Thompsons Creek Dam Revisited

Thompsons Creek Dam near Lithgow, west of the Blue Mountains, has been a destination of choice for Sydney’s flyfishers since around 2000 when it was first opened to anglers. It’s a fly and lure-only fishery and it’s a good 2.5 km from the carpark to the dam wall – with plenty of walking to do after that. I’ve read and heard a lot about Thompsons Creek Dam, especially that it can be a place of delight, heartbreak or sheer frustration. As a saltwater bait and lure fisher converted to trout flyfishing, I think I made a dozen trips before coming even close to catching a fish – which nearly drove me insane – but when you spot one of the oversized browns or fat rainbows in the Dam, you can’t help but lie sleepless at night thinking about what might be.

Arriving at the Thompsons Creek Dam wall.

It had been two years since my last session at Thompsons Creek. Two life-changing events; one good (the arrival of my gorgeous baby girl) and one bad (a debilitating injury); plus a predilection for the Snowy Mountains whenever I get time off, had stopped me going to Thompsons Creek, but I was determined to get back and was feeling the buzz!

I barely slept the night before, then finally it was pre-dawn and time to head west. The forecast was an occasional shower and light winds from the SE and it was cool and cloudy when I pulled up at the carpark. I donned the armour of full waders and jacket; however by the time I came up over the embankment to the dam wall, I was already feeling overdressed. I’m pretty excitable and this time the anticipation was getting the better of me. I was running, jumping, hooting and carrying on towards the western bank where I was sure the big one was waiting. That bubble burst as my perfectly-prepared fly and leader setup (which had preoccupied me for 2 hours the night before) came loose, caught on my boot, stretched, snapped and flicked my lucky nymph off into the unknown. Could’ve been worse – might have been the rod!

Gin clear water.

As I was walking along thinking about retying my leader, I bumped into two kids with their dad casting Tassie Devils from a drop-off on the way to the quarry. I was literally asking them how they were doing, when both the kids hooked up – they were pumped. They each landed and released a big rainbow and dad was super proud. While I was chatting away, no more than a metre from my feet I spotted a 3lb-plus rainbow foraging in the weed – it even rose – and there I am holding a rod with no leader and fly! Immediately I start to rig up and with a sinking feeling, realised my ready-to-go leaders were where I left them – on the kitchen table. All I had on me were spools of 12lb and 4lb tippet. Okay, I thought, I can work with that.

At the quarry the wind is fresh and in my face. I set up a 12 foot leader with a size 12 green tungsten bead nymph (thinking all the 12s might bring me some Irish luck) and a stick caddis on a dropper, and begin slowly working the water. I manage three casts before the lot disappears into the one invisible snag on my back cast. This is not normal – I’m just too excited. I calm down and tie a similar rig with an indicator, letting the wind drift the line slowly back to shore. Having not seen a rise (or any other evidence of activity) for an hour I decide to change to a sinking line. I change reels and start pulling out some slack when the reel spontaneously snaps in half – a complete write-off. I’m beyond stunned. Back to a floating line and I give it a good go, but just aren’t feeling it. It’s late morning, the clouds have cleared and the temperature inside my waders is rising fast. I have a cup full of water left and an orange, and it looks like Thomos has kicked me again.

I sat and thought it through. I fish a lot with Steve Dunn and he has this saying when things are tough, “What would Phil do”?  So I thought it out. My plan had been to do the lap; my logic was the wind should pick up during the day so better to fish the western drop-offs and quarry early, and then move around to take advantage of more favourable casting conditions later in the day. But the way things were going I was ready to call it a day. I scanned the shore on the other side and tried to feel something or catch sight of a leaping fish that would inspire a second wind, but there was nothing. So I decided to head back towards the wall and try my luck where I’d spotted the fish feeding earlier that morning – and at the very least I would be closer to the car and the long sulking trip back to Sydney. The blue sky and crystal-clear water made for perfect polaroiding conditions, yet I reached the dam wall hot and beaten without a single fish spotted.

I finished the last of the water and looked down the length of the embankment, and couldn’t help but feel despair at the thought of walking its length either to go home or to fish again. But it had to be done. I set off, one foot in front of the other, and half way across my lucky streak continued as the side of my boot opened, leaving the sole flapping in the breeze as I marched along. At least I had something to focus on that I could fix – although quite why I had gaffer tape and no leader material will remain a mystery for the rest of my days.

The wind was blowing hard so there were no fish to be seen along the wall. My morale was collapsing and my thoughts were all about going home. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Chris who is more in tune with Thompsons than anyone I know. I told him my story and after a short period where I imagined him on his back trying helplessly to regain his composure, he eventually spluttered out a story about a bay that just a few days earlier had held smelting fish in the middle of the day. A bay right around the other side of the dam; and ironically not far from where I had been before my long walk of shame back to the wall.

A new bay, a new hope?

But at least I had a new delusion and remarkably re-enthused, I was off again. Reaching the eastern shore, I didn’t bother to blind flog, I just slowly walked along looking for any signs of fish. After a kilometre or so I climbed over the hill, short-cutting 500 metres of bank, and arrived at the alleged spot. It was 1.30pm with the baking sun high in the sky and the wind offshore, leaving a glassy sheet of water perfect for spotting. I sat for a while just waiting and watching. Then, to my left among the remnants of submerged trees, I saw a rise! The first fish I’d seen in five hours. Then seconds later, another. I considered throwing out nymphs but decided an old Stimulator would be on the money. I was crawling down the bank to get in position when a solid rainbow leapt clear of the water only metres from me. Adrenalin pumping, I cast out the Stimi and waited. Nothing. Ok, there were a few beetles on the water so I changed to a beetle pattern and still nothing. In desperation, on goes old faithful, the bead-head black Woolly Bugger. I cast to the same spot, give it a few seconds to sink and begin to twitch it back. Three short twitches and bang, a great hit and the weight stayed on! I only had a small area to work with so putting maximum pressure on the fish was a must, resulting in a spectacular fight and aerial display. The trout leapt into the air time after time and then made a bolt for the deep. I don’t remember how long it all lasted but when that fish was in my net everything that had happened that morning was forgotten – and I finally remembered to breathe. Without doubt, this rated as one of the most satisfying fish I have ever caught; not huge but solid. A few quick pics and back it went, cormorant scars and all, and I contemplated Steve’s lectures on resilience and persistence.

The one that got put back.

Around the bay I saw a few more rises so I moved 20 metres and cast again. Almost straight away the fly was taken, but off the fish shot, right into the snags. Oh well, it’s really all about the moment of deception, isn’t it? I saw a massive fish, tried several combinations of flies, hooked a couple and missed a couple but none of that mattered, especially when I then saw something truly amazing. Simultaneously, at least eight rainbows were breaking the surface, porpoising through a school of baitfish. I managed to cast and hook one momentarily before it was off, but it didn’t matter; this was turning into an all-time best trip at Thompsons Creek.

It was just after 3pm when I called it a day. What had started as one of my worst days had turned a full 180 and with a grin from ear to ear, even the flapping sole of my boot could not dampen my spirits or stop my Irish jig back to the car. Thompsons Creek is a challenging trout fishery but when it pays out, it’s a jackpot. That’s what keeps you coming back – and it won’t be 2 years before the next trip.