Surely it was just coincidence? On the eve of the second annual Talk Wild Trout conference in Mansfield, weeks of cold wet weather finally gave way to a proper spring day. I pulled over beside the Delatite River under an afternoon sun and for the first time this season, happily swapped waders for wading boots and quick-dry trousers.
Not only was the day warm and sunny, at last I was fishing a stream that was less than a torrent and beautifully clear. I attached a large Stimulator above a Hares Ear Nymph; confident the latter would get most attention from the trout in the still quite turbulent water, but at the same time hopeful the big dry might get a look or two on such a buggy day.
At the tail of the very first pool, all fired up with the excitement of untouched water in perfect conditions, I almost ignored the tea-tree overhang on the far side to head straight for the run at the top of the pool. But something made me slow down and rethink. Carefully, I cast across towards the tea-tree and managed to mend just right so the bow in the line didn’t snatch the flies out of the zone. The Stimulator dipped and I lifted into heavy weight, unsure for a moment if I’d just snagged the bottom. Then a good trout powered upstream, turned and shot straight back down and into the rapid below. My fumbling footwork as I chased the fish all over a fast, slippery river would have made a good comedy clip – especially the time it swam straight through my legs and under the bank!
It was probably 5 minutes after hook-up that I finally managed to slip the net under a perfect 2½lb brown. Some fish you deserve to land and some… well, put it this way; the next time I lose a trout without making a single mistake, that’ll simply be squaring the ledger.
The rest of the afternoon proved less dramatic, though no less fun. I was wrong about the dry – every one of 8-12 inch rainbows I caught after the big brown took the Stimulator, swimming straight up past the nymph as if it wasn’t there. It was magic to watch these colourful fish drift back under the big fly, consider it and then clomp it down.
After that session on the Delatite’s wild trout, I was ready for some time indoors at the Talk Wild Trout conference the next day. I arrived to find the Mansfield Performing Arts Centre bustling with around 200 people. It occurred to me that so many anglers sacrificing a spring Saturday fishing because they care about their wild trout fisheries, meant the event was a success before a word had been spoken.
So what did we learn? There was way too much content to cover in any detail here, however we’re now more than two years in to the Wild Trout Management Program and some solid scientific research is starting to give us answers to our wild trout questions.
- Water Temperature Problems
Temperature loggers on the Delatite River coupled with radio tracked trout movement over successive summers, plus data from other rivers, tells us that summer water temperatures in the lower to middle reaches of many of our trout streams are frequently too high. Either the trout there are migrating upstream to the cooler waters, bunkering down too stressed to feed, or possibly even dying. From a fishing point-of-view, all three possibilities effectively mean no fish to catch.
- Water Temperature Solutions
The research presented at Talk Wild Trout 2 shows there are two big things we can do to make living conditions better for trout in the lower ‘halves’ of heat-affected streams, which are basically the bits flowing through farmland. One is to increase shade by planting shading vegetation or retaining it better: done strategically, this can reduce water temperatures by several degrees. The other thing we can do is simply improve instream cover and hiding places for trout. Even without changing water temperature, ample cover means one less stress for trout doing it tough.
Catchment Management Authorities – the organisations charged with managing this kind of work – are already on board and working with angling groups like the Mansfield Flyfishers, the Australian Trout Foundation and Greenwells on several great habitat projects. And there’s more good news. At the conference, a million dollars of extra money was announced to fund more habitat work involving anglers. (You can read the detail here)
- Conventional Stocking Isn’t the Answer for Recovering Wild Trout Streams
Two years into a three year stocking trial, 20,000 fin-clipped yearling brown trout (the same fish that are successfully stocked into our winning impoundment fisheries like Wendouree, Fyans, etc.) have now been stocked into the Howqua and upper Goulburn rivers. Yet exhaustive electrofishing surveys have recaptured just 11 of them! That’s the bad news. The good news is the same surveys have captured 552 wild trout. The conclusion? Wild trout are more than capable of maintaining strong populations if their habitat is okay. If habitat is not okay, then neither wild nor stocked fish can be expected to survive (see point 2 above). By the way, almost every local and international study of stocking in wild trout streams has found the same result as the upper Goulburn/ Howqua trials. So the local results are no surprise, but they hopefully put the issue to bed so we can concentrate on the things that have been proven to make a difference – instead of continually doing the same thing and hoping for a different result.
The stocking question isn’t entirely a lost cause though. We learnt that the Australian Trout Foundation is collaborating with Fisheries in conducting instream trials using artificial egg incubator boxes. In some places, these boxes may boost successful hatching of trout fry compared to ‘natural’ spawning in gravel. This technique is low cost, encourages many wild survival traits, and is likely to have little if any negative impact on wild trout stocks already present.
- Wild Trout Stocks are Presently in Good Shape
The latest survey results over 2015/16 showed high numbers of wild brown and rainbow trout present in most of the 12 Priority Rivers, with many showing both improved overall populations and population structure (balance of small recently recruited trout, catchable trout and bigger breeders). However, comparisons with previous years continue to highlight the ups and downs of wild trout populations as they fluctuate according to changing natural conditions (e.g. hot summers vs mild summers, good flows vs low flows, etc). Creating better habitat offers a chance to smooth (if not eliminate) these peaks and troughs.
Conclusion: Habitat Matters Most
Two years into the Wild Trout Program, there’s more to learn and more to do to make our wild trout fisheries better. We need to know more about what incubator boxes can achieve, and we are about due to have a serious, careful look at our trout regulations (wild & stocked) to see if we can do things better. In the meantime though, the message from Talk Wild Trout 2 is we need to get stuck in and fix up the places trout live. No amount of regulation etc. can help if the habitat isn’t good enough to carry a decent head of trout in the first place.
For more information, you can email [email protected] for a copy of the full Talk Wild Trout 2016 proceedings.