Up and Down at Tantangara

Despite an annual cycle of big rises and falls, Steve says this lake is a great place to fish.  

I pulled the boat into a steep bank on the backed-up water of an inlet fed by one of the many creeks running into Tantangara Reservoir. The boulder outcrops provided a dramatic backdrop as a light westerly stirred the just-above-freezing air, riffling the lake surface. To the north-east in the middle distance, Mount Bimberi was still snow-covered. We fished along the bank into a flooded gutter and within a few casts I felt a familiar wallop and tried to breath steadily as the adrenalin hit. I didn’t hook up, but the take was a confidence booster that this spot might give up a fish. Ten metres offshore we could just make out a drop from the flooded flats into deeper green water; a perfect spot for a wily trout to hang out before foraging in the shallows.

It was so quiet we couldn’t help but be stealthy. Any rapid movement or noise seemed out of place. We didn’t land a fish so turned our attention to another likely spot in the gorge where the drop-off to the creek bed was just a few metres from the shore. It looked fishy and in under an hour of persistent careful fishing, we’d landed three trout, two of them solid browns in superb condition, and missed many more. We drank coffee, checked the photos, and reflected on why that particular spot had been so productive – especially for the larger fish.

Netting a good brown from just beyond the drop-off.

The two browns had both taken deep-fished Woolly Buggers: one weighted black, one a fluoro bead Magoo fished on a dropper. Neither had been hard hits, but rather a gentle tightening on an ultra-slow retrieve. With snowmelt, the creek flowing in a couple of hundred metres up the bay was at the top of its banks and we convinced ourselves these trout were there to ambush the fry washing down into the lake in the heavy flow.

And another. Was this fish lying in wait for fry washed out by high creek flows and swimming back out into the calmer waters of the lake?

Even though there was still snow in the air, there were also the first early signs of insect activity with the occasional midge, and stonefly and cranefly. The whole place seemed to be bursting with potential life. The lake shore was boggy but vegetated as the water level receded, with lake outflows (especially via the tunnel to Lake Eucumbene) slightly higher than inflows – and you could imagine the fish desperate to put on condition after a lean alpine winter.

Polaroiding & Searching

Although we fished the inlet blind, this was a cloud-free windless spring day, perfect for sight fishing cruising fish. On Tantangara’s eastern shore there’s a sweet spot where, for a couple of hours from mid-morning at any time of year (water conditions and sun permitting), the light is perfect for spotting along kilometres of exceptional shoreline: high bank where there’s a drop off, and low bank on the shelving flats.

Earlier, we’d set off, carefully fishing the high bank towards the dam wall, walking 25 metres back from the bank about 10 metres above the water. From here we could see the character of the lake bed, the gravel shelves stepping into the depths formed by wave action at different lake levels, each providing shelter and feeding opportunities for cruisers. Where there was a defined bay, there was generally a flatter area of light-coloured shale allowing moving fish to stand out. Dark clay outcrops with exposed yabby holes were littered with claws, always excellent places to blind-cast a fly.

Polaroiding the high banks on Tantangara’s eastern shore.

We saw three good fish as we walked and watched along that stretch of bank. Rigged with an indicator and a pair of nymphs we managed to get a few casts to trout that on another day might have eagerly attacked the potential food. Just not on this day. We fished two more spots on the western and northern shores, the first giving up a nice brown and the other a brace of rainbows, before we settled into some relaxing loch-style fishing across shallow flats, mostly less than 2 metres deep. Sitting down to fish is always nice. For this trip it was the most successful technique both in terms of fish numbers and catch rate – but that’s by no means always the case. I lengthened the leader from around 4 metres to 5 metres, increasing the distance between the dropper and point flies to 2 metres, but stuck with small (size 12) bead-head Woolly Buggers, mixing up olive, fiery brown and black. We put a lot of effort into slowing the flies down, and keeping good contact with them to hook up. Too fast, or any slack at all, and the fish would hit, but be missed. At the end of the day I realised I’d hardly used, let alone caught a fish on any of my two go-to flies for Tantangara: a copper bead Hares Ear nymph, a scintilla stick caddis, or a small green Woolly Bugger.

Summer Evenings and Autumn Storms

Tantangara can fish well all year but my favourite bank fishing, and when Tantangara really draws me in, are stormy autumn days; and in summer, humid overcast days and warm, still evenings. The prevailing winds here are north and north-west which funnel between the hills and down the lake. In strong winds, when the waves are lapping at the eastern shore stirring the sediment, try to cast downwind at 45 degrees to the bank. No matter what other flies you fish, keep a stick caddis on the dropper, and if it works, use two.

On humid days, I love to fish the shallow bays on the western shore where there can be some spectacular midge rises – and you’ll be amazed at how many fish there are in the lake. Always carry a small selection of size 16 midge pupa and Griffiths Gnats, just in case.

Waiting for the midge rise, late on a hazy summer afternoon.

On hot, still summer days you could easily think the lake is fishless. But as the sun sets and the evening shoreline insect activity gets into full swing, the fish emerge from the depths. On any night, you can see the boils along the edge as the trout come right to the shore and you’re equally likely to hook a brown or a rainbow. They fight hard and you often don’t know what you have until it’s in the net. The mid-size browns seem to fight as strongly as the rainbows and are often quite silvery, without the dark colouring of their Eucumbene brethren.

While most of the really large fish encountered at Tantangara are browns, there are often good numbers of decent rainbows.

As the sun sets I always start with a small, unweighted dark-coloured Woolly Bugger or Woolly Worm (although I suspect any largish food fly would do the trick) and cast along the bank, with an ultra-slow retrieve. Only if this doesn’t work do I mix it up.

Other Distractions

Tantangara is quite well known for its wild dogs. I’ve never heard of anyone being harassed by them, but you do see them. One evening I felt uneasy. An hour after full dark, my companions had walked back to the car and I remembered the blonde dog I’d watched up at the tree-line earlier that evening. I looked up the hill and caught the flash of the dog’s eyes in the torch light, wound in and started the hike back to the car, perhaps a little faster than usual. There are several boggy soaks on the eastern shore; one in particular being especially swampy and I’d walked around it earlier in the evening. As I reached the edge of this soak, I turned again and there were two sets of eyes watching me, a lot closer than they should have been. The long route around the bog suddenly seemed a bad idea but with the first step I was up to my knees in mud; suddenly contemplating being stuck and easy prey. My heart rate doubled in that moment. Somehow, I dragged the boots out and marched across that bog in true biblical fashion – without a backward look.


About the Lake

Tantangara is a part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It’s really a diversion dam, capturing water from the upper section of the Murrumbidgee River and diverting it into Lake Eucumbene (although there are occasional environmental releases into the Murrumbidgee River downstream). The diversion emerges through the Providence Portal, pretty much at the top of Lake Eucumbene near the Providence campground and Cool Mountain Lodge. The portal alone is a spectacular sight and worth a visit.

Geographically, Tantangara is very close to Canberra: as the eagle flies that is. In fact, it’s a mere 10 minute helicopter ride over the Brindabella Range. To drive there however, you either head north-west from Cooma on the Snowy Mountains Highway, or south-east from the Hume Highway through Tumut. It’s between Adaminaby and Tumut, and the well-signposted turnoff is 20 kilometres west of Adaminaby. The dam wall is 18 kilometres off the Snowy Mountains Highway.

Up and Down

At its normal operating level, the reservoir is about 6 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide. For the last few years the level has been held at around 20-25% for much of the year, and because the surrounding vegetation is quite amphibious and resilient, it doesn’t look like an 80% empty dam, it looks amazing.

Tantangara’s spring 2017 high water mark of 35.7% is obvious in this picture, but as it’s fallen back towards 20-odd percent, the recently submerged grass has emerged virtually unscathed.

Loosely speaking, summer and autumn is when the levels tend to be relatively constant. In winter and early spring the lake tends to rise, with the rate of rise and (and the odd dip) depending on rain, snowmelt, whether the Portal is open, and whether there are any environmental releases down the Murrumbidgee below the Tantangara dam. If there is heavy rain and/or extensive snowmelt, Tantangara can rise quite quickly and then drop quickly as soon as the outflows catch up. Finally, sometime later in spring, the levels drop back to the semi-typical 20-25%.

Of course, the trout here as with lake trout just about anywhere, love the rising part; although too much of a good thing can make the actual fishing temporarily difficult. In spring 2016 when Tantangara rocketed towards a decades-high 71.8%, the fishing was great at first, but fell away towards the top of rise as the trout no doubt gorged on flooded food while safely beyond the reach of most anglers.

The lake approaching it’s exceptional 71.8% peak in spring 2016 – a once or twice in a lifetime event.

As for dropping water levels, it’s my impression that next door at Lake Eucumbene when lake levels are falling, the fishing can be more of a challenge. Yet often this isn’t the case at Tantangara. I’ve thought way too much about this and can come up with little that’s concrete other than the speed of rise and fall. At Tantangara it all happens very quickly and predictably. The banks flood rapidly and the fish move in; and the water recedes quickly and the fish move out.

When Lake Eucumbene drops to 20%, you face acres of mud for several weeks before it dries out and a bit of vegetations starts to become established. But as already touched on, when Tantangara falls from its annual peaks, most of the temporarily-inundated grasses and bushes are still alive and well and clearly able to survive getting very wet! That doesn’t mean the steeper banks can’t be as slippery as ice for the first few weeks after the lake drops.

Get to Know It

It often surprises me when I talk about Tantangara Reservoir that so many people say, ‘What’s it like?’, or, ‘I haven’t fished it.’ Or they just say nothing as if embarrassed because they think they should know about it, but don’t.

In summer and early autumn some years, red beetles bring the trout up during the day.

The things I like most about Tantangara are its contradictions. It’s remote but it is also accessible. It can be the most beautiful place on earth, but it can be harsh and desolate. It can be alive with fish one day, and seemingly barren the next. All that, and I’m like a moth to a flame. I love to use the boat because it makes the whole lake so accessible. Never mind the wind direction; I can find a nice drift or a friendly shore. However, a boat is by no means a requirement. There are plenty of accessible spots you can walk or drive to depending on the weather and the season, and overall I’ve probably fished the lake more on foot.

From late autumn until early spring, snow periodically blankets Tantangara’s shores.

I do fish Tantangara on my own but it is much better and safer to fish with a buddy. It is quite isolated and often you won’t see another soul all day. During holiday periods there are often camps set up along the shoreline (the most I’ve ever counted is fourteen) but the anglers and the boats seem to disappear into the wilderness.

FlyStream Facts – Access & Boat Ramp

As you drive the 18 kilometres along the dusty pot-holed Tantangara Road (turn right off the Snowy Mountains Highway about 20 kilometres west of Adaminaby) you get your first glimpse of the lake from about a kilometre away. You can see the main body of the lake heading south to north. If you’re there early, there’s a good chance all or part of it will be in a misty cloud which at that point you’ll be above. Then you’ll drive back into the trees before you see the turning for the boat ramp on the left. Take that turning and another track leads off to the left to the weather station and a bridge across the creek that will take you onto a four-wheel drive track to the western shore.

Keep going straight ahead and the track takes you down to the boat ramp. It’s narrow and rocky and there’s steep drop off. Towards the bottom there are a lot of sharp rocks that will easily shred a tyre and it’s a rock ramp so be careful. If the lake level is below 30% there’s a turning circle at the bottom. Any higher and it’s a kilometre to reverse the trailer down. A lot of people take single axle boat trailers over the weather station bridge to the western shore to launch on the harder banks, but only when its dry.

If you don’t turn left off Tantangara Road for the boat ramp, you’ll reach the dam wall. The road beyond is usually gated over winter and early spring, but in the warmer months you can continue down across the Murrumbidgee River and on to Currango Homestead (where you can rent a cabin from National Parks – highly recommended). Keep going and you’ll find the Port Phillip Fire Trail, and eventually the Long Plain Road, and finally the Snowy Mountains Highway west of Kiandra – that’s if the water level is down which it often isn’t. Otherwise, reverse those instructions and come in from the west off the Snowy Mountains Highway if the fire trail is open.

And always keep an eye on the forecast – and not just for boating. I choose somewhere else if there are strong winds or thunderstorms in the forecast, noting that the weekend after my last trip, a friend from Wagga Wagga spent several hours hacking at a fallen tree with a machete to clear the road – after dark!

FlyStream Facts – Snowy 2.0

I should mention the proposal for Snowy 2.0. This is a plan to pump water from Talbingo Reservoir on the Tumut side of the range, up to Tantangara Reservoir using electricity during periods of low demand; then to release it back to Talbingo through turbines to generate electricity during periods of high demand. The proposal has been widely discussed in the media and from a fishery management perspective, is causing a bit of angst. The concerns are that redfin and carp will be introduced into the upper Murrumbidgee catchment and Tantangara Reservoir, and from there, into Lake Eucumbene and Lake Jindabyne; that the trout populations of both rivers will be affected; and that the water temperature regime of these ecosystems will be altered with warmer water being pumped into Tantangara. Of course, both reservoirs are built in part for hydro-electricity and there are always some trade-offs for the benefits of efficient electricity production. But anglers do hope there is a sensible and transparent assessment of the environmental impacts before a final decision is made. Please keep an eye on this and make sure you have your say. I like listening to people (older than me) who were fishing the Snowy lakes in the 1960’s and 70’s and hearing about the good old days. I hope I’m not one of those who in the future talks about fishing Tantangara in the good old days – before Snowy 2.0.