Michael rates the Tumut tailwater as one of our finest trout fisheries.
On a recent fishing trip to the Tumut, I had to deal with a uniquely Australian problem: whether or not a snake would climb into our boat, or try and make its way under instead? It turns out that it did what they regularly do, and avoided humans at all costs – luckily for me and my mates!
This situation was just one of many exciting moments on the Tumut River in New South Wales, which I’ve been fishing a fair bit this season. As an avid flyfisher and guide in the Snowy Mountains, I was very keen to spend the last several months building a better understanding of this river.
Well, the Tumut has exceeded my expectations and the fishing from my raft has been particularly good – although I have found fishing from a boat requires a different approach to fishing on foot. For example, there are times of the year and river conditions which are more suited to drifting than others. And of course, fishing on foot remains an excellent option on the Tumut.
The Tumut River is a radical place to fish, but first, for much of the year, you need to get used to a lot of water. The Tumut is one of the few large, cold tailwaters that we have in this country. It’s essentially the ‘bottom end’ of a significant part of the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme; the final release point for vast volumes of water for power generation and irrigation. Cold water in the mid or lower river valleys is not something we have in spades on the mainland – except for places like the Tumut.
The amount of water coming down the river can be staggering sometimes, and so can the amount of fish food and fish this cold water can generate. In many respects, the best way to think of cold tailwaters, is as trout factories; providing perfect growing conditions for trout – most of the time. The number of trout in the Tumut is impressive. It supports populations that are rarely found outside the Snowy Mountains lakes that feed it. The river can hold so many fish because all that cold and consistent water not only creates perfect temperatures for trout growth, but also helps the trout’s food supply. The combined result is bigger fish and more of them. The Tumut’s water is often very clear too, with visibility to 10 and even 15 feet at times. Plus, the Tumut is actually large enough to drift a boat down, unlike many of our other smaller rivers.
Although there are many ticks on the Tumut’s scorecard, its size has drawbacks. Firstly, besides those who’ve fished overseas a lot, most Australian anglers are not used to fishing larger rivers. Access can also be an issue on a river which winds through large tracts of private property, with limited wading possible at high flows. Meanwhile, sudden demand for downstream water can lead to almost instant flood events.
However, if you do your research, you’ll be able to enjoy a lot of great fishing on the Tumut tailwater.
While drifting rivers has become just about my favourite way to catch trout, I didn’t start by jumping into a boat on the Tumut and screaming off into the sunset to catch 6 pounders! Don’t race ahead and buy a boat; first you need to learn to row. Rowing on a large, powerful river is a skill. As soon as you launch on any river, you need to treat it with the respect. I’ve been fortunate over the last few years to have been educated in how to row and operate a drift boat by some of my good friends on Montana’s beautiful rivers. Experience is the key, and the Tumut is not a beginner’s river; in fact few rivers are. If you’re looking to learn how to row, then find someone who is already competent and ask them to teach you. It’s that simple.
The only tip I’m prepared to give here, away from the river, is that if you’re not constantly rowing, then there’s something wrong. Good mate and drift boat expert Myles, screaming, “Why aren’t you rowing?”, reverberates around my skull whenever I go to take a break on the oars!
My boat is actually a raft and a raft is a perfect platform on the Tumut. It’s light and easy to transport, and with a casting frame set up, it’s very comfortable. Other styles include purpose-built drift boats and tinnies with oars, but I think a raft is best for our conditions (although I’m not going say no to a free drift boat if anyone has one laying around)! Safety is always at the forefront of my mind when we’re drifting and learning the proper safety procedures goes hand-in-hand with learning how to row.
Lastly, drifting etiquette is a relatively new concept in Australia, but the most important thing is to give way to land-based anglers. We have the whole river to fish, they don’t. If you see someone on the bank, wind in, get as far out of their way as possible and cruise by with a friendly wave.
Drift fishing tactics
You don’t have to re-learn how to fish to be successful from a raft, but practice and a little planning goes a long way. On the raft on the Tumut, I could be using anything from dries and nymphs, to streamers.
Dries are fished superficially in the same way as you would from the bank, although of course you are often moving, and downstream. Look for good runs, undercut banks, bubble-lines and rises. You will need to fish dries downstream or across and downstream to get a drag-free drift relative to the raft; something that’s a bit of challenge at first for a bank angler used to fishing upstream or up and across. To get even more decent dry fly drift, you need to mend as much as possible, sometimes even feeding line ahead of the boat.
For nymphing, you can always add one under a dry, although using multiple nymphs and an indicator can be extremely effective when there isn’t a significant hatch. Searching the water blind with nymphs can be achieved using big ‘bobber’-style indicators, but I prefer the NZ strike indicator setup. Using weighted nymphs set at different depths can be deadly on certain runs.
Streamer fishing is often not as effective as nymphing or dry fly, however it is excellent fun! Slapping big streamers against the bank and ripping them back to the boat on sinking lines provokes some savage takes, and really brings out some monsters on the Tumut. It’s hard work with a lot of accurate casting needed using heavy gear, but seeing a big brown explode from the rock-banks or logs and inhale your fly, more than makes up for the lack of numbers.
The key to all of these types of fishing is to cover the water as much as possible and to identify which technique – dry, nymph or streamer? – is likely to be effective under a give set of conditions and water types.
The seasons on the Tumut tailwater are governed by weather and flow, each being about as predictable as the other. Early season usually sees the beginning of higher water after low winter flows, with irrigation needs downstream dictating the precise amount of water released. I’ve been fishing streamers in this higher, cold water with varying success. As mentioned above, you need to be an accurate caster and be able to retrieve quickly and effectively to get a reaction. Nymphing deep will work well this time of year and the Kosciusko Dun makes its first appearance in spring, which can lead to some awesome dry fly fishing.
However, the best dry fly fishing occurs through mid-summer to early autumn, with falls of terrestrials and caddis hatches. As I write, the hopper fishing has been spectacular, and the numbers, condition and size of fish coming to the boat has been remarkable.
Later in the season the river drops, the dun hatches come back, and wading options also come to the fore.
Remember, although the river flows are broadly predictable, there can always be an un-announced spike, so be aware of the possibility of the water rising swiftly and unexpectedly.
Speaking of wading options, while fishing from the raft is great fun, the Tumut also provides plenty of options for the angler on foot. It shares its size with only a handful of other Australian trout rivers, providing conditions and fishing opportunities simply unavailable on smaller streams. For example, there are massive runs perfectly suited to swinging wet flies from the bank or while wading. For this, I use a 5 weight switch rod and really enjoy it both as a tool for covering water, and to practice my two-handed casting before trips overseas.
The backwater fishing when the river is very high can also be great fun, if a little frustrating sometimes. Seeing big browns cruising flooded margins filled with willow roots and countless other objects to break you off on, is certainly exciting – even if the actual catch rate is a bit low. I guess sometimes, it’s only fair to give the trout the upper hand!
Although bank access is limited during high flows, low flows are perfect for wading and walking. Just be sure to do your research as there is a lot of private property between public access points on this river.
A Great Option
One of my favourite days this season also happened to be when we saw that black snake at the start of the story. Joined by Chris (from Tom’s Outdoors in Tumut) and Max (who guides with me at Aussie Fly Fisher) we just drifted down the river at a leisurely pace. It was one of the first days I’d had off in a while, so having those guys available to share the oars and the fishing was perfect timing. We had 32C sun, 12C water and split the difference for about 15 trout to the boat. Watching fish come up and nail hopper after hopper in every likely place, Max’s jokes and Chris’s face when he’d hook up, made it one of those days I won’t forget in a hurry. The perfect ending was pulling in the boat at the end of the drift and being able to walk up to pub.
The Tumut River and the surrounding region is a fantastic place to visit. The fishing is first class, the rafting option is heaps of fun, and I rate it as one of the best trout destinations in Australia. This region has always been famous for its flyfishing and many of the locals have worked hard to build it into the place that it is today. It’s also exciting to be part of a growing community that is so passionate about flyfishing and the connections it brings. As an added bonus, for most Sydneysiders or Melbournites it’s only a small detour on the way to many other Snowy Mountains destinations. It’s a no brainer to spend a day or two either side of your next high country trip on the Tumut.
FlyStream Facts – Tumut township
One of the bonuses of guiding and fishing in the Tumut area this season, has been spending more time in the town of Tumut and surrounds. The river itself is a great drawcard and there are plenty of other streams in the area that not only make for decent options when the big river blows out, but are also awesome streams in their own right.
I wouldn’t have been as successful as I have been this season without all the support I get from everyone at Tom’s Outdoors, the local fly shop. They’ve worked really hard to create a hub and sense of community around flyfishing in the town. It reminds me of the fly shop culture in the States. Meeting clients there in the morning has been a great jumping-off point for me because I usually bump into one or two other passionate anglers and get to swap stories, plans and tips for the day. There’s also variety of places to stay in Tumut, from camping near the river, to excellent motels in town, and even a dedicated river lodge. Tumut also has about five pubs, a bowlo and a brewery so for an Adaminaby-based boy like me (and I love my local the Snow Goose!) it’s a real metropolis on a Friday night.