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Australia's Arrow Fish

Saratoga (The True Barramundi)

WITH the growing success of the many bass, barra and cod lakes in recent years in our sweetwater locations, it is often easy to forget some of the other fish that are available to anglers. One fish that is making a resurgence in popularity is the saratoga. Being part of the bony tongue family of fishes (Osteoglossidae), saratoga have been in Australia since Gondwanaland broke apart in the various continents.

Scattered throughout Africa, Asia and South America, the family encompasses some of the biggest freshwater fish in the world with the Arapaima gigas of South America being a true giant growing to in excess of 15 feet in length.
Known throughout the rest of the world as arrowanas, they are a highly sought after aquarium fish and due to difficulties in artificially breeding them and their slow breeding in the wild, they are very expensive.
The Asian arrowana (Scleropages formosa) is said to be a good luck charm to some cultures.
This species is found in several different colors (green, blue, red, gold) though it is genetically the same throughout the colors.

Saratoga are the true barramundi (aboriginal for large scaled fish) and this was their proper name until recent times. Barramundi was also applied to the Queensland Lungfish (also called the Ceratodus) which look similar to saratoga both in the water & out. It is believed that a mispronounciation of the name Ceratodus & some confusion on what fish was what led to the name "Ceratoga" or "Saratoga". It kind of stuck. In the mid-1980's the Qld Fisheries Service officially changed their name from Barramundi to Saratoga. In many parts of the Fitzroy system in Central Queensland Saratoga are still called Barramundi. I've drawn blank looks talking to some locals in the region after asking them if they've seen many 'toga down at the river. One fella even asked me if I was some sort of poof talking about dresses & the like! Struth!!!

In Oz, we are fortunate enough to have two species. The northern saratoga (Scleropages jardini) are found from the Gulf of Carpentaria right across the top end into Western Australia with a few small pockets on the east coast of North Queensland. These are also found in New Guinea.
The southern saratoga (Scleropages leichardti) are native only to the Fitzroy River system and its tributaries including the Dawson, Isaac, MacKenzie, Donn & Connors Rivers & Fairbairn Dam (Lake Marraboon) in Central Queensland. In recent times, the southern saratoga have been moved to various locations where they have established breeding populations. Some lakes that have received some fame for their good saratoga fishing are Borumba Dam and Lake Cania.
There is some evidence to suggest that there was once a third species in Australia (Scerlopages camphilleri) with some fossil evidence around Brisbane indicating they were once native to the area.

It only takes a quick look at a saratoga to get the idea they are a surface fish. Eyes on top of their heads and an almost flat back with no dorsal spines, these can be seen cruising along just under the surface looking for an easy meal of insects, mice, frogs, birds or anything that is unlucky enough to fall into the water and can fit inside their mouths.
They prefer to stay close to the cover of snags or over-hanging trees if they are available or lacking those, will commonly seek out areas protected from prevailing winds. This should be kept in mind when targeting them.
Generally a solitary fish, they don't tolerate their own kind much, but call a truce in their breeding season, which begins in late winter through spring.
At these times they can be found congregating around snags, with a preference for very bushy trees.
Once spawning begins, one parent will carry the eggs (as many as 60 or 80) in their mouths until they hatch and will continue to carry the fry in their mouths for up to six or eight weeks until ready to go their own way.
They will go without eating for the duration until the fingerlings are four to six inches and are then left to their own.
They grow to around 25cm in the first year and reach a breeding size of 45 - 50 cm in around four years. The average size caught is between 45 and 70cm.
It is widely held that the northern saratoga is the bigger of the two Australian species however a fish over one meter is extremely rare in either. The northern saratoga in New Guinea grows slightly larger than this, whether this is a genetic difference or due to conditions is not known.

Saratoga can be caught using many methods. While they are no Carl Lewis in the speed stakes, they are renown for their leaping abilities when hooked.
Bait, lures, fly, soft plastics, spinners, they all work.

Probably the easiest way to hook a saratoga is a bait suspended under a float. Leave it to sit in a likely spot for around 20 minutes and move if no interest. Bait can be anything from a hunk of steak to a live shrimp; it doesn't really mater with these fish.

For lure anglers, shallow runners are the best. Work likely areas in a methodical manner using a constant retrieve.
There's no real need for fancy twitching and shaking but go for it if that's what you prefer. Surface lures do work on saratoga, however the hook-up ratio is well below that of anything sub-surface. Saratoga just plain miss a lot of the time on a surface strike but as with any surface fishing it is always great to see & hear a strike.

The same goes for fly. There's nothing better than a surface strike, however a fly presented sub-surface is preferable. A good combination is to run a floating fly on an intermediate line and allow the line to pull the fly under before beginning to strip. Then use a fairly constant retrieve. Alternatively you could use a fast sink line and use a faster retrieve to stop your line/fly sinking too deep. I feel these are a better combination than using a sinking fly on a floating line.

Spinners are a great way to cover country and saratoga are real suckers for them. Any sort of spinner with a bit of flash does the trick. From small mepps and celtas right up to big double bladed spinnerbaits, 'toga will have a go at them. Buzzbaits work either on the surface or subsurface work well also.

Soft plastics do work, however probably not as affective as above-mentioned techniques. Unweighted plastics are probably best and can be cast fairly well on a light spin combo. Weighted plastics will need to be worked fairly quickly to avoid running too deep and out of the strike zone.

With all types of fishing, ensure your hooks are sharp. While saratoga do have a bony tongue, there is still plenty of soft spots inside their cavernous mouth for a hook to find a home. Some authors claim that a hard set is needed for the hooks to bite, however I feel this is poor advice. In my experience, the best way to get a solid hook-up once a strike/bite is felt, is to let the fish take line until it turns away from you before setting the hooks with a gentle pull.

Saratoga, mainly the southern strain, have been stocked in various lakes outside of their natural range.
This is mainly due to the dedication and hard work of our many fish stocking groups throughout Queensland.
Locations such as Lake Cania and Borumba Dam are famous 'toga hot-spots, however places that are sure to get some media attention in short order are Lakes Advancetown (Hinze Dam), Somerset, MacDonald, Lenthall, Awoonga, Marraboon (Fairbairn Dam), Samsonvale, Ewen Maddock Dam and Atkinsons Lagoon with Lake Proserpine (Peter Faust Dam) to the north getting a few fish that will hopefully be the start a breeding population.
Several other locations have been stocked but will take much longer to start breeding up to targetable numbers.
Saratoga have the rare ability to breed in almost any river, lake or stream that has favorable water temperatures.
This means that once a population is established in a location, they should be there indefinitely short of natural disaster, illegal or over fishing.

In Queensland there is a one fish per person limit (in possession) with a minimum size of 50 cm. They are quite poor table fare and I'm sure many a moggie would turn their noses at the smell. This means they should be viewed as a catch and release only fish.
Saratoga are one of the most beautiful of all Australian native fishes. They are one of my favorite fish and I'm sure they could be the same to you.
Give them a try some time.


Copyright© 2001 Garry Fitzgerald. Sweetwater Fishing Australia