I have always had a love for freshwater fishing. The scenery is often breathtaking. You might encounter high mountain streams with rapids leading into crystal clear pools, or gum tree-lined rivers meandering through twisted bush land. Perhaps you’ll explore gorges hardened by endless floods and drought, or cast into lily pads strewn across a paperbark billabong.
The memories of angling in these unique habitats come flooding back when I recall the fun I’ve had chasing each species.
I learnt to fly fish while doing my TV show, Escape With ET, and while I have caught many species of fish, I am still a long way off being a master of the art. Suffice to say I am still learning and I am looking forward to more lessons ahead.
I have chased trout, both rainbows and browns, in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand. While I enjoy trolling on the many lakes I’ve fished, my favourite way of catching trout is by casting to rising fish. How exhilarating! It encapsulates all things that have attracted me to fishing from a young age. Firstly, there’s the hunt; sighting the quarry and going about reading all the factors to make the capture possible. Things to consider include what the fish are feeding on, wind direction, shadows, where I can cast from and concealment so the fish won’t see me when I lay the perfect cast.
I guess it brings out the kid in all of us because I never tire of crawling along on my belly through the long grass or climbing over rocks with water rushing around my legs.
A trip to the South Island of New Zealand comes to mind as one such adventure in which the scenery was straight out of Lord of the Rings and the fishing exceptional. Chasing 6 to 8lb brown trout out on the open river beds, with little cover to ambush our prey was challenging and rewarding. Snow-covered mountain peaks and boulder-strewn streams where rainbows danced among the stones saw us sliding over rocks to deliver the right cast. We caught a dozen rainbows, all in perfect condition and logged away a memory I will never lose.
Tasmania is trout fishing heaven. One of my favourite trips was rafting down the Macquarie River. The rains had not long stopped and the river was rising fast, flooding the banks and opening up new territory for the feeding trout. Legendary guide, Peter Hayes held the raft into the current to give me the best chance to cast to the rising fish. They ran hard when hooked and powered through the jungle of weed that swayed up from the bottom. We lost a couple before the first trout made it to the boat. The scenery was so different from the mountain peaks of New Zealand, but impressive just the same. The idea of rafting a river conjures up images of Huckleberry Finn gliding down the Mississippi. It’s a fun thing to do and even better when you can cast to rising fish along the way. Fly fishing is a great way to catch fish. It may take a while to master, but it’s a challenge worth pursuing.
A good friend of mine, Don Lawson lives in the New England area of northern NSW. Don loves his fishing and for many years has chased Murray cod. Actually, “chased” is not really the right term for the relationship Don has with Australia’s biggest freshwater fish. His respect goes back a long way and you can see the thrill in his eyes when he releases a big girl back into the wild after admiring her natural beauty. A more Aussie fish you will not find and, more often than not, green and gold colours flicker amongst the dark hue of their skin. The species has lived in the Murray Darling and surrounding tributaries for countless years.
I can remember camping with Don and a few friends beside a dam a couple of years back. Like all camping trips, the wake-up alarm sounds just before first light. Hundreds of cockatoos and rosellas, perched high in the trees above our tents, saw us stumble out of bed not quite ready for the day. A cuppa from the billy cleared the cobwebs from our heads and we stood admiring the view across the lake, watching as the first rays of light reflected their soft touch. In the middle of the dam a group of waterfowl was quietly bobbing for food before scurrying off in a line, annoyed by something unforseen. My coffee left the cup in shock as a huge eruption under the birds caused a flurry of feathers to disappear under the water. Seconds later, the missing bird appeared, only to be half engulfed again and again as what we realised was a huge cod was looking for brekkie. Somehow, the bird managed to escape and we raced around closer to the action with rods in hand. With no time to re-rig, we cast our lures close to where the big cod had been. Jeff finished the previous evening with a large popper attached and within two bloops was absolutely smashed by an angry Murray cod, that wasn’t going to miss out on its morning meal. After a 15-minute battle, the huge Murray, weighing well over 50lb, came close enough to hold. We left the big girl in the water to help with her release and the three of us, plus camera crew, were waist deep seeing her back to good health. What a morning – and all before brekkie!
Yellowbelly, or golden perch, is another great Australian freshwater fish. Recently, I joined Brett Wilson and country music star, Melinda Schneider on a trip to Windamere Dam, in NSW. The sizes of the fish were astounding. They were averaging an estimated 4 kilos and going berserk on hard body, deep-diving, bibless minnows.
Casting towards the bank and shuffling the lures through the weed saw many fish come up tight. Softly, softly was the speed, with just the slightest twitch often getting the best result. It was loads of fun and the fish of the day came by a wayward cast, which saw the lure dangle helplessly from a tree branch 20 feet above the water. As the lure was lowered in an attempt to free the line, a huge yellowbelly jumped aboard.
We ended up hand-lining the fish from the snag and it would have weighed close to 5kg. What an unlucky fish.
Whenever I get the chance, I like to escape to the Clarence River gorge country in Northern NSW to chase Australian bass. What an awesome fish! These wild native fish love the Clarence River’s huge catchment that brings with it life in such abundance. I have had so many fantastic times up in the gorge, camping and canoeing. Walking the escarpment and casting lures into the froth covered back eddies is just magic. And struggling to stop 50cm-plus fish as they race around rocks and structure unseen is an unforgettable experience.
I spent a few days there last summer when the days were hot and the afternoon storms turned the campsite inside out. The mornings were the best. Shaded from the sun, the bass were far more active and surface lures worked a treat cast amongst the overhangs and rock crevices. As the sun crept over the mountains, the fish shied deeper and we changed rigs to keep the action flowing amongst the rapids. A dropper with a soft plastic attached swam nicely in the current and it fooled even the biggest bass. You must always be ready to change tactics as conditions change. If we were to have persisted with surface lures, the action for the day may have finished mid-morning. But with the change in conditions and the fish hanging deeper, the soft plastic option kept the fun happening for most of the day. You can bet I will be returning to Neil Winters’ property at the Clarence Gorge sometime soon.
THE BARRA BUG
My love for barramundi has been there from my first trip to Queensland’s Cape York 15 years ago. I have always had the fishing bug, but the barramundi bug is by far the toughest to shake. In fact, the only answer is to head north for another dose. Australia’s north offers brilliant rivers, rocky headlands and creeks. Most of these hold good concentrations of barra at certain times of the year. But it’s the billabongs that hold the key to life in the tropics. Natural lakes stocked with thousands of fish all growing up together, until the summer monsoonal rains flood the system and open the door to the tidal rivers beyond.
Shady Camp, in the Northern Territory, is one of the most accessible billabongs to fish. It has a healthy population of barra, saratoga and tarpon, which are great fun to chase. The setting is straight out of National Geographic. Reeds and lily pads, with their stunning pink flowers standing tall, dot the waterway. Paperbarks and pandanus trees continue the freshwater theme and provide the structure that holds the banks and shelters marine life. The most impressive creature, and the king of the billabong, is the huge saltwater crocodile. There are literally hundreds of them and many are over the scary 4-metre mark. So it pays to fish out of a boat; preferably one a bit bigger than 4 metres.
Trolling small lures like Tilsans will see you score plenty of smaller barra up to 70cm. But the fun in a billabong is casting surface poppers and fizzers amongst the lily pads. You never know what you will encounter as barra, saratoga and tarpon are all used to feeding on the surface. Imitating frogs, grasshoppers and all manner of insect, surface lures should be manoeuvred across and between the lily pads slowly. This gives the fish plenty of time to position themselves for a strike. Once hooked, the challenge really begins, as the fish dive hard through the tangled mess of weed and stems. Barra may launch themselves clear of the water several times, shaking their heads from side to side in an effort to free the lure. If you manage to muscle the fish to the net, you will notice the dark colouration of the skin. Only in the salt are they the shiny silver we commonly see. Trust me; you will be itching to put him back unharmed so you can shoot in another cast. Now you have the barra bug.
Most Australian anglers head for the coast when they feel the need to fish. But there are just as many options when you go in the opposite direction. Hopefully, like me, you’ll end up with fond memories of fish fought and battles won on our magnificent lakes, rivers and billabongs.