Eucumbene River – Hot and Cold

Steve comes to grips with one of Australia’s most famous trout streams.

The Eucumbene River blows hot and cold; it’s a moody stream, in a remote place, with a tough climate. Yet the river draws us like moths to a flame. The approaches let you spy on its teasing magnificence. Lookouts give a preview of the winding course of pools, runs and bends.

This river is a Mecca for flyfishers and, per square metre of water, it’s probably the most heavily-fished trout stream in Australia. Recently, I saw five river camps along the kilometre of water downstream of Kiandra Bridge, each with multiple occupants. You could see them as you descended the hill towards the bridge. In this and similar spots, the Eucumbene is not remote and isolated, but more a kind of theme park wilderness experience, where you can drive to your chosen pool, spend 48 hours figuring out how to survive without electricity and heating or air conditioning, then head back to civilisation for a well-earned chicken schnitzel.

Weary fishless souls just want to know the secret to this iconic water. It’s hard, I know, when you see others who have the belief and the results; who do get it. Whether you pass them streamside, watch them packing away their gear, or see them at the Snow Goose bistro. They’re relaxed, cheerful, and may even look smug and self-satisfied.
So, what big secrets do they know? The secret flies, methods, and places? What I’ve learnt is there are no really big secrets – with the exception that on the Eucumbene, more so than many other places, you have to understand the river’s in charge, and be prepared to bend to its moods and vagaries.

Hot and Cold
Like many fisheries, the Eucumbene River can be great fishing one moment and awful the next. And because it’s near the top of Australia elevation-wise, some of the physical and biological changes are extreme. Air temperatures can vary by 15 degrees in an hour. The water can be unexpectedly cool in the heat of summer; it can snow in January. Such changes affect insect productivity and trout feeding. With a sudden drop in temperature, hoppers can go from lively to sedentary and insect hatches can slow or and stop; a rainstorm can reduce water temperatures and delay the emergence of mayfly or caddis.

An early season view of the river near Kiandra Bridge reminds us how truly icy this environment can be at times.

There’s a lot of sound science around water temperature and its effect on trout and the things they eat. On the Eucumbene River, water temperature is unpredictable daily, weekly, monthly and annually because it depends on so many environmental inputs. Water temperature is snowmelt-driven for much of the early part of the season, and even on the hottest day of the year, it can be refreshing to wet-wade, with the odd stumble and fall a little bracing. Your feet will turn blue from the cold water, but you can fry an egg on the bonnet of your car. Of course, in drought conditions it can be a tepid snaky creek – such as for a short while in late summer this year – but that doesn’t happen often.

Turn over a river rock in summer and you’ll find all sorts of insects. The most easily recognised are mayfly and stonefly larvae wriggling to escape, whilst the sandy caddis houses look like indigenous art. But none of these are especially abundant because this isn’t a fertile landscape by any means and big hatches of anything are uncommon. A good hopper year is needed for the river fish to really put on condition.

The Eucumbene River has its share of aquatic bugs, like this mayfly nymph, yet they aren’t especially prolific.

You’re getting the picture: a tricky, fickle, finnicky fishery. But it’s always worth giving it a go. There are 20 kilometres or so (straight line) of fishable river – plenty more if you add in the twists and turns – and that river feeds Lake Eucumbene which is more or less an inland sea in scale. (In fact, for trivia fans, it’s four times the size of the Sea of Galilee when full.) Every year, the trout from the lake spawn in the river and even though we tend to think about this cycle as the river restocking the lake, it also works the other way. After spawning, a good population of trout can remain in the river pretty much as long there’s sufficient water and enough food – way more fish than the river would naturally produce and sustain on its own.

So, having decided to have a go on the Eucumbene River, what do we really need to think about? Trout can be canny and smart. They don’t like unfamiliar vibration or shadows, strange tastes in the water, predatory birds or riverside animals – pretty much anything that’s not normal can spook them into hiding. Just to confuse us, occasionally the trout can be a bit reckless too; a trait that’s probably brought me more success than I deserve!

Generally, fishing pressure encourages the trout to exercise their cunning and hide in their hollows and under the banks; which can be good if your fly is there when they want to eat; not so good if you simply want to fish up the middle of a nice-looking pool.

Many of the largest trout in the river are lake fish that have decided to stay on after spawning.

Case study
A recent trip made us really think this through. After seeing several camps at Kiandra Bridge, we didn’t fish downstream from there for the next few days. Instead we headed upriver. On a warm summer’s day, we drove 3 kilometres west to where Bullocks Creek joins the Eucumbene River and walked downstream to the small gorge. Not an unusual tactic for many seasoned Eucumbene fishers – the walk takes about 45 minutes. It was early morning, and there wasn’t another person in sight.

The sun didn’t come over the hill until an hour after we started fishing, yet by that time it was already shaping up to be a rewarding day. We caught some smaller half to one pound fish and rose a few more. Then we figured out where the bigger fish were lying. Not in the pools and runs, but hard against the banks – classic hopper feeders. I am a huge fan of Elk Hair Caddis patterns in all their forms and sizes, and use them for hopper fishing, moth fishing, caddis fishing, and even cicada fishing in New Zealand, all with great success.

But having achieved nothing noteworthy with two or three variations of that fly, I randomly tied on a size 14 Royal Wulff and immediately things improved, even though the tussocks were full of small hoppers. To be honest, the main reason I changed wasn’t some clever insight, but because I could see the Wulff better in the confusing light.

Part of a magic midsummer’s day on the upper Eucumbene River.

Stephen soon changed too and we didn’t take the Wulff off all morning. It took us three hours to fish back to the car. We were cutting corners towards the end of the session, partly due to hunger and partly because upper beat, being closer to vehicle access, gets more attention. At one point I threw half a muesli bar across the river so Stephen would stop complaining about malnutrition and start fishing again! Revitalised, he immediately hooked the biggest trout of the morning, a 5lb-plus brown which he eventually lost, before I wrapped up the session with another 2 pounder from the last pool before the car.

A description of the river reaches
As well as changing with the daily and seasonal weather, the Eucumbene River changes as it drops many kilometres and 250 vertical metres from Kiandra to Providence. The river is anything but a homogenous stretch of water, so here’s a quick summary.

A deeper section in the old lake bed.

At the top of Lake Eucumbene and upstream from the Providence Portal inflow (where water releases from Tantangara Reservoir periodically enter the lake), the river flows through broad flats where the lake regularly spreads out, then disappears again as its water level fluctuates. Frequent inundation kills all bankside vegetation except grass and weeds. There’s no shade from topography or trees, and during summer the water can warm quickly. I generally avoid this stretch except for early morning and evening. The bottoms of the pools are thick with clogging lake sediment. Overall, the river here is a bit of a barren channel, with long wide shallow stretches. The occasional deep corner pools, and fast-moving water hard against tall, undercut banks, are the best spots to fish.

Then comes the first semi-permanent vegetation, at about the 60% lake level. It’s been a while since we’ve had more water than that in the lake for any length of time and there’s tea-tree and tussocks that are the start of cover for anglers and fish, as well as increasing the prospect of terrestrial insects. The Eucumbene River begins to resemble what it would have looked like pre lake.

A nice brown from the tree-line area.

Then there is the genuine tree-line where the river enters a forested valley, upstream from the Denison campsite, a little way down from the junction with Alpine Creek. Heading up the river, there’s still a kilometre or so of flat open country and easy access, before the banks become steep and the bed more difficult to wade. Age and/or infirmity become an issue here because you do need to wade to get the most out of the water, and even at modest flows, the boulder-strewn substrate can be slippery with algae. I spend way too much time on my backside in this water!

Next, it’s full-on rocky gorge up to and past the Flying Fox, with some Olympic-size pools and their dark, slow eddies – famous for the occasional leviathan brown. Above the Flying Fox it gets really gnarly for a while and the fishing is only for the well-prepared and adventurous. A personal EPIRB is strongly recommended.

The river near Four Mile Track.

Upstream from the Flying Fox, the next access off the highway is Four Mile Track at Sawyers Hut; mostly a good 4WD track with a couple of rough spots. The next access is a bit further along the highway, down an unnamed track towards Four Mile Creek. This track is treacherous, with extremely steep sections and potholes you could lose a car in. Technically, you could get a real 4WD down it, but I prefer to walk – it’s only two kilometres. Right through this stretch, the going along and in the river is somewhat more civilized than in the gorge downstream, although there are still some steep and rugged patches.

Finally, there’s the stretch from below Kiandra Bridge and on upstream, some of the nicest water I’ve ever fished. It’s mostly open alpine tundra with gentle pools and runs, and little to interfere with your back cast; only the small gorge referred to earlier breaks the pattern. I should add however that once you get above Bullock Creek, there are a lot of very big tussocks which make walking hard work, and dodging the many wombat holes is a challenge.

A ‘new’ reach
There’s one other part of the Eucumbene River we only get an occasional chance to fish. That’s the part downstream from Providence Portal, which has spent most of the last 60 years under water and is only accessible when the lake is unusually low. The river down here reminds me of some New Zealand floodplain streams, because the rocks and gravel are so clean thanks to the scouring effect of the man-made floods from the Portal.

The new section of river below the Portal can resemble a New Zealand high country stream.

When the Portal is open, this section of river is a torrent. It’s not easily fished and mostly shouldn’t be waded – but it looks pretty good for whitewater rafting! From the Anglers Reach inlet to the Portal junction is about 6 kilometres. With the lake at 26% (April 2019 level) about half of that 6 kilometres is amazing-looking river and the rest is amazing looking lake! At natural flow (i.e. when the Portal is turned off), either one side of the river or the other can be comfortably walked at water level for almost the entire distance. By the way, when I fished this stretch in late summer, it started off chilly at 7am, rose to a hot 34C, then dropped to 17C as a cold front came through and we walked back to the car.

Autumn and the new section of river
That extra three kilometres of water will greatly increase the amount of water available to anglers fishing the brown trout spawn run this year, and will help to spread the fishing pressure. Late autumn is of course the time of year when the river gets an extraordinary amount of attention; particularly from May until the season closes at the end of the June Long Weekend. At this time, trout from 3 to 5 pounds can be common, along with occasional fish up to 10 pounds and more. It is a spectacle to watch schools of these fish holding in the deep pools, and paired-up fish spawning in the shallow gravel redds. (Look but don’t touch – regulations prohibit disturbing spawning fish.)

While it remains exposed, the river below Providence provides a lot of extra water to spread the fishing pressure.

By then, there isn’t much active trout food in and along the river, and as regulars will know, it can be bitterly cold in the mornings; often with several degrees of frost. Line will freeze in runners, but the fishing can be really hot. The stretch of river between Providence and the tree-line upstream usually gets an incredible fishing pressure at this time, with anglers shoulder to shoulder – certainly not an experience for those who enjoy the finer points of flyfishing etiquette!

A few more tips
So, a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when you’re on the river at any time, but particularly in the second half of the season. First, look for physical signs of recent human activity – especially the areas with well-worn tracks along the banks – and consider avoiding those places. Be prepared to walk for success. Look at the access points on the map and fish the bits of the river furthest away – most people are pretty lazy.

Whilst we all like to fish a dry during the middle months of the season, think hard about putting two fat heavy nymphs under a decent indicator for those deep pools you just know are holding the biggest trout. And even when you’re not being that devoted, having a lightly-weighted black pheasant tail nymph 2 feet under your dry is a really good tactic.

Don’t forget to try a nymph, even if it’s just a PTN a couple of feet under your dry.

If you see cormorants flying, wave your arms around a bit; it might just move them on to a spot further afield. If there is a cormorant on a pool when you get there, make a big fuss, drive it off, and don’t bother fishing that pool. Ducks aren’t such a problem and I’ve often caught trout soon after ducks have flown off the water.

After heavy rain it takes one to two days for the river to settle down. (After really heavy rain, it can take a week for the fishing to return to normal.) Fishing in high flows can be okay, although the trout can be difficult to find and lies you might normally fish are sometimes empty thanks to all that extra current.

A most important tip is to be on the water early. You’re more likely to be fishing untouched water, but just as crucially, if you give a spot a good hour and decide you want a change, it’s not too late to move to a new one. Either way, you can fit another session into the fishing day.

While a lot of the Eucumbene River is easy to fish from banks that are typically from half a metre to a metre above water level, if it’s safe and practical to get in the river and wade, you dramatically reduce how visible you are to the trout, and they seem to spook far less. Whether in the water or above it, fish the edges carefully – if I had $10 for every good brown I’ve spooked from a lie right against the bank… Get your fly hard on the edge and look for small overhanging tea-tree bushes; the browns love lying under the roots.

Rewarded for getting in the river and putting the fly hard against the bank.

Speaking of tea-tree roots, don’t be tempted to drop your tippet size too much. In my experience on the Eucumbene River, I just end up losing big fish and safe size tippet doesn’t seem to affect overall catches. With the occasional exception, I stick with 4X or 7lb tippet; 3X if I’m fishing big streamers or Stimulators. If you only take two dry flies, make them an Elk Hair Caddis and a Royal Wulff, on size 10, 12 and 14 hooks – but try to take more.

My last hot and cold thought is about rainbows and browns. Some years you can’t get your fly past a marauding pack of rainbows, especially early in the season after a good rainbow spawn run. At other times, and right now is a good example, the rainbows are scarce. My observation is that the browns are easier to catch when the rainbows aren’t in the river. The rainbows are aggressive feeders and the big browns are cryptic when they’re around. When your first cast into a pool is smashed by a rainbow, the big brown will just slide further under the bank and into hiding.

And on rainbows, I don’t think anyone really understands the boom/bust cycle of the rainbow fishery, but I’ve written before that the Eucumbene trout are of vital importance to the regional economy and way too valuable to be killed for food. I’d like to see more conservative regulations applying to rainbows both in the river and lake.

Overall, I recommend embracing the Eucumbene River’s moods, not fighting them. For all its idiosyncrasies, it can be a very rewarding river, and worth taking some time and effort to get to know.