Fire and Ice

Philip reports on a late season trip to the Snowy Mountains to see how things have fared after the summer bushfires. 

It was a close run thing, but with little of the river trout season left, I finally made it on a long-planned trip to the Snowy Mountains; at first solo, then meeting up with Steve.

In a normal year, my personal focus for the Snowys so late in the season, would be the lakes. This trip though, I hoped to eke out a final stream fish to make up for a lost autumn.

As much as anything, I wanted to see for myself what the huge fires of summer had done. I was never concerned about fire impact on the Snowy lakes – history shows that, if anything, the nutrient boost post fires can give the trout size a nice leg up. However, I was more anxious about the streams.

Intellectually, I wasn’t too concerned. I’ve seen fires come and go over the decades – including some even bigger and longer-lasting than what hit a big chunk of the Snowy Mountains and surrounds last summer – and everything turned out fine. Still, the most recent images of the area I had in my head were from the newscasts at the time, and videos from friends living in the area: pyrocumulus clouds punching the stratosphere, orange skies, walls of flame, fleeing wildlife, and a monochrome, deathly quiet landscape left behind. Those scenes don’t easily fit with the notion that, ‘She’ll be right.’

Murray Valley

I hit the first signs of fire where the Murray Valley Highway started its long descent towards Cudgewa Creek. By Colac Colac, the countryside was a weird mix of lush green pasture, black, lifeless tree skeletons, and areas that didn’t appear to have been burnt at all. The remains of destroyed buildings and houses spoke of the undeniable human tragedy. Despite the benign scene of green fields and blue skies, that part was very real and very sad.

The Nariel was flowing hard with a milky tinge.

The Cudgewa Creek beside the highway looked much as it normally does. The Nariel however, still showed some signs of the fire: although flowing strongly, the water carried a milky tinge which wasn’t quite normal. I thought about a quick fish, but pressed on to Bringenbrong Bridge.

Here, the Murray was flowing powerfully and very clear. I hadn’t planned to fish, however a quick stroll along the bank revealed a nice brown finning about a metre down off a steep rip-rap edge. I ran back to the car, grabbed the rod (already rigged with a Diable Nymph), and caught the fish. On the board, first cast of the trip!

Picture-perfect Murray – and there was a nice brownie holding near the bottom corner of the photo.

A good mate who operates under the weight of more than a few superstitions, always worries about catching a fish too easily first up. That sort of thinking is contagious, and after the initial relief of getting a trout from a fire-affected river, a little part of me did wonder if I might have mozzed the rest of the day…

Alpine Way

Next stop was the Geehi (or strictly speaking, the Swampy Plain River at Geehi Bridge). Always a picture, this stream was breathtakingly beautiful with its air-clear water and the snow-capped Main Range overhead, sharp against the deep blue alpine sky. The river’s catchment was largely unaffected by the fires and I wasn’t surprised to sight a good rainbow from the bridge. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it again once I got to river level – oh for a spotter! A short session searching blind with the nymph produced one missed take, then it was off to the Indi at Tom Groggin.

View from Geehi Bridge.

Once the Alpine Way climbed out of the valley, I began to notice signs of fire; nothing too dramatic, but, as per the fire maps, I knew a lot of the Indi catchment had been burnt. I began to feel uneasy about what I might find when I reached one of my favourite rivers. Black sludge and dirty water perhaps?

It turned out my concerns were groundless. Around Tom Groggin, there was very little evidence of fire at all. The river flowed clear through unburnt bush, lined with swordgrass and tea-tree. Kangaroos rested in the sun among the camping and picnic areas, also undamaged.

What fire? Hooked up on the Indi at Tom Groggin.

I couldn’t wait to have a cast, although my enthusiasm was tempered by a quick temperature check, which revealed the water temperature to be just 6C. The river might have looked like autumn under an early afternoon sun, complete with the odd small dun drifting off, but when I stepped into any patch of shade, it was like stepping into a fridge. In hope of a fish on the dry, I replaced my indicator with a Royal Wulff, and hung a Hares Ear nymph about a metre below. After methodically fishing a glorious run for about half an hour, the Wulff finally dipped in the lee of a boulder, and I soon had an Indi brown of about a pound for my efforts.

You earn your fish in 6C water, but at least I eventually broke the first cast curse!

Daylight can get away from you at this time of year, and with pIenty more miles to travel before dark, I was soon on the road again, winding up the never-ending Alpine Way bends with bottomless valleys on either side, and the Ramshead gleaming with snow to my left. The charming glade of Leather Barrel Creek beckoned – was that a rise I saw from the bridge? But I pressed on, briefly passing through a random area of incinerated snowgums, before finally cresting Dead Horse Gap, and descending into the Thredbo valley.

Afternoon shadow races towards the Thredbo.

Halfway down the valley I stopped for a look at the Thredbo River. There are few more beautiful landscapes in Australia than this idyllic stream, beneath snowy peaks in its arrow-straight valley. But already, many parts of the river itself were completely shaded, so I pressed on – the Thredbo could wait until later in the week.

Snowy Lakes

I made it to Lake Eucumbene just in time for an evening fish, and a 1½ pound rainbow which was midging with a few mates on a glassy shore near Old Adaminaby.

A perfect midge evening on Eucumbene.

I caught up with Steve the next morning, and we spent the next few days mixing lake and stream. The lakes – Eucumbene itself, Tantangara and Jindabyne – were all in fine shape: either stable, or rising slowly. The water was clear to almost gin-clear in places at Eucumbene. The fishing proved somewhat contradictory, with lush shores of flooded vegetation at Tantangara and Eucumbene producing little, yet more apparently barren shores having moments of brilliance.

Looks can deceive at Tantangara. Quiet on the lush shore…

Steve did wonder if the trout on the flooded shores had too much of a good thing, due to the speed with which those two lakes had recently shot up. We’d had this problem once or twice on previous trips: you know, trout gorging on drowned worms 50 metres offshore, that sort of thing. (Aren’t anglers great at making excuses!)

… but action on the ‘barren’ shore.

Jindabyne looked a picture too – not because the water was rising over new ground (at 60%, it was a long way from that) but instead due to the proximity of the fishy-looking weed-beds, which were clearly visible just a short distance off most shores. Although we had a bit of action at Waste Point, a shore at Kalkite was the one that haunts me as I write…

On an eerie afternoon, with dark snow clouds drifting in from the south, and the first drops of sleet gently dotting the lake’s surface, I was in a happy trance, slowly figure-8 retrieving a black Woolly Bugger. Then the rod was nearly pulled from my hand by a wrenching take. As the line went slack again, I fully expected to find the 8 pound tippet snapped and the fly gone. It wasn’t, so I got to spend the next hour wondering how big the fish was, and how a trout could hit a fly with a hook in it that hard, and not stick? “Get in line,” was Steve’s simple and unsympathetic reply when he caught up to me and I posed the question/complaint. Fair enough!

A nice Kalkite brown, but how big was the one that got away?

Snowy Rivers

In between lake sessions, I was keen to check out the rivers. While I already knew the Thredbo looked to be in good shape, reports from friends post fires, plus pictures I’d seen, suggested the Eucumbene had been hit hard. I was also keen to see how the upper Murrumbidgee had fared.

Despite a returning tinge of green, fire damage was most obvious in the Eucumbene gorge. Col Sinclair and Fisheries Officer Michael Piontek survey the scene.

Sure enough, the Eucumbene River valley, especially between Alpine Creek and Four Mile Track, was still showing signs of severe fire. Once we broke out of the forest to the snow plains near Kiandra Bridge, the country looked much better, despite having also been burnt. Remarkably, although we visited in heavy rain that day, the river remained comfortably clear enough for good fishing.

The upper Eucumbene River remained easily fishable, even during a day of heavy rain.

Meanwhile, the upper Murrumbidgee was in surprisingly fine shape, with little sign of fire in the valley above Tantangara, and the river flowing clean and clear. We polaroided a couple, missed a couple and landed only one, but I have no doubt the trout were there in numbers somewhere – the river just looked too good!

The majestic upper Murrumbidgee, seemingly unaffected by fire.

And yes, I got back to the Thredbo, this time with plenty of daylight. It was big, clear and cold; the archetypical late season Aussie mountain stream. There were trout to be spotted and caught, but most were pre spawners with other things on their mind, jittery and hard to persuade to eat. Fun trying though, and every so often, one would succumb to persistence.

Round Up

It turns out the fires this summer in Snowy Mountains and some of surrounding countryside, were as variable as you might expect. In many places, there is no sign at all of fire; in others, it’s there if you look hard enough. And then there are the spots you can’t miss, clearly hit savagely.

What’s not in doubt is the damage done to tourism-related businesses in the Snowy Mountains – which is most. You don’t have to have your place burnt down to have customers dry up because they can’t (or won’t) come. Add the COVID-19 lockdowns, and it doesn’t get much worse.

While on this latest adventure, I caught up with long-time friend Col Sinclair. Col is a bit of an institution in Snowy Mountains trout fishing. For many (including me) it’s not really a Snowy Mountains trip without a visit to his shop in Adaminaby, a top-up on flies and tippet (maybe even a bigger net!) and the latest on the local lakes and rivers.

Col is philosophical about the last year and is easily able to share a laugh with Fisheries officer Michael, out on patrol at Alpine Creek. But there’s no doubt it’s been a tough, even crippling season for many Snowy Mountains businesses.

Well, as I write, Col’s shop will be no more. One too many hits saw him close the doors for the last time on Queens Birthday. Col is a pretty even sort of character, usually only getting a little excitable when describing his most recent encounter with a big trout. Outwardly, he’s philosophical about this season’s double whammy to his livelihood. Still, the lack of hysterics takes nothing away from what Col, and no doubt hundreds, if not thousands in the Snowy tourism sector, have been through.

As if in apology for summer’s fury, nature has brought steady rain and snow to the area for the last few months. Everywhere you look in the Snowy Mountains, springs are bubbling, creeks are running hard, and lakes are rising. Most importantly, in every single place I fished, I saw trout – and sometimes lots of trout. Often, some big ones too.

Trout like this beauty on a rainy day Eucumbene River, soon put thoughts of fires far behind.

Attempting to predict the future about anything is a fraught process (just ask an economist!) and I’m not silly enough to make any promises about the season coming up. But let’s put it this way: with things in Snowy Mountains trout world off to a rapid recovery, and climate outlooks saying all the right things, I won’t be able to get back there quickly enough. In fact, I mightn’t even be able to wait until stream opening and instead head up for a pre stream season lake fish. And when I do go back, being able to help some hard-hit Snowy businesses by spending a few dollars… well that will just be a bonus.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – Counting trout

Ideally, measuring trout size and numbers should be a key tool in the management of any important trout fishery. While it would be a mammoth task to account for every trout – even every spawning trout – in a water as vast as Lake Eucumbene, this device on Swamp Creek, a significant Eucumbene River spawning tributary, offers useful information.

The Vaki Unit, as it is known, can count each trout swimming past this part of the creek, and importantly, it also videos and measures them. At the click of a remote laptop button, researchers can access this information, providing a way to remotely monitor the size and numbers of trout from year to year, thus providing a point of comparison.

A living trout on the laptop – every angler’s dream!

So far, to mid-June this year, 6000 trout (mainly browns) have swum past the counter, with the largest fish measuring 71 cm, and an average size of 39 cm. 

With more brown trout expected to run this winter, and the rainbow trout run yet to really commence, it’s too early to make any definitive judgements about the relative state of the trout population. And as mentioned above, Swamp Creek is just one of many waters Eucumbene trout use for spawning. Still, it’s looking like there’s a decent population of browns in the lake, and early autumn rains have flushed the spawning gravel clear of a lot of fire-related silt and ash, giving hope for a successful recruitment year in 2020.

(Thanks to Nathan Miles and Michael Piontek at NSW DPI Fisheries for their assistance.)