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Dust, drought – and trout
  |  First Published: December 2006



Lake Eucumbene is Australia's largest and most prestigious mainland trout fishery.

Formed in 1959 by damming the alpine-sourced Eucumbene River as the premier watershed of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, it has always been a favourite among trout fishers because of its prime populations of rainbows and browns and its many opportunities for bank- and boat-based fly, lure and bait fishing. It always has had a good head of water, taking the high-country rainfall and the massive runoff from melting snow in the mountains. That meant that even in drought times when the streams were not worth fishing, anglers could always fall back on good old Eucumbene.

Only once has there been a hint of a water shortage and that was in 1983, when a prolonged drought resulted in the reservoir falling to a record low of 18%. That was a worrying figure but at least the level jumped back the following year as heavy Winter snowfalls replenished the storage and levels have been generally satisfactory since.

Until this year. The long-running drought has really hit home in the mountains. A lack of rain and the lightest snow for many years has seen the level in Eucumbene drop to 24%. That's less than half what it was in 2005, also a drought year and even that was considered of concern at the time until there was some replenishment as the big winter snowfall melted.

But now the level is still dropping. There is a continuing need to keep on letting water out to produce hydroelectricity and it's easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than coal, oil or gas. There also will be a massive demand for irrigation water this summer, with the water desperately needed for rice, cotton, stone and citrus fruit and beef and dairy production downstream. Inland cities and towns also need water and there are also demands ranging from flooding the Barmah redgum forests to maintaining environmental flows to support native fish.

You can't just stop releases from Lake Eucumbene, they are an important part of the management of Australia's environment and its economy.

But there are some confusing aspects to these releases. The second large dam in the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Jindabyne, is immediately downstream of Eucumbene and takes water from the Snowy and Eucumbene rivers. It has sat at 58% all year so anglers are asking why some of that water has not been released instead. The assumption is that it is cheaper and more effective to use Eucumbene than Jindabyne water. Perhaps prior commitments when the Snowy Hydro was to be privatised had something to do with it.

FISH IMPACT

The low water has had a big impact on anglers. During Winter the receding water left vast areas of silt and sticky mud that bogged vehicles, boat trailers and even anglers on foot were in waist-deep mud. Local tow trucks charged $350 and up to free bogged vehicles and many anglers had to wait overnight in freezing conditions for assistance. Bookings at local resorts reflected a fall in visitors.

But there was a bonanza for anglers who could access the shoreline. Trout, rainbows in particular, began feeding in huge numbers along the shore as the water dropped. Most were full of yabbies, uncharacteristic for rainbows. The consensus among anglers was that falling water levels denied the fish usual crops of food items such as daphnia, insect larvae and grubs, beetles, worms and other goodies, meaning they had to eat yabbies whether they liked it or not, and that meant feeding close to the shoreline.

The catch rate was phenomenal. Most anglers used PowerBait, scrub worms and bardi grubs or wood grubs and it was routine for an angler to bag out with five fish in less than an hour. Many reported catching 30 or 40 fish in a session, reputedly retaining only the legal five and returning the rest.

Most of the fish were generally small rainbows although some browns were caught. The fish fed day and night and in all weather and it was rare for even the most inexperienced angler to come home without a catch. So many fish were caught that anglers were starting to query whether the bonanza was really a good thing and that perhaps we should be looking to the future and conserving some of the fish through lower bag limits rather than exploiting them to the full.

Now that Summer has arrived there has been some change. Baking conditions have dried out the shore and boats can now be launched with care on old roads cleared of mud and silt at Old Adaminaby, Anglers Reach and at the dam wall. Anglers also can access the water safely in most areas and can fly, bait or lure fish with no problem.

And the fish? They are still being caught in record numbers, again mostly on bait. One group at Seven Gates recently caught 37 rainbows in one daytime session. Another group nearby had 32 fish for the day including a 2.4kg brown, one smaller brown and rainbows from 28cm to 1.5kg.

I checked things out the Dam Wall and caught seven rainbows with ease in just two hours. I saw many fish searching the shallows for food and even though I wanted only a couple for the barbecue I could have caught as many as I desired. You have to wonder just how many fishers are doing just that and what impact it will have on the population in the future.

Sand and dust storms have become hazards. At Frying Pan recently I was shooting pics of the dried lake bed when a massive sandstorm blew up. It was so ferocious that I had to turn back because I couldn’t see more than 40m and my new 4WD was being sandblasted. Remarkable how things have changed in a few months and we now await the remainder of Summer with some trepidation.

NATIVES ACTIVE

Better news is that native fish are doing well in all of our urban lakes, in Googong and in Burrinjuck and Wyangala. They are taking yabbies, grubs and worms with gusto and have been great fun on spinnerbaits, deep divers, big spoons and flies such as beadhead Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers.

They make a delightful contrast to the dubious trout situation at Eucumbene and will provide even more fun and satisfaction when the Murray cod season opens on December 1.

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