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

1 comment:

  1. Just in case you were wondering about that first shot - yes, it was cold! ;)