Early Prospects for 2009-10 Trout Fishing Season
Since the big wet of 1996-97 Tasmania, like the rest of south-eastern Australia, has suffered from a severe lack of rain. The Midlands, East Coast and eastern fringes of the Central Plateau have been especially hard hit in the last three years, with disastrous consequences for high-profile trout fisheries like Tooms Lake, Craigbourne Dam and the Coal River. Whether this can be attributed to normal drought cycles is moot: the trend to generally drier conditions has been evident since at least the mid-1980s and may well be the result of irreversible climate change.
Now for the good news: rainfall during the first half of this year has been better than the long-term average, and June has turned out to be one of the wettest on record. Drought-ravaged rivers are in flood, the lakes are filling quickly, and the spawning runs in many prime waters have been better than we've seen in years. This augurs well for this season and several more to come.
Given the dramatic improvement in fishing conditions, where should you fish when the trout season opens on 1 August?
There is no doubt that Tasmania's most famous fisheries are located in the Central Highlands. Many local anglers will have been champing at the bit during the winter hiatus and will celebrate the opening of the season by going to respected highland waters like Arthurs Lake and Great Lake; and despite the fact that the cold weather will greatly subdue the fishing, they will probably experience some degree of success. As always, though, the most reliable and exciting fishing will be in warmer waters on the lowlands.
Here, then, are my hotspots for August and early spring-
In August, the lower Derwent Estuary-from the Tasman Bridge to Cadbury Point-is my number-one choice for trout fishing, and this year is shaping up to be one of the best in living memory.
The fishing has generally improved every year since the late 1980s and early1990s when the pulp and paper mill at Boyer, the zinc works near Risdon and municipal councils all along the estuary started taking dramatic steps to curb pollution. But this year has not followed the pattern of incremental recovery-the improvement has gone right off the scale.
In past seasons the fishing (as opposed to the weather) sometimes warmed up in late May but rarely become hot until late June or even July. This year things were already in full swing when I tested the water in late April, and the fishing kept getting better and better right up until late June (when I wrote this article). By August, after the floods have subsided, conditions on the water will be at their absolute peak.
Most winters, the majority of the trout I catch are secretive crab feeders. This year, nearly all the fish-silvery sea runners and large coppery residents-have been feeding on big baitfish such as prettyfish and juvenile mullet. I have found them swirling, rising and charging in to small schools of bait all over the rocky shallows at Lindisfarne, Cornelian Bay, Store Point and Dogshear Point. The action is not necessarily hectic-often I only see a one fish move every half an hour or so-but I have consistently caught two to five fish per session, and many have weighed 3-5 lb.
I use # 8 wet flies-such as Sloane-style whitebait patterns or BMSs, usually light green or white-but I suspect any well-presented wet fly would work a treat. Spin fishers and trollers have also experienced heart-warming success.
These days the only lament I hear about the trout fishing in the lower Derwent is that the whitebait run much later than they once did. Traditionally, most anglers did not begin fishing for sea trout until the official start of the season immediately after midnight on the first Saturday in August. Many of us would line up alongside the main river channel on or near the Bridgewater Causeway, and the fish we caught would always be full of "Tasmanian whitebait" (Lovettia sealii). These days the runs of Lovettia are smaller than they once were and the trout rely more on juvenile galaxias, which always arrived later than Lovettia but now run later than ever before. I have come to think of this as a bonus. Once I used to give up fishing on the lower estuary by early October; now there is good sight fishing right up until late November. And further up the estuary, from Sorell Creek to Lawitta, the fish continue to feed spectacularly on whitebait right up until Christmas.
This irrigation supply dam, set in open pasture near Colebrook just 45 minutes" drive from Hobart, was commissioned in 1986. Although there was significant natural recruitment of brown trout, the lake was essentially managed as a put-and-take fishery, receiving ample stocks of hatchery-reared rainbows, Atlantic salmon and even brook trout. It provided reliable sport until autumn 2009 when levels fell so low that water could no longer be feasibly extracted for irrigation. Many fish survived in the large pool left behind the dam-and in the billabongs along the exposed bed of the old river course-but they would have suffered terribly during the coming summer had we not received substantial rain.
As I write, the lake is filling quickly and the fishing should have substantially recovered by opening day. Things will be better still if the IFS does some quick stocking with large rainbows, or if it transfers some adult brown trout from the spawning runs on the Central Plateau (keep an eye on the IFS website).
In early August the water will be rising over lush green paddocks, creating boom conditions as trout feed heavily on worms, corby grubs and drowned terrestrials. There is also bound to be some midge activity, possibly even a few small mayfly hatches.
NOTE: The Editor spoke with IFS early July and they were trying to source some adult fish to stock Craigbourne. No promises, but there is a good chance it will get a top up of adult fish.
The Coal River is a silt-bottomed creek which flows through marginal pasture. After the Craigbourne irrigation project was commissioned in 1986, the Coal river downstream of the dam was blessed with steady flows of clear cold water, creating a stable habitat which fostered the growth of lush weedbeds. This, in turn, created ideal conditions for trout.
In 2008-09, as the lake approached all-time lows, the amount of water allowed to flow downstream was progressively reduced. The trout, once abundant in the riffles and narrow channels, retreated to small pools and broadwaters where they competed with the long-term residents, to the detriment of both. Finally the flow was completely shut down; the pools got hotter and many were sucked almost dry by irrigators. Some fish died, but most simply went into torpor and lost condition.
Today the river is running again, and there is sufficient water in the dam to ensure that constant flows can be maintained for at least the next couple of years. It will take time for significant numbers of trout to reoccupy the riffles, and still longer for them to regain condition, so the fishing may not have returned to its former glory by August, but the Coal is certainly a water to watch in the months ahead.
South Esk system
In August I like fishing the tributaries of the South Esk, especially when levels are moderately high, as they most certainly will be this year.
It is generally accepted that in the first few weeks of the season the most reliable angling occurs at Brumbys Creek, especially in the upper (No 1) weir and in the creek proper between the lower (No 3) weir and the confluence of the Macquarie River. Look for brown trout tailing along the edges: most will weigh 0.5-1.2 kg.
Despite the unquestionably good fishing at Brumbys, my favourite water is the Meander River between Westwood and Exton, where fish rise and tail from day one. Conditions are best when the river is running a banker but not spilling too far out into the paddocks. Hotspots include the flooded mouths of tributary creeks, any distinct backwater lagoons, and the submerged banks of the river proper. Dry flies can work if you see fish sipping from the surface, otherwise it pays to use nondescript nymphs or wee wets.
The Macquarie River is another much-loved water of mine, especially the stretch from Fosterville to the confluence of Glen Morriston Rivulet. The fishing here has been disappointing during the big dry of the last few years, but this year flows are going to be very good.
The Lake River near the Cressy Road will also be worth a look.
North Esk system
Despite my preference for fishing the meadow streams in August, some of Tasmania's elite guides often prefer to concentrate on the fastwater tributary creeks in the forested catchments of the North Esk and St Patricks rivers. The secret here is to fish headwaters where flows are not too fast and the water is likely to be crystal clear. You will be able to polaroid trout in the pools, and you can fish-up others by drifting a weighted nymph down the edges of the currents. The big advantage of utilising these waters instead of the meadow streams is that you will stand a good chance of taking large bags of brown trout, though individual fish will be much smaller than those taken from places like Brumbys Creek.
Fishing in the mid-reaches of the North Esk and St Pats will come into its own from late spring into summer and autumn when the water is lower, warmer and easier to wade.
After the demise of the once phenomenal fishery at Lake Sorell in the mid-1990s, Tooms Lake at the head of the Macquarie River system became something of a haven for refugee anglers, largely because it was the most Sorell-like water in Tasmania. No only did it lay at relatively low altitude (464m) amid dry sub-alpine forest, the water itself was shallow, slightly milky-green, and featured substantial strapweed marshes. Better still, the lake had a reputation for providing genuinely good fishing in the early weeks of the fishing season.
Like Sorell, the marshes at Tooms were always full of frog feeders; and there was superb dry fly activity to all manner insects, including highland duns and red spinners. But the real attraction ended up being the prevalence of jollytails (Galaxias maculatus) which schooled well and provided action reminiscent of that precipitated by Sorell's extraordinarily prolific and gregarious golden galaxias (G. auratus). Where exactly the jollytails came from is a mystery to me-I don't recall seeing them in the 1980s and they were not recorded by fisheries biologists who mapped the biota of the lake in the late 1980s. Nonetheless they ended up thriving in the lake, and the trout which fed on them grew very big indeed, sometimes averaging 3-5 lb.
Low water levels have plagued the lake in recent years, resulting in blooms of blue-green algae. Although toxic to livestock and humans, the algae did not poison the fish. However, when the lake was especially low and the algae especially thick, the water became anoxic and the fish stopped feeding. In the last couple of years, the trout were mostly lean and difficult to catch.
This season the lake will fill and we should see a major rebound in the quality of the fishing: it could conceivably end up as good as it was in the glory years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Good sport will probably be available early in August, especially if the IFS engages in some remedial stocking with yearling rainbows and/or wild brown trout from the highland lakes (again, keep an eye on the IFS website).
For both fly enthusiasts and spin fishers, the most exciting thing to do in August and early spring will be to hunt down the trout which can be seen charging around after jollytails like sea trout in a whitebait frenzy. It is easiest to find these fish by walking and wading along the shorelines.
The small lowland lakes
Wild brown trout, all fit and chubby, will be found tailing along the grassy verges of the recently flooded Huntsman Lake. This year will see the fishery approach the peak of the boom cycle which typically occurs in newly created impoundments. Take advantage of the fishing while it lasts.
There will be plenty of eager rainbow stockies in Brushy Lagoon, and many of these fish will be suckers for wet flies and lures.
The fishing is less reliable at Four Springs Lake, though big browns and rainbows, some in excess of 2 kg, are regularly taken by dedicated locals. A small boat is a real asset on this water.
Those of us who live out of area generally find it best to delay fishing expeditions to the West Coast until things fire up in late September, but locals are able to enjoy reasonable sport from the outset.
Lake Burbury (just 235 m above sea level) is full to brimming with wild rainbows and browns, and although most fish are small (0.3-0.7 kg), they rise to midges throughout the year. They are also easily taken on lures and soft plastics, either by spinning or trolling.
Of the estuaries, the lower Henty River is the best bet in August. You can also have a bit of fun at the mouths of the Arthur and Pieman rivers, but it pays to leave the Gordon until October because a trip across Macquarie Harbour can be strategically complex and, having gone to all the effort of getting to the river, most people get frustrated if the fishing turns out to be a bit slow.
Lakes Plimsoll and Rolleston
One other place worth a look is the brook trout fishery in the upper Henty-Anthony system, especially lakes Plimsoll and Rolleston. Although fishing for brookies in Tasmania is a notoriously hit-and-miss affair, with anglers usually catching lots of fish or none at all, August and September are relatively reliable.
Trout on the West Coast spawn late, often not until July, but most will have dropped back into the lakes before the start of the season. Because brookies favour very cool water and are hungry after the rigors of spawning, they feed more veraciously in the shallows during August and September than they do at any other time of the year.
Whereas post-spawned brown trout in waters like Arthurs Lake are often lean and sluggish, brookies regain condition quickly and behave aggressively to large wet flies and lures right from day one.
(The only better time to fish the Henty-Anthony is in January and February, especially during the evening, when big brook trout come to the surface to feed on migrating mudeyes.)
As previously mentioned, the high-country lakes (those above 700m) do not fish really well until mid-September. Historically the only genuine exception to this rule was Lake Sorell. However, Sorell has suffered terribly from the dual whammy of persistent low water and indiscriminate netting associated with the carp-eradication program: it will take several successive wet seasons for the fishery to properly recover.
If you simply can't wait to fish the plateau, the best place to fish on opening day is likely to be Woods Lake, which is now accessible by 2WD from Arthurs Lake Dam. This water lies at relatively low altitude (737 m) and is reasonably sheltered. Prospecting along the shore with wet flies and lures can be quite effective, and anglers who troll deep offshore often fare even better. This lake has the added advantage of harbouring some of the biggest and fittest brown trout on the Central Plateau, many of which are silvery specimens that weigh 1.5 to 2 kg.
Other fair prospects for August are the Bradys chain of lakes and Bronte Lagoon, once again because they have fertile shallows and lie at relatively low altitude.
For those who have shacks at Arthurs Lake and Great Lake, and are determined to make the most of the opening weekend, the action might actually turn out to be better than normal. Because of good rainfall, the spawning runs were earlier and more intense than we've seen at any time in the last decade. This means that many fish will have dropped back into the lake by late June and early July and will have been busy putting on condition for several weeks prior to opening day. This year the situation will be further enhanced by virtue of the fact that both lakes will be rising over long-exposed flats and there will be a superabundance of terrestrial food, including worms and drowned spiders. Mind you, things will be even better in spring when the water warms and the fish are able to metabolise food more quickly.
Well, now you know where to find me this August and September. Honestly, things haven't looked so rosy in long time, so for goodness sake get out there and fish hard while the going's good.