The fall and rise of Lake Sorell

Chris charts the recent history of Tasmania’s Lake Sorell and hopes for a comeback from this once-great fishery.  

Is it possible there is a 53-square kilometre lake in the centre of Tasmania where the trout have not seen a lure or fly for the past 24 years? A lake once known as a flyfishing haven, where many anglers, including me, learned the art of stalking trout and casting a fly? Now, there is hope that this lake, Sorell, will re-open to the public in the not too distant future, giving anglers young and old the opportunity to build their own relationship with this wonderful place.

The Carp Problem

Step back in time to February 1995, when an angler fishing Lake Crescent saw a sea eagle feeding on the rocky shore up ahead. As he got closer, the eagle took to the air, leaving its dinner behind. The remains of the eagle’s meal was an unusual fish and the curious angler gave it to fisheries officers to identify. It was a European carp.

The presence of this invasive carp species in Lake Crescent sent a shockwave through the community. Known for its potentially destructive impact on the environment, the carp had anglers, environmentalists, farmers and people in general gravely concerned about the potential effect on Tasmania’s waterways.

Where did the carp from? How many were there in the lake? How widely were they spread? Who put them there? Some of the questions were easier to answer, while others may always remain a mystery.

Initial investigations found a substantial population of carp in the 23-square kilometre Lake Crescent. A smaller population was found upstream in Lake Sorell and both lakes were immediately closed to the public to reduce the risk of the carp spreading. One bright spot was, subsequent to the Sorell/ Crescent carp discovery, repeated and intensive surveys failed to find any downstream of the lakes.

Before Carp

Step back further to 1976, when I was introduced to the Sorell and Crescent trout fishery by Brian and Eddy from my local angling club. One cold October morning when I was 12 years old, they picked me up in Brian’s lime green Leyland P76.

I recall travelling up the Dennistoun Road to Interlaken and pulling up at the man-made cut that allowed Lake Sorell to spill from Kermodes Bay into the top of the Tea-Tree Marsh in Lake Crescent, when nearing full supply.

The murky water was high and flowing quickly through the cut, pluming out through two defined channels into the Crescent wetland. We rigged up our rods with Brian tying on a Matuka-style fly. He’d shown me how to make it at a fly-tying session at his house a few nights earlier. The wings of the fly still stand out in my memory because they were made from two bright yellow canary feathers. I was told that the fly represented the local golden galaxias.

I looked on in my gumboots as Brian and Eddy quickly waded out, knee-deep, to where the plumes of water cut through the strap-weed, swinging their wet flies. I stood and watched as they methodically moved down the current. It wouldn’t have been 10 minutes before Brian was into a good trout. From a distance, I could see the fish as it wallowed in the strap-weed. Eventually it was brought to the net. It was a brown trout that weighed 11½ pounds; a true monster.

I remember thinking that the galaxias pouring from its mouth didn’t really resemble the yellow canary Matuka. Even so, Brian’s success had me subsequently seeking out canary feathers and tying similar flies, although I could never bring myself to use them.

I followed the men as they moved over to Kermodes Bay in Lake Sorell. There was a cold north-westerly blowing into our faces, bringing constant drips from our noses. I watched as my mentors waded off into the back marsh, tossing their wet flies into the holes between the strap-weed. From hundreds of metres away I could see them continually hooking fish that splashed and fought on their bent rods. I stood, cold in my gumboots, trying to cast my fly into the wind. From their lessons, I was able to work the fly out across the breeze and drag it back through the waves of dirty water that were pounding into the undercut bank. After some effort, a good trout did grab my fly: a solid take that I broke off on the strike. I had a lot to learn. Feelings of bitter cold left me, but I was still shaking – this time with excitement.

Silver Plains, Lake Sorell.

I recall the trip back to Hobart in the warm back seat of the P76 and the stories shared in explicit detail of each of the brown trout caught that day. The marsh fish had golden backs, and bellies that were fat from the abundance of food the wetlands provided. I was hooked and the attraction of lakes Sorell and Crescent had begun.

At high school over the next few years, I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who were members of the Hobart Fly-Tyers Club. Metalwork and woodwork classes would conclude in drawn-out discussions about feathers and fur, hook sizes, and the fundamentals of tying simple, practical trout flies. Our teachers saw Activities Week each year as an opportunity to indulge their own flyfishing passion. I was one of the keenest of the 30 kids who got to spend a glorious week camped at Silver Plains on the western shore of Lake Sorell each November.

The Marshes

At that time, it was flyfishing heaven. We wandered the marshes and lake edges and my earlier experiences stood me in good stead. Five days were spent camped by the lake edge, fishing from daylight till dark. The marshes were full of water and trout food. By now I had a pair of waders and could push out into the wetlands. The trick was to find an open space among the baumea reeds, stand patiently and watch. The first sign of a trout approaching was the reeds parting as the fish worked their way from hole to hole. They entered the open spaces and their tails and backs would cut the water as they foraged for food. The water in these back marshes was not dirty like the main lake. It was crystal clear and wearing polarised glasses, I could see the trout slowly stalking their prey.

I steadied my hands, trembling with excitement, to land the wet fly, a Yeti, far enough in front of the fish. The aim wasn’t to get an immediate response, but to allow the fish to find the fly. When they did they would aggressively surge, causing a bow-wave of water, and then engulf the offering.

That was the start of the fun, as 4 to 5 pound fish were common. Once hooked, they would bury themselves in the weeds in an attempt to escape. There would be a tussle and at times the trout would become so entangled that you could neither pull them towards you nor could they pull away. I’d wind up line until I could get close enough to try to untangle them with my boot. That would result in either a break-off, another fierce run or the fish rolling over so it could be scooped up in the landing net.

The wetlands provided an almost unlimited food source. When caught, the trout would often have swollen bellies and the most recently-eaten food spilling from their mouths.

The Present

Back now to 2018 and Lake Crescent has been carp free since the last ‘Judas’ carp, carrying radio transmitters, were removed in December 2009. A lone female carp was caught in a net when targeting these males two years before. These proved to be the last wild carp caught from that lake. With good rainfall providing high water levels, the Lake Crescent trout fishery has been rebuilt and is consistently producing double-figure trout.

The last female carp from Lake Crescent. Can the same be done in Lake Sorell?

But, the news was not so good for Sorell and the angler itching to get back to this lake. High water levels in 2009 and the effort of verifying Lake Crescent as carp-free, saw a spawning of carp in Lake Sorell. It was devastating for the team that was trying to rid Tasmania of carp.

After some serious soul-searching, the carp team set a long-term plan to continue with its effort to rid the large lake of every carp. Using the skills and techniques developed to eradicate carp from Crescent, the spotlight focused wholly and solely on Sorell.

Towards a Carp-free Lake Sorell?

Since the carp spawning in 2009, thousands of young carp have been removed through targeted fishing. Each season and weather event provides opportunities. In winter, the carp move into deeper water and are haunted by gill nets, set on the location of their Judas companions. In spring, gear is set to catch them as they come to shallows looking to spawn as water levels rise. As summer arrives and levels begin to fall, the urge to spawn subsides and feeding around the warm edges is the priority for carp, making them easy targets for combinations of nets and electrofishing gear. There is nowhere to hide.

Barrier netting used to prevent carp from accessing the wetlands to spawn also keep trout from a huge food resource.

Over 42,000 carp have been removed from Lake Sorell and estimates now indicate that less than 50 remain. The intensive fishing pressure has removed the strong healthy carp. The remaining fish appear to be the runts of the litter that either don’t have the urge to spawn, or have made themselves difficult to catch because of their small size.

This coming spring and summer are critical to catching these last carp while still ensuring that no spawning occurs. This is no easy task, a needle-in-a-haystack game.

Trout Fishing Once Again on the Horizon

The good news is, despite being blocked from entering the food-rich wetlands by the same barriers that are used to keep carp from their spawning sites, and being affected by the intense fishing activities, the wild trout presently in Lake Sorell are fit and strong. Their population is expected to bounce back relatively quickly once carp eradication activity ceases.

Many present-day Sorell trout are in great condition.

The best-case scenario is that the few remaining carp will be caught this spring and early summer. If all goes to plan, a limited opening of Lake Sorell is being considered for March/April 2019. Anglers should not expect too much and really use this opportunity to introduce themselves to this water – or reunite with it after a long absence.

Overall, the decision on when and how to open Sorell will be based on what unfolds carp-wise over the coming months. Further work is expected to be required in spring 2019 to make sure all the carp are gone. A longer trout season might be possible that year and a full season might follow soon after that.

Eventually, more extensive flooding of Sorell’s marshes should lead to the return of first-class trout fishing.

Ultimately, with carp gone, the barriers that prevented the trout from roaming freely around the lake will be able to be removed, allowing big trout to once again follow the rising water levels into the food-rich wetlands each spring. Similarly, the removal of the containment screens at the outflow of Lake Sorell will see this lake supplying a steady stream of wild juvenile trout from its spawning streams; not only to replenish itself but downstream to Lake Crescent – as happened so effectively in the past.

A Sorell trout any flyfisher would be happy to catch.

With time to recover, Lake Sorell will show a new generation of anglers what once made it the most popular trout water in Tasmania. And it will give some old-timers (like me!) a chance to relive their youth.