The riches of the Richmond

NSW Fishing Monthly is a Fishers for Fish Habitat project partner.

With the Fishers for Fish Habitat Forum at Ballina in June, it’s high time we explored what the lower estuary of the Richmond River and the Ballina region have to offer.  Let’s just have a general look at what the average lure and bait fisho is likely to encounter.

Surrounded by verdant rolling hills and the lush canefields of the Richmond Valley, it’s not hard to see why Ballina is one of the fastest-growing towns in regional New South Wales. Despite its ever-growing population, the Ballina area provides more than enough good fishing to keep holidaymakers and local anglers more than satisfied, so make sure you pack your rod and gear.

Ballina is a town in Ireland but to early settlers the word best represented in English the local Bundjalung word ‘bulloona’, meaning ‘place of oysters’. While you won’t find the plethora of racks of cultivated oysters common in more southern estuaries, there are plenty growing on the extensive rock walls that line the river from the mouth to well upstream. There are also extensive banks of yabbies, diminishing seagrass beds and plenty of places where prawns and baitfish of all descriptions congregate. So the fish have plenty of feed.

Principal targets for the estuary fisho are bream and blackfish in the cooler months; whiting and jewfish when it’s a little warmer and flathead throughout the year with greater numbers available from September to May. You’ll also catch tailor, a few species of trevally, mangrove jacks and blue swimmer and mud crabs.

The Richmond from Burns Point to the tips of the sea walls, including North Creek and Emigrant Creek, comprise around 12 square kilometres of recreational fishing zone under NSW Fisheries legislation enacted in mid-2002. This zone also encompasses more than 90% of the remaining seagrass beds in the estuary, so river anglers have a huge variety of prime habitat in which to pursue bream, whiting, flathead, jewfish, trevally, blackfish, mangrove jack and tailor which swim unhindered by nets. The shallow southern bank remains largely mangroves and fertile sandflats, thanks to local grass-roots groups who have kept developers at bay.

Let’s head off round the coast then work our way upstream from the mouth.

Rocks, beaches

A series of rocky headlands and beaches north to Cape Byron and the unbroken swathe of sand south to Evans Head also provide huge scope for surf anglers chasing jewfish, tailor, bream, dart, whiting, trevally, tuna and other pelagics.

Vehicles are permitted on the beach from about a kilometre south of South Ballina, down to Airforce Beach at Evans Head – providing they stick to speed limits, stay off the foredunes and keep an eye out for the endangered pied oystercatcher birds which nest in the area. Coffee rock outcrops at Broadwater can often cut the trip short, particularly at high tide, but there is good access off the beach and back to the highway. Don’t drive on the fragile coffee rock – even partially deflated tyres can reduce it to pulp.

Vehicles are also permitted along Seven Mile Beach at Lennox Head, north to Broken Head. Access is just past the Sport and Recreation camp.

The northern headlands, such as those at Black Head, Flat Rock, Skennars Head and Lennox Headland, can still turn on some great action for jewfish, bream and tailor, as can the seawalls at the river entrance. The walls produce hundreds of big jewfish and thousands of bream, tailor and blackfish each year and also provide sheltered areas to fish, regardless of the weather.

No matter which way the wind is blowing, or how hard, there is always somewhere along the walls to wet a line and the chance of a good catch. Look for wave action and washes which disturb all manner of life that clings to the rocks and keep an eye out for bait schools and diving gulls and terns. Ignore the yellow-naped gannets’ plunges during Winter unless there are scores of them working an area.

Offshore access

The east-facing entrance provides quite good ocean access, although the river bar can still be a dangerous place in a swell or in any onshore weather. Big ebb tides can quickly push up steep pressure waves and a bar that was a snack to cross on the dawn high tide can be a very iffy thing to negotiate a few hours later on the return journey.

Inshore reefs are not hugely plentiful, although there is some rocky bottom in close to the north – off Black Head and Lennox Head. Another small reef is due east of the bar in about 12 fathoms and, about five miles south, plenty of ground at the Riordans Reefs complex. Main offshore quarries are tailor and bream from the headland washes, squire and the odd bigger red from the reefs and some pretty good mackerel and tuna action in the same places.  Jewfish are another good bet.

Reef patches farther eastwards, in 38 fathoms, 42 fathoms and 48 fathoms, provide bottom-bashers with a fantastic variety of quality fish, mainly snapper of all sizes, pearl perch, kings and samson. Current can be a big obstacle on the deeper grounds from Spring to Autumn and in Spring the most productive wider reefs can be a maze of buoys indicating a forest of professional snapper traps below.

Mackerel tuna and bonito are in plague proportions for much of the year and the northern bluefin tuna test reel drags from February to July from the coastal washes to a mile seawards. Enough juvenile black marlin are caught every Summer to warrant serious lure-trolling or live-baiting around the bait schools when the water runs indigo and warm.

The Sea Walls

The North and South walls offer the typical sort of breakwall fishing common elsewhere along the NSW coast for bream, tailor, blackfish and jewfish, with the occasional snapper after heavy seas and mackerel and tuna when the tropical current touches the shore.

North Wall access is great, you can even take the bicycle path from town, while South Wall is reached by a ride across the Burns Point vehicle ferry. Parking is adequate at both spots except when the surf’s up and the fish are on.

Longer rods are necessary on the walls to keep terminal tackle clear of the rocks below and to keep anglers safe from the sometimes vigorous waves. Blue pillies and cut bait work for the tailor and bream, worms will catch whiting and school jew and cabbage takes the blackfish in Autumn and early Winter when they first come into the river.

Plenty of jewfish are caught from both walls on heavy gear and long rods but heaps are lost at the base of the rocks, especially if you don’t have a gaff of around 4m. Best baits are fresh octopus from the trawlers, live mullet or legal tailor. Hard and soft lures work well with the latest and greatest favourite the largest Storm Kickin’ Minnow.

North Creek

This is an extensive, shallow system that gradually works its way back into the hills behind Lennox Head. There are often breaking waves at the mouth near Missingham Bridge but there’s a ramp off Cawarra Street on Ballina Island for safe access. The seagrass beds aren’t as thick or extensive since the Prospect Bridge was built upstream a decade ago but there are still plenty of places for flathead to lurk, whiting to forage and muddies to hole up.

The western approach to Prospect Bridge, where The Canal enters North Creek, is one of the local blackfish hot spots but you’ll need weed rather than cabbage here. Artificial lakes Prospect and Chickiba, just east of the bridge, can be rewarding for whiting, bream and small trevally, as can the narrow channel that links them to North Creek. The channel and the lakes can be fished from the banks with parking nearby.

North Creek then meanders past the airport and up to Lennox and is best navigated at high tide in a small boat.

The town reach

Some of the most interesting and productive fishing is around the rocky banks behind the CBD from the swimming pool to the mouth of Fishery Creek. There’s deep water in close, ranging from 2m to beyond 10m.

Just upstream of the s pool is the Bream Hole, plunging down to about 9m with a vertical rock shelf on its southern edge. The tide roars through here but when it’s gentle you can drop plastics during the day or bait at night. Best catches are from April to September.

Thanks to an active local lobby, there’s water access all along the CBD from the old government boat harbour to the RSL Club a few blocks upstream, so everyday anglers can catch bream, blackfish, whiting, flathead and jewfish from the shore. As the water clears in early Summer the action drops off a bit apart from the whiting, which can turn it on at times.

The mid-town public wharf and pontoon can provide excellent catches and is relatively safe for supervised younger anglers. Bait tends to congregate in the deep water there and it’s a common spot for jewies, bream, flathead and whiting as the tide slows.

The same can be said for the RSL Club area just upstream, where bait gathers in the floodlights at night. Especially in the cooler months, it’s a hot spot for jewies on lures and bait.

Riverview Park, a block or three to the west, has an exposed and slippery boat ramp but the sheltered tables, toilets and barbecues make it a good place for shore-based family fishing, especially for deep-water whiting.

Fishery Creek, on the western fringe of the CBD, has the trawler harbour at its mouth and is also the site of the largest and most sheltered ramp on the river. The creek becomes The Canal as it flows north-east to join North Creek, effectively making Ballina an island.

Porpoise Wall

On the southern side of the river, the low Porpoise Wall runs for a couple of kilometres from the base of the South Wall upstream to almost opposite Fishery Creek. There is mostly deep water on the river side and the shallows of Mobbs Bay on its southern side. A few gaps allow entry to the bay, which is lined with seagrass meadows and sandflats pockmarked with yabby holes. On the higher tides, almost all of the wall is submerged so take care when navigating.

The deeper sections on the river side can produce good jewfish, big flathead, blackfish and bream, while the inner shallows are worth slowly exploring for flatties and whiting. Across the seagrass south of the Big Gap and behind another rock wall submerged on higher tides lies Little Mobbs Bay, even shallower and with more seagrass. Don’t anchor on any seagrass, the river needs every blade.

Between the RSL and the Porpoise Wall lies a large sand bar around which flathead and whiting are frequent catches.

The Ferry

For a couple of bucks Burns Point ferry takes you to South Ballina. There’s a 100m sanctuary zone around the southern ramp – it’s worth checking out just how many bream and big flathead come up for a feed when the ferry pulls in. The ferry cuts out the route to South Ballina along the highway, over the Wardell bridge and back along River Road. The River Road trip to South Ballina is also worth taking for its kilometres of often excellent bank-fishing for whiting, bream, flathead and school jew. Find some good water, park, bait up, cast and kick back.

The best whiting action on the Richmond occurs on the deep running flats from here to Pimlico with bloodworms anchored in about 4m producing brilliant catches of fish to 40cm. The edges, flats and channels also turn on great flathead action on lures or drifted baits.

Back on the northern side, Ballina Keys provide the usual residential-style canal fishing inside a 4-knot zone. At the end of Riverside Drive there’s a two-lane ramp that cops it in a southerly but there’s good fishing along the bank for whiting, flathead and bream.

Blackfish and big flathead are the main targets around the disused ramp on the northern ferry approach. The shallow bank up to the mouth of Emigrant Creek is lined with diminishing seagrass and can fish well for flatties and whiting. The deep hole at the creek mouth produces jewfish, whiting and big flathead and there are more further up Emigrant (a no-wash waterway) as it snakes under the Pacific Highway and into the hinterland. The further you go, the more it becomes bream and bass water and it’s good for muddies.

Pimlico

A few kilometres upstream, mangrove-fringed Pimlico Island divides the river. Banks at either end of the island produce excellent whiting and flathead while the deeper holes in the western channel are popular for school jew. When the blue swimmers are running, Pimlico is the place to run dillies and mud crabs are also worth chasing in the ‘R’ months.

There’s limited vehicle access via Pimlico Road along the western bank downstream of the village at the southern channel but it’s a good spot for flatties and whiting before the tide runs too much. Shore-based anglers have plenty more scope on the eastern bank where the road just keeps following the rock wall through to Wardell. Don’t be tempted to cast too far from the bank, all the baitfish and predators are in close.

Wardell

The deep and fast-running narrows at Wardell under the highway bridge are popular for school jewfish, especially on the slack of Summer night tides. Live herring or poddy mullet take plenty of fish, as do soft plastics and hard minnows. Mud crabs come into their own from here up to Woodburn as the water becomes more saline in dry times.

Bream come and go through Wardell on their travels, with fish in dry weather as far up the Richmond as Tatham, above Coraki, and even to Lismore on the Wilsons system.

Boat ramps

This information is correct at the time of the 2009 Forum - check with locals or Ballina Shire Council for updates

  • River Street near sailing club: Two-lane ramp suitable mainly for boats under five metres, prone to sand build-up. Exposed to southerly winds. Parking for about 20 trailers but fills up quickly over Summer. Cleaning table, taps, toilets adjacent.
  • Riverview Park, off Brunswick Street: Narrow, single-lane, suitable only for boats under five metres, exposed to southerlies, limited parking, strong tidal run, deep drop-off. Toilets, barbecue area and good fishing from the bank adjacent.
  • Fishery Creek: Two lanes, sheltered waterway, masses of parking, taps, cleaning table, toilets adjacent.
  • Faulks Reserve: Two lanes, ample parking, taps, exposed to southerlies. Toilets, picnic area adjacent.
  • Cawarra Street: Access to North Creek for tinnies under 4.5 metres. Single-lane, limited parking, prone to sand build-up.