How to

Bellinger River bass

THE Bellinger Valley is located on the Mid North Coast of NSW, approximately halfway between Sydney and Brisbane and it is a region filled with accessible bass-filled waters. The township of Bellingen is located on the banks of the Bellinger River, which flows from headwaters at the eastern foot of the Great Dividing Range, down through the township of Bellingen, all the way to Urunga, where it meets the ocean. Therefore, bass fish opportunities range from skinny, crystal clear waters, more turbid freshwater, and brackish zones.

Bellingen is a derivation of the Gumbaynggir word “Billingen”, which may mean clear water or winding river. It was named in 1841 and by 1842, cedar getters and sheep farmers were in the area. Conflict was common in the early years as the indigenous residents tried to keep Europeans off their land, regularly attacking the cedar cutters camps.

Accessible cedar was gone by the turn of the Century and dairy farming became the primary focus. Disease, conflict, and limited access across the landscape decimated the indigenous population and the last full-blooded Gumbanyggir is thought to have died in 1922.

These days the valley is a wonderfully eclectic mix of tradition farmers, alternative life-stylers and artisans. A paddle down the river is liable to include a mix of platypus, electric fences and “el’ naturale” swimmers appearing out of the bush. Through it all however, the clinging aroma of fresh cow pats wafting through the early morning mist or the squeaks, calls and cries of bush creatures in the night, are givens.

Fishing from canoe is really the only way to access the best holes because much of the riverbanks are privately owned and covered with vegetation, which both limits access and the ability to cast into the shady possies that are likely to hold bass. Unfortunately, privet and camphor laurels have overtaken the banks in more recent years, and whilst revegetation programs are up and running, there’s still a long way to go before the riparian zones are free from these invasive species. Therefore, canoe trips between bridges and vehicle crossings are the norm.

That’s not to say that good fish can’t be taken from the banks because they can. The area around Bellingen township offers good fishing, particularly at times when the river is quiet. Daybreak, under the cover of darkness and to a lesser extent dusk, are the times to fish, otherwise swimmers and picnickers are likely to have disturbed fish, particularly over the Christmas / New Year’s periods, when hot and humid days make the river a popular venue for swimming. Be warned though, if you intend to get into the water to walk, be sure to were some type of footwear (more robust than thongs), because Bullrouts inhabit the weed beds, and a sting from these relatives of the Stonefish Family will see you rushing to Bellingen Hospital for pain relief. Whilst, I’ve never been stung personally, incidents occur every summer and you don’t want to be a victim. The only guy I know personally who has been hit was got on the finger whilst retrieving a lure stuck in weed. He was incapacitated by pain within 5 min, 20 min later he had been driven into was in Casualty where the doctors cut his wedding ring from his very swollen ringer before injecting him with the required drug. He reckons he was instructed to get to the bottle shop, buy some rum and then sit in a hot shower in an alcohol-induced daze until the pain subsided, as there was nothing more they could do. I’m not totally convinced with the instructions as he does like a rum, but I am sure he went through hell, or something along the way.

Fishing below town

This is the brackish zone where a hit on a lure is just as likely to involve school jew, trevally, mangrove jack or bream, as it is a bass. Whilst it’s tidal here, the current is gentle and in calm conditions, produces a slow and steady drift, which is perfect for patient, stealthy fishing. As the Bellinger is a Recreational Fishing Haven, commercial pursuits are not permitted and as a result the number of school jew have increased over recent years and I’m sure the number of bass has followed suit. Trevally are common and lures are lost to jacks each summer. Access is via Thompson’s Lane which is opposite the Aussie Rules oval (the first oval you come to when driving west along Waterfall Way. It’s rough in places and more suitable for a 4WD, but I’m certain keen young anglers could get in there most days. The water is always murky and bull sharks are common. This is the stretch of water where commercial fishers targeted bull sharks over the summer at night, so don’t swim here. Whilst fish can be taken from the bank, a canoe paddle upstream is the way to go for bass. Just downstream there’s a very deep hole as the river bends to the left and then long stretches of snag-lined banks just perfect for bass fishing. Soft plastics are very easily fished in this area because they can be fished at varying depths. Other popular lure choices are diving hard-bodies and surface lures as they are ideal for casting at snags. Vibes are okay as well, although you should expect to contact submerged timber at some point, so stay alert.

What exactly you’ll encounter fish-wise is a reflection of salinity as the more traditional marine species move long distances upstream in dry conditions. You might even tangle with an elusive EP if you’re lucky!

Lower Freshwater

Closer to town and for a fair way upstream you’ll encounter stained freshwater and this the most popular stretch for visiting bass anglers. The river topography in this zone is one of long pools separated by shallow races and river-stone pebbles, most of which are short. Danger is minimal here as the gradient of the water is gradual and water flow relatively calm. Of course, that changes with heavy rain and when in flood the river is s death trap i.e. don’t go near the water and don’t try to cross flooded roads.

Right in town you’ll find Lavender’s Bridge. Whilst it’s a popular meeting place, there’s bass to be caught after hours – and more than you might think. The Lookout Pool is located about one km upstream from the bridge and is a popular fishing pool. Whilst there is a 4WD drive track to the water, most anglers park in the carpark and drag their canoe the 20 m down to the water. It’s the first pool upstream of town as is used as the starting point for up and back trips involving only one vehicle or as the end point for trips that start further upstream. By launching here, you can fish your way upstream, through as many successive pools as is comfortable. Shallow river-stone races (they’re not big enough to be called rapids) separate each pool, so you need to get out of the canoe and drag it across the smoother river stones to access the next pool. Whilst not extreme, these pebble walks can be uncomfortable as the rocks move under foot and are slime-covered and slippery in places. Expect to see freshwater mullet surge off as you enter each pool, so don’t think each 40 – 50 cm shallow is a massive bass.

The river varies in width here, and in wider and deeper sections there can be significant submerged logjams. So, it always pays to put the odd cast across the river in case the bass are lounging deeper out there. Shallow-diving bass lures and small surface lures are the tackle of choice as sinking lures are likely to be snagged. Lightly weighted soft plastics are readily attacked by bass, and given they are relatively inexpensive, many anglers accept a few losses and have a ball on light spin gear.

As recently as last week, in an endeavor to secure some pics for this little ramble, a mate and I launched the canoe at the Lookout Pool and fished it and the next pool up. Whilst we caught a few, they were only 20 – 30 cm fish and not suitable to photograph. All was not lost however, as the good old electric fence once again provided the highlight from one of the uninitiated. As my mate Jordan Harold Rankin is new to fishing the river, upon arriving at a portage rapid, I moseyed the canoe over to an electric fence, suggesting he grab hold of the wires to stabilize the canoe as he got out. Being a trusting fellow, he did just that, but without the expected outcome. Then, all hell broke loose as current flowed, he yelled, stumbled backwards onto the metal gunnel, and was hit again… he’s lucky to have me as a friend!

A Great Day Trip

A popular day trip involves driving west of town towards Thora and launching canoes at the Gordonville Crossing, fishing all the way back to Bellingen. On a warm summer’s day there’s not better place to be and if the cicadas are singing, small cicada imitation lures are hard to beat…particularly if you can put one under overhanging branches adjacent to a deeper snag-filled possie. The bass love them and will often charge the lure upon impact …no twitch required.

The journey involves moving through pools with the current and can be broken up with a swim or shaded rest on a grassy bank. Be aware that you’ll be pulling canoes across river stones so wear shoes. your feet from the rocks, twigs and a bullrout sting, however unlikely, is still possible. Water level impacts the experience as does how hard you fish, so factor in more walking (i.e. time), if the water is low. By allowing 6 – 8 hrs for the journey you’ll be able to go slow, fish all the little hidey-holes and enjoy lunch and a swim. It’s great way to experience the river and in places you can feel like you’re well and truly away from everyone – even if you aren’t really.

Clear Skinny Water

The further upstream you travel, the skinnier and clearer the water becomes but the degree of difficulty finding deeper water rises as well. There’s good fishing to be had but unless you have permission to enter through farmer’s gates, access is limited to bridges. These tend to be one-way excursions, so two vehicles are required. Finding bridges isn’t the issue as there’s loads of them, the trick is to know which ones, and the only way to find out is to spend time on the river. These waters tend to be quite rocky rather than snag-filled, so whilst the usual shallow-diving hardbodies work, bladed presentations, such as spinnerbaits, pony-rigged soft plastics and chatter baits are worth using because they are fairly resistant to being snagged on rocks and the depth they can be fished at varying depths suit the depth of water you encounter at the time. You’ll encounter bass in the shallows, but usually in conjunction with submerged rocks, which are easier to see from a distance with a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

For the active-minded, it’s possible and legal to walk along the river as long as you are in it. Take care if you try this as some areas support quite a few snakes and the higher you go, the more likely you’ll encounter dangerous species such as browns and blacks. By wearing snake-gaters and taking care, you should avoid trouble, but I always include a snake bandage and EPIRB in my pack, just in case.

In Closing

The Bellinger Valley is a beautiful and productive body of water set in a stunning landscape. Along with the vibrant culture of Bellingen and all it has to offer, 20 min to the west is the World Heritage listed Dorrigo Rainforest and 20 min east, the township of Urunga … home to some serious fishing talent! What more could you ask for … a family friendly destination of excellence, see you there!

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