Jim reflects on the amazing fishery that was the ‘old’ Lake Sorell, and sees a glimmer of hope for the future.

This autumn, just before I left the highlands of Tasmania to return to Victoria, I received an email with a photo attached of a superbly-conditioned three pound trout taken from Lake Sorell, with a note claiming it is over 25 years since we had good trout fishing there. The note also claimed that, while the water is still milky, it’s clearer than it has been for many years. It ended with the comment that we might be “getting Sorell back”. I’ve read and re read that note about fifty times, because Sorell, in its heyday was the very best, THE very best.

My first experience of fishing Lake Sorell was in the early 1970s with the late Tom Edwards, who wrote the biography of another well-known angler from the early days, Reg Lyne… but I digress. We stayed at an old accommodation house run by the Lewis family. There was Mrs Lewis, husband Ted and son Ian. Also, a family pet magpie that took great enjoyment in pecking you under the dining room table. We stayed with them for a week at a time in early summer, over the course of a couple of years. I remember Tom and I taking out their boat, an old wood clinker-built with an early Seagull outboard motor to the other side, and fishing wet flies along the eastern shore. Ian Lewis, with his handmade copper wobblers, always came home with giant trout from the legendary next door water, Lake Crescent. Ian told us back then that Crescent was not a flyfishing proposition. I know today that it is from time to time (at least from a boat), using big black or dark green Woolly Buggers dragged away from the weed-beds or along them.

A year or two later, Ian was killed in a tractor accident while collecting firewood as a fundraiser for the Tunbridge Football Club. We didn’t go back after that and, after a few years, the Lewis family retired, and the old place became empty and abandoned. Back in those days, Tom and I usually went up to Penstock Lagoon or Arthurs Lake to fish, and Mrs Lewis always made us drop in to see Miss Wilson who still lived at the Steppes at the time, and we would deliver a stew or soup. I remember her being deaf as a post and sometimes we left the food on the kitchen table. Legend tells me she lived with snakes and the saucers of milk found after she passed away, were not for a cat!

I returned to Lake Sorell in the spring of 1976 with Noel Jetson and Joe Gausepohl, a Californian who came to Australia to wire a thousand pound marlin over the drop-off of the Continental Shelf along the Great Barrier Reef. He came with Wayne Hanstedt, another Californian. Wayne became the first manager of the Compleat Angler store in Sydney, and Joe and Wayne developed and popularised jigging for kingfish off Sydney, created the ‘Iron’ range of jigs and the GH range of jig rod blanks. They came here in the late 1960s and stayed for about a decade or more. They bought with them many ideas about sportfishing to Australia but, as is my habit, I digress again. That’s another story for another time.

Joe also had a love for all aspects of fishing and wild places, and had come to see the wilds of Tasmania. He fell in love with the highlands and its many ancient Ice Age formations, the birdlife, the marsupials, the two unique monotremes, ancient fossils and more. I think he made Noel Jetson and I even more aware of the precious wild trout fishery and wilderness we had then (and still have) in Tasmania.

On that early trip, we made our way past the then tent/caravan city on Silver Plains at the north end of the lake. About thirty caravans were permanently installed there, as Sorell was a popular trout fishery back then. We pressed on through a quagmire and a nearly impossible four-wheel drive track, to the swampy north-east corner of the lake called Robertsons. We camped by an old shearers hut and shed that still had a handmade wooden wool press in it that looked as if it hadn’t been used in decades. Tragically, the lot got burnt down a year or two later and a part of Tasmania’s early history was lost.

The area around was full of snakes. One day you wouldn’t see one and on another you might see eight or ten – spooky, and waders were never taken off!

Sorell’s tiger snake population ensured our waders were never removed – even in hot weather!

Whilst the lake at the time was always a bit milky, in spring the marshes were gin-clear. Noel introduced me to tailing fish along the swampy shores and ‘pot-hole’ fishing in the marshes. The trick was to drop or dap a Mrs Simpson wet fly into each hole and presto! – you were often fast to a hard-fighting brown. They took the fly as a frog. The trick was to fish heavy and fight the fish hard, or your speckled adversary would break off in the heavy weeds.

Fishing the marshes.

Years later, during the 1980s, we learnt about the daybreak midge fishing. By then, I had purchased a boat (a barra punt) and we would leave Miena before 4am and arrive at Sorell before dawn. Trying to dodge the wildlife as we raced down the gravel roads at breakneck speed. We were young and eager in those days. Often the lake was shrouded in fog, and one could hear the sipping trout before they appeared through the mist. It was eerie, and one of the interesting aspects of this early morning fog fishing was how our casting had to be adjusted. There was a kind of mysterious refraction in the early light, and it took some time to achieve the required accuracy to present the fly correctly. Totally different to casting in daylight. However, it was magic fishing, with many opportunities and it was not unusual to catch the bag limit of twelve fish, averaging well over three pounds, before the rising sun quietened the proceedings. Whilst we did find excellent dry fly fishing for black spinners along the shore some afternoons, usually it was the dawn patrol which was the pinnacle of the day’s fishing.

Purchasing a barra punt opened up further options. 

Sorell was also a popular fishery with the trollers from Hobart. The caravan city on Silver Plains was made up mainly of trollers, and it wasn’t unusual to see fifteen or more boats out on the lake through the day.

I remember John Fox in his trout guiding days, bringing his clients down from his shack at Arthurs Lake. Many mornings we were invited to join him and his ‘victims’ on an island or shore, devouring the biggest breakfasts I can ever remember. The conversations around the campfire were always about the fishing and the magic of the morning just ended. Foxy’s clients had usually never experienced fishing like it, and we enjoyed their excitement. They were magic mornings. Lake Sorell was special, and at the end of these notes, I’ll refer to more of what has been written by others about this special time on a unique lake.

In 1991, some magic dun fishing occurred off the Dogs Head Point. Both rainbow and brown trout feasted on the duns. From memory, a deep east coast low had sucked moisture inland, which brought to Sorell a week-long period of large dun hatches during a succession of dull, humid and misty days. Some of the trout were over five pounds, however sadly, it was just a short window of opportunity. My shack diary records three days of over thirty trout before I had to fly home to Melbourne to take on more mundane tasks.

Then some 25 years ago or thereabouts, it was all lost. The usually slightly milky lake strangely became nearly clear for a season. We could even polaroid the sandflats at the bottom end. Then the water went seriously filthy due, in my unscientific view, to an ugly smelly algal bloom. Many anglers blamed the loggers who ran their skidders through the main spawning stream on the eastern shore. Similar issues had afflicted the nearby Lagoon of Islands when Ripple Creek was diverted, disturbing the soil and ruining the water quality and fishing. Others blamed the irrigation trust for Sorell’s decline, which had control over the taking of the water for farmland, and the advent of the new circular pivot irrigators requiring more water than ever before. Then came carp. On that point, it is notably encouraging to see Chris Wisniewski and his team at Fisheries seem to have successfully eradicated this pest from Crescent and Sorell. They deserve a medal, as I’ve been informed that large scale eradication of carp has never been achieved before anywhere else in the world.

And finally, today, there is a slight glimmer of hope. The heavy rains of the last year might be the reason the lake has become slightly clearer. Perhaps the duns and midges will return. Perhaps we might see some window into the magic fishing that once was. And perhaps a new cycle might be in the offing. With new management, might it be possible that anglers are once more allowed access over the private property to Silver Plains and the marshes at the top end? Lake Sorell, a water that was once the best Tasmania ever offered, might return. It has been nearly thirty years… we can only fervently hope.

For further reading:

Fly-fisher in Tasmania (David Scholes, 1961) From page 183 “…but Lake Sorell has a special charm for me.”

Tasmania – Jetfly Country (Noel Jetson, The Australian Angler’s Fishing World magazine, January 1977) “On a track seldom crossed except by men that are lost…”

Watershed (Rob Sloane, 2012), pages 213 and 251 “How did we get things so wrong?”