Eucumbene Expectations

Steve’s SMS came through the night before my departure to Snowy Mountains: “I reckon this could be one of our most technically challenging trips yet.”

Anticipation for this week had been building since our August visit – for me anyway. Without the required string of clear days needed to justify the 8 hour drive each way, I’d had to watch from afar while Lake Eucumbene rose with extraordinary consistency. In August, the big lake was at 41% and already flooding new ground; now it was 68% – a 20 year high – and still coming up. Given the good numbers of trout we encountered on that winter trip, it seemed like a week in December, with all that extra water and flooded ground, would be sublime.

And yet… the forecast for our week was for brutal, in fact almost record cold. Meanwhile, reports from the lake, while positive, were somewhat subdued. Yes, it all looked good on paper, but was that translating into exceptional action once on the water? Possibly not. I think that was the message behind Steve’s text: in fisher-speak, he was saying there should be opportunities, but not to expect trout to fall into your lap.

An inauspicious start…

Driving over from Corryong to my midmorning rendezvous with Steve on the Eucumbene River, the snow started falling at Tooma Dam, and was settling just beyond Ogilvies Creek. Never mind the fishing, it was soon starting to look like just getting over the mountains on the notoriously sketchy Cabramurra Road, might be the immediate issue. So it was with relief more than pre-fish excitement that I finally pulled over beside the Eucumbene River off the regularly snow-ploughed Snowy Mountains Highway, and greeted Steve. The snow and stinging wind made me grateful I’d dressed in full winter kit, but with our usual bravado, we made our way confidently to the river.

Eucumbene River dry fly!

The air temperature of 1 degree made nymphing the obvious choice. Yet after an hour for perhaps a couple of small fish between us, another plan was called for. On the one hand, it was midwinter weather, but on the other hand, it was technically mid-December. Would the trout consider a dry fly? I changed to the big Kossie Dun on my vest patch from the Corryong streams the day before, and the trout appeared like magic. Steve soon followed with an Elk Hair Caddis, and the session was transformed. By the time we made it back to car several hours later, the snow was falling as heavily as ever, but the trout count was almost as impressive. In spite of everything, Day One had delivered.

Gloves off for a quick pic.

Could we ride our luck on the big lake? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. Right from the first few casts at Providence, we were into beautiful rainbows – the crazy torpedoes that will embarrass even the most experienced angler if you’re too slow to get the rod tip up or let the fish run.

Maniac rainbow.

An added element of drama this time was the lush flooded grass, bushes and even trees – looming up like coral reef through the clear water metres below the surface, and almost as dangerous as coral for breakoffs.

The subsurface hazards.

No matter where we went over the next few days, from one end of this now vast lake to the other, the fishing was remarkably consistent. That’s regardless of the continuing gloves-and-jackets cold, which kept the lake at a ridiculous 11-13C for the whole trip, and only began to warm somewhat on the last day.

The browns soon appeared in our catches, occasionally even outnumbering the rainbows. For the first time in my memory, they were even fatter than their cousins, and a good pound or two heavier for length than usual. Yep, the constantly flooding margins were doing the job. We didn’t kill any of the fish we caught, but a couple spewed up worms, and for others, their portly bellies told the story. There were plenty of flushed grubs and beetles bobbing about helplessly too, often responsible for random gulping rises.

The midges tried to brave the numbing evening cold, and finally succeeded in earnest when we had a terrific midge session at Middlingbank on the last night – the only time we fished past sunset. Even then, the chill killed the action early and we could have left half an hour earlier without penalty.

Midge fishing paradise.

For the statisticians, we averaged a surprisingly consistent 20 or so trout landed a day between us, regardless of whether we fished out of Buckenderra, Providence or Adaminaby. At least double that number were lost on the leap or in the flooded veg. Most trout encountered were over 2lb; Steve’s best was a stunning 8½lb brown, my best was a 7lb model – not my biggest Euc fish, but by far the fattest.

Steve’s Lake Eucumbene PB.

The best technique was to fish suitably-weighted Woolly Bugger/ Magoo variants with a bit of flash, in less than two metres of water and all the way up to the edge. Steve’s monster took the fly half a metre off the bank on a calf-deep edge!

Part of the trick was to have the fly quite close to bottom – where the worms would have been – but not snagging up all the time in the drowned jungle. As I mostly fished from the bank, I had to change fly weight quite regularly, whereas Steve, fishing more from the boat, was casting at the shore and pulling the fly into deeper water, giving him more latitude to fish a heavy fly.

Fly weight was important.

A lot of the fishing was blind, but location was quite important, with downwind flooded soaks especially good. I was amazed how well the fish found the fly, even over a chaotic ‘mess’ of lakebed. Maybe that was one reason why more eye-catching and blingy flies worked well? Still, at times the bold flies failed, and a change to small nymphs was necessary.

As the trip wore on, increasing sunlight made for some heart-stopping if erratic polaroiding, with big browns suddenly appearing out the flooded grass in knee-deep water. I’d be investing in polaroiding a lot more if I was still up there.

This is a released 7 pounder swimming off, but I polaroided several browns almost as big right on the shore like this.

And as for the midging trout, the classic Griffiths Gnat/ small buzzer combo worked well. As usual though, quick point-and-shoot casting was required, then drawing the flies right in front of a feeding fish’s nose to get an eat. False casts = failure.

And a declaration to note: at some point at least once a day, and occasionally twice, the action would drop right off for an hour or two, with no apparent reason in terms of weather, time of day or location. The point here is to simply persist: don’t lose heart if you strike a blank patch.

Reward for pushing through a blank patch.

Overall, I feel the opportunities at Eucumbene this last week were as good as I’ve experienced. There are clearly a lot of very good browns and rainbows in the lake at present, inhabiting literally thousands of hectares of first class water. Converting those opportunities is the challenge – as usual, just turning and throwing a fly around isn’t enough. I guess that was sort of the point Steve was trying to make before I headed up.