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Putting a line in the water
Flip Prior Putting a line in the water

Before I can even react, Greg "Hairy Dog" Harman leaps to his feet in the dinghy. "Let it go," he roars, and the line spools out before going slack.

Damn it, yet another barra just got away - but, oh well. Nothing for it but to sit back and keep enjoying the peace and quiet.

Unlike us, most people don't go home empty-handed from Hairy Dog's Ultimate Adventures barramundi fishing safaris in the Kimberley.

My friend Alicia, her partner Russell and I had arrived early and full of expectation at his fishing camp about 43km from Kununurra along the Parry Creek Road.

There, we find Hairy Dog eating breakfast with a satisfied grin. The previous day, Russell says, he and Hairy Dog had returned from an eight-hour trip with a weighty haul of five big barra.

Most ended up on the dinner table and it was, he says, delicious.

We set off on our shorter trip with a hopeful air. Before boarding a dinghy at the edge of the Lower Ord River, I ask how many saltwater crocodiles might be in the water.

"How many crocs? That's like saying how long is a piece of string," Hairy Dog's wife Jane says, waving us off with a grin.

Setting off up river, we pass dumbfounded looking cattle standing too close to sandy banks where massive salties loaf about in the morning sun.

Most ignore our presence - but ominously, some slither into the glassy water and disappear with a plop, leaving trails of bubbles in their wake.

Our first stop is a little cove to collect bait, just past the Cockburn Crossing. Hairy Dog lobs a throw net fringed with lead weights into the water and it comes back laden with wriggling mullet.

As we motor along at about 20 knots, House Roof Hill - a stunning red rock escarpment made famous in the movie Australia - looms large in the distance and the river, fringed by pandanus and red river gums, opens out.

Hairy Dog stops next to a bunch of tree roots sticking haphazardly out of the water.

"That's like a block of flats for bloody barramundi," he says, dropping the anchor. "All right, who knows how to catch fish?"

We are silent. He sighs, handing us each an overhead rod.

"If you get a bite, you don't try and hook it straight away," he orders. "You let him take some line and keep the rod still, then engage the line by turning the handle and strike."

As we fumble, he eyes us beadily. "Usually what happens is people get too excited - and everything I say goes out the window."

Casting out, we wait, whiling away time yarning about the Kimberley. Hairy Dog is an authoritative guide, having lived in Kununurra since the late 1970s.

Why the name "Hairy Dog", I ask. "Because I'm a mongrel," he replies. We nod. Most of his stories can't be repeated - but it's clear why tourism chiefs have branded him a "character".

We wait some more. As we fall into companionable silence, the sounds of nature grow louder.

Whistling kites wheel overhead in a battle with an eagle. Hairy Dog also identifies sulphur-crested cockatoos, honey-eaters and rainbow bee eaters.

Relaxing as water slaps rhythmically against the hull, I suddenly realise the attraction of fishing - and it has very little to do with catching a fish.

Suddenly, there is a flurry of excitement as another barra chomps into Alicia's hook.

But instead of her line sailing free, it jerks to a halt - she has accidentally left it engaged. Having swallowed the bait, the barra is gone in a flash.

We smirk at Alicia, who looks shamefaced as Hairy Dog patiently digs another mullet out of the bucket. Another hour later, despite stopping at several more popular barramundi hangouts, our hopes of fishing glory have faded.

For hours, the elusive fish have tormented us with nibbles, delicately descaling the hooked bait before swimming away.

Defeated, we head back. "It's pretty rare we don't catch a barra after a day's fishing," Hairy Dog says. "Me, I don't care if I catch a fish. I just like being out here in my office, being out there with nature. Every day you see something on the river you haven't seen before."

That night, another friend looks puzzled when I tell her we came home empty-handed. "We all caught one each when we went out with Hairy Dog," she says, trying for sympathy but looking smug.

'If you get a bite you don't try to hook it straight away.'"Greg Harman