Hidden in the hills behind the little town of Kyogle is a little gem of a waterway called Toonumbar Dam. It was built in 1972 across Iron Pot Creek, in the headwaters of the Richmond River catchment, and holds about 11,000 megalitres when full.
I arranged with NSWFM Editor Tony Zann to meet at Kyogle; I was coming from the Tweed while he was heading up from Evans Head. The road from Murwillumbah to Kyogle and the one out to the dam have some awe-inspiring views but there are some sharp turns. If you are running a bit late and are trying to push the limits to make it in time for an early morning topwater bite, you will be looking for trouble.
It would be a much better idea to leave half an hour earlier and enjoy the leisurely drive and take it slowly to soak in the majestic scenery on the way back. There are other good reasons to drive slowly and have your wits about you – there are plenty of wallabies and grey kangaroos lining the road.
The dam is about 30km west of Kyogle and is a long, snaking waterway. It has two ramps, one at the dam wall and one at Bells Bay, at the end of a few kilometres of steep and winding gravel that can often be in poor condition.
We opted for the one closer to the dam wall and although it is fairly steep and narrow, we had no dramas. The ramp at Bells Bay has a bit of a steep drop-off so it would be wise to exercise caution when launching or retrieving your boat, especially when the dam level drops below about 85%.
A thick fog had settled over the dam so finding the bank was a bit of a chore. Fortunately Tony had his built-in compass switched on and after a few minutes had us fishing a favourite bank.
The dam often undergoes blooms of blue-green algae and had quite obviously gone through a major bloom recently. Large wind lanes covered the surface and particles floated in golden yellow rafts on the surface.
We had our reservations over what it would do to the fish but these soon disappeared when Tony’s popper was taken off the surface in a spectacular strike. The fish pulled very hard and had the light spin reel groaning in protest. Tony loves the Samurai 001 he favours for casting ultra-light poppers and it was bent like a sickle but I eventually stuck the net under the chunky bass. After a few quick photos it went on its way.
It was my turn next. I was following up Tony’s popper with a little vibration lure fished on a G Loomis 783 crankbait rod. I was casting it up tight against the bank and after a fairly rapid retrieve was allowing it to flutter down the face of the weed banks.
While letting the lure flutter down the weed it got hammered and the fish almost had me buried in the greenery but the rod had enough grunt to pull it clear. At about 44cm to the fork, it was a good fish in excellent condition. It swam away none the worse for wear and we proceeded casting the bank.
We both were impressed at the condition of the fish and how strong they were for their size. The massive amount of algae in the water had not been detrimental to their health.
The two hits were all we got on that bank and once the fog cleared we made our way up the dam. We fished a few different banks until we found a pattern developing and then stuck to the specific type of structure.
The fish were generally tight on rocky banks that had the boat sitting in about 3.5m to 6m of water. We caught fish on topwaters, rattlers and plastics, with the plastics just pipping the other lures in numbers.
The main idea was to get the lure as tight to the structure as possible without getting snagged. When fishing the bibless minnows we found that most hits occurred when the retrieve was paused and the lure was allowed to flutter down.
Similarly with the plastics, a few short sharp jerks would have the lure darting out of the structure and when it was allowed to free-fall back down, a strike would come.
Tony had one fish eat his holo-pattern 3” Atomic Jerk Minnow literally as soon as it landed. When he went to turn the handle it was already on but this was the exception to the rule.
We managed about 15 to 20 bass for the day and pulled the pin about 3pm. Each bank we worked gave up a few fish and one actually resulted in a double hook- up so the fishing was right up there.
I always enjoy casting at structure and there is no shortage of it in Toonumbar. We did find fish schooled up in the deeper water on the flats but found these very hard to tempt and mostly quite small.
We pulled a few out of the schools on small lipless lures and ice jigs but the fish in the shallows were definitely more willing to hit a lure than their deeper cousins.
The fact that the dam has a speed limit makes the fishing experience more enjoyable. There are no skiers or hoons tearing around the place and there are signs warning against swimming because of the algae hazard.
The 8-knot speed limit is not too much of a deterrent to anglers because the waterway is not overly large and can be fished in its entirety in a single day and at a leisurely pace.
If you plan to head up there and want to stay over with the family there are some cabins available that offer creature comforts that save you from having to rough it. There are also picnic areas and barbecue facilities at the dam wall and Bells Bay.
The facilities up at the Bells Bay campsite are provided by the local stocking group – the Kyogle Fishing Club through the local acclimatisation society, which musters stocking funds from raffles at both pubs in Kyogle and through the donation box at the entrance to the Bell Bay Road. Toonumbar has been stocked with bass by this group for more than 20 years and DPI Fisheries now supports the stocking through the dollar-for-dollar scheme.
There is a donation box at the entrance to the road to Bells Bay. These guys do a terrific job in keeping enough bass in the dam for us to enjoy catching, so make sure you donate your modest camping fee and some more to keep buying more bass. Remember also you need a NSW Fishing licence to fish here.
I had an absolute ball at Toonumbar and intend to go back soon.
• Toonumbar Waters Retreat: Recreation and conference centre operated by the NSW Department of Water and Energy. Cabin accommodation bookings available. Phone 6633 9135.
• Bells Bay Camping Area: toilets, picnic tables and barbecues, donation box at the road entrance.
• Local fish stocking group is the Kyogle Fish Acclimatisation Society, PO Box 711, Kyogle NSW 2474
• Light spin rod with 1500 to 2500 size reel loaded with 4lb to 10lb braid
• Baitcaster outfit with 6lb to 12lb braid for the heavier cover
• 6lb to 14lb leader, depending on the cover fished
• Lures: Poppers or surface-walking stickbaits; vibration lures, small deep-diving minnows; soft plastics, ice jigs