When to comes to finding a top location to enjoy a laidback family fishing holiday, NSW’s Tea Gardens is the place to go, according to MARK PHILLIPS.
TEA Gardens to many is one those turn-off signs along the Pacific Highway that gets nothing more than a quick glance while driving north to better known and glitzier coastal holiday destinations. If you’re over holiday crowds and are instead looking for a quiet spot with great fishing options, drive no further than the Tea Gardens turn-off. The pace around town is definitely what you would call laidback, but you’ll soon get used to it. Believe me, after a week here the thought of returning to the hustle and bustle of everyday life will do your head in. I’ve been holidaying with my family for the past 10 years in Tea Gardens and I still can’t help feeling spellbound by its charm and top quality angling opportunities every time I get to spend a few days in town.
Tea Gardens is situated a lazy two and a half hours drive north of Sydney and overlooks the lower shores of the Myall River on the northern side of Port Stephens. Although small and blissfully quiet, it has everything you will need in the way of services and retailers as well as a range of accommodation in close proximity to the water.
We usually rent a house that’s situated within metres of the river with only a short walk to the local restaurants, pub and boat ramp. The only time I usually have to start the family car while we are on holidays is to launch and retrieve the boat, or run the kids down to the beach.
Check the MPA map Before you venture out on the water for a fish make sure you get hold of a map of the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. The Myall River has two areas classified as no fishing zones close to Tea Gardens. One zone is upstream of the town; the other is downstream below the road bridge towards the river mouth at Corrie Island. Be aware when you’re on the river adjacent to Corrie Island that the parks boundary runs out to the green channel markers in the main arm of the river. At low tide this equates to a strip of water less than 10m wide and is not sign-posted – a crazy zoning and one that I think would be next to impossible for local MPA officers to police.
Once you’ve worked out where you are and aren’t allowed to fish it’s time to actually go fishing. If you’re a kayak fisho you are going to love this place: the Myall has countless bays and long runs of mangrove-lined banks to explore. The river has a strong tidal influence which gives it a good flush out every day and puts fish in areas that you would expect them to be on any given part of the tide.
During my last stay, the first couple of days coincided with a full moon that produced some big spring tides. This allowed us to fish some fantastic flats and shallow bays that are usually only covered by inches of water. As these big tides were flooding in I made good use of my kayak’s stealth qualities by quietly cruising the edges and pushing long casts with surface lures high up onto the flats. The water was oily calm with hordes of hungry bream, whiting and flathead all very willing to feed on the surface.
I managed to catch three flathead one morning on surface lures; the strikes were all very impressive with two of the fish actually jumping clear of the water. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a flattie jump before, but they do when they belt a surface lure and it’s quite cool to watch.
Surface science During the warmer months the lower parts of the Myall can only be described as topwater utopia. Make sure you pack a box of various sized surface lures so you can enjoy some of the best topwater estuary action you will find anywhere.
When it comes to surface lures it pays to be fussy about presentation, size and design. Most surface lures are usually designed to walk or pop, only a small few can do both with any finesse. I know I’ve said it before, but the Zip Baits Skinny Pop Jnr is an absolute whiting weapon. This little lure never fails to impress me with its cleverly designed slender, arched body and a small cupped face that has a high tow point. The end result is a lure with excellent hook exposure that can be walked, popped or rattled to imitate a very nervous prawn and the local Tea Gardens whiting population love them. Be warned though, so do some of the biggest long toms I’ve ever seen. These toothy marlin imitators have a nasty habit of biting off $25 lures with their aerial antics and can be quiet a challenge to get a lure out of when you’re wrestling them on a kayak.
Other calm water performers on my last visit included Lucky Strike NW Pencils, Sebile Splashers and Atomic K9 Pups. Once the wind starts to get up I usually switch over to larger model walk-the-dog style lures that measure up to 80mm. These work really well with a ripple on the water and the larger wake and water displacement attracts a fish’s attention when the smaller lures get lost in the waves and are also very hard to track visually.
When it comes to fishing topwater lures I’ve learnt to use a short mono leader of around 800mm to keep these finely tuned lures swimming at their best. Fluorocarbon leader sinks very fast and tends to pull the nose of the lure under the water, inhibiting its action, especially on smaller lures when you have a lot of line on the water. You usually end up in a situation where the leader is submerged and your rod tip is trying to make the leader knot swim rather than the lure. I always keep a small spool of six-pound mono leader handy just for these occasions.
When I’m fishing the surface I generally use rods that have a reasonably soft tip and I use very light drag settings; this helps to keep lightly pinned fish connected. Make sure your trebles are very thin gauge and razor sharp. If they’re looking a bit ratty grab a packet of new ones and change them. Ensure you match the size of the hooks that come off the lure as many surface lures will change the way they sit in the water if the hooks you fit are bigger or smaller. Believe me, it makes a huge difference to your hook up ratio if your trebles are in premo condition.
Bait options For those that like to baitfish and collect their own bait there are plenty of good flats and sand spits to pump nippers on at low tide. Most of the better areas require a boat to access and have plenty of yabbies on hand. These small crustaceans make top baits for all of the Myall’s estuarine species. Poddy mullet and garfish can also be easily caught by berleying with bread and fishing under a small float in any of the many sheltered weedy bays on a high tide. The Myall’s flathead population are suckers for a live poddy drifted down the edges of deeper channels towards the end of the run-out tide. You’ll also find mulloway if you put the time in fishing the deeper holes in the river with livebaits such as mullet and tailor around tide changes.
Hard-body heaven Downstream past the Singing Bridge (which takes it name from the noise it makes when the wind blows through it) you’ll find acres of old broken oyster leases that are strewn across a network of flats and deeper edges near the main river channel. This area is one of my favourite spots to fish.
If you have a shallow drafted boat fitted with an electric, or a kayak, you can carefully work your way up onto the more open flats on the rising tide. Be very careful, though, as there’s lots of stuff under the water here that will damage props and make short work of expensive lures. Conversely, there’s also plenty of good fishing to be had if you take your time and work your way slowly through the area.
Small shallow diving hard-bodies and topwater lures work well around this oyster encrusted minefield. I like to try and utilise casts that work lures back past a line of old timber stumps or broken rails. This parallel casting technique maximises your lure’s time in the proximity of fish holding structure and thus maximises bite opportunities.
The tide can get quite a strong push in these areas, making this style of fishing a challenge; but it also gives the fish very little time to think about whether or not they want to attack a lure. Once a fish is hooked it pays not to muck around. I generally fish in this sort of country with at least 10lb leaders or you just start losing too many expensive lures. Tailor are another toothy species that I found will happily ambush your favourite lures towards the top of the tide in this area, just another good reason to fish slightly heavy at the pointy end if you want to hang on to your proven performers.
As the tide runs off this area you can drift the outside edges, peppering any likely looking oyster coated debris. Fishing these deeper edges has proved to be very productive and is a little more laidback as there is next to no submerged obstacles to negotiate. A bow mount electric is still almost essential kit for this style of fishing as the boat requires constant small positioning adjustments to cast at the best fish-holding positions and counteract the effects of wind and tide.
Charter Option If you’ve never fished the lower Myall area before, or have never fished with lures, one of the better ways to catch a few fish and learn some new tricks is to charter a local guide. Rohan Soulsby owns and operates Castaway Fishing Charters and is based a stone’s throw away in Port Stephens. Rohan has been fishing the area for many years and knows exactly where to be on any tide to catch flathead, bream, whiting and mulloway.
During my last visit to Tea Gardens I got to spend a morning on the water with Rohan and good mate Peter Williams fishing out of Rohan’s very neatly set up Quintrex 5m Hornet. Our target species were bream and flathead and after picking us up from the wharf at Tea Gardens Rohan wasted no time putting us onto some nice fish. Rohan is a very keen lure fisherman who’s fished more than a few bream tournaments in his time. He’s well and truly up to date with the latest techniques. We fished with our own tackle on the day but Rohan happily supplies his clients with the latest tackle and lures on a you lose it, you pay for basis, if needed.
We had a great morning fishing a variety of structure such as deep rock walls, shallow flats and old oyster leases. There were plenty of laughs as we peppered prime spots with a variety of hard-bodied lures while Rohan expertly steered the Hornet’s iPilot Minn Kota, putting us in prime casting positions every time we approached a new piece of structure.
Rohan has some fantastic country to fish and a great boat to fish it out of. Like all good guides, he can easily tailor charters to suit clients’ needs. We had a hoot fishing with him and there’s no doubt we learnt a lot about the area and how to fish it. After a morning of bent rods, big laughs and a few lost lures, Rohan dropped us back off at the Tea Gardens wharf around midday, just in time for a cold beer and a steak at the pub.
Tea Gardens is one of those places where you can get lost doing nothing or burn yourself out fishing every tide. The beach is only a short drive over the bridge at Hawks Nest and has some great fishing for those who like the feel of sand between their toes while wetting a line or enjoying a game of beach cricket with the kids. Whatever you do or don’t do when you’re not fishing, I bet you won’t want to leave when it’s time to go home. I know I don’t.