Hanging for the westerlies
  |  First Published: April 2008

Those cool westerlies that flatten the surf and paint skies blue will be more welcome than usual this April.

Not only will they get the mullet running and flatten the surf to allow migrating fish of all kinds to hug the shore, the winds will also help dry out a very soggy region reeling from three months of rain.

There’s already been the odd day when the southerly had a hint of cool west in it but then the rain has come back, keeping waterholes and swamps topped up and the river running strongly and discoloured.

It’s been a long time since the upper reaches of the Richmond ran so consistently high and it’s a fair bet to say the water table has well and truly risen to within centimetres of the surface.

The great news, however, is that DPI Fisheries reopened the Richmond River only two months after the disastrous fish kill of early January.

Surveys indicated that sustainable populations of mullet, bream, flathead, blackfish, crabs and whiting had returned to the river and with the tourism and recreational and professional fishing industries reeling and the prospect of a dreadful Easter season approaching, the decision was made to open up.

At this stage, the 1km seawards coastal closure from Flat Rock south to Keith Hall Lane remains, so you can fish the river sides of the seawalls but not the ocean sides. The rationale is apparently to protect juvenile fish from exploitation – everybody is saying from trawling. What effect rec fishing would have is very debatable.

There’s also a dispensation to allow pelagic fishers to work the reef off Black head at the northern end of Shelly beach at Ballina for mackerel and tuna.

Unlike the 2001 event, when the river was closed for nearly eight months, it appears that the fish which escaped the initial kills quickly repopulated the lower to middle reaches not long after a second heavy rain event washed much of the remaining anoxic black water out to sea.

As this issue goes to production a number of stakeholder meetings are being held to work out a strategy to limit the impact of further kills. It’s likely to be a slow process with a lot of blame-shifting and red herrings but after two disasters in seven years, there is enough groundswell of public outcry to maintain the rage.

The fish in the river are not out of the woods yet, with high water tables yet to release the inevitable acid runoff and red spot disease. The acid water eats through the fish’s protective slime layer, allowing a nasty fungus to grow on the skin which is then prone to secondary infection.

Red spot, called ‘Queensland disease’ in decades past because of where it was first reported, has been common after heavy rains in a number of east coast rivers. A similar fungal infection occurs in other countries, including the US and South East Asia.

Apparently, new studies have revealed that it can be contagious so DPI Fisheries latest recommendation is to humanely euthanase badly affected fish, although many regular estuary anglers will tell you they have caught plenty of fish which have displayed successfully healed scar tissue from the lesions.

As I recall there has also been at least one human fatality, in the US, when a person handling an affected fish contracted the disease through an open wound. So be careful not to touch these lesions – not that you’d want to!


Meanwhile, there should be some good fishing on offer this month, especially if the elements relent enough for us to work the beaches, offshore and the lower estuaries.

Those first westerlies signal the mullet to head downstream and gather inside the river to prepare for migration and spawning.

Bream and jewfish tend to hang around the schools and let’s hope the jewies turn up, they’ve been conspicuously absent for a few months.

There have been goodly numbers of bream from the beaches and in the river sand they’ll only get better from here as Winter rolls in.

Tailor should be around in good numbers in the surf as the baitfish also gather and travel.

An encouraging but tantalisingly fickle run of mackerel has started, with a smattering of Spaniards and spotties here and there, now and then. Find some clear water around 25° with some bait and you’re a chance, especially with live slimy mackerel.

The next few months also should see increased inshore snapper activity, especially if there’s plenty of baitfish around. With increased nutrients inshore, there should be plenty for the bait to eat.

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