmacked by some of the numbers. A mangrove jack (as forgetful as Dory) tagged and recaptured 13 times; a barramundi, first tagged two decades ago, now nudging the oldest-recorded fish in the world, at 22; and the fastest recapture of a tagged fish - another barramundi - in just 10 seconds.

"That barramundi was either forgetful or dumb," Bill joked of the lightning recapture in Rockhampton's Fitzroy River. A hidden gem of a destination, renowned among those in the know as Australia's most accessible and one of the most abundant barramundi sites, it is tipped to experience a surge in fishing tourism as one of Queensland's three new net-free fishing zones (declared November last year).

When not crunching numbers, Bill is out fishing with almost as many fishing mates as fish on his database. Hands-down, his most mind-boggling encounter involved a bream that grabbed his lure sideways and proceeded to bash it on a rock.

 

"That's something I'd never seen before or since," he said.

"It happened right at my feet, where the water was quite clear. The bream was looking for the lure to be some kind of food and it just wanted to kill it before it ate it. It soon realised its mistake, dropped the lure and swam off."

As for epic adventures, there's little doubt a couple of Australian bass - one named Bill in his honour - take the cake. They embarked on a four-year "love journey", travelling 260km from Lake Baroon in Maleny to breed in an estuary in Tinana Creek at Maryborough - leaping a 36-metre dam wall and negotiating two weirs on the way.

"I'm not sure if that's an honour, but I'll take it anyway," Bill said.

Bill is a former public servant who once worked as a surveyor in land and resource management, a world away from fisheries.

He took a leap of faith 20 years ago when his hobby, Queensland's Suntag fish-tagging program (established 1987) and the decision to launch the annual Rocky Barra Bounty tag and release competition (in 1999) to further bolster data, took over his day job. The rest is history.

Today, Bill and his son Stefan run Infofish Australia, a fishing Pentagon of sorts, headquartered in Rockhampton.

The Fitzroy River is their testing ground. Their crystal bowl forecasting system (a bit like the BoM, but for fishing) is already showing a 20-40% rise in barramundi catch rates in the first year of the net-free zone and a whopping 80-120% increase in threadfin salmon.

Better still, Bill said the trend was only going to increase. "There are two positives about the introduction of the net-free zone. Firstly, the conservation of stocks will improve with the removal of commercial nets and, secondly, I believe we can create a serious tourism industry based on recreational fishing in the Fitzroy."

Staged on the Fitzroy River, Australia's second-largest catchment that flows to the ocean, the Rocky Barra Bounty (October 21-23) is certainly doing its bit for fishing tourism. It is a competition so popular that competitors travel from across Australia. Forty boats are on this year's waiting list.

Ahead of the event, Bill and Stefan have unveiled a smartphone app, Track My Fish, which they claim offers the world's first real-time monitoring tool for fishers. According to Bill, the app takes fishing into the 21st century. Its success rests on three decades of tag-and-release efforts across 300-plus Queensland locations by an army of volunteers (now numbering about 600), who inject passive tags into target species.

Continuing the personal touch, Bill, who works 365 days a year (even on fishing holidays), sends a certificate to every person who recaptures a tagged fish. No small feat, given that 60,000 of the 1.2million fish on Infofish Australia's database have been recaptured (and released). Certificates have been sent as far as the United States and United Kingdom. At 71, Brisbane's Mick Dohnt holds the record for tagging more than 25,000 fish.



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