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Mt Isa

Outback Queensland

When most southerners hear mention of Mt Isa, they conjure images of arid landscapes, broad-hatted stockmen slouched on gangly horses and intensive mining activity. Few folks are likely to connect this iconic outback town with thoughts of quality freshwater fishing… Yet, as it happens, Mt Isa is a wonderful destination for anglers!

Charlotte with a cracking sooty grunter from Lake Julius, north of Mt Isa.

“Mt Isa boasts stunning scenery, a fascinating history, and a bunch of very friendly residents who obviously take great pride in their well-kept town.”

The Starlings with a lovely catch of sooty grunter from Lake Julius, north of Mt Isa.
Sooty grunter are handsome fish. They respond aggressively to a range of lures, flies and baits.
A big sooty grunter doggedly resists capture.
Both of Isa's lakes contain healthy populations of aggressive freshwater long toms.
Lake Julius is a very pretty inland fishing spot.
Camels on the road present an additional driving challenge around The Isa.
Lake Moondarra on the outskirts of Mt Isa is a lovely body of water that seems to produce better barra fishing each year as stocking continues.
Since our first proper visit to this isolated region some years ago, we’ve developed a soft spot for “The Isa”, as she’s widely known. A veritable oasis in the desert, Mt Isa boasts stunning scenery, a fascinating history, and a bunch of very friendly residents who obviously take great pride in their well-kept town. Best of all, The Isa also offers some mighty fine fishing!

Mt Isa represents the ideal base for exploring two of the loveliest man-made lakes in the nation. The first and best-known is Lake Moondarra, located just 15 km from the town’s centre. Moondarra is an aquatic playground for The Isa’s 20,000 or so residents, especially during the intense heat of summer. Much less publicised is Lake Julius, another 100 km 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 has produced reasonable numbers of these fish for angling hopefuls over that time, including quite a few trophies exceeding the magic metre mark. The local fish-stocking group is very active, and helps to host a wonderful Fishing Classic at the end of October each year. (For more information on this great event, visit www.lakemoondarrafishingclassic.com.au) To be honest, however, only a few of this event’s hundreds of entrants are likely to score a barra over the course of that busy weekend. Typically, just a handful of these highly sought-after fish are taken amongst the much more prolific (and willing) long toms, catfish and grunter. However, in recent years the strike rate on barra in this dam has definitely been improving.

Much to our delight and surprise, on one visit a few years ago, Jo and I we were fortunate enough to see one of Moondarra’s chrome-plated prizes landed. During an early evening foray onto the lake with fish-stocking stalwarts, Carl Nicholson and Trevor Kidd, we watched Carl hook, play and land a beautiful barra in the 90 cm-plus class that smacked his shallow running minnow lure over a dense mid-lake weed bed. This fish was carefully transported to a holding tank to be tagged and returned to the dam as one of the jackpot prize fish for that year’s Classic.

As much as we enjoyed Lake Moondarra, it was Lake Julius we were really keen to see on that visit, and in the pre-dawn gloom next morning, a group of us with three boats in tow behind our trio of 4WDs hit the long and often bumpy road north to this little-talked-about sweetwater jewel.

After turning off the sealed highway north of Mt Isa, the dirt road leading into Lake Julius can best be described as “interesting”. It offers a challenging combination of mostly unmarked but rather spectacular dips, various washaways and abundant wandering wildlife in the form of kangaroos, feral camels and unfenced cattle. Constant attention on the part of the driver is absolutely essential, especially around dawn and dusk. You need to allow a good hour and a half to two hours travel time each way from The Isa, especially if towing a boat, van or trailer.

Construction of Julius Dam was completed in 1976. The lake it created is primarily intended to provide water for local irrigation, as well as backing-up Moondarra as a water supply for Mt Isa’s domestic and mining demands. The lake’s recreational value is officially rated as secondary, but is nonetheless important.

Lake Julius has a reputation for being one of Australia’s best sooty grunter or “black bream” fisheries, and it certainly didn’t disappoint during our brief visit. Although we failed to tangle with any of the lake’s legendary 50 to 60 cm black-flanked bruisers, we did catch a string of solid grunter up to the low and mid 40 cm range. Thanks to their thickset build, these hump-shouldered fish are heavy for their length and pull like wild bullocks when hooked on light tackle!

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 beautiful, twisting arms, coves and bays to explore and we certainly didn’t see or fish all of it during our day on the water. It’s worth noting that freshwater crocodiles are 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 grunter react well to baits such as earth worms, locally caught shrimps, 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. Favoured offerings include floating/diving minnows and plugs, lipless vibration lures, soft plastics, compact spinnerbaits, spoons and old fashioned spinners. If you pack your bream, bass, trout or yellowbelly gear (and lures), you won’t go far wrong.

Fresh sooty grunter make reasonable tucker, especially if gilled, gutted, wrapped in aluminium foil and cooked in the coals of a campfire. There are also a few barra in Lake Julius, but encounters with these fish are rare.

Lake Julius had been on my “must visit” list for several years and it was great to finally tick it off. However, something tells me I’ll be back there before too long… It’s just that kind of place.

While you’re there…

Apart from offering some surprisingly good fishing in its surrounding waterways, there’s plenty to see and do in Mt Isa! Take an underground tour of the Hard Times Mine, visit the fascinating Outback At Isa display, drive up to the lookout, take in a rodeo or check out the unique underground hospital and museum!

Mt Isa also offers a broad range of accommodation options and plenty of shops, restaurants and other services for visitors. It’s quite the thriving community!

Jo with a typical sooty grunter or “black bream” from Lake Julius.
Lake Moondarra on the outskirts of Mt Isa is a lovely body of water that seems to produce better barra fishing each year as stocking continues.
There are plenty of catties in Mt Isa's waterways, too!

GETTING THERE

Make no mistake, Mount Isa is a long way from anywhere! It lies 1,825 km drive north west of Brisbane, so you’d need to allow at least two days to travel there by road from the state capital.

Fortunately, Mount Isa is well serviced by a modern airport that receives direct flights from Brisbane, as well as Townsville and Cairns. Both Qantas and Virgin fly in and out of Mount Isa, but be warned – the airfares aren’t particularly cheap!

Lake Julius is situated a little over 100 km north west of The Isa and the last 70-odd kilometres are over a dirt road of variable qulaity. It can be rough at times!

MT ISA

Mt Isa

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