The Wallagaraugh River is in southern NSW and northern Victoria. It’s a big river, wide and deep in parts. Upstream, near where the Princes Highway crosses the river, it breaks out into pools.
For anglers who regularly fish at Mallacoota, the Wallagaraugh is well known. Some fishing reports from this part of the world refer to the Genoa River, when in fact the fish were caught in the Wallagaraugh, which flows into the Genoa upstream of Gipsy Point.
In the Wallagaraugh, just upstream from Gipsy Point, there is a long stretch of riverbank snags where bream and estuary perch of 1–2 kg are a realistic expectation through winter and spring. The river is a patchwork of muddy backwaters, sandbars and snags. The depth varies from knee deep to about 3 m. Some shallows carry ribbon weed, making them difficult to fish. No channels are marked and due to the depth variations, you need to be careful when boating, as the channel tends to swap sides along the river.
I fished here when Melbourne and the rest of southern Victoria were subject to havoc-wreaking gale-force winds, rain and hail. On the Wallagaraugh, the water was calm. Low-lying cumulus clouds were scuttling around the ranges, but there was no wind, the sun was out and the fish were on the bite. I was spinning for dusky flathead with Clint Logan. Clint and his wife Debbie, both keen anglers, used to own the Wallagaraugh River Retreat camping and caravan park, on the banks of the Wallagaraugh, a little south of the NSW border.
Drifting over shallow flats, it was difficult to relate to climate conditions at home. Nor did I care. I don’t think about home when I’m fishing, and I never, ever turn the phone on. When you’re out on the water there are issues that are more serious: the action at hand.
On this day, the big flathead were hungry. Clint and I were fishing from his 4.2 m flat-bottomed aluminium boat, which features a built-in floor that makes these small craft stable and ideal platforms for this style of fishing. A bow-mounted electric motor gave us the ability to sneak around without disturbing our quarry.
We were offering snacks of tiny Halco Scorpions, Legends and the like. Trying to induce a strike, we would flick our lures out and retrieve slowly. Twitch, pause and crank; an action we hoped was imitating a crippled baitfish. In America they call lures worked like this ‘jerk baits’. To me this is spinning, and this day everything was working. The flathead, like the weather, were cooperating and we were enjoying tight lines and bowed rods on some reasonable fish.
Flatheads are predators and I enjoy fishing for them. When a big dusky strikes, the take is aggressive and hard. The large head shakes and sometimes the fish breaks the surface attempting to toss the lure. There are more than 30 species of flathead in our waters, but it is the inshore species, such as the dusky and the yank, that offer anglers an exceptional challenge. Flathead will take dead baits, live baits, lures and flies. You can work them up a berley trail, or simply sight-fish them on days when the water is clear.
To say Clint is a keen angler might be an understatement. ‘Every day I try to put some time in on the water,’ Clint said. ‘Debbie really runs the business, I just work around the place and take off fishing when I can.’ This can annoy Debbie, who also prefers being on the water. On one visit during late winter, Debbie had given Clint the week off to fish with me. Clint told me the bream were starting to run and the flathead were moving upriver after a minor flood; it was a promising time. A couple of bream topping 1.6 kg are nothing to sneeze at, and this water regularly produces dusky flathead in excess of 5 kg.
The week before I arrived, father and son anglers Ted and Cameron Whittam caught and released more than 100 flathead, several of them better than 4 kg.
Ted and Cameron left and took the weather with them. The wind blew and the rain fell for a couple of days, but Clint and I simply edged close to shore and fished in the lee of the tea trees. Our first stop was some sand- and mudflats a few kilometres downstream from the retreat, about 10 mins by boat. We were spinning with 3 kg outfits and the first hook-up was a 3.63 kg flathead that scoffed a small Halco Scorpion.
When the flathead fishing backed off we went in search of black bream. Bream in excess of 2 kg had been caught in the weeks before my arrival and Debbie had been doing particularly well. These are big bream by anyone’s measure. Our chosen method was to use unweighted prawns and fish the snags along the river. We were unable to top the 2 kg mark, but you can’t complain when the average bream was about 1 kg.
This wasn’t good enough for Debbie. There is a little bit of piscatorial competition between her and Clint, and she was chomping at the bit to get on the water to show us how it was done. With Debbie fishing with local Genoa resident Gary McCorkell in another boat, we leapfrogged each other along the river. Clint managed a fish of about 1.58 kg; Gary did the same. There were plenty of 1 kg fish, and Debbie went closest to the 2 kg mark with a fish of 1.75 kg.
Clint uses bait, lure and fly. The choice of method comes down to conditions and the species. Likely looking snags are fished with unweighted prawns for bream or estuary perch. Areas where the river shallows and there are sand flats lined with weed beds are the domains of the big duskies. Here lures take preference over the prawns. A patch of grass on the bank in front of a sand bank is always worth a cast. Nevertheless, a prawn can still yield a bream as these fish often move into shallow water to forage on overcast days. Clint has caught dusky flathead to 6.4 kg (14 pounds on the old scale, which is the proper weight for fish among old timers) and likes to tell of the monster he lost after a 40-minute battle. As we motored along the river from one fish-yielding snag to another, Clint pointed out recently fallen trees that ‘have the potential to be good perch- or bream-holding areas in spring’.
This pristine part of the world gets better the further away from civilisation you head. Wattle and tea tree line most of the riverbank. As the banks rise to the ranges, a forest of Gippsland grey box and manna gums takes over. One stretch of the river boasts a rainforest, with tall trees and dense scrub covered in verdant green vines. If you weren’t so far south, you’d swear you were in North Queensland fishing along the Daintree. Mind you, there are no crocodiles in the Wallagaraugh, although the goannas in this part of the world can grow to a fair size.
Upstream from the Wallagaraugh River Retreat, past Johnson Bridge, is the famous Bullring. Known for its bream, the Bullring is a bend in the river with a small island and plenty of rushes and trees. The area is often very productive.
If you motor upstream as far as you can go, you reach a wall of rocks. Secure the boat on the north side of the river, scramble through the scrub and you reach the first of the freshwater pools, known for their Australian bass. Bass are a freshwater species and sometimes tracking them down can mean a solid slog through the bush. The more isolated and rugged the terrain, the more likely you are to find this fish.