The 2014/15 trout season is upon us. Over the “off-season” there has been a lot of media about last trout season, most of it about how poor it was (here, here, here, here, here, here and a very different take here) . How the fishing was horrendous, how trout are doomed and in desperate need of rescuing. Cormorants, willow removal, climate change and a load of other culprits have been blamed. As someone relatively new to the sport, last season was only me second “real” trout season, so I really didn’t have much to compare it too. That being the case I didn’t have a clue that the trout season had been such a “disaster”. I caught a hell of a lot more fish than the previous year (being a marginally improved fly fisher definitely helped in that regard) and generally had a ball each time I hit the water.
In some ways being new to the sport probably helped. I don’t have years of memories, favourite spots I return to every year or all that many expectations about how any particular locality will fish. I’m also horribly impatient and move around a lot, which also probably helped. While I wasn’t keeping a fishing diary at that point (this season will be different), I can only remember one or two fish-less session across the dozens of trips over the season. Obviously the dozen or so “great” sessions stand out in the memory now, catching 1.5-2lb fish from water you could jump across, fish a cast fishing for 1lb+ fish in tiny overgrown streams, 20-30 fish afternoons, successful sight-fishing sojourns in the bigger rivers, watching trout smash hoppers in the heights of summer. At least for me, it wasn’t a bad season, although maybe my expectations were just really low.
Thats not to say that people concerns aren’t genuine. After all the attention the bad trout season was getting, the Victorian DEPI set out to figure out what was going on. Electrofishing surveys in February all but confirmed the anecdotal reports of anglers, at least in the lower sections of some rivers. From the lower sections of many popular trout water the results showed there were far less trout than “normal”, most likely because of higher than normal water temperatures. Stream temperatures, measured at 8am (over the day stream temperatures would be expected to rise 3-4 degrees) in the Howqua (23.2 degrees), Jamieson (22.6 degrees) and Goulburn (23.9 degrees) were well above the comfort level for brown and rainbow trout (above 20 degrees stress levels rise quickly). That didn’t hold for the upper reaches of most of those catchments (Howqua- 18.6, Jamieson- 17.7, Goulburn- 20). While very few trout were caught low in the catchments, the upper catchments all seemed to hold good populations of fish. More studies are planned over the next three years, you can have a gander at whats planned by the DEPI here. To get the full picture we will have to wait for the results of the three year study, but the preliminary results from last year give us a lot of useful information we can use to catch more fish, if this season is anything like that last anyway.
The conclusion we can draw from the work in February is that if you want to catch fish, especially in summer, search out areas where the water is cooler. That means heading up into the headwaters or off to the tailrace rivers. Also if you are planning on fishing the lower areas of some catchments, focus your attention in the early mornings at at night when stream temperatures will be at their lowest and fish are most likely to be active . As a rule, if you plan on catch and releasing trout you shouldn’t fish for them when the water temperature is over 19-21 degrees (this is just a rough figure- there is no widely agreed upon number, but stress levels start increase rapidly once temperatures rise above ~20 degrees. So while the fish might be OK, they won’t handle catch and release well and will likely have far higher mortality rates). So in the heights of summer its probably a good idea to avoid the lower reaches of many rivers anyway (especially during the heat of the day), because if water temps are high catching fish will cause undue stress and higher mortality rates. From my own experiences last year, heading up could bring with it some great fishing. One of the most bizarre experiences of my season happened doing just that. In a tiny stream (that runs into a well known trout river), I found loads of big fish. I nicknamed the stream the most frustrating stream in the world after my session there, I saw plenty of big 2-3lb fish, but given the big guys had all the good lies, they were impossible to catch. I ended up catching loads of smaller fish but not the ones I would have dearly loved to connect to. I went back to the stream a month or so later. It was dead in comparison, I caught a couple of tiddlers (fish you would expect in water like that) but that was it. As far as I can tell, the stream was being used as a cold water refuge by fish that had moved out of the main river for some relief from the warm water temps. So if this season is anything like the last, find cool water in the upper areas of the catchments and you will catch fish. Those areas aren’t as easy to fish, but if you make the effort, you will most likely be rewarded.
Cormorants have gotten a fair bit of attention. If they are on the stream your fishing, don’t despair. As long as there is in stream cover, the fish should be doing OK. What it will likely do is drastically change their behaviour. One thing I learnt last year was if cormorants were around, you really needed to fish tight to cover. In streams with birds, the fish were often all staying very close to safety, really close. Pin point presentations were absolutely key on some days, landing your fly 6 inches from the log you thought may hold a fish wasn’t good enough, it was 2 inches or bust. It became a bit like cod or bream fishing. If you weren’t getting snagged you weren’t going to catch anything. In those situations I spent my time focusing on logjams, in stream cover and fast riffles with lots of rocks etc to hide under, spending less time fishing more open lies. Doing that, even with cormorants on the stream with me watching my every move, I still managed to have some great sessions. It wasn’t easy, but there were certainly fish there to catch and once you got the hang of it, the fishing could be top notch.
Lastly, with water temps likely being a major issue last season, don’t ignore the tailrace rivers. The great thing about a tailrace like the Goulburn below Eildon or the Swampy is that water temps don’t vary all that much. So while some of the natural streams may be getting too hot in the middle of summer, the tailrace rivers should still be providing clean, cool water to the fish that call them home. They will be insulated from high temperatures and will be a great mid summer option.
The main point I really want to get across in this is that while last season may not have been anything like the fishing of the past, the fish were still there in habitats with the right environmental parameters, mainly cool water. If this season is anything like the last, search out cool clean water and you should be able to catch fish. The lower areas should fish well up until we hit summer, but once summer hits, if the water temps rise too much, don’t be surprised if the fishing drops off. So if your old faithful spot in the lowlands isn’t producing, adapt and move to somewhere that is, there is a chance those fish have moved further up into the smaller cooler streams for a month or two until temperatures return to comfortable levels. Of course there is ever chance this season will be different, that stream flows will be better during the heights of summer and that stream temperatures won’t rise to the heights they did last year.
More broadly there isn’t much we can do about the weather and of course this season may be completely different to last. Over the longer term though climate change is likely to make warmer temperatures like we experienced last season a far more common occurrence than they have been in the past (on average). Trout simply don’t do all that well when the temperature rises above a certain point (really badly once it reaches 25-26 degrees) and they will either die or move up (or down to lakes) into waters that are more suitable. As trout fishermen, when a season like the last happens, we need to adapt. Even in a season like the last, there is still fantastic trout fishing to be had if you look hard enough, explore a little bit (and do a little bit of walking). And remember if you are worried about trout stocks in Vic practice catch and release and do it properly. We have written an in depth beginners guide here.
Lastly, if things do indeed continue along the lines of last season in the longer term, as fishermen we may have to think about other options in the lower sections of many popular trout rivers. As temperatures rise, trout will continue to be pushed up into the upper reaches of the catchments. As a rule, if streams temperatures regularly reach a high of ~25 degrees during summer, trout populations are no longer viable in the longer term, that being around the upper temperature tolerance of trout. Now that our own upland natives can be bred in captivity, there is the possibility of being able to stock upland natives such as Macquarie perch and Blue-nose cod into what may have once been prime trout waters that have/will become marginal trout waters at best due to higher temps. Our upland natives can tolerate higher water temps, so long term may be an option in those rivers. For that to happen though, we will need a lot more science on stream rehabilitation and the like to determine how to make such an endeavour a success. Stockings of Blue-nose cod and Macquarie perch in the past have had mixed successes, with stocked populations doing well in some places and failing to take hold in others. For the success of stockings and viable recreational fisheries for those species, we really need to work out why some stockings are successful and others aren’t, so a viable fisheries can be established in the future, but thats all another kettle of fish entirely and something for another post.