There's nothing quite like getting out of town for a break of fresh coastal air and a bit of fishing. Especially if that place happens to be Burrill Lake on the NSW south coast.
At last we broke through the never ending urban sprawl of Sydney's metropolitan area, hit the freeway and headed south. "If you want my body, and you think I'm sexy, c'mon baby let me know," Rod Stewart crooned. Clare, my wife, soon adjusted the volume down on that song and on the LandCruiser's radio, and we settled back into the three hour journey to Burrill Lake.
Our eastern seaboard houses a profusion of salt water lakes which vary in size from a football pitch to some over ten kilometres long. Take my home patch for example. Around the northern beaches of Sydney there is Queenscliff Lagoon, Curl Curl Lagoon, Dee Why Lagoon and Narrabeen Lake all within a 20 kilometre stretch of coastline. Some of these lakes, Narrabeen in particular, are excellent fisheries.
The south coast of New South Wales also has a concentration of inland salt water collectively called The Great Lakes. This comprises of Lake Conjola, Narrawallee, Burrill, Tabourie, Termeil, Dermal, Meroo, Willinga and Durras. Some are open to the sea-whilst others have been blocked off for a while. Every so often a lake that has been closed will be breached, either by big seas or dredging.
Burrill, a lake that is permanently open to the sea, is the next community south from the township of Ulladulla, situated on the primary coastal route to Melbourne, the Princes Highway. It is about a two and a half hour drive north-east from Canberra and a nine hour journey north on the Highway from Melbourne. The Princes Highway crosses the eastern arm of the lake, but the main expanse reaches inland around ten kilometres and cannot be seen from the main road.
Burrill has approximately fifty two kilometres of shoreline and apart from very gradual changes since European settlement, the lakeside remains virtually the same.
There is no definitive meaning for the aboriginal name Burrill. In 1828 the Government Surveyor, Thomas Florance charted this part of the coast. It was he who first recorded the name Burrill, unfortunately the meaning of which he didn't convey. Since then, two explanations have been put forward. The first one is that the name was derived from the local native word, "burrul" meaning wallaby and the second that it means a tree with a green and white leaf. As there are no longer any living speakers of the local dialect, I doubt we'll ever learn the real meaning.
We were staying with a good fishing mate of mine and fiery ex-fast bowler for Australia, Len Pascoe. Len has had a weekender at Burrill for many years and by trial and error, was starting to get a handle on the many moods of the lake.
We lobbed into Burrill around 10pm and were greeted by Len and his wife Elaine. Over a cup of coffee, Len and I poured over a map of the lake to plan a regimented attack, mainly at the resident flathead and bream population. It was decided to use lures exclusively. I had with me a couple of rods and some reels to field test, so it was going to be interesting to get someone else's opinion on the new tackle.
We were up early next morning and it didn't disappoint. The day dawned clear and bright. Burrill looked like glass, shimmering and still in the morning light. We hitched Len's sixteen foot Nautiglass up to his Pajero and headed for the boat ramp. Five minutes later observing the four knot limit through "The Narrows", we made our way up to the main body of the lake.
The scenery around Burrill is breathtaking. The water mirrored the large gums, casurinas and banksias, the bow wake eventually breaking the image into a thousand pieces.
In the distance we caught occasional glimpses of Pigeon House Mountain, a distinctive local landmark of this area. Most of the lakeshores are now State Forest owned and protected, but at the turn of the century the area took the brunt of some fairly heavy logging. However due to extensive regeneration programmes, which are still in progress, the regrowth is now reaching maturity.
We had decided initially to explore the rocky shores and drop-offs of a little inlet called Turpentine Bay, so named for the large turpentine trees that tower over the water, making the depths look dark, bottomless and eerie. We quietly motored to a stretch where the oyster encrusted shore sloped away to the deep.
Cutting the outboard we positioned the boat for casting, allowing the lures to work the drop-off. This was my first outing with the new Daiwa Interline one-piece spinning rod (this is the one where the line travels up inside the rod). I pinned a lime-green Mann's Stretch 5+ to a small barrel snap swivel. (Once I find a lure shape/colour that is successful for the day I dispense with the snap and use a loop knot. Tying directly to the lure gives that bit of extra, uninhibited movement).
My first cast arced out towards the shoreline. I wound the handle of the small baitcaster and the lure wiggled down to the depths. Two cranks later, the lure shuddered to a complete halt. I lifted the rod to set the trebles and the 3kg. Fireline immediately loaded the new spinstick into a hard working curve. My spirits soared. I was just about to crow to Len that I was on when I realised that nothing was moving down there.
It took a few seconds to sink in I'd hooked an immovable object in a very severe way. I won't bore you with the details of the next half hour, maneuvering the boat whilst trying to get my tackle retriever connected, insomuch that the lure was eventually left as a donation to the memory of Turpentine Bay.
Len was the first to hook up. It was an amazing take. Just as he was about to bring the minnow in for another cast, a one and a half kilo flathead rose from the bottom and struck hard at the artificial bait. This took place directly under the boat in a metre of gin clear water! A minute later it was in the net. The fish politely posed for a few pics before it was gently released.
The area was very snaggy and the lure retriever worked hard in getting our hardware back from a Velcro-like bottom. We managed a couple more fish from the area, but eventually got fed up with the snags.
We decided to look for some sand flats and concentrate on the line where the sand finishes and the weed starts. We found a productive area at Yellow Rock. I now employed a small Knol's native to explore the clear patches in amongst the weeds.
After a lull, I eventually came tight on a well conditioned bream that gave me a lot more fight than expected, considering his weight of around 900gms.
Just as I was using Fat Phil's Pliers to release the fish, Len lifted his rod high as another kilo plus lizard hit his brown patterned Producer lure. I quickly removed my bream from the net, then dipped it back in the water so Len could guide his fish in. However, this flathead had a bit of weight behind him and bullocked back down to the depths.
I called it for around two and a half kilos. Len called it for a tiddler. After a couple of minutes, Len relented and started to agree with me that it was a pretty good fish. I could also see the lizard had the upper hand.
Sadly the fish, on one of its lightning turns, spat the trebles and gained its freedom. We decided to head back for a spot of lunch.
Early that afternoon we visited nearby Racecourse Beach and plucked a few fat beach worms for a dab at beach fishing on Mollymook next morning.
Mollymook Beach, just north of Ulladulla, is a large expanse of sand, riddled with very fishy looking gutters. Half way down the beach hides a small rocky reef.
Up early to fish the dawn high tide, we landed some whiting, bream and a keeper flathead. Small spiky flathead were a pain with their rat-a-tat bites and deeply inhaled hooks. When we arrived back home, it was a pleasant surprise to find John Dyson, another former Australian Test Cricketer enjoying a cup of tea with the ladies. John's wife had gone country for a few days to visit relatives and he had made an on the spot decision to motor down to Burrill to do a bit of fishing with Len.
The three of us launched Len's Nautiglass late in the afternoon in search of some more action on lures. John Dyson had brought with him a prized lure that he duly informed us was the article for flathead. He bragged that this magic creation (which incidentally, swam like a lame brick!) could pull lizards out of a shower recess.
However, after a fishless hour or so watching Len and I battle some bream and flathead, John was now using one of our models and the favourite lure was now back inside his tackle box. I doubt if it has seen the light of day since!
We fished the shallows amongst the weed. Most of our successes were, once again, in around a metre and a half of water. I had on a small Attack lure in brown trout pattern and Len and Dyso stuck with the Producers.
Fan casting to the shore and slow working the bibbed minnows through and over the weed patches in an unhurried fashion, proved to be productive. Bream were eager to hit the Attack, but spurned the Producer. However flathead were still being charmed by the brown, rattling Producer.
We released all but three fish as Dyso wanted fresh fillets to take back to Sydney. It was nearly dark as we wound the boat back on the trailer.
Unfortunately, with all its inherent beauty and charm, Burrill Lake is now facing some harsh environmental damage. Residential growth north and south of the lake has increased gradually over the past fifty years.
In 1957 a concrete causeway and bridge replaced the old wooden one that had sufficed since the late 1880's. This bridge and its new filled in approach from the northern side have effectively dammed the tidal flow of the lake to 28% of its width. During the past two or three decades, with the advent of urban expansion in the catchment, this damming effect has become more critical in the flushing of the lake. In the 1970's extensive dredging of the inlet was carried out ostensibly as a lake improvement project and conveniently provided fill to establish parkland areas on the southern shores. This well-meaning exercise had the effect of smothering and eventually killing much of the natural tree cover and vegetation in this area. This was to have repercussions in the extensive erosion of the southern banks.
It is only natural that visitors, retirees and those wishing to get away from the humdrum of city life are anxious to find a good spot by the lake or sea. Naturally water front property is most popular, however since it is the preserve of the relatively few, it's existence does raise a few environmental questions. Today we know a lot more about the effects developments can have on the environment. Armed with knowledge we have to really rethink whether we should infringement on any more of the remaining public domain.
It's interesting to note that visitors to the lakes in the 1920s - 1950s period extolled it as a fisherman's paradise. However in recent years there's been more and more grumbling that the fishing has declined. Due to the population increase, pollutants in the lake have risen. In the late 1950s for example, superphosphate was introduced to the surrounding farms on a massive scale. At the same time, septic systems were introduced to Burrill Village. On top of this a municipal rubbish dump was created within a stone's throw of the lake and it is anyone's guess what it contains and what it has leached into the lake. The local district sewerage works lies just two and a half kilometres to the north of the entrance to the lake. Under favorable, or should I say unfavorable ocean currents, its discharge can enter the lake.
However the news is not all doom and gloom. On the plus side, since the damming effect of the road bridge, eel grasses have enjoyed a come back, giving rise to larger nursery areas for juvenile fish.
Also the locals are becoming very pro-active about protecting the waterway. In 1991 they formed a group called the Ulladulla District Lakewatch. This body was established to promote community management of all the lakes in the Ulladulla district, and since its inception, branches have been set up at Burrill Lake, Fisherman's Paradise and Lake Conjola.
In the past, both the net fishermen and the water skiers have copped much of the blame for declining fish stocks and environmental damage on Burrill. However with all the waterway users getting together there has been a much greater understanding and sense of cooperation.
Whilst a certain resentment will always remain between residents of widely different interests, the common goal of lake protection has produced a greater degree of tolerance and a reduction in conflict. Positive measures include the ban on weekend netting, the closer control and issuing of professional licences and the extending of an eight knot speed limit to include all of the area from the lake's entrance, under the road bridge through The Narrows to the main body of the lake. In the years I have fished the lake, the fishery appears to have been sustained. Sure there are times when fish are scarce, but by using a little grey matter, it is not all that difficult to get attached to some action.
BACK TO THE FISHING
The unpredictable south coast weather closed in for a couple of days. John Dyson decided to return home and catch up with a few domestic chores while we topped up the larder, visited a few craft shops, watched videos, drank lots of alcohol and did much-needed tack maintenance. The drizzle eventually stopped one afternoon and we hitched the boat up. A joint decision was made to troll the western banks and to explore around the ski club.
Len continued with the Producer and I clipped on a Mann's Stretch 10+ in search of bigger lizards that I was sure inhabited this stretch of deeper water. Incredibly the Producer had three fish to the side of the boat within no time while I was still to have a whiff.
Changing over to that treasured lure, I connected to a fish within ten minutes of trolling. We then experienced a quiet spell, so we headed back to where we experienced those earlier hook-ups.
Half an hour life got a lot better! I hooked the biggest fish of the trip when the rod kicked over and jammed in the rod-holder. I extracted the rod and dug the butt into my groin to get some hurt back on the fish.
The threadline's drag yielded line at an alarming rate and I asked Len to turn the boat and chase the fish so I could get some string back on the reel. If this was a flathead it would be the size of an alligator!
Eventually the beast rose and we saw, with disappointment, it was a large stingray. As it came closer, I noticed that the trebles were caught around the left wing.
We eventually came alongside the distressed beast and tried removing the lure with pliers, but eventually ended up cutting the line and the ray glided back to the depths.
Later that night, the clouds rolled in again from the south and the misty rain, which is a common occurrence on the south coast, wrapped its damp, clammy tentacles around the landscape. We decided to pack up a day earlier than planned and take a slow trip home.
Whilst not super productive, the holiday had been very relaxing, and we had nailed some good fish. Burrill Lake, with all its inherent pressures, still provided us with some quality action and as a bonus, food on the table. For this reason Burrill will always hold a fond place in my memories.
I hope that in the decades ahead, all who are "stake-holders" in the area will continue to look after it because it is a very charming, picturesque stretch of water.
I wish to express my sincere thanks for the help given to me by Alex McAndrew and his book, which I recommend to any visitor, "Beautiful Burrill".