Russell Heads is the junction and estuary system of the Russell and Mulgrave Rivers, south of Cairns. I was fishing with Kieran Livingstone who had a Cairns Custom Craft aluminium, a solid boat ideal for river and estuary work.
As with many boat ramps in northern Australia, this one had the ‘Beware of Crocodiles’ warning posted. Kieran walked down the ramp and pointed a torch beam into the undercut bank – just to make sure. He explained that recently the local ranger had taken his Jack Russell for a walk. As usual, he tossed a stick into the river and the little yapper went in after it. As his dog came scooting out of the water, stick firmly in its mouth, about 4 m of crocodile came sliding in behind it on the ramp. Motoring downriver, I couldn’t help but notice the rope swings hanging from trees…
Russell Heads was slow at first. We worked around the edges, casting to banks and snags. There were no barramundi, but we caught a few bream and cod. After an hour or so of this a school of queenfish arrived and the action turned on. We were casting small poppers and saltwater flies at the marauding fish that were hunting along a sandbar. Queenfish are a pretty species with classic trevally lines but are skinny and don’t weigh much. While there wasn’t a fish under about a metre in length, those we caught were 7–10 kg.
The wind blew, rain fell and the fishing action was relentless for more than three hours. A school of wolf herring entered the estuary and was hunting with, and being hunted by, the queenfish. Wolf herring are a fierce-looking fish and have a thick coating of slime. About 35–40 cm long and shaped like a barracuda, the herring have two front fangs that come out of the top jaw parallel with the body.
When a hook-up comes, the queenfish invariably leap out of the water several times in between making long dashes for freedom. Sometimes the fish take a nose- down approach and all you see is their tails churning up the surface. Kieran said this was a common behaviour locals described as ‘the washing machine’.