Destinations - Nambucca Heads, NSW
The laidback coastal town of Nambucca Heads in northern NSW boasts an array of angling options to suit all keen sportfishermen, as well as accommodation and activities to keep the missus and kids happy. BY “CAPTAIN” MARK PHILLIPS.
MY piscatorial love affair with Nambucca Heads started well over 20 years ago when I first started spending my Christmas holidays in the area camping with friends. Much has changed since my early visits to Nambucca. The drive north from Sydney is now much more pleasant thanks to some serious upgrades to the Pacific Highway, although petrol is now $1.40 a litre instead of 70c and space in the back of the car these days is taken up by stuff for the kids instead of fishing gear.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the quality of the fishing and the variety of angling options the area has to offer. Over summer and autumn I honestly believe this is one of NSW’s premier angling holiday destinations. It doesn’t matter if you’re into offshore, estuarine or freshwater fishing, Nambucca Heads ticks all the boxes. After years of holidaying and fishing here I can honestly say it will satisfy the fishy lust of the most hardcore angler and has a backdrop and ambience that will charm and entertain the entire family.
The town of Nambucca Heads is built on the hillside slopes of the headland overlooking the mouth of the Nambucca River. The river mouth itself is a postcard picture of interconnected sand flats, narrow channels and man-made breakwalls with a variety of accommodation and amenities close by to suit all budgets.
We usually set up our camper at the White Albatross Caravan Park, which is located adjacent to the river mouth’s breakwall. It’s a great spot with good sites and has a large pool, water playground and a protected saltwater lagoon for the kids. Just by chance it also has an excellent tavern located at the front gate that serves a good steak and icy cold ale.
The bar at the mouth of the Nambucca River is a nasty piece of work and even in the best of conditions is only tackled by the local commercial fleet and the occasional fool-hardy holiday boater who more often than not ends up upside down.
Most local boaters heading offshore choose to beach launch from Shelly Beach on the northern side of the headland. I’ve watched many crews successfully launch and retrieve some reasonably big boats here, but if you own a boat over six metres it’s a safer option to drive south to Scotts Head or South West Rocks to drop it in the brine. If you’ve never attempted a beach launch or retrieve before, take the time to watch the locals in action before you tackle it yourself. You’ll need a good long snatch strap or chain, a decent 4WD, and your trailer needs to be in top working order. My best advice is to watch, ask questions and learn so you don’t end up bogged to the door sills or damaging your boat.
Once on the water the world’s your piscatorial oyster with miles of inshore shallow broken reef to explore. This is one part of the world I love fishing with soft plastics; you don’t really even have to know any marks, just simply watch the sounder until you find some nice broken reef that ranges from 15 to 25m deep, turn off the motor and start drifting and casting.
If there’s a bit of breeze a sea anchor will help to slow things down and make life easier getting lures down into the strike zone before the boat blows over the fish. Cast in the direction of your drift and don’t let your lure sink too deep or you will get plenty of re-rigging practice. Five and seven inch Gulp Jerk Shads fitted with 1/4 to 1/2 ounce, 3/0 to 5/0 jig heads are my lure of choice for this sort of country and will attract plenty of attention from species such as snapper, pearl perch and samson fish.
It also pays to have a floating pilchard bait rigged on a set of 4/0 gangs floating out the back of the boat as you’re drifting; this floating bait will often pick up snapper and other unexpected species such as Spanish mackerel and the occasional cobia.
I generally like to fish with six-pound FireLine and 15 pound fluorocarbon leader. Fishing light will get you more bites but the bottom structure off Nambucca Heads can be very unforgiving when it comes to stopping good fish, so it pays to get on top of them with the boat as quick as you can once the reel is screaming.
Spotted and Spanish mackerel can be caught on inshore reefs off the Nambucca coast from late December until late May when water temperatures and currents are conducive. Mackerel are great sport on light tackle and make a fantastic meal on the barbecue. Both spotties and Spanish can be caught on trolled lures but without a doubt the most effective way I have found to successfully target these toothy line burners is by slow trolling livebaits.
Big slimy mackerel are gun Spanish baits with the smaller models better suited to targeting spotties. Spaniards will also hammer live bonito, tailor, mullet and pike.
Live baits need to be rigged with multiple hooks on 38 and 44 pound single strand wire using small neat haywire twists to connect the hooks. One hook is placed in the bait’s nose and the next one just behind the mid section; you can also run a free swinging stinger if you wish. The stinger is rigged using a size 4 to 6 Owner treble; hooks are usually 4/0 and 5/0 Owner Octopus models.
Baits will often get very nervous and play up before they get attacked. Bites are far from subtle, sometimes resulting in a watery explosion, which is pretty cool to see. Once things settle down and line has stopped haemorrhaging from the spool it pays not to pull too hard as you can easily pull hooks from a mackerel’s toothy gob and bony head. You’ll often feel a hook or two let go during a fight, with only the treble stinger left hanging on when the fish is landed.
A word of caution: be very careful handling thrashing mackerel boatside; sharp teeth and multiple hook rigs are not kind to human flesh so it pays to dispatch fish beside the boat with a donger before bringing them on board.
Once on board, mackerel should be bled and put on ice to keep the flesh firm. Little heads and long sides make the mackerel family a very high yield species in terms of the amount of meat you get off the fish.
This part of the NSW coastline has such a diverse species list due to the overlap of cool water and tropical species you never know what you’re going to come across. Top quality table species like pearl perch, snapper and parrotfish are often caught in the same water as cobia, mackerel and GTs; every day seems to bring something different which for me makes it such a cool place to go for a fishing holiday.
The Nambucca River is a virtual estuarine utopia for anyone who loves using a variety of techniques to catch popular species such as bream, whiting, flathead and mulloway. The river’s breakwalls have many deep holes and are prime spots to target mulloway on tide changes. Soft plastics and livebaits both work well. As usual, perseverance with time spent with a lure or bait in the water will bring results.
Flathead are one of the most popular targets for holidaying anglers visiting Nambucca and can be caught right up past the Macksville road bridge. I like to target them on the start of a run in tide, preferably in the morning before there’s too much boat traffic on the water. I fish the weedy edges of the channels with soft plastics and flies; your presentation needs to land right on the breakline where the sand meets the weed for consistent results.
Five-inch Gulp Jerk Shads and pink and white Clouser flies are my favourite weapons for Nambucca flathead. Blades are another effective way to cover water quickly and efficiently in this shallow sandy environment. Like Greeny said in his recent Fisho flathead story (in the March issue), “blades work real well on flathead”, although ribbon weed can be a pain in the arse at times.
Whiting are another popular species that are well worth some attention in the warmer parts of the year. At times they can be quite thick in the Nambucca system, although the local commercial crews are pretty efficient at netting the flats when the fish move in numbers.
Fresh live nippers can be pumped on any of the flats at low tide then fished up on the flats as the tide is flooding. Four pound mainline straight through to a long shank chemically sharpened worm hook and a tiny running pea sinker is all you will need to catch a feed of Nambucca whiting.
If lure casting is your game you have come to the right place as the local whiting have an absolute popper fetish. There are acres of top looking flats, mangrove edges and broken weedy patches to fish. Standout poppers over the last season have been the Zip Baits Skinny Pop Junior, Sugar Pens and Berkley Scum Dogs. I’ve found the secret to catching these little buggers on poppers is to keep the lure moving; don’t stop like you would with a bream because the fish will quickly lose interest and fade off. It’s good fun, very addictive and at times highly productive, which is great because my family loves a feed of whiting.
The first thing most keen anglers will notice when driving into town is the floating oyster leases that line the river banks. These leases have large timber frames that support a series of blue plastic drums that are covered in growth below the waterline. If you’re thinking this would be a good spot to target some stud bream, you’re right on the money. You just want to be on your game if you’re going to catch them because they have seen every lure in your box a hundred times and know what you’re up to, believe me. Ultra light leaders and unweighted plastics are the go to get a bite; then it’s up to you to extract them from the submerged oyster trays and ropes anchoring the entire set up. Good luck!
We spent a fair bit of time this year fishing with the kids from the river bank with bread for mullet and garfish. The kids had a blast and caught some great bully mullet that kept them busy trying to land them. I found a bread fly in my fly box and got in on the act. Big mullet on ultra light tippets are good fun! I’ll be doing some more of that next year for sure.
The Nambucca valley has some really pristine bass water to explore. I’m not going to tell you where to go because these little creeks can’t handle that sort of advertising. What I will advise is that you grab a map and your kayak and go exploring the likely looking spots. I’m sure you won’t come up empty handed as this is how I found them. The bass fishing in this area can be fantastic with plenty of good size fish more than keen to attack surface lures, even during daylight hours. Ensure you help to sustain a vibrant bass population by releasing fish with minimal fuss.
Things to do with the family
When you have worn out your fishing brownie points or the gang want to do something different, there are some great day trip options. The wife will love a stroll though nearby Bellingen’s boutiques, galleries and maybe you could both enjoy a nice lunch at the Old Butter Factory. The kids will enjoy a day at the Raleigh go kart track or the rainforest walk at Dorrigo. It’s all worth checking out.
Nambucca Heads is a great spot that’s bulging with angling opportunities and natural assets; the worst part of holidaying in this pretty little country town by the sea is having to pack up and go home!