If this trout season is anything like the last…

My first session of the 2014/15 season. It didn't produce any bigger fish, but there were an abundance of these guys happily eating streamers almost as large an themselves. The sheer number of small fish bodes well for future seasons
My first session of the 2014/15 season. It didn’t produce any bigger fish, but there were an abundance of these guys happily eating streamers. The sheer number of small fish bodes well for future seasons.

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.

There were still good fish about, but they were often in "strange places". This healthy 2lber came from a tiny creek.
There were still good fish about, but they were often in “strange places”. This healthy 2lber came from a tiny creek.

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.

Finding an abundance of 2-3lb fish in water like this was quite bizarre. My best guess is that they were most likely finding refuge from warm water temps in the main river. This little creek was at least 3-4 degrees cooler.
Finding an abundance of 2-3lb fish in water like this was quite bizarre. My best guess is that they were most likely finding refuge from warm water temps in the main river. This little creek was at least 3-4 degrees cooler.

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.

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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.

Cheers

Hamish

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

12 thoughts on “If this trout season is anything like the last…

  • September 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm
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    Your last para makes a most excellent point. I too have been making this point for a few years, and with every global-warming summer that goes past, it resonates more with me.

    There is no doubt that eventually even the most shameless trout apologist in angling ranks and in NSW and VIC fisheries will eventually be forced to resort to Macquarie perch and trout cod, with their slightly higher maximum temperature tolerances, to provide sportfishing targets in many MDB upland rivers and streams, at least in their lower reaches.

    How fortunate for them that both species are actually very catchable on fly-fishing gear, particularly (but not exclusively) wet fly, and are actually vastly superior sportsfish to the grossly grossly over-rated and over-hyped trout. It is well known that our forefathers raved about trout cod in upland streams, and considered them to be the hardest-fighting freshwater fish.

    Of course, it is a shame that it will take global warming for us to value upland native fish better, and re-create some lost upland fisheries for them, but whatever. It will be a positive development. Let us just hope that MDB Macquarie perch, already in a perilous state, haven’t declined too far, and haven’t lost too much genetic diversity, by the time NSW and VIC Fisheries belatedly start resorting to them to create fisheries in upland streams that have become uninhabitable for trout.

    And let us remember of course, that trout cod and Macquarie are actually native to upland rivers and streams of the southern Murray-Darling Basin, and occured in every sizeable upland river and stream before being extirpated by trout introductions and multiple trout stockings.

    As for the relative lack of success previous stockings of trout cod in upland streams, well, I think relatively small stockings of trout cod fingerlings into streams that at stage still had high densities of alien predatory fish (i.e. trout) explain most of the failure. Also I have heard very dark but credible reports that some well-known trout fishing extremists considered these upland rivers to be “their rivers” and were deliberately throwing up the bank (and therefore killing) any trout cod they encountered in their fly-fishing. (One needn’t guess what I think should happen to people like this.)

    One thing that need to be pointed out is that for sustainability I suspect any upland river trout cod fisheries will have to be catch-and-release-only, due to their aggression and ease of catching, slow growth, and relatively low fecundity, while Macquarie perch would likely be a limited take species.

    It goes to show, there indeed often is a silver lining to every cloud.

    Reply
  • September 10, 2014 at 11:26 am
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    A further commment on this:

    There are lot of upland streams, or stretches of upland stream, in the souther MDB that are still suitable for upland native fish.

    The sensitivity of Macquarie perch and trout cod to habitat degradation (other than thermal pollution) has been grossly exaggerated. Both species, but particularly Macquarie perch, are surprisingly resilient to light to moderate habitat degradation. Their sensitivity has been deliberately exaggerated because it suits many trout fishers and many trout-biased fishery department personnel to blame habitat degradation and everything else under the sun for the virtual extirpation of these upland native fish from upland streams except the obvious — that these streams are dominated by aggressive alien predatory fish, reinforced by irresponsible stockings for decades.

    I clearly remember attending a talk by one Dr Pritchard, then working for Arthur Rylah Institute, about habitat use by remnant Macquarie perch populations in the upper Broken River, and she was amazed by the shallow, sand-slugged habitats they were happily living in. The slides were eye-opening. And there are many more examples of this.

    Trout apologists and trout-impact-denialists would have you believe that it only takes a wombat farting in the catchment for upland native fish to instantly keel over and disappear from an upland stream, and it’s simply pure rubbish … but a very convenient excuse.

    Reply
  • September 10, 2014 at 1:17 pm
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    Thanks as always for your comments Simon. I think part of the problem with upland natives is that the a lot of the major declines happened 50, 60, 70 years ago. That has meant that they have been more or less forgotten about in the angling community. Its not easy (or impossible/illegal) to go out and catch Maccas or Blue-nose cod, especially in the more upland part of their former distribution. I’m sure that if they were available as targets in some of the upland streams and rivers and more people actually got to interact with them, support for expansion of stockings and for the fish in general would build quickly. As it is, they just aren’t at the forefront of most peoples minds. I think one of they keys for building stronger support for the expansion of stockings etc etc is the success of the efforts that have happened to date. I think there are potentially plans for expedition pass reservoir to eventually become a recreational Macca fishery. The stockings there have gone well and the fish are so far growing well. That will hopefully provide at least open one more option for recreational anglers to target them, which in time should see support for them as recreational targets build.

    I’m not sure how closely you’e been following the debates about Victorias “horror” trout season, but there are plans to once again trial trout stockings in Vic. Firstly, trout stockings were abandoned for a reason. Once breeding trout populations are established they provide remarkably poor returns and can in fact lower trout populations overall (see the work done in Montana in the 1960s, 70s for an example). Secondly, they aren’t likely to do any good at all if season like last season become more common. As discussed above, it seems pretty apparent that the trout disappeared from the lower regions of many rivers last seasons for a pretty simple reason. The water temps in many streams went close to or above the lethal tolerance for trout (25 degrees). So the trout would have either died or moved to colder waters. Put simply, the lower sections of those rivers simply ceased to be trout habitat. Putting trout back in those systems isn’t going to change that. In the case of the rivers surveyed, they are in forest catchments with good in stream health and habitat, so there isn’t really anything you can do to rehabilitate trout populations in those rivers if conditions like those last season become more common (which they will over the medium to long term). Given thats the case, we would be far better expanding/trialling stockings of Blue-nose cod and Maccas in the lower sections of those catchments. The sooner efforts like that begin, at least in a handful of rivers the better and the earlier recreational fisheries for those species become feasible.

    As for trouts impacts on upland natives, they are undoubtedly there (in the case of Maccas those are potentially direct and indirect given the overlap in diets etc etc). Redfin are almost universally agreed to be a problem and trout are really quite similar fish, they are undoubtedly not great for populations upland natives. I would say though, that with anything like this, there are likely to be synergistic effects. That is, upland natives may be able to happily survive in degraded habitats, they may also be able to survive alongside populations of trout/carp/redfin in others, they may be able to happily absorb a level of angler take in others. Its when you have all those deleterious effects occurring together and interacting that you get the wide-scale collapses that we saw with both species. There is only a certain level of stress a population can absorb before it fails to recruit sufficiently.

    Anyway, I’ll be at the Rise fly fishing festival in Canberra tonight, so if your there and see me pop over for a chat.

    Cheers
    Hamish

    Reply
  • September 10, 2014 at 2:53 pm
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    Hamish

    Totally totally agree with your comments in your first two paras! 🙂

    (And agree with most of your last para.)

    Yes, trout cod and Macquarie perch were effectively gone from most upland streams, and gone as viable fishing targets in most upland streams, a long long time ago — more than one fishing lifetime ago.

    Hence, unless someone is pushing 100 years of age, no-one alive today remembers fishing multiple upland streams with thriving trout cod and Macquarie perch populations.

    Will Trueman’s ‘True Tales of the Trout Cod’ and preceeding reports, which you’ve no doubt read, documents this well. A key factor he identified was trout stockings after bushfires. Bushfires knock upland stream fish populations, both trout and upland natives, hard. When trout are promptly restocked and upland natives are not, it seems to have resulted in rapid swings to trout dominance, and fairly rapid extirpation of upland native fish populations. It appears to be a potent mechanism. It seems the 1939 bushfires and trout restockings afterwards really wiped upland native fish populations from the map in Victoria.

    Yep, many of us who care for upland native fish realise that once we have a few people encountering trout cod (particularly) and Macquarie perch in upland streams, especially on fly gear, people will see how awesome they are, and that will rapidly generate more support and enthusiasm for them.

    Dismayed to hear irresponsible trout stockings may yet increase in Victoria.

    cheers

    Simon

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  • September 10, 2014 at 4:56 pm
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    The trout stockings after events such as the ’39 fires when populations of trout and upland natives were decimated would have undoubtedly been bad for our native fish and could well have completely changed the balance between trout/natives in those rivers. The relatively low fecundity (compared to trout), longer lifespan/different life history strategies of native fish would have meant in general populations would have been expected to take longer to recover after such an event (I’m guessing). That could quite easily been the straw that broke the camels back for want of a better metaphor.

    I agree that trout in general are going to be a stressor for native fish, especially once a stream has a population of trout at the carrying capacity of a certain stretch of river. There will undoubtedly be both direct (predation, competition for space etc etc) and indirect effects on native fish (e..g. competition for food in the case of Maccas).

    As to the new stocking trials, truth is, they are unlikely to boost trout populations. Work done on trout stocking internationally and in Vic and Tasmania has shown that where breeding populations of trout exist that stockings are invariably a colossal waste of money with no real return on investment. Fact is the new set of stockings are unlikely to work, it was the reason they were abandoned in Victoria in the first place, they weren’t working. Tbh I would be very surprised if they continue get past the three year trial that is planned. Reading between the lines in the DEPI report the main reason they are trying again is anglers think they are the answer (despite the evidence that they generally aren’t). In terms of the future and with conditions likely to get worse and not better for trout in the lower sections of many rivers over the medium/long term, we would be far better spending that money on expanding natives stocking trials into some sections of those rivers in an attempt to re-establish at least a few populations in upland environments…

    Cheers
    Hamish

    Reply
  • September 10, 2014 at 5:43 pm
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    Yeah, I’ve pulled quite a few two-spined blackfish out of trout, and several macs. Have a damming photo of the last blackfish predation observation.

    BTW, would have liked to have caught up at the Rise thing in Canberra tonight, but am busy. Another time perhaps?

    cheers …

    Reply
  • September 11, 2014 at 10:53 am
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    Some quotes to consider about the fighting ability of upland trout cod …

    **“Later I went into Seven Creeks … I had the spinning rod with me and … the silver Mitchell spinners… Didn’t I have sport! They [the trout cod] were up to about 3 pounds. Sometimes away they would go and you wouldn’t hold them on trout tackle. They would hit it so hard and you could only break it if you tried to put the strain on. That was the best fishing I ever had I think. … You have got to believe the trout cod is the fastest fish there is on your line at the start.”

    “Murray cod will hit hard but in 2 minutes he is giving it away and will float in to you. The trout cod; he’s still fighting.”

    “No, anyone who wants real sport, take him to some trout cod water and just angle with worms. You may not get a bite as fast as you think you should but when you get your fish you’ve got to get him in.”

    “I used to use in the Murray, trout tackle for the blue nose [old name for trout cod] and I could handle the bigger ones up to about 10 pounds. I got my rod tips broken, my ferrules split, made a real mess of my trout tackle when you got onto a blue nose.”

    Extracts from Trueman W and Luker C (eds.) (1992). ‘Fishing Yesteryear’.

    Reply
  • September 12, 2014 at 11:54 am
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    And speaking of irresponsible trout stockings in Victoria …

    http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/2500019/fish-numbers-return-after-flood/?cs=11

    Here we have an article that proudly talks about recovering endangered native Macquarie perch and blackfish numbers in Hollands and Ryans Creek (Broken River system, Victoria), and in the same breath then mentions that multiple 1000-fish stockings of trout (which it neglects to mention are alien fish) have gone into the same waterways … as it if were a good thing … and no problem. At the behest, of course, of rather selfish local trout fishers.

    This is akin to a state government agency declaring that now the endangered bilbies in some area are recovering, the fox stockings (bred at a government facility with taxpayer money) will now commence, to satisfy the tiny portion of the population that likes to hunt for foxes.

    There is a basic break-down of ecological logic, and responsibility, with the kind of trout stocking behaviour this article details.

    It is utterly, utterly unacceptable.

    Reply
  • September 12, 2014 at 1:41 pm
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    Agree, its ridiculous to be stocking those rivers with trout. They are some of the few rivers that still have decent populations of Macquarie perch. Its pretty silly stuff

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  • September 12, 2014 at 4:15 pm
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    It’s pure ecological vandalism

    It’s utterly, utterly unacceptable

    And it’s about time public outrage forced a stop to it

    Reply
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