If you have the guts…
  |  First Published: June 2003

With more than a metre of rain falling on Ballina in the past three months, one could be forgiven for saying the drought had broken – but west of the Pacific Highway, that’s far from the truth.

While areas around Casino and farther west have received way less than coastal regions, the brown lower Richmond River bodes well for the Winter season. Bream, jewfish and tailor have been caught in healthy numbers in the lower river and from the walls and beaches, and should continue to do so.

In dirty water like this, oily or smelly baits come into their own and it just comes down to what you can tolerate handling. With bully mullet milling around the recreational fishing area downstream from Burns Point, mullet gut is a natural pick for the bream – it’s oily, strong-smelling and reasonably tough on the hook to resist the daytime pickers. But the stuff is usually sold frozen in blocks and the thawed evil concoction can be decidedly messy to put on a hook.

Baitholder-style hooks with a couple of slices in the shank, such as the Mustad 955B pattern, help prevent the gut from bunching at the bend of the hook and clogging up the point and barb. When I can bring myself to use the stuff, which isn’t often, I just thread the hook in and out of it enough to keep the blob in place with the point and barb exposed. The firm, round ‘onion’ part of the gut is a good bait in itself but quite often these days it’s removed for the export market before the rest goes to the bait processors.

Mullet gut is a bit unpleasant if it’s had the chance to go off a bit but chicken gut, especially after an hour or so in the sun, gets my gagging reflex really going. A lot of the old hands use chook gut for its durability, availability and stinkability and it certainly produces results on bream in dirty water. Just remember to handle the bait with one hand and eat with the other!

To chase bream during a fresh I generally turn to strips of fresh mullet or salted tuna or bonito. Both have aromatic, oily flesh which permeates an through the water to help the bream find the bait. The tough skin also keeps to the hook well, although pickers can leave just the skin after a few minutes’ attack.

My favourite dirty-water bream bait is salted tuna or bonito flesh, which tends to be much tougher and picker-resistant. I usually have a few fillets of salted mack tuna or bonito in the freezer for just such occasions, and also for plenty of other Winter customers, including snapper, big tailor after dark and even jewfish. I just fillet a freshly-caught tuna, lay the fillets flesh-up on an old wire fridge shelf outdoors in a sunny spot and totally cover them with a thick layer of coarse salt. Usually, a day in the sun with the moisture-sapping salt on top is enough to turn a fillet into rubbery ‘fish jerky’.

I slice these bream baits into tapered 4cm or 5cm strips and put them on hooks from No 2 to 2/0, mostly suicide (octopus) patterns. I push the point through the fleshy side at the thinner end of the strip and thread the whole hook through the small hole in the skin, then back through the skin about two-thirds of the way down the strip. I leave the point and barb just clear of the flesh, with the rest of the hook flush with the skin.

The bait hangs easily from the top, with the turned-out hook eye usually stopping the top of the strip slipping down the hook shank. There are more cunning ways of concealing the short shank of these hooks but none better or faster for baiting up in the dark and getting fishing again quickly.

Another versatile bait to use in dirty water is the yabby, and they don’t even need to be kept alive. After a heavy fresh, fish move back into the river on the high tides looking for what has been flushed out by the fresh. If the fresh water lingered too long over the sandflats, yabbies will have died in numbers and present an easy feed.

Dead, and even slightly decomposing, yabbies come into their own at this time for a wide variety of fish. With, say, a No 2 long-shank hook, you could catch bream, whiting, flathead, blackfish and a host of other fish in successive casts – there’s nothing much that won’t eat them.

Blackfish will come into their own in the Richmond River as the water clears a little on each tide. There already have been some big catches of quality blackfish at Ballina, and on the walls at Evans Head during rough weather, and this will only improve over the next couple of months.

Weeks of rough onshore weather and regular squally downpours have kept offshore activity to a minimum, although catches have been good when a hole in the weather allows a trip.

The beaches and rocks have produced plenty of tailor and their size has made them most welcome. There hasn’t been a real chopper invasion for months, with kilo to 3kg fish doing the trick for the pillie-gangers and the metal-chuckers. Jewfish have been active around the mullet schools, particularly along the beaches, in the rough weather. The rougher the better seems to be the go, as long as there’s a bit of deeper water close to shore for the mullet (and the jewies) to hang in.

Offshore windows

While offshore days have been rare, those with the ability to act fast once that weather window opens have reaped the rewards with quality catches of snapper from the inshore reefs – an increasing rarity over the past few years.

Mackerel have also hung on nicely, with mostly smallish spotties which have been devilishly difficult to catch one day and engulfing anything that looks like food the next. They should hold on until the water temperature drops below 21°, which might not be until the end of the month.

The annual humpback whale migration should also begin to happen this month, so anyone heading offshore should be well and truly aware of this. Most northward-migrating whales tend to keep off about two or three miles but occasionally a few rambunctious young males will work quite close inshore – they look really big from a small boat and the closer you get, the bigger they look. If you’re anchored when you see whales coming towards you, it’s advisable to turn over your engine to give them a good audio indicator and to be ready at the anchor rope with a knife as they approach.

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