A matter of survival
  |  First Published: March 2003

If you are reading this column it means that I am alive, that I still have a house and that I have stopped shaking sufficiently to use a typewriter.

You will be aware no doubt that in Canberra we have gone through the most terrible fire period in our history. Fires which had been burning in adjacent and unreachable mountain country to the west for weeks suddenly swung on to a tinder-dry Canberra on a stinking hot day with dreadful ferocity, sending a screaming fire front 35km long ahead of a 100kmh wind into the exposed flanks of this wonderful city.

The rest is history. Six hundred homes destroyed, four people killed, untold damage to the urban, rural and mountain environment. The entire southern and western side of the Territory was a blackened shell, many people losing everything they owned.

Despite the fact that we have been breathing smoke and fear for more than 15 days, it is not over yet. As I write, my home is still under threat from a giant fire line which I can see glaring at me in the night sky. It sits there like a great pregnant fireball, just waiting to come and get me.

So roll on, you bastard. I'm not leaving. This is my home and I will defend it until you drive me out. Keep coming… We have 240 police, 600 firefighters, the Army, bulldozers, tankers, light units, dozens of helicopters and sky cranes, some with giant water buckets. And lots of people with great spirit. Keep coming where we can fight you and we will get you! Keep coming, out into the open and we will have you, you rotten mongrel!

Regional damage

There has been lots of fire damage elsewhere in the region with major fires at Lake Burrinjuck, Lake Eucumbene, Lake Tantangara and through many parts of the Snowies and the Monaro. Damage at this stage is unknown but Sven Olsen was on the phone just now to say that all were safe at Providence Caravan Park. Somebody else rang to say Anglers Reach had been spared. The rest you will have read about in the daily press long before this column surfaces.

The reason for writing this is firstly to unburden myself of the genuine fear I have felt, along with hundreds of thousands of others, every day and night for the past few weeks. Fire generates a primeval fear in all of us and this explodes to the surface when you find yourself driving through suburban streets in daytime when it looks like midnight, the air full of flying embers, streams and sheets of fire, exploding trees, exploding houses, street signs melting, power poles and lines crashing down, people running down the streets, packed into cars, trucks and 4WDs, desperately trying to get away from it.

It is a truly dreadful scene and one I hope I never have to hear about or face again for the rest of my life.

Any fishing?

So amid all of this, how do you get to talk about fishing? Well, just before the fires there was some good fishing locally, despite the lack of water in the streams and lakes. Since the fires I have been urging anybody who will listen to go fishing – get some free therapy, take your mind off the fear, the pain, the losses; get away from the smoke and ash and cinders and the smell of rotting domestic pets in the rubble of the houses. Try to forgive Nature for the dreadful penalties it has just handed out to us for the environmental mistakes we have made.

The best fishing has been in the urban lakes – Burley Griffin, Ginninderra, Tuggeranong, Gungahlin and Yerrabi. Because of the drought and the lack of stormwater inflow, the lakes have remained uncharacteristically clear for months on end. That has enabled the fish to see lures, baits and even flies with ease and anglers have taken great advantage of it.

There have been excellent catches of Murray cod, golden perch and redfin for fun and an occasional feed and further catches of European carp for fun and fertiliser for the fruit trees.

It has been good fun for the veteran anglers but even more fun for people who have finally achieved their dream of catching their first-ever cod, golden perch or large redfin.

One fellow who brought me details of his first cod was still shaking with excitement. The fish was 70cm long and took a spinnerbait in Lake Tuggeranong. He put it back with remarkable reverence and the next day caught his second fish, 65cm long. He told me he felt privileged to be able to catch and release these wonderful Australian native fish. That's a great spirit.

One big disappointment has been our prime local fishing spot, Googong Reservoir. Because of the fire problems it has been necessary to close it to all visitors and this at a time when it was fishing brilliantly for cod and golden perch. But safety and commonsense have to take first priority. Fishing will come later.

In the other regional lakes the fishing fortunes have fluctuated. Burrinjuck was dead low and yielded a few golden perch. Blowering was almost empty and could not be fished. Jounama carried more water and yielded a few fish. Hume was well down and not fishing well. Wyangala was the highlight, yielding lots of reasonable Murray cod and goldens on lures during the day and catfish on bait at night. Somewhat surprisingly, the dam wall end fished better than the upstream end.

Mountain Lakes

The big mountain lakes predictably shifted into their Summer phase, with the trout going deep during the day and resurfacing at night. Fish could be taken with a downrigger or lead-core line but were mostly six metres or more below the surface. Best lures have been Rebel Crickhoppers, Attack Minnows and Tasmanian Devils 36 and 89 (yellow-winged), 50 (frog) and 88 (black and gold). A few were taken on the new number 90 (baby).

Bait anglers did well with Berkley PowerBait and there was one hilarious night on Lake Eucumbene when the boys with PowerBait cleaned up a heap of fish while the anglers with live mudeyes alongside them caught nothing. To make matters worse, when they cleaned the fish taken on PowerBait, they were full of live mudeyes!

Fly anglers have done reasonably well and my colleague Scott Mitchell, who gives me a flogging in this issue for my comments about the Snowy Mountains Trout Festival, mentioned that the fires in the region have brought on great hatches or movements of hoppers and beetles. That has resulted in some terrific rises on the lakes and some very tempting fishing.

My advice, then, and Scott's, if I can paraphrase him, is pretty straightforward – show a little bit of good old Australian spirit. Get out and defy the gods that want to daunt us into submission. Say to hell with it and go fishing! Enjoy the great Australian landscape and the great fish in the Monaro.

And say hello to the bloke next to you – it might well be me.



Bryan Tunstall being shown by son Stephen how to catch European carp in Lake Burley Griffin.


A sadly-depleted Googong Reservoir, which fished well until bushfires forced its closure.


The contrast of the Australian bush: The author with a nice brown trout taken in a snowstorm at Providence Portal on Lake Eucumbene. Six weeks later, there was a major bushfire in the area.


Youngsters Ian Somerville (left) and Brent Hampton (right) were a bit sombre for the camera but actually highly delighted with their first-ever golden perch, taken on a lure in Lake Tuggeranong.

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