June is a significant month for trout anglers. The stream season for trout closes on the Queen's Birthday weekend and reopens on the October long weekend. The closure is designed to give the trout a chance to spawn in peace and hopefully to restock or partially restock the mountain streams and lakes. The lakes, of course, remain open to fishing all through the year.
It's been a difficult stream season this year. Continuing or recurrent drought has left many streams with little or no flow and a large proportion of the trout have died or, where possible, migrated back to connecting lakes.
A number of the streams were restocked with fingerlings in mid-Summer when it looked as though the drought was breaking but that was a false alarm and survival of those fish is now doubtful.
For this reason most anglers have retreated during the season to the big lakes and although fishing there has been satisfactory to brilliant it is vastly different to the stream experience.
Much of our higher country also is still heavily damaged from the 2003 bushfires. Regeneration has been satisfactory but while much of the grass, shrub and tree cover was gone, the area became heavily prone to soil erosion.
Wind and water combined to move a lot of topsoil from exposed areas and much of it has lodged in creeks and rivers. This has had a big impact on stream fishing and on trout spawning.
Waterways have become shallower and many prime spawning sites, where water should flow through clean gravel for trout eggs to hatch successfully, have become contaminated with fine soil particles. If just one soil particle becomes attached to a trout egg, that egg dies.
Low water levels also make it difficult for trout to get upstream to preferred spawning sites, which means that many of the fish give up on migrating to concentrate in the lower reaches and unwittingly dig up eggs already laid by other fish as they attempt to dig spawning redds. These eggs are then lost to the system.
This problem with upstream migration also is exacerbated by the loss of much of the bankside vegetation that shaded the streams and enabled many of the fish to sneak upstream in daylight as well as after dark. Many of the fish refuse to move far in strong sunlight and that may result in restricted upstream distribution of spawning fish.
What all this means is that if the spawning run is not as effective as we would like, fish stocks in the lakes and rivers will have to be maintained by hatchery stockings. That will then give rise to the age-old argument that hatchery fish aren't as good as wild fish, that they are more disease-prone, are of limited genetic variability, more suicidal, less resistant to heat or cold, don't fight as well, don't taste as good and don't even look as good.
I've heard all of these arguments for years but I must admit that I have never seen any proof of the claims about hatchery fish. Nor have I detected any differences in fish I have sought or caught.
I work on the simplistic basis that if hatchery fish are transferred to the wild at a sufficiently young age then they become wild fish, just as challenging and satisfying to catch as naturally-recruited fish.
Anyway, what is the alternative? It seems difficult or impossible to increase spawning opportunities for trout in most areas so if you want fish they will have to come from hatcheries.
With modern production techniques hatchery trout are cheap and easy to produce, the result of being one of the most intensely-studied fish in the world. Fingerlings can be produced for just a few cents each and there are numerous hatcheries in Australia capable of producing as many fish – browns, rainbows, brookies and even Atlantic salmon – as are needed for stocking purposes.
Despite the poor stream season to date, this month offers one of the best opportunities to catch a trophy trout.
Rainbows don't head upstream to spawn until August-September but the browns are on the move right now. For the past several months they have been travelling across lakes such as Eucumbene, Jindabyne and Tantangara to gather in the waters closest to the mouths of the spawning streams – the Eucumbene, Thredbo and Murrumbidgee rivers.
They mill around here feeding on the available food while they wait for a spate in the river flow. Each time there is a significant rise in the river level from rain or runoff from snowmelt, a proportion of the fish move into the river. There they hold in deeper pools until the next spate when they can work their way even farther upstream, eventually reaching their preferred gravel beds where the eggs can be laid.
Anglers can target the fish in the lakes, mostly at night, or in the streams during the day and this is trophy-fish time. Larger, wary fish that have evaded capture for many years by using their wits, or more likely by living in deeper water out of reach of most anglers, are now concentrated in areas. This can be the one and only time of the year, where anglers can reach them.
Some of these fish weigh in the old double figures and nearly all are caught and released. They are taken as trophy fish but weighed or measured, then photographed and returned.
They can be taken in various ways. Fly fishers commonly use large wets such as Mrs Simpson, Hamill’s Killer, Craig’s Night-time, Taihape Tickler, Tom Jones, Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers, sometimes with a trailing nymph.
In the streams in particular, Glo Bugs or Muppets are popular but being shameless egg imitations, they give rise to another of those continuing arguments as to what is considered a fair thing in fly fishing. I must confess that to me they are just another fly and that most anglers are going to release their fish anyway.
Lure anglers also use Glo Bugs and Muppets, trailing them across the bottom weighted with split shot which pull free if the rig hits a snag. It's a highly successful way of catching fish and is perfectly legal. Whether it is ethical is a question only the individual angler can answer.
Fish also take a variety of lures, especially spoons and minnows worked deeply and slowly to give the fish maximum opportunity of seeing and taking the lure.
Bait fishers in the lakes rely on a variety of goodies including mudeyes, scrub worms, tiger worms, bardi grubs, wood grubs and PowerBait. They can all be effective day and night, although the bigger fish commonly are taken at night.
All of this gives rise to that other perennial argument as to whether we should even be targeting pre-spawning fish. I would argue that if it is predominately catch-and-release fishing there is little significant damage done to the potential spawning population.
Most anglers see it as an opportunity to try for the fish of a lifetime, with a photograph and memories as the trophy. The fish were bred or put there to be pursued and/or caught by anglers and that is exactly what they are doing.
If it's legal then it should be allowed. And above all, remember that if you kill a fish at any time of the year, irrespective of what month it is, you have just killed a pre-spawning fish. That's common sense, really.
Just as I finished typing this, an angler brought me an example of another intellectual and practical problem for anglers to think about. It was a freshly-swallowed 7cm trout cod found in the stomach of a 25cm rainbow trout caught in the Goodradigbee River.
Here we have the conundrum: An introduced fish, a wonderful sporting species, but a predator nonetheless, preying on a highly significant, endangered Australian fish species not found anywhere else in the world. Ponder upon it until our next issue!Reads: 518