I spent last weekend camping on the Howqua river at Sheepyards flat. It wasn’t a fishing trip. It was a camping, hanging by the river, hanging out with the kids, making new friends trip. The days were filled with swimming, throwing stones into the river, watching horses, grilling meats over an open fire, drinking cold mid-strength beer during the day and a glass of nice red at night while chatting about the breadth of human experiences. There aren’t many better ways to spend a weekend. (Thanks to Doron and Steph from Homecamp for helping to make the weekend such a cracker).
I did spend some time fishing around the campsite carrying the kid in the backpack trying to get him to nap (a hard task given how exciting the great outdoors is!). I didn’t catch anything, but I did spook a few trout and miss a few more that half heartedly swiped at my offerings. It wasn’t a surprise. The water was quite warm (for a mountain stream), probably uncomfortably warm for trout. Thats not to say that the other fishy residents weren’t enjoying the conditions. Almost every pool was filled with feisty schools of micro redfin and while I didn’t see any, carp are also apparently doing well in this part of the Howqua.
Anyone who has been to the Howqua knows what a special place it is. One of those rivers that quietens the soul and inspires reflection and spending some time waving a fly rod around got me thinking. How long will this part of the Howqua remain a trout stream? This section of the Howqua, used to be a legendary trout water and its not hard to see why. The river runs clear through grass lined runs and large deep slow pools framed by granite cliffs. It is stunning country. However, by all reports, the trout fishing around Sheepyards flat has declined significantly over the years (a phenomenon that has been noted more widely). The trout are still hanging on, but given the new invaders and the warm water, the question I had was for how long? Well above Sheepyards flat, the Howqua is still a hugely productive trout stream. Way up at Bindaree, where the waters are cool, where conditions are still ideal, where the carp and redfin invaders haven’t taken hold, there are 100+ trout per 100 meters. The trout fishing in that section of the Howqua is under no threat. However, in the lower sections, surveys paint a slightly different picture, with only 4-6 trout per 100 meters between 7 Mile Flat and the Running Creek reserve. So while these section of the Howqua are still a trout fisheries, the “golden days” seem long gone. The question is will they ever return?
The sad answer for many trout fishers is likely to be no. The warmish waters I experienced over the week are here to stay. In fact, things are likely to get worse as climate change continues to warm the planet. Rivers that run East/West like the Howqua, Jamieson and Delatite are also especially susceptible to warming given that they are exposed to sun all day long. And while stream shading has a large effect on water temperatures and can be used to mitigate the effects of warming, the catchment above Sheepyards flat is completely forested. That is, it is already shaded meaning there is very little that can be done to mitigate the effects of climate change. Don’t get me wrong, trout will hang on for a while yet, likely for decades. But the hope that one day this section of the Howqua will return to its previous glory seems like a fantasy. What is likely to happen is a continuation of the current trends leading to a long slow decline of the fishery. The world has changed and as anglers, we will have to change too. Eventually, the lower sections of the Howqua will likely just hold carp and redfin. While I can’t think of a nicer place to chase carp on fly, it hardly seems ideal. There must be a better way.
Maybe there is. Way back in the day, before the Howqua became a legendary trout river, the river at Sheepyards flat and below used to be home to trout cod and macquarie perch. The few reports and memories that survive from that time indicate that they used to provide wonderful angling to the people who lived in the area. As a bonus, both species, have higher thermal tolerances that trout, meaning they are likely to be able to survive the rising stream temperatures that are pushing the trout out.
So maybe the way forward for the lower and mid Howqua river isn’t trying to hold onto what we are losing, maybe the answer is to try and reclaim what we lost long ago. At the very least it is an option worth investigating and pursuing. A trout cod and macquarie perch fishery would sure beat chasing carp. It may seem preemptive to be thinking about a trout-less Howqua when the trout fishing is still fine, but the writing is on the wall and fisheries management takes time. Restoring populations of fish takes time. So it makes sense to act before the trout fishing in this section of the Howqua has completely disappeared. I have no idea about what the details would be, whether a native fishery on the Howqua would be reliant on stockings or whether it would one day be self sustaining or even if it is feasible at all. But I do think we owe it to ourselves as anglers to start asking and answering these questions now, before the Howqua becomes just a gorgeous stream filled with carp.
Imagining what a trout cod/macquarie perch fishery might be like is hard given that these fisheries no longer exist so I’ll leave you with a few quotes from “True Tales of the Trout cod” about what the fishing on the Howqua was like before the trout cod and macquarie perch disappeared.
“My father grew up at Aberdale Station, up at Sheepyards Flat, on the Howqua. My grandfather was up there too. The Howqua was the same, in fact it had more cod and bream in it than just about any of the other rivers around here. They were all the same, full of the cod, silver and black bream, and the slimeys. They used to catch big cod right under the Howqua Bridge. Further up the river, at O’Leary’s, there was a lot of sticks and timber, and I used to get a lot of the silver bream and the black bream up there. Around Jamieson the cod, you could catch them all year round. In the winter, anytime. They bit well in spring, in the spawning season, but then they brought in all the rules about 1934, like they had for the trout, so you had a season on them then, you couldn’t fish for them. The biggest cod I caught in Jamieson was 27 pound at Kewshwin’s Hole, Frank Galbally the solicitor was with me, though when I was a kid I saw 50 pounders caught. I saw Mark Foots and Webby Foots catch them. The biggest cod I saw was caught by Max Sullivan, out of the Delatite in 1943, it was 108 pound, it was in Nolan’s butchers shop for months. He caught that below Brack’s Bridge, it took him three hours to land it. He thought he was going to run out of line!”
Max Matthews, interviewed in 2007.
“I used to get the cod and the perch out of the Howqua. At the time they went up as far as the big holes below Tobacco Flat. The original Bridge at Sheepyard Flat had washed away once, and I used to go down through Whiskey Flat and at the end of Tobacco Flat is Weirs Creek. Down a little I caught the cod, downstream from Weirs Creek to Dry Creek. From Dry Creek down there were hellish big cliffs, and from there down there were some excellent holes. Mostly the ones I caught, I suppose a good one was 10 pound, mostly 7 to 8 pounds. We also caught what I called yellowbelly back then, though others called them perch (Macquarie Perch). They were mostly a small fish, about a pound and a half, though I know blokes that got bigger ones up there. In the top of the Howqua 10 to 12 pound was the biggest cod.”
Frank Moore, interviewed in 2006