The Cairns area has an amazing number of fishing options available to anyone with a small boat and a thirst for adventure. The options include but are not limited to offshore bottom bouncing, light and heavy tackle game fishing, estuarine baitfishing, lure and fly fishing and light tackle fresh water as well as tackle busting barras in fresh water impoundments such as Tinaroo Dam, and many more. There are so many fishing choices in this area that whatever the weather conditions and time of year there is something fun and challenging to do.
Facilities such as good boat ramps and many quality tackle stores along with a large charter and guide industry, backed up with hire boat options and a range of accommodation ensures all anglers can have a rewarding experience.
Winter fishing here in the tropics on one of the local jewels in the fishing crown, The Russell/Mulgrave river system, is a must do activity for any keen visiting or local angler.
The picturesque Russell and Mulgrave Rivers are situated approximately 50 km (about a 40minute drive) directly to the south of Cairns. These two rivers merge near the mouth and form a salt-water estuarine system known as Mutchero Inlet. The combined waterway then meets the Coral Sea at Russell Heads where there are several huts situated along the narrow beachfront spit which separates the ocean from the small creek system known as the Anna Branch. The homes at Russell Heads provide holiday and permanent accommodation for locals from both Babinda and Cairns and are used mainly on weekends or school holidays.
Russell Heads is only accessible by boat from either Deeral or Bellenden Ker boat ramps.
The Mulgrave River and then down to Russell Heads can be accessed through the township of Deeral. Travelling down the highway south of Cairns you will pass through the small townships of Edmonton, Gordonvale turnoff and then Fishery Falls before reaching Deeral where you turn left off the highway and make the short journey (1km) to the boat ramp.
Deeral has an excellent boat ramp, good toilet facilities, and limited parking. There are two dry boat marinas where boaties can access hire boats, fuel, bait and ice as well as use the facilities for launch/retrieval storage or secure parking. There is also a shop on the highway that offers fuel, bait, ice and food.
Most of the bait fishing is downstream of the boat ramp where Russell Heads is situated. Those anglers who head upstream are mostly lure casting the heavily treed banks and snags for barramundi, mangrove jacks, tarpon, sooty grunter and jungle perch. This upper freshwater section is a scenic waterway and most anglers treat it as a catch and release waterway, as they do with the upper section of the Russell River.
The Russell River can be accessed at the excellent boat ramp via the small township of Bellenden Ker which is only a further 10 minutes drive south from Deeral where once again anglers can access all the essentials. If you turn left off the highway at the shop and then keep right you will be at the boat ramp in about 5 minutes. This is also an excellent ramp with toilet and picnic facilities available.
The junction of the two rivers is at Mutchero Inlet and in each case it will only take you about 10 to 15 minutes to run from the respective boat ramps downstream to this scenic salt arm estuary. Take care, particularly when travelling at low tide as on both rivers there are plenty of shallow sand bars and a few propeller-munching snags which need to be avoided. If in doubt, slow down and remember the sand bars tend to move around a bit each year depending on the strength of the wet season flush. Boat travel on these rivers for the first time needs care and travel during the night for a first timer, especially on a low tide, is not recommended!
If you are interested in bait fishing there are usually good supplies of herring and sardines to be caught in a cast net as well as other good baits from time to time, such as prawns, mullet, garfish and feather bream (silver biddies). These baits can be caught along the mangrove banks of the junction and are best caught prior to or after the tide has started to drop out of the upper branches of the mangroves. Look for “sards” on the upstream side of the current in front of any fallen branches or sunken cover. This can sometimes be a costly exercise, so be careful when casting in a swift current and try to avoid throwing over the snag. A mono cast net of around 7ft is ideal and of course you will need a live bait tank set up to preserve your catch. Look for prawns at the bottom half of the tide in the small gutters and creek mouths. These live baits are definitely the most productive, however good quality frozen prawns, gar fillets, mullet and pilchards will also produce top fish. Many quality fish can be captured on cast lures especially queenfish.
Drifting through the shallow sand bar systems of the Russell/Mulgrave rivers throughout Mutchero Inlet and in the river mouth around any tide change period or slow making tides, are ideal times to cast and retrieve lures for queenfish. I have always found the slower neap tides on the quarter moons seem to bring in bigger numbers of these spectacular fish, but they can be caught on all moon phases.
Queenies usually respond well to a range of lures, including shallow diving minnow type lures such as a gold bomber and a vast array of top water poppers, as well as small, high-speed chrome lures. My favourite method is to cast poppers for these great fish. To do this properly, I would suggest a medium action rod of about 2 - 2.2m in length matched up with a quality spinning reel capable of holding around 200+metres of mono or braid. Your favourite local tackle store can help you make a selection. A mono trace of 40lb gives good protection against the small, sharp teeth of the queenie.
This should be tied onto the mainline double and a strong snap, so you can change lures quickly if required. Queenies are often feeding on schools of small whitebait or sardines in the river mouths and, if you come across this scenario, with birds actively feeding on the crumbs, then you will be in for a treat. Work out whether to use the tide or wind to drift up on the feeding zone, where the bait school is, and then commence working your poppers as you drift through the zone; then repeat. Sometimes when the fish are in a frenzy boat traffic noise does not matter, however avoid zooming through the zone in your boat and breaking up the bait school, as this will disperse the predators and make your task more difficult.
When you get your queenie boatside there are many pitfalls for the new player. They have a habit of quickly wrapping your line around the motor leg or chafing you off on the bottom of the boat. Be prepared to move quickly from one end of the boat to the other, keep a close eye on the line and be ready to immerse the rod tip to help keep the line clear. A large queenfish will fight to the death and if you are planning a photo-and-release you had better be quick. Following a tough fight they often go into shock and will die in front of you as you see their body break into a shiver. If you are planning to release your fish, 7-8kg minimum fishing line is recommended, as you will shorten the duration of the fight and improve the chances of survival.
If you do not need a photo, tail the queenie and use your hook outs/pliers to unhook the fish while it is in the water. If the fish has deeply swallowed a live bait hook, just cut off the line short and make a quick release.
A large landing net is recommended for every other situation. In the net keep the fish bent double to prevent it from going ballistic, damaging itself as well as you and, if it is a bleeder, you and your boat getting spray-painted with blood. Remove the lure/hook and quickly take your picture before releasing. Queenfish have razor sharp spines - seven on top and two beneath - which will slice you open quickly if you hold them the wrong way. Any fish being kept should be dispatched humanely with the old faithful donger, and bled immediately before being placed on ice.
Till next month… happy queenfishing!Reads: 5435