Boating writer John McEnally is sure there is no better spot on earth for a trailer fishing holiday than the lower reaches of the Clarence, the legendary Big River of rock n? roll fame.
Let’s get something clear right from the start. This is a story not on The Clarence but just a part of The Clarence, the legendary Big River in north eastern NSW. To write a comprehensive coverage which did justice to this incredible system would take months and fill not only this issue, but the next half dozen as well. It really is that big.
To give you some idea of its size, one arm begins in the Macpherson Ranges, way up behind Queensland’s Gold Coast and flows south. The other, which is The Nymboida has its birthplace in the mountains behind Dorrigo which is up in the Great Divide behind Coffs Harbour and flows north. The two arms meet behind the city of Grafton, take a ninety degree turn and head northeast to join the Pacific between the towns of lluka on the north shore and Yamba on the south. In total, it?s about 400 kms long which by inland terms represents a decent creek, but by coastal standards is huge. But it?s not just its length which sets it apart. All the other east coast rivers behave pretty much like each other in that while they might snake back and forth, they stay within the confines of their two banks before emptying into the ocean.
Not so the Clarence. Once past Grafton it spreads out into an enormous delta containing no less than a hundred islands before finally being channelled into the sea through two massive breakwater walls. And of course it is this extraordinary network of channels, estuaries, creeks and two enormous lagoons which for generations have been attracting the fishermen and women of Australia. Well, some of them, anyway. That’s one of the anomalies of the place because, apart from those who know and love the place and return year after year for their hols until finally deciding, bugger it and move there for good, a lot drive by, unaware of the treasures the Big River holds.
Now at this point I’d like to make it clear that I have no financial interests in the area and the feeling expressed on these pages are strictly my own, ie none of them have been bought. However, I?m wide open to graft, if it means another trip to The Clarence. I was also asked by several of the locals not to make it sound too good because they didn’t want to be overrun with tourists. Fat chance! So let?s hitch up the boat and go fish what in my totally biased opinion is the greatest coastal river in the nation.
I dunno about you, but I always find information like this pretty stupid unless the destination is really obscure and out of the way. Still, if you don’t own a map... Grafton is on the Pacific Highway about 750 kms north of Sydney and about 340 kms south of Brisbane. These numbers are forever changing as bits of the road are straightened and towns bypassed. Yamba’s another 60 km and 11uka about 70 km further on, or closer depending on which way you’re travelling.
From the big S it’s easily reachable in daylight hours, but be prepared for the inevitable road works holdups. If you want to break your trip there’s a great little genuine fifties style motel on the northern side of the Nambucca River at Macksville called Belle-Vue Riverside. Apart from being economical with honest home cooked tucker, it’s off the highway so the Kennys don’t sound like they’re driving past the foot of your bed. The route from the mountains is from Glen Innes down the spectacular Gwyder Highway winding through the Gibralter Range National Park. Slow ?till you hit the flat, but breathtaking if you like rainforest.
At this point I’d like to plug the Tourist Information Centre on the highway at South Grafton because coming from the west or the south you pass it. Bill Day and his staff run what is without doubt one of the very best such centers you’ll find anywhere and the maps, guides and brochures are first class. (PO Box 555 Grafton 2460 Ph: 066 42 2708). If you’re a first time visitor to the areas I strongly suggest you call in or drop them a line.
Now the range here is pretty diverse so I’ll make a few assumptions otherwise this is going to start looking like a phone book. Firstly, l’m going to bed you down in either Yamba or lluka. The old part of Yamba is perched on a headland overlooking the main beach and driving around it would appear that every building, apart from the convent is for rent. l spoke to Stafford Sheldon at Raine and Horne (Yamba Shopping Fair, Yamba 2464 Ph: 066 46 2474) and he assured me that many of the flats on his books have room to park a tinnie. Prices are across the board ranging from $150 p/w for four people in the off season to $700 p/w for six people over Christmas. Contact Stafford for a 24 page booklet of what’s on offer.
My pick If you really feel like busting out try one of the units in Peninsular Court. Apart form being right on the river it has its own private jetty. Its on page 10 and they don’t come much better than this. Iluka on the other hand is totally flat, has half the population of Yamba and would seem to be almost totally devoted to the honourable pursuit of fishing. You won?t have any trouble parking your trailer at your flat and a good list of what’s available can be obtained from The Professionals (63 Charles St lluka 2466 Ph: 066 46 6177).
Yamba or lluka
This is a hairy one. There’s quite a rivalry between the two communities so I’ll need to choose my words carefully because I honestly like them both. Iluka gives new meaning to the word layback. While the new section on a release of Crown Land is the usual collection of featureless project homes, the old part up near the water has been locked in a time warp for decades. There are a handful of shops including a liquor store run by my namesake and distant rel (show him this story and tell him I sent you and there’s no guessing what sort of discount he’ll give you!), a pub on the waterfront called Sedgers Reef Hotel which is pretty ordinary and a very attractive new clubhouse at the golf course which appears to have become pretty much the social and eating out headquarters of the town.
Whatever action you find in lluka you can be rest assured it will! be low key. The ocean beaches are nothing short of brilliant with 4WD access to lluka Beach and great rock and surf fishing. What makes them so special is Bundjalung National Park which goes for miles along this bit of coast making it one of the two most pristine, untouched places you?ll ever find where the land meets the sea. You don?t have to guess where the other one is. Yep. Just across the river at Yamba. Well, no. It starts a bit south of Yamba at a little community called Angourie. It?s name is Yuraygir National Park and like its north shore mate, it goes for mile after mile, preserving this magnificent coastline for those who are willing to take the time to indulge in its extraordinary beauty.
Gees, I just re-read that. It’s a bit your meaning of life heavy but it’s absolutely true. And apart from being beautiful it’s one very good reason why the area doesn’t drag them in like say the Gold Coast. Unlike the old part of lluka, the old part of Yamba does have curbing and guttering. It also has a nice little town centre with all the usual shops and banks if you’re running a bit short. Apart from the old Pacific Hotel up on the headland which has been there since the First Fleet arrived, Yamba has both bowling and golf clubs where you’re more than welcome plus a superb new tavern (read pub) right on the edge of the river in the new part of town.
In the new section (read project homes), there is a large shopping complex complete with an excellent supermarket and all the usual shops you find in those type of developments. The prices! Pretty much the same as the city so there goes another myth. Which is the best town to stay at I dunno. Every disadvantage one has is an advantage for the other. And vice versa. Just remember it’s only a few minutes by boat between the two but it’s a good half hour’s drive.
At last count there was 16 on the Lower Clarence. Out of them I’ve chosen three which cover just about everything a trailerboat fisherman could ever ask for. Blue Dolphin (Yamba Rd, Yamba 2464 Ph: 066 46 2194) is by far the biggest park on The Clarence. It has a 300m river frontage, boat ramp, jetty, tennis court, pool, store, boat hire, recreation hall, self contained cabins the list goes on forever. During peak holiday season I’d avoid it like the plague, but in the quiet times it would make an excellent base.
Across the water is The Anchorage (Marandowie Dr, lluka 2460 Ph: 066 46 6210). Like lluka, this park is quiet and layback. Its a short drive up river from the main street and has a pool, shop and boat ramp. It is also one of the very best parks you will ever find anywhere. Finally a little gem which is exclusively for those who come to fish. There’s no shop, no pool and no cabins; just a handful of sites and three overnite vans.
Bounded by sugar cane on three sides and the river on the fourth, Browns Rocks Park (Goodwood Island, Clarence River 2460 Ph: 066 46 4324) is reached by taking the Goodwood Island road at Woombah which is on the lluka Road. A big stone?s throw out front of Browns Rock is a submerged rock wall which by reputation is one of the best fishing spots in the river. If you only come for the fishing and don’t want to know about the bright lights, this is your park.
The three parks mentioned have ramps. Beyond these you’ll find excellent access points on both sides of the river, the pick of them all being at lluka where Public Works have built a huge trailer parking area next to the large concrete ramp and fish cleaning facility. Gawd, if only all boat ramps were this good! There are excellent ramps on both sides of the river next to the Harwood Island Bridge plus a couple in Yamba which I think would get pretty congested around Christmas.
Never thought I’d get to it, did you! Now every brochure that’s ever been written on anywhere where there’s water will tell you how its a fishing paradise and that you will always get a feed of fish. The only places I’ve ever been where there were guarantied fish in the water was a salmon farm in Tassie and a crazy fish farm operation on an island off Hong Kong. I am a serious cynic when it comes to inflated claims about what’s on the bite, so I decided to put the bite on a self styled expert who has a definite vested interest in fishing in the Big River. Peter Shirren runs Yamba Bait and Tackle (3/8 yamba Street Yamba PH: 066 46 1514). He also does a fishing report on Radio 2GF every Saturday at 8.00 am so I figured he had a lot more to lose than me if the information was off. So here is the Good Oil according to Pete.
The Lower Clarence is pretty good all year round, but by far the best time is from June to September. During this time the annual blackfish (luderick) run takes place when thousands move into the river to spawn. Bream are also running and can be caught from any wall or around the piers of the many bridges. Winter brings on the flathead which are mainly caught by jigging. ?Between September and November is pretty quiet until the yellow fin whiting and the big dusky lizards start to bite. They last right through summer with duskies up to 7 kilos not uncommon.
Outside fishing is good all year round. During winter, schnapper move in towards the shore to spawn and there are good fish to be had. Jewies are also around then. ?From October through summer surface fish become very active with spotty and barr mackerel, northern blue fin tuna, mack tuna and the odd cobia. Now you know. Of course being the eternal cynic in these matters I thought I’d do a consumer test. Driving over the massive Harwood Island bridge I noticed a tinnie moving in towards the ramp just upstream. Bridge piles ... bream... maybe. Kerry Thurtell was bringing his boat to heal as I pulled up. Usual pleasantries - mind if I take a couple of snaps - no probe, where you from - Trailerboat Fisherman - great mag, really great! Kerry’s won me. Now for the acid test - catch anything? Couple of nice bream around the piles. One out of one, Pete!
Kerry then showed me the way to bait a live herring which apparently the bream on the river just love. Catching live herring is a snap with a bait jigger available from you know who. To find out what the outside fishing was like, l dropped n at the lluka boat ramp. There people were hard at it cleaning and filleting while a couple of dozen killer pelicans contested the occasional bit of gut like the blokes do at the centre bounce in an Aussie Rules game.
Right on cue, local lad Russ Sicklen brings his boat in after a morning at The Caves, a popular spot off Angourie. He?s a bit of an expert with schnapper, earlier his year hauling in a 9.2 kilo monster using nothing more than a floating WA pilchard on a 15 lb line. How did he go today Whats the bag limit, ten Try ten. Right again, Peter.
A Bit of Service
You never know when something can go amiss so fix these two names firmly in your list of important numbers. Innes Marine, 72 Yamba Rd, Yamba Ph: 066 46 2206. Agents for Johnson and Yamaha outboards. Adams Marine, Angourie Road, Yamba Ph: 066 46 2830. Agents for Suzuki and Mercury outboards. Both these outlets have an extensive inventory of spares and sundry bits and pieces.
Yamba Boat Harbour Marina
This is the best thing to happen on The Clarence for years. At the time of writing, construction was well under way and on schedule. And no, this is not one of those pie in the sky outfits where you buy a berth under some strange title. It is located on Crown Land and is on a lease to the developer, Kevin Harris. As well as catering for the big boat trade and providing a perfect stop between Coffs Harbour and Southport, the marina will have a huge area for dry storage plus a range of specialty shops and services for the entire boating fraternity (Yamba Boat harbour Marina, Yamba Rd Yamba Ph: 066 46 1297).
A Meal You Didn’t Catch
There’s a wealth of restaurants on the Big River and this is not a review of them, but rather it?s a couple of places we hear, you can get a really good feed. Chatsworth Island Restaurant (Ph: 066 46 4455). French style, bit over the top, $11 for two with a reasonable wine. One of the best outside of the capital cities is. Yamba Shore Tavern (Ph: 066 46 1888). There’s a pontoon to tie up on then walk up stairs for a cleansing or two. Then go into the restaurant. This is the best tucker I’ve ever eaten in a pub. For two, around $60 and that’s really living it up. Yamba Bowling Club (Ph: 066 42 2305). Check out the three course specials on selected nights; $12 p/person plus drinks. Unbelievable value and servings that will test you. A nice wine $9 a bottle.
This has been an overview to wet your appetite. Go for a week or two and get a taste of this magnificent waterway but be smart and do it in the winter. The fishing is better the weather’s much more agreeable and you won’t encounter the teeming hoards of holiday makers.
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