The only good thing about a Melbourne winter is that it can provide an excellent incentive to be elsewhere, especially when it comes to boating. I willingly admit to being a fair-weather boatie – at least when it comes to enduring the cold and wet.
Fortuitously, it came to pass that we had a Trailer Trip scheduled that started and ended north of the Queensland border – although we would spend most of our time in northern NSW.
My partner in crime for this particular venture was none other than renowned boating journalist John ‘The Bear’ Willis and accompanying us would be a brand-new CruiseCraft 595 Outsider Hard Top, being towed by a similarly fresh 2017 model Nissan Navara ST dual-cab ute. Our destination was the Northern Rivers area of NSW and the three large rivers that flow through its rich farmlands, namely the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence Rivers. We would navigate the lower reaches of all three rivers, guided by local knowledge, explore nearby attractions and occasionally wet a line. And along the way we would take the CruiseCraft out wide in search of large fish in order to sample the new hardtop where it is likely to be used most.
Our HQ for the first part of our journey was Tweed Heads, where we settled into a caravan park not far from the ocean entrance. The joint towns of Tweed Heads and Coolangatta that straddle the NSW/Qld border offer a wealth of options in terms of accommodation, with everything from hi-rise apartments and resorts to campgrounds. There is also plenty of choice when it comes to dining and entertainment.
We were fortunate to meet up with resident fisho Casey Harrison, who offered us the benefit of his knowledge of local hotspots, both offshore and throughout some of the nearby waterways. Casey would also join us for the last two days of our trip exploring the lower reaches of the Richmond and Clarence Rivers.
Meanwhile, word had it that there was some striped marlin action to be had a few kays to the north-east of Tweed Heads out to the 110m mark, where a series of canyons converge near the Continental Shelf. Armed with suitable rods and lures and advice on traversing the Tweed River bar, we set out early on the first morning to try our luck. We had a fresh 15km/h south-easterly blowing us on our way generating a lazy 1m swell.
The Tweed River offers plenty of launching options, several within only a couple of kays of the bar, so we were soon in the water and on our way.
What followed was a few hours of wearing the paint off a series of lures – almost entirely to no effect, save for one hapless juvenile dolphin fish that happened to be cruising by as our lures rudely interrupted its day. We also investigated a series of reefs closer to shore further to our south but, while there was plenty happening on the sounder, it obviously wasn’t feeding time.
A bonus of being offshore at this time of year was being in the middle of Humpback Rush Hour as the mammalian leviathans engage in their annual migration north along the coast. Several times during the day, we saw whales breaching and otherwise providing photo opportunities just a handful of kilometres off the coast.
Our venture into the Tasman had at least given us the opportunity to sample the CruiseCraft’s bluewater credentials and, with a relatively lumpy sea for most of the day, we had no complaints as far as its ride, stability and handling went – see Offshore thoroughbred P122).
With offshore conditions deteriorating, the following day saw us head inland on the Tweed River which, like the other two rivers to our south, was still showing signs of the recent flooding that had hit the northern NSW coast and hinterland. We needed to keep a sharp eye out for debris floating down the river, mostly in the form of logs and branches, but occasionally also including car tyres and other urban waste.
Due to the water still carrying plenty of sediment, we’d been told not to expect much in the way of fishing action, and that certainly proved to be the case. While we did try our luck from time to time chasing bream, tailor and also the mighty mulloway, it seemed that they were either too well fed or simply not interested in what we had to offer.
Still, there was plenty to keep us occupied in the form of rustic visual distractions. We enjoyed a lunchtime stopover about an hour upstream at the historic Tumbulgum Tavern, where we were treated to a fine traditional Aussie-style pub lunch. There’s a small jetty to tie up to adjacent to the pub, but you need to take notice of the local ferry timetable when visiting by boat.
Midway through the week, we relocated about an hour south to the coastal centre of Ballina, where we were hosted by the friendly and professional folks at Ballina Discovery Park, which is handily perched right on the headwaters of Richmond River. In fact, it was only a five-minute walk along the nearby rock wall to the Richmond River bar, where a couple of minutes observation of the southerly driven swells confirmed that we weren’t likely to be heading out into the ocean for the remainder of our trip.
Our reluctance to try our luck at the entrance was borne out the following day as we meandered along the nearby rock wall in the Outsider in search of mulloway. A yacht approached the bar from the ocean side late in the afternoon and was greeted with wind-against-tide conditions producing a 2m swell and breaking waves coming into the river. When it seemed likely that the vessel might try its luck, we pulled in our lines and waited inside the Richmond headwaters, just in case. Eventually, after some radio discussion with the local marine rescue service, the yacht’s crew – wisely, we thought – chose discretion ahead of valor and headed north for other options.
The following day, we spent a very pleasant few hours exploring the Richmond, and fishing the waters inside the breakwater. Relying on the principal that the locals usually know best, we hung with a group of boats off the sandflats on the southern side of the river and were rewarded with a few average-sized bream on squid and pillies. This turned out to be our most productive fishing session for the whole trip although, speaking with locals, it was apparent that on a good day there were plenty of mulloway and tailor on offer just inside the river entrance, while decent flatties and bream occupied the waters around the Ballina township. And further upriver, we were told good-sized bass could be found.
As with our earlier voyage up the Tweed, there was still plenty of evidence of the floods on the Richmond, with tree limbs and other debris ensuring we kept our eyes sharp as we headed for the small settlement of Wardell, about a half hour’s lazy cruise from Ballina. We were told the trip would be worth it simply because of the ‘famous’ Wardell Pie Shop, which we conveniently discovered around lunchtime.
We tied up at the well-maintained public jetty and can confirm it is well worth the effort, as we enjoyed a couple of traditional-style, steaming hot pies on the banks of the river, nicely washed down with a couple of cold ales at the nearby Royal Hotel.
Yamba, on the headwaters of the Clarence River, was our next stop. An easy hour’s tow south of Ballina, the Clarence is the largest river system on the eastern seaboard, with a total overall length of nearly 400km. It’s a haven for boating and each year hosts the Bridge to Bridge ski race as well as sailing and rowing regattas.
At Yamba, where it meets the ocean, the river splits into various arms and channels. It’s worthwhile to make yourself familiar with its complexities, especially when navigating after sunset. As with the other two rivers, crossing the bar requires some care and common sense. Speak to the locals if you’re heading out for the day and make sure you let someone know your plans, just in case.
We were fortunate to have the company of locals Damo and his buddy Mitch for a session chasing mulloway and other species near the various rock walls and other artificial structures near the river mouth. While the fish weren’t exactly competing for our baits and lures, we saw plenty of evidence of decent catches on other boats around us, with mulloway up to 25kg being reported.
And we can certainly recommend a lunch break at the Yamba Shores Tavern, which overlooks the river and has plenty of space on its floating jetty for boating visitors. It has a great view and there are plenty of dining options to cater for all tastes.
While much of our time was spent on the water in search of various elusive local fish species, there are plenty of other attractions and scenic highlights along this section of the coast. Notable spots worth a visit include the tourist mecca of Byron Bay, the picturesque hamlet of Brunswick Heads and, for surfers and beachcombers, Lennox Head is worth a look for its great wave action, while Evans Head is known for the bottom bouncing on its inshore reef system.
The entire Northern Rivers region is well set up for tourism and boating. There are numerous caravan and camping parks close to the water, many with their own launching and cleaning facilities. And for those looking for a bit more luxury, there are plenty of resort-style options on offer. It’s worth noting though, that you might want to book well in advance if you’re planning on visiting during peak tourism seasons.
If the weather’s not cooperating, there are numerous attractions for those with an interest in local history, plus there’s an abundance of fresh local seafood and dining options, so taste buds will be in for a good workout.
For those wishing to head out into the ocean, you need to notify local marine rescue services of your plans and seek advice on weather and bar conditions, which can change rapidly depending on wind and tide.
Another source of advice and boating needs are the area’s Club Marine dealers, which include Tweed Coast Marine, tel (07) 5524 8877, Ballina Marineland Boat Sales, tel (02) 6686 2669, Lismore Outboard Sales, tel (02) 6621 2657 and Disco Marine, tel (02) 6643 1199.
While we barely scratched the surface in terms of all the boating activities that can be enjoyed in the region, I can say with some confidence that whether you’re into towsports, sailing, freshwater or saltwater fishing, or simply enjoy exploring our great coastline from the comfort of a boat, the Northern Rivers region can cater for just about every boating taste.