Lured by the Ultra-Trail Running festival I’ve spent a couple of recent weekends poking around the trails (and the waterways) of the blue mountains of NSW. Between leg-debilitating runs there has been some time to explore the local rivers and dams dotted around this amazing landscape.
Thompsons Creek Dam – clear water and trophy trout
If there is one thing that this area is famous for, aside from sheer rock formations and lyre birds, it is coal fired power stations. These power stations generate most of the electricity for Sydney. As well as electricity they produce heat. And to cool them down requires a regular supply of cool water. Enter Thompson’s Creek dam. Only 20 minutes drive from Lithgow this moderately sized impoundment is home to some of the biggest trout in the country. It is a designated trophy trout water which means it is strictly lure and fly. I’ve visited the dam and surrounds before in a professional context but never had the opportunity to wet a line – until now. As I arrived in the car park early in the morning after a brutal day of trail running the day before, I took the opportunity to fuel up on fried eggs, beans and coffee. Why? Because before you get to fish the dam, you have to walk to it.
It’s not a long walk to the dam wall, perhaps only 10 or 15 minutes, but I suspect it is enough to dissuade those less-than-passionate anglers who are looking for somewhere more convenient (see somewhere to drink beer) to spend their relaxation time. And that’s fair enough. But as you may have guessed by my participation in an ‘ultra-trail running festival’ I’m not afraid of a little walking.
The water was crystal clear and large flocks of Eurasian coots (birds) patrolled the shallow water hunting for grubs, insects and small fish. In my experience, albeit fairly limited, dams like this often seem to fish better when the lure or fly is run a little deeper and closer to the weed beds, especially once the sun is high. With this in mind I started with a Veltic spinner (a souvenir from a trip to NZ) and experimented with 5, 10 and even 15 seconds to let the lure sink down in the water column before starting the retrieve. It wasn’t until I made my way up in the middle reaches of the dam an hour or two later however that I finally started to see some action. Sheltered from the wind and without the turbid edges from the wave action, the water here was deep and gin clear. By now I was using a sinking Rapala CD5 (CD = count down) and again experimenting with different pauses to let it sink down towards the weeds and steep banks. First a 30cm fish casually followed the lure up and out of the depths. As it got near the edge it turned and slowly swam away, as if in slow motion. Then another 25cm fish repeated this pattern the very next cast. These fish were happy to follow the lure but they displayed no urgency to actually attack it.
I downsized to 4lb leader and tied on two rod lengths to try and overcome this reluctance to bite. It didn’t help, but a few minutes later as I slowly twitched and waggled the CD5 up towards the bank a HUGE rainbow cruised in behind it and followed it for several metres. It never got within two metres of the lure, but I was stunned. By most measures of Australian trout it was a great fish, perhaps not quite a trophy, but probably around 50cm and 4-5 pounds. I paused the lure, I twitched it, I let it sink. Nothing helped. I tied on rainbow trout patterned soft-plastics, spinners, small and larger Rapalas (CD5 and CD7) and even a tassie devil, the fish just weren’t into my lures. I was trying to get some ‘hang-time’ in the strike zone, where the lure would have enough action to elicit an inquisitive follow but not require a lot of lateral movement to generate that action and therefore stop the fish from following a fast moving object without time to bite it. My final attempt was a little 3 gram Celta which generated a lot of whir at a very slow retrieve speed. It too got a follow but no bite.
I wandered back to the car park with my tail between my legs. The trophy trout would have to wait. Truthfully I was a little dejected, but I was also anxious to keep traveling. For I had one more spot I wanted to try before the sun went down. And that spot was the Cox’s river.
Cox’s River – one river, one rock, one lure, one fish, two missed opportunities
The Cox’s river meanders and snakes its way roughly due south from the Wolgan Valley down through Lakes Lyell and Wallace and eventually ends up in Lake Burragorang, a major water supply for Sydney. Despite some concerns over the quality of the water (it’s also used in Wallerawang power station) it generally appears to be a lovely little trout stream. Armed with a pair of waders and a trusty Rapala lure I was keen to find out.
I parked the car and wandered down stream and slowly made my way back to the car, fishing as I went. It was pleasant enough and reminded me a little of the Cotter River closer to home in the ACT. Lots of shallow runs with the occasional slightly deeper pool. I picked up a couple of feisty smaller fish in the shallow water and lost a couple more. But then I got to a deeper pool. There was a rock and a deep shadow in this pool, about half way along. It looked like a classic trout ambush spot. I flicked the little lure close to the rock and gave it a snap of the rod tip to get it down deep quickly. A few more winds of the reel, a few more waggles of the lure and it appeared. The fish quickly made up ground, bit the lure and flashed pink and silver as it rolled sideways against the resistance of the line. It didn’t hook up and quickly sulked back to its rock. At a guess I would have said it was around 40cm long and perhaps 1 – 1.5kg. A good fish for a skinny little section of river and probably king (or queen) of this particular pool. It was now dark and I retreated to the camp for a cold drink, a small fire and a good nights sleep.
The next morning two very odd things happened. Firstly I woke up to find the whole valley shrouded in fog. That’s not particularly odd, it happens a lot in the blue mountains. But as I made my way downstream and started to cast into some of the shallow pools, I had that sense like I was the only person on this river for miles. It was foggy, and I could only see about a hundred metres in any direction. Further adding to my feeling of insularity was the physical barrier of waders, a hoodie pulled over my head, a down-filled jacket and a beanie. It was cold! The gentle roar of the river blocked out all other external noise and it was 6:30 in the morning in a valley buried in fog. I was convinced I was alone.
The serenity was broken however with an almighty splash just behind me. The sound was way too loud to be a rising trout. Instinctively I whirled around and looked at the spot where the noise had come from. And that’s when I saw him. Out of the corner of my eye, a fly fisherman casually strolling to the pool directly in front of me after having just thrown a rock into the river 5 metres behind me. He didn’t say ‘hi’, he didn’t say ‘excuse me’, he didn’t say anything. He just walked 20 metres up the river and started fishing. I was speechless. Literally. I didn’t know whether to act like nothing had happened and say in an overly enthusiastic tone ‘good morning!’, or whether to call him out for being an anti-social d!ck. Perhaps I had broken some unspoken rule about trout streams by strolling downstream from my camp towards his camp and somehow invaded ‘his section of river’? Perhaps I hadn’t seen him in the fog and had inadvertently ‘cut him off’? Whatever the case, I decided no good could come from approaching this dude and so I wandered upstream back towards my camp for fear that he might let the air out of my car tyres, slash my tent or throw another rock in the pool I wanted to fish. The last option scared me the most – I had unfinished business with the big fish in that deep pool. 12 hours after our first encounter I was hoping that it had forgotten all about my lure and would come back to strike again. I was right.
It’s not often you get to fish the same spot a second time in one trip. This time around I knew there was a big fish hiding under the rock. I tightened the drag a few more clicks and checked the sharpness of the treble. Yep it dug into my thumbnail. It was sharp. I made the exact same cast again. Just past the big rock in the middle of the big pool. The same fish saw the lure and after about 5 winds of the reel handle it gave chase and struck the lure in exactly the same spot in the river. But this time I was ready for him. I jerked the rod back as it bit the lure and again it flashed silver and pink as it turned side on against the line. Would you believe it. The hooks failed to find a home in the fish’s hard mouth. I had missed him – again!
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It had been a very strange morning exploring in the fog. Fortunately I chose the former. I smiled to myself and decided the best course of action now was probably to pack up and get away from the missed fish and the mass-murdering trout fisherman downstream. It was time for another trail run to blow off steam.
The blue mountains is a beautiful part of Australia and somewhere I hope I can get back to again really soon. Especially now that I’ve seen the size of the trout in Thompson’s Creek Dam and there is a rock in a deep pool in the Cox’s river with a nice 40cm rainbow trout with my name on it.
Thanks for reading