Only the Territory could toss up a tourism gimmick so bizarre and so brilliant.

The Million Dollar Fish competition, days away from opening for season two, is what it sounds: somewhere in the Territory’s Top End swims a big, fat barramundi tagged with a $1 million prize bounty.

A hundred of its mates are worth $10,000.

The Sunday Territorian is with Outback Wrangler Matt Wright on his new catamaran Category Five at a secret Darwin Harbour location to send one of them back to the mangroves. On board is his crew and dog Naish, Bill “the barra whisperer” Sawynok and Brad Fanning from CrownBet, MDF’s funder.

Fanning’s business card says strategic partnership manager, but for the last two months he has been stationed in the Top End, fishing most days with the barra whisperer. From the Harbour, east to Groote Eylandt, south to the Katherine region, and from the Kakadu river network to the wild Victoria River in the west, Bill and Brad are close to reaching the full 101 complement of wild-caught barra.

The lucky pair won’t reveal where they’ve been, though Bill encourages people to try their luck at the popular spots.

Just to tantalise, he adds that two of the tagged fish so far are ‘metreys’; that is, fish more than a metre in length, and the marker by which serious barra fishos boast. Wright and his crew are flicking lures from the Category Five, hoping to catch, tag and release, without luck, another competition fish. He’s caught a few ‘metreys’ in his time.

Crown Bet’s Brad Fanning and Outback Float Planes operator Bonnie Keogh with a freshly tagged million dollar barra. PICTURE: Helen Orr
Crown Bet’s Brad Fanning and Outback Float Planes operator Bonnie Keogh with a freshly tagged million dollar barra. PICTURE: Helen Orr

The MDF concept was dreamt up by croc farmer, businessman and Tourism NT board member Mick Burns, who in 2014 ranked first in the NT News’ list of the Territory’s most powerful. The concept hit all the marks. It was an incentive to get people north for the traditionally quieter wet season months; it would get people beyond Darwin to the regions; and it played to the Top End’s tourism strengths.

Reaction in the TNT boardroom was positive, but there was scepticism outside. What were the chances of any fish actually getting caught? Would they get eaten? Were they really even out there?

In a trade mission to China last year, then CLP minister Peter Styles spruiked the competition to a roomful of potential Asian investors, hoping to impress on them the Territory as an innovative and lateral thinking place to do business.

The investors thought it was a joke and laughed. But there was no joke about it. MDF season one, in which 76 barramundi were tagged, exceeded all expectations. Close to 43,000 people registered from 62 countries.

A Tourism NT survey showed 6000 interstate visitors rolled up to the Territory specifically to have a crack the prize. Tourism boffins estimate this added $8.3 million to the local economy.

Tackle sales went through the roof. Charter companies put on extra outings. Even marine dealers reported selling boats and motors to hesitating buyers who allowed the competition to sway them over the line. As far south of Mataranka, some 420km from Darwin, the locals talk of the buzz of southerners heading north on the Stuart Hwy to try their luck at a barramundi retirement, or at least at an extended Top End holiday.

Ten tagged fish were caught in total. One bloke even caught two. Former Hawthorn AFL player Brent Renouf was another lucky fisho to cash in.

The $1 million fish was the big one that got away. It’s still out there somewhere and still tagged, but off the hook. None of the fish from last season can be claimed.

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Read more on The Million Dollar Fish Competition via their website here.