Although the drought is not over in our part of the world, there are some encouraging signs that things are changing.
The weather in recent months has been much cooler than in previous years, so cool in fact that we had unseasonable snowfalls in the mountains in late December, early January and again in February.
Anglers in the high country in the first week of February were astounded to see the temperature plummet from around 30° one day to about minus 4° overnight with a top of 8° the next day and about 12cm of fresh snow on the ground. Not bad for ‘Summer’, especially when you consider that at the same time of the year just two years ago we were in the middle of a horror firestorm that killed four people, burnt out tens of thousands of hectares of bush country and destroyed over 500 houses in the Canberra suburbs.
Rainfall patterns, too, have changed. For the past few months we have had reasonable falls, mostly approximating the long-term averages. Groundwater levels have been partially restored and many streams are flowing again.
It's still patchy, however, with most regional reservoirs still at low levels and some streams, especially those important trout streams east of Cooma, barely flowing.
It's been interesting watching people's reaction to water shortages and restrictions on domestic water use imposed during the drought. Most have been very understanding, allowing lawns and gardens to degrade or die, forgoing car washing and topping-up of swimming pools.
Some have been incensed, however, at the continuation of ‘environmental’ releases of water from storages. These releases are designed to maintain life in the river systems downstream from major storages even during the most extreme drought.
Anglers and other environmentalists see environmental flows as a perfectly sensible way of maintaining vitally important ecosystems in and adjacent to river corridors – not just those involving fish but many others relating to platypus, water rats, lizards, birds, shrimps, crayfish, tortoises, insects and other macroinvertebrates as well as myriad plant life.
Unfortunately, others see it merely as a waste of good drinking and gardening water and they have become increasingly vocal in recent months. While it would be unthinkable for us to lose the management practice that we fought so hard to introduce to ensure proper conservation and preservation of our recreational angling stocks, we should realise that if we are going to meet the challenge of this noisy but influential minority we will have to maintain the pressure on water management authorities and politicians to not react in a knee-jerk manner to their demands.
It's been interesting analysing how different fish species have come though the drought and what angling stocks are likely to be like in the immediate future.
Trout have taken a terrible beating in the streams with major losses in most and total losses in some. In general, browns seem to have survived better than rainbows but in both species there have been devastating losses.
Restocking was not a sensible option in most waterways because of the prolonged nature of the drought and fry and fingerlings placed in the streams would have died quickly from temperature and oxygen stress.
That's changing now and restocking looks to be a good option for many streams, either with larger fingerlings left over from last year or with new stock to be produced in hatcheries later this year.
Some natural restocking also is evident. We have seen a few size fish in a number of streams recently, including the Murrumbidgee, Yarrangobilly, Cotter, Gudgenby and Orroral. Of course some of the larger streams such as the Thredbo and Eucumbene, connected directly to the large lakes, still carry good heads of fish.
Stocked fish grow very quickly, especially in the alkaline streams where there is a good food supply. That, and observations of survivors in some streams, suggest that we could have modestly good stream fishing later this year and certainly the following year if we get continuing rain.
In the lakes the pattern of survival has been varied. Eucumbene, Jindabyne, Tantangara and other high country lakes have retained big populations of fish and angling has been superb. Bait, lure and fly anglers have all done well and many have commented that it is the best fishing they have seen for perhaps 20 years. There seems no reason why this shouldn't continue for the remainder of this year and in subsequent years.
In the lower lakes such as Burrinjuck and Wyangala things have been grim. There has been and almost total wipe-out of browns, rainbows and Atlantic salmon and massive restocking will be required to put fish back into the system. Don't expect any good fishing for these species until perhaps late this year or 2006.
Murray cod and golden perch, the major native species in the region, have far greater drought tolerance than trout. Even so, many died in the smaller streams where there was no escape to larger waterways.
In the larger streams and in reservoirs they survived with few problems and as lakes and rivers refill, fish will recolonise the new areas. Fishing has been excellent and should continue that way, even improving as new waterways become re-established.
European carp are exceedingly drought-tolerant because they can withstand extreme temperatures and also obtain oxygen by gulping air as well as absorbing it from the water. Low stream flows also have enabled them to move upstream in what would otherwise be difficult conditions.
Already we have seen the fish many kilometres further upstream than previously in rivers such as the Goodradigbee, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Abercrombie and Numeralla. This is worrying because that gives the fish a foothold (is that the right term for a fish?) in what was previously prime trout or native fish water.
In the lakes carp have survived with no apparent problem and the overall picture seems to be a continuation of the inexorable spread of these alien invaders.
Redfin are either a pest or a godsend, depending on your point of view. They are intense predators, competing with more favoured species for food and space and preying on other fish.
Their numbers and average size seem to have increased in Canberra's urban lakes during the drought. Whereas in previous years there were just hordes of small fish, in the past year we have seen numerous fish over 1.5kg with occasional fish to 2.5kg.
They have provided great sport for lure and bait anglers and have been especially popular with junior anglers. They are also good to eat, certainly the best of the eating fish around here.
The future with these fish is perplexing. On the one hand they will continue to breed and provide great sport. On the other hand they will make restocking with other fish difficult because they are likely to eat all or most of them.
The only way we can achieve useful restocking may be to use extra large hatchery-raised trout, Murray cod and golden perch. That greatly increases the expense of restocking because of the need to feed and maintain the fish for longer periods and to transport them in large volumes of water.
So where do we go from here? If it continues to rain our waterways will return to ‘normal’. Then we will need an inordinate amount of money and other resources for restocking and a continuing education of the community on the importance of fish conservation, catch-and-release angling, maintenance of environmental flows in rivers and protection and refurbishment of waterways and catchment areas.
That will mean a lot of lobbying, preaching, cajoling, wheedling and explaining by anglers if we are to achieve a positive result. My suggestion is if you haven't already started in your part of the world, get to it.Reads: 474