Hoping for baitfish
  |  First Published: May 2011

After the miracle of below-average rainfall for the first quarter of the year, this could well turn out to be a cracker of a month.

Over the past several Mays we’ve been tortured with brown, silt-laden estuaries, murky inshore water and torrential downpours one after the other. Given half-decent weather this time around, we could certainly be in for something special.

This is always the best ‘overlap month’ when northern and southern species come together in numbers and if the conditions are favourable, the edge of the sea can become a living bouillabaisse. Mackerel mix it with sea-run mullet, snapper with spangled emperor, tailor with longtail tuna, bream with mangrove jacks, all in a sea of prawns, pilchards and other fish food.

But it all depends on the baitfish and although the inshore schools have been abundant further south, pilchards small and large and slimy mackerel are only just starting to appear in dribs and drabs.

Given the general northward migration of the bait, our time will come and everything is in place now.

Although there’s been sub-average rain, it’s been regular enough and heavy enough to make the Richmond River quite discoloured and dotted with rafts of water hyacinth from Coraki to Broadwater, and there’s not much life in that 30km stretch.

In fact these days there rarely is, thanks to the number of floodgated drains loaded with toxic blackwater and packed with the double whammy of acid runoff.

Better management of drainage infrastructure and farming practices on the floodplain are the highest priorities of the new Estuary Management Study and Coastal Zone Management Plan for the Richmond River documents, which were released recently.

Improved management practices affecting the riparian zone vegetation and bankside erosion, urban runoff and wastewater are considered medium priorities under the plan, prepared by Hydrosphere Consulting on behalf of the Ballina Shire Council, Lismore City Council, Richmond Valley Council and Richmond River County Council.

Whether anything will actually come of all this is another story and I’d be overjoyed if I saw any improvement in my lifetime, but you have to hope.

The first step would be to improve drain management, but that seems to face a chain of almost insurmountable obstacles posed by key stakeholders. I’m afraid the major shift in attitude will only come when forced by litigation.

Most of the fish activity this month will be from Pimlico downstream to the breakwalls at Ballina, with bream and mullet planning their seaward spawning runs and mulloway plotting their downfall.


If the water is clear, the bream will be down deep and will attack blades and soft plastics.

There have been plenty of bream taken this way already and the average size has been pretty good for Ballina, with plenty of fish around 700g. A few bigger travelling ‘snowy’ bream would also help, and if they’re going to visit this year it should be within the next month or so.

The Evans River has also hosted some quality bream with kilo-plus fish a strong possibility each trip. They’ve been fixated on surface offerings for months and in such a shallow system they’ll still be looking upward now, although they’ll like prawns and tiny baitfish rather than insects.

If we get another slug of dirty water coming down then the smelly baits like mullet gut and chicken gut will do the trick in both systems and the bigger fish will be caught after dark.

The smell of mullet in the water will also fire up the jewfish and if the beach netters lay off then some big jewies will be shadowing the moving schools. Some local diehards persist in illegally jagging mullet and sending them back out live but if you don’t want to risk getting busted then a live legal (30cm) chopper tailor can often do as well.

The March run of tailor didn’t amount to much at Evans Head although the beaches and headlands north of Ballina did provide some entertainment with lures and bait. Things should improve further this month, especially once the bait turns up in better numbers, and word from the south is that the tailor are on the move in reasonable numbers.

The beach formations have looked great, especially from Ballina to Evans, and they should reach their fishing potential over the next two months for bream, tailor, jewfish and, later, salmon.


Offshore, the mackerel should linger as long as the water is over 21° and this month there’s the chance at just about any sort of inshore fish you’d like. Spotties, Spanish, cobia, kings, amberjack, wahoo, mahi mahi, longtail tuna and many more are out there – find the bait and you could score anything, depending on the current and water depth.

And the bottom fish include all those northern visitors like red-throat and spangled emperor, tuskfish (‘parrot’), maori cod and all those other sweet, sweet table fish.

But they’re only incidentals to the main event, which is the annual inshore run of snapper. The reds have already been as good as they have been in several years, so there’s plenty of promise there, too.

The big problem has been access to all this – the Ballina bar is as bad as I’ve ever seen it, with a big buildup of sand much farther out than usual. The Evans bar is one long spit stretching northwards for almost 100m and at times has been knee-deep and covered with surfers.

Both are risky and need to be addressed with even more than usual caution.

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