Waterfall Way

Thomas Clancy covers the 200-kilometre scenic drive from Coffs Harbour to Armidale in New South Wales

With the sheer diversity of spectacular natural landscapes that are packed into 200 short kilometres, it is no wonder Waterfall Way is one of Australia’s must-do drives. Starting at the white sand beaches of the stunning Mid-North Coast of New South Wales, it winds its way through World Heritage listed sub-tropical and sub-alpine rainforest and rugged gorge country littered with spectacular waterfalls, before coming to rest atop the New England Tablelands at the regional city of Armidale.
Waterfall Way offers something for everyone, from the family looking for a relaxed weekend getaway to the outdoors lover seeking remote and wild adventure. It is road and country that should be travelled and enjoyed by all at least once in their lifetime.
Given its journey through such a wide array of spectacular natural environments, Waterfall Way supports an incredibly rich and diverse fishery alongside the natural wonders, cultural riches and heritage history. For a road with only 200 km to its name, the number of species, locations, and styles of fly fishing available is truly astounding.
INSHORE
Waterfall Way starts its journey in Gumbaynggirr Country, in the coastal town of Urunga, where the Bellinger and Kalang rivers empty into the Pacific Ocean. Here, the Coral and Tasman seas meet; the mix of warm and cool waters attracting fish species to the region from both tropical and temperate climes.
Over summer and autumn, the inshore waters beyond Urunga’s breakers are inundated by all manner of line-burning pelagic species such as kingfish, tuna and mackerel. With access to the inshore waters via the Bellinger River bar, the nearby beaches or the sheltered harbour boat-ramp in Coffs Harbour, this fast-paced style of fly fishing is readily available to vessels of all shapes and sizes.
As the waters cool through winter and spring, the shallow broken reef that stretches for miles only a stone’s throw from the shore is prime territory for all manner of reef dwellers, particular snapper. Urunga and surrounds are renowned trophy snapper waters, and dredging a sizeable Clouser in 10–15 metres of water during those cooler months can see you connected to some truly monstrous fish.
ESTUARY
As Waterfall Way takes you inland from the coast, it follows the Bellinger River upstream until reaching the bohemian town of Bellingen; a great attraction in and of itself. Its laidback lifestyle, eclectic cafés and independent boutiques all add to its alternative village feel, and you can’t help but feel relaxed and dare I say, free spirited, walking along its beautifully preserved main street.
Lavenders Bridge in the centre of town is generally considered the upper limits of the tidal influence on the Bellinger River, and from here downstream to Urunga is an extremely productive stretch of river. The lower reaches are a bread-and-butter anglers nirvana, with more oyster leases, rock bars and sandbars than you could ever hope to poke a fly rod at.
All the usual suspects are there, plus many more thanks to those mixing warmer and cooler currents. Everything from mangrove jack, giant herring and diamond trevally to jewfish, bream and luderick call the Bellinger home at certain times of the year. The river also has a solid run of juvenile GTs, to around 12 kg, over the warmer months. While no 30 kg offshore monster, they are more than a handful on a 6- to 8-weight rod!
The lower and brackish reaches of the Bellinger are quite shallow considering the size of the estuary (3 to 4 metres, on average). For this reason, a stealthy approach is extremely important, with an electric motor or even a kayak being a huge advantage. Given the shallow nature of the river, a floating or sink-tip line is all that is needed in all but the deepest bends and fastest tidal currents. A 6-weight is ideal for the bread-and-butter fishing, but an 8- to10-weight is more appropriate if jewfish, jacks and trevally are the targets.
SWEETWATER
From Bellingen, a quarter of an hour’s driving further along Waterfall Way should see you cross the Bellinger at Thora. Thora is more a locality than a destination, at the base of the range, with not much more than a rest stop and a general store. From the Bellingen township upstream to all but the highest of the river’s headwaters is wild bass water at its unadulterated best, with Thora right at its heart. The waters of the Bellinger here flow through a patchwork of remnant sub-tropical rainforest and lush open pasture, with a clarity and quality that needs to be seen to be believed. The bass here are plentiful and grow large and powerful in the swiftly flowing water.
The best way to experience this fishery is via a point-to-point kayaking trip. With numerous bridges and crossings scattered from the headwaters right the way back to Bellingen, there are a multitude of put-in and take-out points to choose from, allowing anglers to tailor the length of the float to suit their schedule. The surface action over the warmer months is renowned and on the rare occasion when the fish won’t look up, all the standard bass fare, such as Vampires and Bunnies, will produce.
CONSIDER THE KALANG
Given it is the Bellinger River that Waterfall Way follows from Urunga, it is the river I have focused on for this article. However, its sister river, the Kalang, meets the Bellinger at Urunga and mirrors it in all but its name — fishing included. Both the estuary and the sweetwater advice regarding the Bellinger is completely transferable to the Kalang, with the added benefit that the Kalang receives less attention from visiting and local anglers alike.
MEADOW STREAMS
From Thora, the drive spirals upwards to the rich red soil of the Dorrigo Plateau through towering rainforest and past gushing roadside waterfalls. Towards the end of the drive atop the range, you enter the World Heritage listed temperate rainforests of Dorrigo National Park, part of the most extensive strip of diverse forest on the planet.
Atop the plateau at 800 metres altitude lies the quaint town of Dorrigo. Aside from visiting the aforementioned Gondwana Rainforest, Dorrigo is a fantastic base of operations for the waterfall fanatics: Dangar Falls, Tristania Falls, Crystal Falls and Red Cedar Falls are all close by, with Dangar Falls only a two-minute drive north of town. For the anglers, Dorrigo marks the starting point of trout country in the New England, with fishing even available right in the centre of town along the Bielsdown River.
Over a dozen creeks and streams pass under Waterfall Way between Dorrigo and Armidale, and while most support populations of fish, the region between Dorrigo and Ebor is generally considered the heartland. Rainbows make up the bulk of the population in these creeks, although some streams are home to some solid browns. After the last few years of above average rainfall, the region is fishing the best it has been in close to a decade. Rainbows are averaging a pound to one-and-a-half, with two- to three-pound fish more common than you’d think considering the brutality of the last drought.
A lot of the streams here are enclosed within private property, so as always, seek permission first. It’s remarkable just how far a friendly chat with the landowner can go, especially when backed up with a bottle of red or a six pack.
These are predominantly slower-
flowing farmland streams, easily serviced with a faster 3- or 4-weight rod. As far as flies go, it’s classic dry/dropper country, and most well-known patterns will earn their keep. Humpy and Wulff variations work well, with a current favourite of mine being the Wicked Wulff in sizes 16 and 14. If fishing nymphs, most nondescript lightly-weighted brown and black nymphs around a size 14 to 16 will usually get the eat.
It would be remiss at this stage to not mention Ebor, as it is to the New England as Adaminaby is to the Snowy Mountains. A tiny village nestled on the banks of the Guy Fawkes River overlooking the Great Escarpment, Ebor services visiting anglers with a well-stocked pub, fuel station and café. There are free camping grounds in town and there is fantastic public access to the Guy Fawkes River via a network of public reserves and crown land. The river, despite being one of the more well-known in the area, always has a healthy population of eager rainbow trout to a few pounds and some very large and very cunning, wild browns.
RAINFOREST POCKET WATER
Trout fishing along Waterfall Way is not just a one-dimensional experience. For the adventurous anglers amongst us, Waterfall Way offers a plethora of high energy, high gradient pocket-
water possibilities. Hidden amongst the ferns and Antarctic beech trees that cloak the slopes of the Great Escarpment are some of the most breath-
taking rainforest streams you’ll ever wave a fly rod over.
Most of the region’s meadow streams morph into these pocket-
water paradises the closer they get to the escarpment’s edge, adapting to the quickly changing geomorphology and geology as they tumble into the valleys below. The nature reserves and national parks are where you have the best chance of finding these sorts of fisheries.
The amount of effort required to get into these areas, and the smaller size of the resident fish, generally puts off all but the most dedicated anglers. These creeks are mainly comprised of small plunge pools, cascades and the occasional larger waterfall. False casting is a term foreign to these waters; bow-and-arrow casts here are king. The ground and boulders are coated in a vivid velvety moss, and lichen covers all things woody.
This is 2-weight water through and through, and small accurate drifts with generic dry fly patterns will see many feisty wild browns to the hand. The fish may be small, but the colours and patterns of these wild rainforest jewels make fishing these Gondwanan oases all worthwhile.
ARMIDALE AND BEYOND
While Armidale might signify the end of Waterfall Way, it does not have to signify the end of a fishing adventure. Only an hour’s drive up the road lie the headwaters of the Severn, Macintyre and Deepwater rivers — some of the best clear-water fly fishing for Murray cod you could hope to find.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.