Thursday 18 July 2013

Snowy Mountains mystery: Where did the trout go?

Georgina Swan with one of only two trout caught on a season's end trip - both in Nariel Creek, Victoria

The trout that usually fill the rivers in the Snowy Mountains region of NSW, seemingly disappeared for days - if not weeks - on end, during the last half of the 2012/13 trout fishing season.  MIKE GEE investigates the case of the missing fish.

The refrain was as common as the sometimes mystifyingly empty streams and rivers of the Snowy Mountains and Victorian border country: where have the trout gone, everybody asked, although nobody seemed to want to say it too loud. The whisper was almost deafening at times.

After all, season 2011/12 was blessed by the proverbial abundance, perhaps the best season in five years, although one river, the imperturbable Indi, continued its downward spiral in some areas, a spiral that began up to three years ago. 

But 2012/13, that was a different matter. Some days there were trout; a lot of days there weren't. Take the Swampy Plains River up around Geehi, about 40km down the mountain on the way to Khancoban. It has suffered from heavy recreational fishing and alleged poaching by illegal baiting - dozens of lines attached to a single line strung across the river - for years now. 

We've had several fishermen tell us about a van with Victorian number plates arriving in off-peak periods when the camp grounds are largely deserted and its owners proceeding to commit this atrocity unhindered.

Now whether it, along with the associated recreational pressures on this appealing stretch, has dramatically affected the trout population for the surrounding 15 kilometres is hard to tell but what is concerning is the complete lack of fish in the river both over the Anzac Day long weekend and the season ending Queen's birthday weekend.

No fish: Georgina drifts a run on the Swampy Plains River near Geehi
Over those two periods we tramped the back waters of the Swampy for more than five kilometres and didn't see a fish. To put that in perspective, the previous season on the same weekends we caught a dozen or so and saw many more.

Just as concerning is the slow decline of the Indi from a river where we caught 8 fish in one two-hour morning high country session five years ago, to a river where in that same stretch we have caught 2 fish in the past three years. Even the locals have noticed a changing picture. 

The view from the middle of the
Swampy Plains River
In Corryong, just across the Murray River border in Victoria, one of the region's 40-year flyfishing veterans spent three days tramping the Swampy Plains River in the Geehi area for no fish at all. He simply couldn't believe it. And down at the bottom of the mountain in Khancoban, one of the area's most knowledgeable trout men reported that the salmonids  simply disappeared out of the Indi from below the Spillway right down the run through to Bringenbrong following a warm spell in May. 

Over the top of the mountain, the beautiful Thredbo River fished hot and cold all season - although I enjoyed a six fish purple patch in an early January trip - while 70 kilometres away along the Snowy Mountains Highway and down any number of back roads and trails, the Eucumbene River fished so poorly that three fly men we caught up with over Easter in New Zealand had flown in for 7 days on the Tongariro, Lake Taupo and some of that area's streams so desperate were they to catch fish. This followed what many - including the afore-mentioned trio - regard as one of the best seasons ever on the Eucumbene in 2011/12.

A farmer just outside Khancoban with a property that backs on to the Swampy Plains River just before it runs into Khancoban Pondage - itself the victim of severe draining by the Snowy Mountains Authority this year - told us he hadn't seen a fish in several months, whereas in previous years the stretch had teemed with little trout. He also noted a significant increase in the number of cormorants on the river and the massive rise in the number of Redfin, particularly in the Pondage but also in the Swampy.

Below the Spillway we have noted an increase in the number of introduced Carp in the Indi and watched one young fisherman play a huge specimen on a lure for 15 minutes before losing it.

One of the trout caught on the Swampy Plains River below Khancoban
during the dusk hatch in November 2012

Their presence along with the Redfin certainly threatens the stability of trout in the river. That said we enjoyed a fabulous dusk hatch in November 2012 when hundreds of fish were literally dancing on the water surface for just half an hour. Two platypus swirled and curled amongst them, keen observers of this almost mystical experience. Georgina virtually had a take a cast on a white caddis with a black beadhead nymph dropper and landed three in 15 minutes. The caddis doing the damage. And leading fly fishing guru, Philip Weigal, went to print about a couple of excellent days on the Indi early in the season. 

We've also seen plenty of photos online of big trout caught throughout the fishery in 2012/13 but they are best of the year and don't reflect what so many flyfolks have told us. Finding fish this season was hard. So where did all the fish go? The 2013/14 season will tell a story. If the fish aren't back then there will be cause for concern about the state of this outstanding fishery. And what has happened to dull these once sparkling waters.

It doesn't get much prettier than this  - the Swampy below Geehi ... 
but no fish for kilometres

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Whanganui wonders, Pt 2, Easter 2013

Georgina Swan plays a Whanganui rainbow as Ken Drummond 
moves in to net


It was Easter 2013 and a long localised drought - it hadn't rained heavily for a month - meant the local trout sitting in Lake Taupo waiting for a signal from the Gods to begin their annual spawning run were going nowhere fast and getting fatter by the day, and the Taupo region rivers and streams were down in height but no less enticing.

The Tongariro was getting slimed by an obnoxious green weed which coated the boulders under foot and made wading some sections of the river a somewhat slippery affair. The Whanganui, however, was less affected, but still a little treacherous in parts.

Some 70km from Turangi, the Whanganui River is as broad as the sward through which it forages relentlessly; a flyfisher's dream of endless runs, ripples, pools and drop-offs. If a river could be custom-built for trout then the Whanganui would be it.
Unlike the heavy-hitter further upstream carving its way through forests and farmland alike, here it finds home amid pastures and small towns alike. When it comes to one of the latter then access is usually is easy. 

We spent two days on a stretch of river no more than 800 metres long with our friend and guide, Ken Drummond, who we introduced in part one of this tale. Between us, Georgina and I caught 41 fish - including some rainbows up to 5lbs and plenty of little nippers at the  other end of the scale - and dropped or lost another 12 big ones.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let's go back a couple of days. When in Turangi we stay at the Sportsman's Lodge. It's on the edge of town, literally next to the river and has everything the do-it-yourself fisher person needs. And it's well-priced.

Fighting a Tongariro rainbow
We got to Turangi a day and a fraction before our two days with Ken. We like a warm-up day to explore and get the casting bugs out (or in my case develop some new ones). And any chance to fish the mighty Tongariro is worth taking. We decided to target the Admiral's Pool because we'd heard rumblings of fish in the area from some fellow Australian flyfishers who had just spent seven days on the river after fleeing their normal river of choice, the Eucumbene, in the Snowy Mountains region, which until very recently had been fishing particularly poorly - following an extraordinary 2011/12 season, one of the best in history. But flyfishing folk grow used to such frustrations, unpredictabilities, and inexplicable mysteries. They simply look elsewhere.

This duo had splendid stories to tell, of fish hooked and landed, and as many lost, including a couple of monsters that strung them up around rocks and snags after ensuring they removed plenty of line, as well. 

Ready for the girls ... a coloured-up rainbow trout
The day dawned fine, even warm, and we hit the river around 9am. The morning's sole victim fell to Georgina who was fishing a double bead head nymph (hare's ears) selection in the riffles just below the pool. It proved a feisty individual, indulging in several death rolls, three or four sprints and some tug-of-war before finally revealing itself as a male rainbow, all painted up and ready to chat up some girls. As you can see from the picture this chap was as red as they get.

A couple of missed chances broke up the run of things but in general it was reasonably quiet. Lunch beckoned so we retired to town by 2.15pm and indulged in a particular vice that lies in wait at Turangi bakery - its fried chicken. Chicken, bakery, odd - yes! But sensational. After that we topped up on flies at Sporting Life, tried to get as much information as we could out of Jared Goedhart, and decided to aim for the evening rise which on the Tongariro really is an evening rise.

On our previous visit in December 2012 we had called it quits about 7.15pm, fishless and uncertain what all the fuss was about. Jared explained it only takes place from dusk to dark - 30 minutes maximum. As usual he was right; as dusk dropped its gentle cloak the fish began to pop. Lots of little tykes, hopping and flipping and flopping, occasionally getting the themselves hooked. Georgina and I both had one, before we pulled stumps due to bad light. However, we did stop for a final unfurl of the line just under the highway bridge where the lights come into play. I had one solid hit and missed and then the 9pm chill forced a final retreat.

Next day dawned a little uninspired and drizzly and Ken was on the doorstep at 8am bristling with his usual energy and bonhomie. A quick stop at Creel Tackle Shop for licences and we were winding our way out of Turangi. Ken chattered away, setting the scene for potentially a day of big rainbows, small fry and a few browns tossed in for good measure.

An hour later we were on a stretch of Whanganui running through private property. By lunchtime I had caught 12 fish, none bigger than 30cm, none smaller than 20cm including my first double-header!

That's Mike in the distance - 20m closer
where he got his double header
Catching a double-header on fly is a bit like winning the lottery - somewhere in the realms of fantasy. Yet there I was in the middle of the Whanganui with a pair of young rainbows on the line. The top one had a hit one of Kenny's home tied size 12 green imitator nymphs at the beginning of the swing after a drift down a channel that had already produced another two fish. Its sibling had jumped on the trailing size 14 black beadhead nymph about 20 seconds later. The end result felt weird. Like I had a large fish capable of moving in two different directions at once. When they both surfaced I fumbled with the Panasonic Lumix FT4 I use - seriously the best small digital tough camera for in and out of water work - and failed to get photographic evidence. Luckily, Ken had witnessed the whole event from his vantage point with Georgina about 40m up stream. 

A nice 4lb rainbow
In the meantime, Georgina usually the most prolific of flyfishers when it comes to plucking trout from a river was strangely quiet ... the odd smaller rainbow but that was it for the first hour. Then she crash tackled a four-pounder which had both her and Ken celebrating. That was the opening salvo. About 25 minutes later, Ken screamed 'big fish on, Michael'. I looked up and saw George's rod bent nearly double and knew she was into a Whanganui rainbow on steroids. I immediately began trudging slowly upstream, keen to be there for the landing. Her landing rate is up around 85 per cent so the chances were good. They were a good 100 metres upstream and I was in some fairly deep water so it was time-consuming work on slippery rocks. 

Lovely fish, Georgina
Meanwhile, the fight was on. The rainbow began by sprinting to the far bank, then much to Georgina's consternation turned around and came straight back at her. George, in her own words then suffered a brain fart and decided to wind, rather than strip, the line in as the trout bore down on her. She rapidly found out speed of winding did not equal speed of trout. With loose line everywhere, she was convinced it had probably spat the hook and was already happily off downstream. To her amazement when she finally got all the line in the muscular salmonid was still there ... idling. 

In the tried and true Ken Drummond way she then applied pressure. This, from the rainbow's perspective, was not a good idea. I was about 30 metres away from her when the water about 15 metres and to my right erupted. A torpedo shot skyward, levelled out about six feet in the air, where it seemingly hung for a good few seconds, before plummeting back in with a resounding splash. I have never seen a trout in real life that fat. Eight pounds minimum, probably 10, it resembled a shiny glistening barrel. It was some fish. 

The arm wrestle continued for a few more minutes but finally it rid itself of that infernal hook and disappeared up the Whanganui. I'd already stopped walking up to them. I knew when it lifted off that nothing was going to halt that rainbow. Ken suggested Georgina fish to the top of the pool, she dissented, so he called lunch break immediately.

Back on dry land, Georgina was still recovering from the battle and the sheer brute strength the rainbow displayed. "I just couldn't stop it," she said. Ken in his normal laconic way, said, "Well that was a big one, hey."

To this day there is picture frozen in my mind of that thumping trout suspended in mid-air parallel to the water. And all of us gawping at it.

So there we were at lunch. Mike 12, Georgina 4. An unlikely score line. 

Georgina plays the first of the afternoon
The afternoon beckoned sunny and playful and Ken stepped us down stream to a run close to the left bank that featured a big pool about three-quarters of the way along. He gave Georgina the honour of that pool first. I gave her some needle and told her if she didn't get a fish in five minutes it was my pool. She got one in a tick over three. It took her longer to get to shore as it tried its best to outmuscle her. A good five-pounder.

Add a five-pounder to the list
Ken fell in love with her when she hooked another five minutes later. "Did you see her strike?," he said. "When she strikes she STRIKES. I love that."  Add a fish just under four pounds to the list. It bounced around a lot and jumped four times.
The object of his admiration proceeded to further demonstrate her striking ability by nailing a third fish within four casts of its predecessor being set free. This one decided that while pure muscle was all well and good, speed was a lethal weapon. So it turned, ignored Georgina's firm rod right and back position and hurtled off downstream taking line with it. She simply couldn't stop it. So Ken took off, net in hand, after it. George followed, maintaining pressure and winding as much as she could. I followed the pair. 

We started 150m away ...
We skated, stumbled and trotted after Ken who was a good 50 metres ahead. About 150 metres from where we started, he darted in to the water and netted the escapee. I was betting on a six-pounder at least, given the amount of line it had peeled, the blistering sprint and 10-minute fight. Ken strode up to us and held up the net ... a two-pounder, if that.

Talk about anti-climax. Truly a Whanganui rainbow on steroids.
But it was just a little guy
We looked at the almost pure silver bullet. It looked back. It looked tired. But back in the water it swam off with no prompting. The three of us trudged back to the pool where the gear sat. Georgina promptly declared her arms were too tired and sore to deal with any more fish. That was a first.

I had a few more casts but we were spent. I had caught 14 fish, Georgina 7 - although the last four she caught combined would have easily outweighed all of mine put together and then some.
The next day began full of drizzle drifting aimlessly down the green streets of Turangi, sloppy low clouds hung on the hill tops and the sky was immaculate in its even grey sheen. By the time we reached the Whanganui we had passed through four different mini-climate areas and were welcomed by milky sunshine. We had only worked half the water the previous day and Ken had some splendid runs and pools left. By lunch Georgina had 11 of the cut-throats under her belt and I had added six. Neither of us had anything larger but the river had changed with some heavy rain overnight lifting the level and flow rate. Still, we weren't complaining.

Over lunch we decided to return to the run and pool that had been so generous the previous day. I hooked but lost four good fish in the first 30 minutes, driving Ken to slight insanity, before landing a two-and-half pounder. The strength each displayed was unnerving.

Mike plays out a two-and-a half pounder in the Whanganui
One sat no more than 10 metres from shore and wrestled me, dared me to try and move it, and when I fell for its ploy, and increased the pressure, it moved a few inches left and cut the too taught line on a snag. Then Georgina missed another three solid specimens before catching two of the bright and bold youngsters that had so enlivened the two days. With rain brewing, and tired sore bodies we bade our farewells to this splendid river and its vivacious fish. I had caught 21 fish and Georgina 20. Extraordinary.There is nothing more to be said, other than to salute our guide, Ken Drummond. We will, of course, be back.