TULLY is Australia’s wettest town, so it’s only logical that a lot of the activities in the region are water-related. And for visitors who are truly attracted to watery pursuits, there’s no bigger drawcard than the Tully River. This special piece of water has a lot to offer – not only to the canoeists and white-water rafters, but to mad-keen anglers!
Tully is located within the internationally-recognised Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and is about two hours north of Townsville and about the same distance south of Cairns. Like many towns in the North, Tully exists largely because of the sugar and banana industry. The mill in town is popular with tourists.
The river itself begins in the Cardwell Range (west of the town) and flows eastward, meeting the sea at Tully Heads. The section of the river I’ll write about is the upper reach. To get there you drive through the town centre and follow the road out to Tully Gorge. It’s about 30km, but it’s a well signed and very user-friendly piece of road.
The road will have you driving through rows of banana plants and finally into the rainforest where you’ll soon get a glimpse of the river to your left. At one point you’ll cross the river, and it’s here that you’ll get your first proper view of the river. And what a sight it is! The deep blue-green water is guaranteed to get any hardcore fisho squirming.
And from here to the uppermost limits, the fishing can be sensational!
Access points to the river occur randomly as you make your way along the road. Two of the best are the launch and retrieval sites for the white-water rafting tours. The take-out point lies in the camping area on your right not long after you cross the Tully River Bridge. It has great facilities, and a camping area that’s well patronised.
One of the best ways to fish the river is to use one of the access points, make your way along the river (either up or down – it doesn’t matter), and then simply hop out at the next access point you come across.
The alternative to waiting for the next access area is to scramble up the bank to the road. The road’s generally fairly close to the river, so you won’t have to walk too far, but this stretch can sometimes be rather steep and heavily vegetated. (What else would you expect from a tropical rainforest?)
Koombooloomba Dam lies above Tully Gorge and forms part of a hydroelectric plant. The authorities regulate the amount of water that flows down the river, which is something that the white water rafters take advantage of. Each day between 11am and 1pm, water is released and ridden by the rafters as they traverse the river. During these times fishing and moving along the river can be a bit more arduous, but not impossible.
The time of year also affects the fishing. While the dry season can provide more stable and consistent water levels, the wet season in the warmer months is also highly productive. Rising water levels can really bring the fish on but, of course, there’s a limit to how much water is a good thing!
I also recommend fishing during periods of ample light, because the rocks can be quite slippery and treacherous. It’s hard enough in full sunlight let alone trying to see your footing at dusk or the faint light of the morning.
The Tully River is home to many species that are all likely to turn up on the end of a lure. Barra are the most popular, but the likelihood of catching one is lower the further upriver you go and the deeper you get into the gorge and the strong swirling waters that accompany it.
Don’t despair though! There are plenty of other finned combatants hiding in the green waters. Sooty grunter (sooties) are the mainstay this far up the river. You can catch these guys hiding behind mid-stream and bankside boulders, and from nooks and crannies deep within swirling eddies and currents. In these fast-flowing locations, the sooties hit like a train and power away with the current.
Jungle perch (junglies, JPs) also inhabit these waters, and are usually found around the heads of pools and flow in points and bottlenecks. The junglies in the Tully are some of the bigger specimens that you’ll find in the North. They’re incredibly wily, but a well-presented lure into one of the more hard-to-get-to spots should draw a strike and hopefully a solid hookup.
Other species that’ll cross your path include those aerial pranksters, tarpon, and maybe the occasional barra or wayward jack in the deeper, slower-flowing pools.
The gear that you’d use for trout fishing or chasing bream and bass is ideal, but be sure to select a rod with a bit of length to allow you to cast the lure a considerable distance. I wouldn’t go any shorter than 6’. In fact, at times with 6’6” I feel a little underdone. A light, well-balanced rod rolled up on a 7’ blank would be ideal. It’s always better to be able to cast a lure further than you need rather than to not be able to cast it far enough.
Line weight doesn’t need to be too heavy; you’re only dealing with smooth boulders so you’re not going to get rubbed off. 2-4kg (4-10lb) will enable you to land anything you get connected to.
You lures need to be able to work in fast flowing water, and also to be worked quickly. Surface lures are fantastic, but they’re really only an option around ambush points such as boulders, bottlenecks and at flow-ins at the heads of pools. My favourite lures in these instances are the Heddon and Producer fizzers, and the Rebel Pop R – primarily the 2” Teeny version.
When it comes to more conventional hard-bodied divers, the Rapala Fat Raps work flawlessly, as do the Predatek Micro Mins and the Min Mins. You want lures that can dive to a considerable distance fairly quickly. You don’t want one that takes 10 metres to get down to where the fish are. By then it’ll be well out of the strike zone and wasting your time.
Some undervalued lures that are perfect for this environment are jigs. Whether they’re bucktail jigs or soft plastics doesn’t matter. They drop like a stone, they’re always working – even when free falling – and they handle fast water and have a great hook-up rate. They’re also easier on the pocket when you lose them! In water that flows this quickly, you won’t be wading to the other side to unhook your lure.
The terrain here is fairly tough, so you need to be prepared. Travelling light with just a backpack is the way to go because, other than having a rod in one hand, you’ll need both hands free to stabilise yourself as you scramble over rocks. Suitable footwear is also important. No bare feet or thongs here – just closed-toed shoes with ample grip.
One valuable bit of equipment I bought myself was a pair of Columbia Snake River Trainers, designed for walking in water and over slippery surfaces. They greatly increase my peace of mind when I’m walking on the slippery places associated with this style of fishing. You’ll still slip over occasionally – that’s guaranteed – but you won’t do it nearly as often.
Bear in mind that you’re likely to get wet. If doesn’t happen when you’re wading it’ll happen when it rains! Make sure your clothing is light, quick-drying and not prone to making you chafe. As for those items that don’t mix well with water (e.g. mobile phones), leave them behind or seal them in waterproof bags.
Fishing a place like the Tully isn’t for everyone; it can be difficult, painful and even frustrating at times. You could more easily fish the lower reaches from a canoe or a boat, but then you’ve got the crocs and the sandflies, and you miss out on what makes the upper gorge country so amazing and special. Experiencing fantastic fishing in such a beautiful, rugged place is very rewarding. For those who like their fishing mixed with a bit of adventure and excitement, it’s high on the list of must-dos. And even if you don’t catch fish you’ll get see a river that international tourists pay hundreds of dollars to see.
1) Water is released from Koombooloomba Dam every day from 11am to 1pm.
2) The heads of pools in the Tully are good spots for sooty grunter and jungle perch.
3) Find shade and you’ll find the sooties.
4) Jungle perch will eat surface lures all day long.Reads: 3927