Snowy Lakes Mid-Winter Update

With Tantangara at 10.8% this was the first time I’d seen this rocky shore west of the Nungar Creek arm.

It’s been raining again; lots in the gauge and I’m glad I got a day in at Tantangara before the weather came in. Before we set out, Keith looked on Google maps and said the drive time was 4.5 hours which seemed odd. We literally live 47 kilometres due east from the lake – albeit the Scabby Range lies between us, and the lake is 4oo metres higher. In short we have to drive to Cooma first and track the Murrumbidgee past Adaminaby before coming into the lake from the south – more like three times the as-the-crow-flies distance. Cooma can be troublesome to navigate; there’s the Cooma Bakery; then the Lott Cafe. So allow an extra bit of time.

Brumbies were all along the Tantangara shore line. Love them or hate them, they are magnificent to see.

But let me go back a few weeks. My winter goal has been one trip a week and with the exception of a bit of paranoid quarantining with a common cold I’ve easily managed this. So three weeks ago we did an over-nighter. Mark, David and myself. Top end of Lake Eucumbene.

The conditions were perfect and as always we had our chances. I was optimistic there would be some good rainbows past Anglers Reach thinking about running up the river but all we found were a few snappy pannies. The stats were improved by David’s nice brown taken on the north side of Grace Lea Island.

A perfect polaroiding day, the sun an hour from a good height.

Then last week I took the boat up to Buckenderra, the southern extremity of Lake Eucumbene with Keith. The camp site rock boat ramp is in good order and I stopped for some intel from Josh and Jana. There, I got a third report that “Harry Haines” was catching fish full of daphnia (“spewing up daphnia” if you needed the image). Harry does a bit of guiding at that end of the lake, his advertising banner is strung across the camp site shop. I asked for a photo – big believer in evidence! Just a quick recap, daphnia are very small aquatic crustaceans and are generally a warmer water phenomena – water fleas that bloom in massive quantities. If you’ve ever kept aquarium fish you’ve probably bought daphnia from the aquarium shop in plastic bags. When they’re in the lake (in the warmer months) they divert the rainbows from feeding on almost anything else and they pretty much become a target for deep trolling. Orange flies are the best colour to tempt daphnia feeders but they are usually found in deeper water away from the banks and are certainly not easy to catch – daphnia imitations being pretty impossible to tie on a size 60 hook! Daphnia should be over-wintering now according to the lore. They can do this in two ways. In a dormant adult (all-female) state, or as resting eggs that are laid at the end of the season and hatch when the water warms up. When there are large quantities of resting eggs they can form little mounds – yum, I say! So, are there daphnia blooms feeding away on decaying vegetation in mid winter in Lake Eucumbene? Is this new, perhaps as a result of warmer water? Or are these fish feeding on piles of resting eggs?

I don’t have the answer but I am interested. To add to the trout food debate, yabbies supposedly enter a state of partial-hibernation in water below 16 degrees C and the popular view was, they disappeared from the food supply in Lake Eucumbene in winter, scurrying away to hibernate in their burrows. But at least for the last few years, that clearly hasn’t been the case. Although the yabby population seems generally to have taken a dive right now, I’m not the only one who has noticed them out and about in mid-winter.

The best polaroiding conditions imaginable!

Anyway, it was a gorgeous day when we got to Buckenderra. The fog we’d driven in all the way down lifted to a perfect windless blue sky day. Literally, one moment I was driving around in circles on the headland trying to find the ramp – the next it was pure magic. I think I knew we were going to be spotting fish but this was Keith’s first outing on the lake and we spent an hour in casting practice at the bank in glassy conditions.

We motored across to Brookwood and took to the shore. I explained the plan, that we would walk along the shoreline, me about five to ten metres up the bank, Keith behind me but nearer to the shore. A fish would obligingly swim towards the shore which I would spot for him, whereupon Keith would stand still, cast his fly towards it, and follow my instructions. I’ve known Keith for 35 years and he could never follow the instructions on a packet of instant noodles! So when a fish obligingly cruised slowly into view (much to my joy and surprise), I turned and there was no Keith. So I walked back around the rocky headland and there he was casting away merrily burbling something about two fish. And sure enough, there were two fish, clearly browns and one a bloody ripper, sitting quietly in a metre of water, two rod lengths off the bank. Nothing seemed to interest them (we had one follow) or spook them and eventually they slunk away into deeper water.

That, I’m afraid, was the pattern for the next few hours. We saw somewhere in the region of twenty fish, individuals and pairs. We stalked a pair of solid rainbows for more than half an hour that seemed obsessed with swimming around a submerged tree. One eventually chased the other away before returning to his station. Eventually it did follow and swallow a small black Woolly Bugger, but when I yelled ‘lift!’ it didn’t connect. I literally saw its mouth open and the fly disappear. I think it must have been pricked because that was the last we saw of it. From a fish observation and behaviour point of view, this whole session was amazing. But apart from another momentary hook-up on a tiny black nymph to a good brown cruising a beach , we didn’t actually net a fish.

Keith’s small brown. (“Is that a tadpole?” asked his daughter!)

Back to Tantangara this week. We stopped in to see Col in Adaminaby who has closed the shop in town after the bushfires and Covid killed the trade, but who’ll be running his fly-tying and sales in future from his shed at home. While I’d noticed a heavy frost in a few places, in Col’s garden, it became apparent that the heavy frost was snow. Sure enough, Col explained that the town had a dump two nights earlier – which also explained why Google had more than doubled my expected drive time. Never doubt Google?

Tantangara eastern shore looking south to the dam wall and boat ramp. The water was a bit brown and murky down here.

Tantangara was at 10.8%. I think that’s the lowest I’ve ever fished it. The southern end of the lake is 300 metres south of the boat ramp. We dropped Col off a few kilometres up the western shore with his plan to walk and fish back, and we headed for the eastern shore with a plan to polaroid the high rocky bank north of the dam wall. That didn’t work. After a few hundred metres, it was obvious the water was too dirty so we took to the boat. There were some good reports of fish from the southern-western side of the lake and I’ve always done well here in winter.

It didn’t feel that fishy but we still gave the discoloured water a couple of hours – no doubt the murk was something to do with the low levels, the portal into Lake Eucumbene running flat out and sucking the lake down for the Snowy 2.0 project. We headed up the lake. Halfway up, we pulled in at one of my go-to spots on the eastern shore and Keith landed a small rainbow, but I really wanted to see the top of the lake, and the Murrumbidgee and Nungar arms, and that was worth the trip on its own. At that level the area was unrecognisable, and there were some amazing rocky shores and beaches. Despite looking fishy with a nice ripple and quite a lot clearer, it wasn’t until we were motoring back that I found fish on the sounder, in good quantities in two to three metres of water in what must have been the river channel. The southerly breeze didn’t want to let us drift that with the drogue, but we fiddled it with the electric and Keith landed his second fish of the day, a small silver brown just before the sun dipped over the hill and the day was over. The air temperature didn’t get above five degrees all day by the way and the water temperature was 6 degrees.

The go-to eastern shore spot. Crispy weed underfoot makes walking easy.

This time of year I watch the weather closely and pick my days. Keith asked me when we were on Tantangara, “Is it always like this up here”? Well the truth is yes, pretty much always when I’m up here because I usually only come when the weather’s right! Mind you, he might have been referring to the cold – I didn’t ask, he didn’t say. (Probably hypothermic…)

Lake Eucumbene is getting all the Tantangara water and a good flow down the Eucumbene River, but the lake is still more-or-less-stable at 28% where it’s been for a few months. Jindabyne is steady at 52.5% and there are still occasional reports of good fishing in the Thredbo arm fished from Waste Point. Tantangara is 10.5% today – three days after we fished it; down another 0.3%. I’ll go back if they take it down another percent, assuming the snow they’re having right now doesn’t stop me. See you there!

Postscript: Just in case you think the Snowy lakes in winter are always basking in gentle sunshine, after writing all this, I headed to Eucumbene yesterday in gale force winds, temps close to zero, and heavy rain. We caught a few small rainbows, missed a couple of unknown size, and knew we were alive!