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The following article, entitled "Heaven with a Stick", was written by Tom Young and was published in the December 1999 issue of the Bush n' Beach Fishing newspaper. (Please note that some of the information relating to fishing has changed since this article was published. Please check the latest information on the Fly Fishing page.)

Heaven with a Stick

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Have you ever dreamt of having the time and money to go trout fishing at a place like the destinations you seem only to read about in those glossy fly-fishing magazines?

"Yes, but I live in Brisbane, have a busy job, a tight budget and a limited amount of spare time!" I hear you say.

Wake up, start packing the car, and head down south for 5 and a bit hours and you will arrive at "Uncle Billy's Retreat" where you can start living the "dream".

After 3 decades of fishing and loving every minute of it, when it comes to fly-fishing I regard myself as a novice. I have been seriously fly-fishing for about 5 years and regard myself as very fortunate to have stumbled across a fishing destination that:

  • is ideally located for a fly-fishing novice who lives in south-east Queensland;
  • averages rainbow trout over 2½ pound;
  • provides a chance at a double figure "trophy";
  • offers "5 star rustic accommodation";
  • won't cost you an arm and a leg to get there and stay.
I am a lawyer by trade and, all jokes and defamatory comments aside, find it very difficult with the pressures of the job and a family, to fit in time for fishing, because I don't want to end up unemployed and before the Family Courts (not as a lawyer, but as a defendant).

About 18 months ago, I sat on an Australian bound Air New Zealand jumbo on the Auckland tarmac, depressed. I shouldn't have been, I had just spent 10 glorious fly-fishing at Lake Aniwhenua with a bunch of mates on a Phil Jackson organised tour. I was regularly casting to (and sometimes catching) rising 5lb trout.

I was depressed because the 10 days went so quickly. This was my second trip to New Zealand, so I knew how long it would take me to save up enough money and enough "brownie points" at home, before I could go again. My problem was that I had become addicted to catching trout on fly and knew it was going to be a couple of years before I could get my next "fix".

I am sure many of you who read this article will think "what a selfish bugger!"; however, I know there are some of you that have the same addiction I do. You know:

  • never to go into a tackle shop after drinking alcohol;
  • immediately after buying the new rod and reel, hide it from the wife and if she finds your new fishing outfit say, "Honey, I've had this for years, honest!";
  • to always lie about the cost of the fishing item you have just purchased;
  • to lie about knowing someone important in the fishing industry, so you are able to get all your fishing equipment at wholesale prices;
  • to protest loudly that due to work pressures, you are on the verge of a nervous breakdown and you think a fishing trip is the only thing that can save your delicate sanity;
  • that playing golf is a waste of a fishing opportunity;
  • that you secretly always tape "Rex Hunt Fishing Adventures";
  • Lefty Kregh is God and Rod Harrison is the Messiah.
I believe there is something magical, even mystical, about trout and fly-fishing for them. Sure, there are some salt water species that will pull a trout backwards through the water. Still, there is no denying that trout are among the most handsome of all fish that will take a fly and trout were the very fish that inspired the creation of fly-fishing.

Not long after my last New Zealand trip, through work, I met a Canadian who told me about "Uncle Billy's Retreat" and suggested that I should go there on the condition that I would take him along with me.

I remembered that "Uncle Billy's Retreat" had been mentioned in a number of fishing publications (including this one), but I had a preconception that if a fishing destination is mentioned in a fishing magazine, it is most likely too expensive to visit.

"Anyway, what could a Canadian, who had only been in Australia for a few months, know about trout fishing in Australia?", I thought. The "trout withdrawals" were getting worse, so in May last year we visited Uncle Billy's and, to my delight, my scepticism was ill-founded. I fell in love with the place and since then, I have been back 5 times.

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What is "Uncle Billy's Retreat"?
About 25 years ago, Bill and Sue Atkin built a 15 acre dam on their New England sheep and cattle station to provide a reliable water supply in times of drought.

Two years after the lake was completed, Bill, a keen fisherman himself, purchased fingerlings from a nearby hatchery and released them into his dam. Every year since he has liberated new stock into his dam.

Over the years, Bill and Sue entertained friends by the lake where they could have a chat and a fish to escape the troubles of farming life.

Bill built a barbecue and then later a slab log cabin with a stone open fire place for the comfort of his friends and guests.

About 4½ years ago one of his friends approached him and asked if he could hire the cabin for a couple of days; and, as they say in the classics, "the rest is history".

Today, "Uncle Billy's Retreat" has two slab log cabins nestled beside Lake Yoolimba, each of which sleep four comfortably. There is an amenities block with a septic toilet and hot water showers.

There is a jetty on the dam and there is a row boat and a canoe from which you can fish the deeper sections of the dam.

There is even a barbecue area and an open slab shed on the lake shores where you can sit and have a quiet beer and watch the summer sun sink lazily in the west as the lake ripples gold in a sunset, pure in its splendour, unfiltered from city smog.

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Why is "Uncle Billy's Retreat" such a Great Place to Fish if you are a Fly-Fishing Novice?
Firstly, "Uncle Billy's" offers the novice who lives in south-east Queensland an easily accessible and convenient destination to fish. "Uncle Billy's" is about the closest place to Queensland where you can almost "guarantee" to catch trout. Admittedly, you can catch trout in many of the northern New South Wales rivers, such as the Macintyre River, the Gwydir River, the Severn River, Deepwater River, Guy Fawkes River and a number of other streams.

However, in my experience, the average size of the trout in these streams are far smaller than the trout that live in Lake Yoolimba.

Another difficulty with fishing these streams is you need consent to fish them. Most of these water courses flow through private land and so you will need the owner's permission to fish them. Living in Brisbane, I don't have the opportunity to get down to this "neck of the woods" very often. It's pretty hard to tell from a typographical map who owns what, unless you obtain property title searches.

If you are able to ascertain the identity of the owners of the properties you want to fish, you then must approach them and plead for their permission to fly fish on their property. It's all too hard and takes too long!

My "leave passes" have fixed "expiry dates". I want to make sure the precious free time I have, is spent fishing, not aimlessly wandering around the New South Wales countryside door knocking on farm properties for an opportunity to fish a river that may or may not hold fish. Personally I would rather drive straight from Brisbane to "Uncle Billy's" and fish Lake Yoolimba, which I know is stocked with about 5,000 Rainbow Trout.

Another disadvantage with fishing the trout streams, is that New South Wales has a closed season from the end of the June long weekend until the October long weekend, to allow the trout to spawn. Trout can't spawn in a dam, therefore this restriction does not apply to "Uncle Billy's", so you can fish there all year round!

Secondly, as a novice, fishing a farm dam situation is far easier than trying to fly fish one of northern New South Wales' little trout streams, with their banks lined with overhanging trees. The grassy shores of Lake Yoolimba at least prevents the novice's back cast from regularly fouling in foliage. There is nothing more frustrating for a beginner than to constantly retrieve one's fly from hungry flora. Sure, keeping one's back cast high is a virtue, but most of the time, attempting to untangle flies and leaders from branches and leaves can be so frustrating that it ruins the day's fishing and occasionally I've seen it end a person's desire to continue with this wonderful pastime. On my first trip to New Zealand my fly spent more time in the thorny black berry vines than it did on the water!

Thirdly, the novice has a very good chance of catching a trout while fishing at Lake Yoolimba. I found learning to fly fish very frustrating! I felt extremely unco-ordinated and clumsy. I was constantly getting my fly fouled in trees, fences and various parts of my body and kept getting the flyline caught round my feet; that was happening just walking along the path to the river - things got a lot worse when I actually started fishing.

In the early stages I was constantly picking out wind knots in my leader. It took nearly took 18 months from the time of purchasing my first fly-fishing outfit to catching my first fish on fly. (Admittedly, during this time I was somewhat hampered by the fact that my toddler son turned my (then recently purchased) 2 piece, 7 Weight flyrod into a nifty 4 piece traveller, by jamming the rod in a doorway and then slamming the door).

The point I am trying to make is catching your first fish on fly gives you a tremendous amount of confidence, which motivates you to persist with learning how to fly fish, despite the frustrations.

Wouldn't it be great if your first fish on fly was a 2½lb Rainbow Trout rather than a ½lb flathead, bream or mullet? At "Uncle Billy's", this is a real possibility!

Fourthly, learning to fly fish is embarrassing. It's hard enough just keeping the fly line above the ground without being hassled by some die-hard bait fisherman rolling around on the ground in stitches of laughter, calling you a "poof".

One of the most comforting things "Uncle Billy's" has to offer the novice is privacy. Once you book "Uncle Billy's" you have the exclusive use of the entire facilities. It is the perfect place for a bunch of mates who are all novices to collectively improve their fly-fishing.

However, I offer this friendly warning, all beginners should receive casting lessons from a qualified tutor before visiting "Uncle Billy's". This is nothing to do with the characteristics of the venue, rather, it is a matter of common sense. If you haven't been taught to cast properly, then attempting to teach yourself is a recipe for learning bad techniques, that eventually, you must unlearn if you wish to become proficient at this method of fishing. In my opinion, bad casting traits only increase frustration levels and limit your enjoyment of the sport.

Fifthly, "Uncle Billy's" offers the novice comfort.

It's amazing when the fishing is bad how much importance you place on the quality of your accommodation. Even fishing at "Uncle Billy's" can be slow, especially when the weather turns foul. For me, half the attraction of "Uncle Billy's" is the little log cabins.

When you're a novice, sometimes the best thing you can say about a fly-fishing trip is that fortunately the accommodation was good. At "Uncle Billy's" the accommodation is very comfortable with blankets, quilts, pillows, gas fridges, gas stoves, gas lights, cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery, all provided.

The cabins now even have solar powered lighting. All you need to bring is your food, bed linen, towels and fishing equipment and your waders.

I can assure you that "Uncle Billy's" accommodation sure beats the heck out of freezing your buns off in a two man tent when you are relying on your mate's flatulence problem to provide the heating.

Finally, one of the most enticing things about "Uncle Billy's Retreat" is that it is relatively inexpensive. Accommodation and fishing will currently only set you back $60 per day, per person. If you just want to fish for the day down at "Uncle Billy's", you only have to fork out $35. If you want to take a friend along who doesn't like fishing, that person only needs to pay $30 per night for accommodation.

If you're a beginner you are probably just financially recovering from the expense of purchasing your fly-fishing outfit so a cheap place to fish is very appealing. I find it hard to justify to my family spending hundreds of dollars on fishing trips. For me, "Uncle Billy's" gives me the opportunity to get my "trout fix" comparatively inexpensively.

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Why is the Fishing so Good?
There are a number of factors that culminate in making Lake Yoolimba a very productive fishery.

I think the most important factor is Bill's knowledge of trout and the environment trout need to thrive. Bill releases new stock into the dam 3 to 4 times a year.

Bill has gone to the expense of constructing six smaller dams to hold his hatchery purchased fish for at least 12 months before they are released into Lake Yoolimba. In my opinion, this is the real secret of Bill and Sue's success. They have been prepared over the years to sink a lot of money and time into their property to provide the right infrastructure to sustain a very well stocked dam.

To ensure their guests enjoy good fishing, Bill and Sue insist on a catch and release system. You can keep one fish of your choice per day. If however you have already kept your daily fish and you actually land "Mr Big" - don't despair. Extra fish can be purchased. Fly and lure fishing are the only forms of fishing allowed at Lake Yoolimba so that fish numbers are preserved.

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What Flies?
I almost exclusively fish wet flies at Lake Yoolimba, simply because I have found them to be the most effective.

You can catch trout at Lake Yoolimba on dry flies but I would not recommend this style of fishing to a novice on his or her first visit.

My friends and I have had most success on Hamill's Killers, Olive Green Woolly Buggers, Black Woolly Buggers, Flashbacks, Brown Nymphs, Black Nymphs and Gold Bead Olive Nymphs. Fly sizes range between Nos 8 to 14. I am sure there are a myriad of other flies that will work just as effectively; however, when you are booking your "Uncle Billy's" trip, just ask either Bill or Sue what flies are working.

Another tip - when you get to "Uncle Billy's" read the "Visitors Book" as most people who visit "Uncle Billy's" not only record their favourable comments about the place but fortunately also tell you what flies were working during their stay.

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When's the Best Time to Go?
"Uncle Billy's" is increasingly becoming popular. I would suggest you try to arrange a mid-week fishing trip to avoid being disappointed.

I have found that the best fishing at "Uncle Billy's" is during the coldest times. Last July, I could only manage to get down for a day and a half but between 3 mates and myself we still caught 34 Rainbow Trout that averaged around the 3lb mark. Amongst those 34 fish, there were a couple of four pounders, a 5½ pounder and a very fat 8lb Rainbow Hen. Not bad for a "quickie"!

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The Fishing
One of the criticisms you might hear about fishing farm dams is that they provide no real challenge to the fly fisher because all fish are pellet fed. I've heard some people say that farm dam fishing is like fishing in a bucket. You certainly can't say that about Lake Yoolimba. It would be both financially and physically impossible to pellet feed 5,000 Rainbow Trout that live in a 15 acre stretch of water. Bill does pellet feed his fingerlings in his holding ponds for the first few months, but by the time the trout are released into Lake Yoolimba, they are able to fend for themselves and thrive on the well-established aquatic ecosystem of Lake Yoolimba.

Apart from an abundant variety of aquatic insect larva and pupa that thrive on this ecosystem, there are a lot of very big fresh water cray fish that live in Lake Yoolimba. We often find the remains of these cray fish in the stomachs of the trout we have kept for the table. I believe one of the reasons why the trout are so big in Lake Yoolimba is there is such a plentiful supply of these fresh water cray fish that live in the dam. The bottom of the dam is literally riddled with thousands of cray fish holes. Three years ago, between 300 and 400 brown trout were released into Lake Yoolimba. The average size of these browns was about 1lb. To my knowledge, no-one has caught a brown trout from Lake Yoolimba as yet.

Brown trout are a lot wiser than the flashy Rainbow Trout. There is a very good chance that these fish are still alive and, like the "browns" in Lake Eucumbene, are probably sitting in the deepest sections of the lake gorging themselves on the fresh water cray fish. I'm sure that when someone does finally manage to catch one of these browns, it'll be a lot bigger than a pound!

The trout at "Uncle Billy's" behave in the same manner at the trout I've seen in the lakes of New Zealand. In winter, quite often you'll see tailing fish in the margins foraging on snails and nymphs, which makes for wonderful sight casting. Sometimes on still days, you can even polarise cruising fish.

However, on occasions, I've seen absolutely no fish movement and the fishing has been tough.

Please don't think you are going to come back with a cricket score of fish on your first trip to "Uncle Billy's". Fishing is fishing and not aquaculture!; some days are good, others are not. That's why we keep going fishing, isn't it? It is the chance of having one perfect day on the water or tangling with the fish of a lifetime that makes our desire to fish so intense.

However, I can say when the fishing is good at "Uncle Billy's", it's very, very good.

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Where Is It?
"Uncle Billy's Retreat" is situated 13 kms from Ben Lomond and about 5 kms from Wandsworth. To get there, all you need to do is head south along the New England Highway and about 30 kms south of Glen Innes, take the second Ben Lomond turn-off and follow that road into Ben Lomond. Once you cross the Ben Lomond railway, turn left and then take the first right into Wandsworth Road and follow that road for about 13 kms until you reach Bill & Sue's property identified by the "Lake Yoolimba" sign.

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Rug Up!
Ben Lomond is 1363 metres above sea level and much closer to the south pole than Brisbane, so it can get very, very cold. If you want to go fishing at "Uncle Billy's Retreat" during winter, make sure you pack your thermal undies! The winter frosts in the New England district are so severe that I have even seen ice on cattle's backs. I recall on one winter's morning I thought my fly line somehow had got encrusted with sand, but when I could no longer pull the fly line through the snake guides I realised the water on my fly line had frozen. (I sometimes wonder how severe the climatic conditions must be, before I will actually stop fishing).

You should also be aware that the wind in these parts has been described by one of my mates as being very lazy - the wind doesn't go around you, it goes straight through you. However, to me, the cold only adds to the charm and experience this place has to offer. I can assure you there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting in front of an open fire, sipping a medicinal drink in the warmth and comfort of a log cabin illuminated only by a gas light and the flickering flames of the log fire with nothing better do so than contemplate the fish you have caught during the day and the fish you hope to catch tomorrow.

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Bookings are essential. Bill and Sue can be contacted on (02) 6779 4216.

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Holy Land
For the "Brotherhood of the Green Nymph" (the collective name for the group of guys I go fishing with) "Uncle Billy's" has become our "Holy Land".

I sincerely believe this is a wonderful place for a novice to catch his first trout and if you are lucky enough to go down to visit "Uncle Billy's", then you too will realise that fly fishing at "Uncle Billy's" can simply be described as - "Heaven with a Stick".