Fastwater Floods, Fat Fish

Excuse the alliteration, but it’s unavoidable – the Victorian trout streams are in constant flood or almost, and the trout are loving it.

It’s one of those counterintuitive things about trout. When it looks superficially bad to us, often trout aren’t merely managing, they’re thriving…

A fat trout from the Rubicon, caught just as one of the recent floods was temporarily receding. (J. Douglas pic)

For just one historic example, we can go back to October 1993, when massive floods hit north-east Victoria. The Ovens River cut the Hume Freeway, and trout streams throughout the area were, to quote a farmer mate at the time, ‘smashed’.

In 2002, I recalled these floods in my book, ‘Call of the River’, and what looked to be apocalyptic damage. On some streams, there were new channels cut, old pools gone, and pools created. But within weeks of the floods subsiding, sometimes even days, the trout were back, rising and nymphing as if nothing had happened, except they were a little rounder in the waistline.

The following summer saw me catch some of the largest mountain stream trout I’d ever encountered – and even more remarkable, the mayfly hatches were prolific.

I haven’t compared the records precisely, but this spring is certainly up there for Victorian trout stream floods. And with the floods, have come the inevitable worried calls and texts: ‘How do you think the trout are coping?’

A western Victorian stream just days after being a raging flooded torrent. Note the fresh flood scar two metres above the current level. 

Well, as per 1993 and other flood years before and since, they’re not just coping, they’re doing as well as ever. A common theme for me and my fishing friends this season, is poking up barely-wadable torrents, with driftwood and flattened vegetation metres up the banks, and catching almost comically tubby trout. Some seasons can see the October trout a little pale and lean as they work to put on condition after spawning and a cold winter. But not this spring.

And a fat little rainbow from the same stream post-flood.

A drawback has been angler access. In some places, it simply hasn’t been possible to get to the water in the first place. Or, if you’re unlucky enough to hit a river or creek during a flood peak, you may find an inundated paddock or river flat between you and the stream; or a torrent hemmed in by impassable flooded bankside scrub.

On the other hand, floods can clean out a fair bit of the accumulated chaos which can afflict some streams, making it easier to fish them (at least temporarily) as Mike points out below.

Still, that’s all to do with the convenience (or otherwise) for us anglers. As far as the trout which actually live in the streams are concerned, floods, on all but the most catastrophic scale, are a positive.

Mike’s experience…

Last week, after the big rains that came through had passed and some of the creeks returned to less spectacular flows, I dropped into a local stream in the Central Highlands for a quick fish. I really wanted to check out how the big surges had affected the stream. Like many streams in the area, this one is perhaps best known for its former glory: it used to fish well in the ‘good old days’. For the last decade or so, it has always been a fun, if somewhat marginal fishery; somewhere reasonably local for a few hours fishing, and for mostly smallish wild trout.

This time, as I walked down the steep hill to the stream, the first thing that caught my eye was, well… the stream itself! Where there had been walls of blackberries and fallen logs that jammed the flow, whole sections were now gently flowing in the open. The stream itself was flanked by beds of gravel. The big surge had deposited all the usual obstacles such as tree logjams well out of the way on to the banks. I got very excited by this. I had expected more difficult, not less difficult fishing after the storms.

Flattened blackberries and a few less log jams!

The flows had dropped from too high to fishable in a matter of days. That can happen later in spring, when a few days of fine weather can have a positive impact quite quickly, compared to winter or even a month earlier. No doubt the strength of the late spring sun, general warmth, and water being sucked up into fast-growing plants, must all have an impact. In any case, the return to fishable flows can happen with surprising speed, particularly in the upper reaches.

And the fishing? Well, it was ‘on’! The number and size of the mainly brown trout population paralleled that of the rivers in the north-east that I frequently fish. Or was it even better? In fact, it was so good that my ‘quick fish’ turned into a 5 hour session which got me in some trouble for not completing domestic duties. But to paraphrase that British band Madness: “Oh what fun I had, and it didn’t really turn out bad!” It occurred to me also that this is how the river might have fished in the famous old days. Three years of La Nina has perhaps undone some of the impacts that population growth and other environmental pressure have progressively had on these systems. Perhaps we are getting a glimpse of what it was like to fish these waters in a bygone age?

Once again, post flood fish in prime condition.

Whatever the case may be, this season might be a unique opportunity to rediscover our rivers after the floods have passed. When our streams finally return to normal, expect conditions will have changed. Changed a lot. In some places, it will be like fishing a whole new river. And for the local streams close by? Well, I’ll keep checking them – purely for semi-scientific and selfless reasons obviously! And I’ll make sure I’ve cleared the domestic tasks before I go, as there is no such thing as a ‘quick fish’ on the streams anymore.