Flyfishing Black Lake on the Monaro

Steve visits a Monaro icon which is benefitting from a string of wet years.

Black Lake… there’s something about that name. I’m not sure what, perhaps it sounds like a good murder mystery novel. I also want to associate it with ‘the creatures from …’ or perhaps ‘adventures at’, or even more corny. Anyway, believe it or not, 2022 was the first year I’d ever fished it, despite the legends of the oversized fish the lake grows, and the giants of flyfishing like the late John Sautelle who cast to its trout.

Editor Philip and I had been fishing the mountains for several days, doing a good job not only of catching winter fish, but also dodging some very wild weather. We’ve never shied away from fishing through the bitter cold, strong winds, deluges, or even the odd Sahara-like sandstorm, and a good part of that effort has been due to fishing with a meteorological savant. But even Philip’s skills at predicting small fine-weather holes in amongst the high country Sheep Grazier Warnings and Severe Weather Warnings, seemed to be running out. But wait! Look there, a kink in an isobar, a deflection in a front, and with Captain Kirk-like intuition in finding a worm hole to escape the Klingons just in the nick of time, Captain Phil spotted the Monaro rain shadow forming off the port bow. “If we go to Black Lake, I reckon we’ll dodge the weather!” he said. And so, after all those years, I was finally going – and off we set at warp speed.

My first impression was, ‘It’s not a very big lake!’ Around a kilometre from north to south and 700 metres from east to west, I’d say about 30 hectares when full. The lake isn’t deep either. The deepest part we found on the boat sounder on a subsequent trip was less than 3 metres, and there are parts where you can wade 100 metres offshore.

From a boat, you can see most of the lake at once.

History – the long and the short

I’ve always been fascinated by the Monaro rivers and lakes. Largely because of the relatively dry climate due to rain-shadowing from ranges both east and west, these waters are all somewhere between intermittent and ephemeral: either occasionally or regularly drying out. Some last for several years, some just one or two, but in big droughts, they are all pretty much dry. A true challenge for trout fishery management, and something which makes the fishery heavily reliant on regular stocking. Black Lake itself has spent a good chunk of recent decades being dry or almost, one likely reason this was my first trip.

Black Lake is one of dozens of natural lakes formed as dishes in the Monaro plains. (Most of the others are on private property.) The literature speculates that these lakes were formed due to ‘down warping’ of the volcano-formed plateaux, and/or associated with ‘downwind lunettes and/or thin clay shadows.’ For thousands of years, the whole region was a mess of volcanic activity where ‘lava filled the already well-established valleys and dammed rivers and creeks, … creating lakes.’ Volcanos ran out of steam in one area, whilst erupting in others. It would have been an incredible sight, an immense skyline over the plains, a smoking, steaming, rolling topography.

Then, picture a desolate post-volcanic landscape, ancient watercourses filled with both flowing and setting lava. Next, the first revegetation, the formation of soils, and the wind blowing relentlessly across treeless plains; and for sure there are going to be shallow dishes, and in a few millennia, maybe even some trout fishing and a few tiger snakes – another thing the Monaro is famous for!

Today’s black volcanic soils are some of the region’s most fertile and as one farmer says, “You can grow grannies in it.” (He assured me that means potatoes!) Fertile soils mean good microbial activity. Just add water and you have good bug life, a good food chain, and – when water is present – the fit and fat trout the Monaro is renowned for.

Black Lake holds fat, fit and fast-growing browns and rainbows.

Winter trip

You get to Black Lake through Cooma and then Nimmitabel, turning right off the Snowy Mountains Highway onto the Monaro Highway down to Bibbenluke, where you then turn onto Black Lake Road and then Green Lake Road. There is a great boat ramp a short distance along Green Lake Road, as well as toilets and a BBQ area with a shelter. All very civilised. Green Lake is a bit further on, but as far as I know, it’s a private lake.

As we drove up, both Philip and I were doing mental assessments and situational analysis calculations. That’s short for, ‘Where are the fish, and how can I get to the best spots first?’ Philip had fished here many years ago, and was hence being influenced – dare I say drawn – by a memory of polaroiding big fish whilst standing on a bankside windmill. Without this distraction, I was looking more objectively at wind direction and bank steepness, and the surface weed covering half of the northern bay. Having had some excellent winter midge fishing the previous day on Lake Eucumbene, I was confident this would also apply here.

At this point, we didn’t know about the relatively new picnic area, so we had pulled up at the first convenient spot and jumped out. Within a few minutes, Phil was marching down the west bank to see if he could find his windmill, whilst I was heading to the steeper eastern shore where I thought I might find midging fish in the deep water downwind of the shallow weed beds.

Early success.

At pretty much the same time, we both hooked up, 500 metres apart on opposite sides of the lake. Despite our combined experience, we hadn’t really thought through how this was going to play out given we wanted some pictures. I reached for my camera, then immediately had a mental image of it lying on the car seat. I brought my fish in for a fast release, headed quickly back to the car and then down to Phil who had eventually netted his trout, albeit a smaller one than mine. A bit calmer now, we walked down the western shore, intermittently catching beautifully-conditioned brown and rainbow trout, dark coloured and fat; quite a contrast to the lighter and somewhat leaner fish of the Snowy Lakes.

The Black Lake trout fought doggedly, using their weight and the thick weed to successfully frustrate more than a few hooks ups. I had a sense there was a really big fish to be caught, but if so, we didn’t encounter one this day. We found the windmill. While Philip wasn’t sure if it was the same one, it was lakeside. The bay in front was choked with weed and more or less unfishable – which doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been fish. We walked back to the car for some lunch.


Despite the wind and now rain (which after successful dodging, had finally arrived in cold spits), and the fact we were at the end of a great few days of fishing, we still had another session in us, so we headed to the east bank. Now I should mention flies at this point. Most success had been on small Woolly Buggers with tungsten beads. Any retrieve that gave the fly a dipping motion seemed to be working well, but not so much dipping that you ended up in the weed. I, however, was still obsessed with the idea there would be midge feeders, and the sight of few huge midge pupa (everything is bigger on the Monaro), and a couple of really good boils, had me tying on two midge pupae on much lighter tippet.

Midge distraction.

Meanwhile, Phil stuck to the bigger flies, whilst I stuffed around being all technical; hooking but dropping a few good ones on the midge, I had to watch as he easily landed another couple, one of which was the biggest of the day. I’d been wading the shallow northern end weed beds where the most midge action seemed to be, and had to slog back out to get bankside, upgrade my tippet and tie back on the magic Woolly Bugger whilst Phil was marching inexorably south, successfully fishing all the water I would have fished had I not forgotten my camera four hours ago. (Don’t we all secretly have a dark side when it comes to being out-fished?)

A decent Black Lake brown.

Anyway, I did get sorted out, and did manage to get some runs back on the board before we finally gave in to our physical limitations and the draw of the Nimmitabel Bakery pie counter.

Sunny Skies

I’ve been back to the lake twice with the boat. The boat ramp is brilliant and the boat fishing very good. The lake is indeed shallow, and once offshore, you can see there are large parts without much weed. I have yet to see a dun hatch, or even a dun, but can’t believe they’re not there. No doubt one day, I will be blown away by a spectacular hatch.

On an early November trip, there were thousands of mostly blue damselflies, all over the lake. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and three of us only saw half a dozen ‘oncer’ rises, and I had one bump. A small bay was dotted with rises from very small fish, presumably from the latest year class of stockies. On that day, we shared the lake with a group of twenty or so very civil local kids, their utes, and two V8 ski boats. They pretty much kept away from where we were fishing, so I can’t really blame the lack of fish on them, although the lake does have a four-knot speed limit.

Rainy upside

I made a mental note to make sure there’s a good breeze forecast the next time I go back; and also to stay for an evening fish sometime. I can’t help but feel the best is yet to come. The continued wet weather, which often has us cursing (including when we’re actually fishing Black Lake!) has an upside. Without it, Black Lake can’t really exist as a fishery. How good to know that for a while at least, this intriguing little lake is back on the agenda.