When your kids don’t share your mad-keen enthusiasm for fishing trips, sometimes you have to meet them halfway. My 14-year-old son Marcus isn’t a diehard fisher but he loves anything with action, so I decided to compromise with a paddle down the freshwater reaches of the Mulgrave River.
It was the perfect solution – we would both get to enjoy what we love while spending some quality time together.
My mate Terry McClelland has an 8-year-old son who also loves anything active so we made it a double header. Terry is a canoe instructor and was happy to teach Marcus the ropes and help me brush up on my rusty paddling skills.
The Mulgrave River can have some serious whitewater at times so we headed into it with a low level of difficulty trip from Arnolds Bridge to The Fisheries Bridge in the Goldsbrough Valley.
We got away mid-morning after some paddling tuition in the still water and some bumming practice in the rapids (bumming is a term for shooting the rapids feet first, on your bum, when you tip the canoe in the rapids and want to get to the bottom of the rapids safely). We wore helmets and lifejackets the whole time. In the long, slow holes taking helmets off was a possibility, but lifejackets should be worn at all times.
River heights are crucial and they can fluctuate in a mater of hours, or even minutes in severe conditions. The official Weather Bureau website has a ‘Rainfall and River Height Data’ page, which gives up-to-date river heights [see fact box]. That, and a look on the Cairns radar, will give you a pretty good indication of things to come. It’s worth the effort of checking out the website, as the afternoon of our first trip saw a storm came through and the Mulgrave rose more than a metre overnight.
The first day saw few fish caught (only one tarpon) as the water was too clear and the river too low. We kept an eye on the river heights and when they were ideal we tackled the second section from The Fisheries Bridge to Peets Bridge. The water was up on the first trip and had a bit of colour, making it ideal for luring.
We weren’t disappointed. Within the first couple of rapids a nice jungle perch was photographed and released. I was mainly focusing on paddling and simply trolled a honeypot-coloured Junior Prawnstar behind the canoe most of the time, stopping to flick at particularly good looking holes and snags.
Most of the action occurred in the lower sections of the rapids where the water deepened. While trolling I simply placed the butt of my baitcaster behind one heel and the rod shaft in front of the opposite knee and paddled. It pays to have your rod tied to the canoe with about 1.5m of cord, so if you turn turtle you have a good chance of getting your rod back. The cord needs to be long enough to allow easy casting, while being thick enough (3-5mm) not to get tangled around the reel handle when winding. Everything should be tied in, as it’s very easy to end up swimming. We had a couple of close calls but, luckily, didn’t end up in the drink.
The highlight of the second trip was landing a beautiful mangrove jack at the base of a set of rapids. It nailed my Prawnstar as I started to retrieve it while trolling. Even though I know jacks go well up into freshwater I was surprised to catch such a big jack so far upstream. I lost another good jack when the hooks straightened on a Tropic Angler, deep Poddy, after a blistering run. All I had to show for that encounter was a cheek scale, left to tantalize me, on the straightened treble.
In one deep hole we found a school of sooty grunter feeding on pink berries dropping from the rainforest trees. In the past I have been able to get sooties to bite on anything pink/red when they have been feeding on berries, but on this occasion they wouldn’t touch anything but the falling berries. We even tried the berries on a hook but they weren’t interested.
All up, we landed a jack, jungle perch, sooty grunter and tarpon, with barra the only fish missing from the tally sheet.
Both legs, Arnolds Bridge to The Fisheries and The Fisheries to Peets Bridge take about half a day, with short stops to fish. Working the area thoroughly would make it a comfortable day fishing trip. There are no estuarine crocodiles this far upstream and locals regularly swim in this section of the Mulgrave. The scenery is worth the trip alone, but when you can add the possibility of tangling with mangrove jack, jungle perch, barra, sooty grunter or tarpon, it adds up to a fantastic trip.
Planning a trip
The first thing to do is visit the Bureau of Meteorology’s website to check the height of the river, and you’ll find this info at www.bom.gov.au/hydro/flood/qld/north.shtml (scroll down to the bottom of the webpage to see a table of river heights for the region).
To have enough water for a good trip you need at least 1m at The Fisheries and 2m at Peets Bridge. Any more than 1.5m at The Fisheries and 2.5m at Peets Bridge would make it a pretty hairy trip in a canoe and kayaks would be better. There are some rapids where you need to portage but they are short and few in number.
River heights vary greatly but the wet season (January to April) is the best time, as the river level is often too low in the dry season.
The Goldsborough Valley is accessed by taking the Gillies Hwy turn-off from the Bruce Hwy at Gordonvale, then turn left into the Goldsborough Valley Rd about 7km up the road. Peets Bridge is about 100m from the turn-off to the Goldsborough Valley.
A little sooty Marcus caught early in the trip. Wearing a lifejacket and helmet is a must in this stretch of the Mulgrave River.
This serious jack was a surprise capture for the author.
The author with a hungry jungle perch that took a honey pot Junior Prawnstar.