How to catch fish in dams

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Dams can deliver astounding fishing.
OVER the past five decades some of our east and south coast dams have become famous for producing trophy fish. Dams like Lake Pedder, Glenbawn, Awoonga and Copeton have all produced fish that redefined “trophy” size for species including trout, bass, barra and Murray cod. There’s nothing like trophy fish to make a dam popular.
 
These and many other waters have produced large numbers of big hungry fish that were caught by numerous lucky anglers. Many ticked a trophy or two off their bucket lists after the word spread that a dam was firing. River and estuary fishos who had spent many years trying for that “metrey” barra went to a dam and caught five over a metre in two days. Bass anglers found 50 cm fish regularly and soon the bench mark was climbing toward 60 cm.
 
Dams can deliver astounding fishing, but the hype around them when they’re at their best can disguise the realities. Terms like “Lake Misery” and “Lake of a Thousand Casts” are less regularly reported and many anglers attracted by the stories of big easy fish have experienced the grim reality of a dam in the bad years.
 
Dams on the rise
 
The need for water storage and irrigation along with power generation has been the main reason for a significant increase in the number of dams along the east and south coast of Australia. There are now dozens of impoundments, many within easy day drive of major population centres. Stocking these lakes with popular species and opening them to the public has meant not only have anglers more freshwater options but a more diverse fishery. Thinking has changed too with “Keep Out” signs and rangers replaced with Stocked Impoundment Permits and angler friendly facilities.
 
Some dams provide a trophy fishery where big fish are caught and released. Others are a “put and take” proposition where anglers go for a feed. Many waters have mixed fisheries where you can catch a variety of species. In some the addition of crustaceans such as red claw adds to the attraction.
 
Some dams also allow fishing during closed seasons. Research has shown that cod in Copeton and barra in many northern dams don’t breed so there is no reason to protect them during the spawn. This science-based approach is good news for anglers and the local economy.
 
Effective stocking is a vital part of a dam’s attraction. Mostly the authorities and supporting clubs and associations choose species that already inhabit nearby streams and rivers. Fingerlings are introduced to the waterway and within a few seasons those “year class” fish are available for anglers. It takes about three to four years to produce legal sized fish however the presence of unlimited bait fish can accelerate this process.
 
Fry or fingerlings don’t have it all their own way. Birds, adult fish and other threats can reduce the number of fingerlings that reach maturity dramatically. In some dams all stocking does is feed mature fish. To counter this some dams, have cages where mature cannibals can be placed for relocation. 
 
In some cases, species are selected that are not local. Results can be mixed. Complete failure is rare but some species such as mangrove jack, brook trout, saratoga and Atlantic salmon have proven less satisfactory. In some places, pests invade the dam with fish like carp, catfish and tilapia quickly dominating the waterway.
 
Timing a visit to a dam makes a big difference to catches. If you’re interested in fishing a dam, there are a few things to consider that may help to make the trip a success. Of course, you can just suck it and see but for those who want to experience the thrill of landing a trophy some research and planning is strongly recommended.
 
Picking the right time to fish a dam is critical.
Cycles
 
From a fishing perspective, stocked dams work in cycles. Each dam has a set of unique factors that affect its cycle and each species in there may be at a different point on the journey. This makes it hard to appreciate just where a dam is at when considering a visit.
 
In basic terms a dam is stocked with small fish (known as fry or fingerlings). This may occur each season and, in some waters, natural recruitment also occurs when fish spawn in feeder rivers. In a few years legal sized fish are caught and soon some trophy fish are reported. This phase may last several seasons or remain ongoing. Eventually, the big fish get smarter, then fewer and things taper off. Some dams maintain a viable fishery indefinitely while others go quiet. The species involved have a major influence with fast growing and cannibalistic types like barra eating many of their replacements.
 
Cycles can be enhanced or disrupted by a range of events. On the plus side some dams can grow massive numbers of huge fish thanks to water temperature, bountiful food and other wise stable conditions. These waters are famous for huge cod, massive yellowbelly, chunky bass, double figure trout and enormous barra that reach maturity in much less time than it would take them in natural waters.
 
The worst thing to happen to a dam is an “extinction event”. I have seen a once productive trout water near Canberra bone dry after years of drought. Desiccated remains of big brown trout sat partially buried in the hard-baked mud. In another northern impoundment a cold snap caused a fish kill that left the surface dotted with hundreds of dead barra. In both cases restocking will take several years to produce legal sized fish.
 
Mostly though it’s less dramatic events that put a dent in things. Floods can allow migratory fish to go over the wall. In Hinze Dam a mate who was working on the upgrade to the dam wall showed me photos of hundreds of dead bass, some over 60 cm, that went over the spillway in a flood. Escapees are common in some northern waters with those fish not killed turning the lower river system into a hot spot for a few months. Dams including Awoonga, Monduran and Hinze have lost massive numbers of fish in flood events. Interestingly, I understand a method for retaining fish when the water rises is under development. If perfected, this may have far reaching effects on fish populations in the dams that overflow.
 
Birds can harvest significant numbers of stocked fish. Disease is not a factor but has been responsible for dramas in other countries as has pollution and siltation.
 
Seasons
 
In most dams some parts of the year fish far better than others. Mid-winter and high summer can be tough while spring and autumn can produce champagne fishing. Fish get aggressive and hungry at spawning time and when they need to bulk up before winter or the spawn.  Some species congregate near the dam wall or in the mouth of feeder streams, to move up or downstream. While feeding will continue throughout the year visiting a dam in the high activity times will result in better catches.
 
Another factor to consider is water use. Recently some mates visited a dam super keen to experience the pre-dawn edge bite. Water levels were dropping rapidly while they were there thanks to draw off for irrigation. This is widely regarded as a major turn off for fish and they failed to connect with any cod. The day after they left water levels stabilised and the fishing improved for the next few weeks.  
 
Invasive species can sometimes be an issue in dams.
Holidays
 
Many dams are used for water sports such as skiing and wake boarding. Over school holidays camping grounds can fill with families keen to enjoy the water. From mid-morning dozens of noisy boats dragging a wide array of objects make stealthy approaches difficult in open water.  
 
For anglers who prefer some solitude this is a time to avoid. Alternately you can target the standing timber or fish early and late. 
 
The information paradox
 
Sourcing accurate current information about a dam is not easy. Some local businesses will talk it up because their livelihoods rely on visitors bringing dollars into the town. It’s always “glass half full” from them. They may say it’s “quiet”, but a few “good ones” are still being caught. One optimist at Biloela told me they were in there if I was good enough! If you hear or read this circumlocution proceed with caution.
 
Browsing the archives of the regional newspaper can help map the dam’s history. Major floods and fish kills will make the headlines and stocking details may get a mention too. You are looking for at least three to four years since a flood or similar and solid stocking after the waters have dropped. In dams where fish don’t escape the stocking data and creel study results make useful reading.
 
Local guides are a good source of information and it is well worth taking a trip with one. If he or she is booked solid that is a good sign. Dams in deep decline will not support guides who go elsewhere until things pick up.
 
The best information comes from a reliable and competent mate who has just fished the dam.  After a few poor trips to waters reported to be producing excellent fish I now do much more research to determine where the dam is on its cycle. Things change quite quickly as stocked fish grow so last year’s dead pool could be delivering good fishing this season.
 
In summary, research the dam’s recent history. Make sure there have been no recent floods or other events likely to wreck the fishing. Stocking data is also worth a look to determine just how many fish are in there now. If the signs are good and there is clear evidence fish are being caught, then it’s time to get on the water.
 
Be prepared to mix up your approach to find and catch fish.
When you arrive
 
Dams are ever changing with even one or two percent water level difference making it necessary to relearn the topography. If you fish an impoundment that is used for irrigation or hydro, you might see last trips snag up the bank or your favourite campsite under five metres of water.
 
Today, on-board technology can provide an excellent picture of areas of interest. Sidescan sonar and other aids will reveal the features and fish aggregations you need to find.  Experienced anglers will take time to “sound round” to see what is going on.
 
Unless you are determined to do one style of fishing, be prepared to mix up your approach to find and catch fish. A combination of trolling and casting with a range of lures will offer the best chance of connecting with fish.
 
The water in dams moves. Inflows, discharges and wind create current. The movement may be subtle, but fish will be onto this and may congregate where the current eddies near points and islands.  Wind hitting a shore at acute angles will generate water movement so learn to love the “weather” shores.
 
Old river beds are often the deepest part of a dam and fish find these tree lined lanes attractive. Obviously, the water depth needs to be fishable with areas near the dam wall with 20 or more metres of water being too deep.
 
Water temperature differences will cause vertical movement in the water too. You can see a thermocline (where a distinct change of water temperature occurs) on a sounder as the water density is slightly different above and below the line. Depending on the species, they will want to sit above or below this level. Fish food like water fleas and baitfish will also often relate to the thermocline.
 
It’s worth understanding the baitfish situation in your target dam. This will this assist in lure selection. Identifying breeding aggregations of fish like boney bream, grunter and galaxias is also useful. Meanwhile identifying yabby beds or recently flooded banks in waters like Eucumbene is a good way to find browsing trout.
 
Insurance
 
One of my mates has fished dams for many years. He has fished the boom and bust times and learned to avoid wishful thinking when planning a trip. He likes to select a dam “cluster” where if one is not firing you can relocate to another.
 
In some areas recent adjustments to the fisheries regulations have made rivers and estuaries a much more attractive proposition. In Queensland the net ban has re-established an impressive fishery in several major watersheds. The Hinchinbrook region and the Fitzroy River are examples. It’s possible to spend a few days on a dam then go to a river and enjoy another experience. Factoring in some insurance for unforeseen events is a good way to get the most from any trip.
 
Most stocked dams have a “cycle” of boom and bust. On the upside fish grow big and anglers catch plenty of trophy size specimens. The good times don’t last forever, the population plateaus and catches drop off. Events like droughts, floods or a prolonged cold snap can affect a dam for many years.
 
During the “off-peak” times local knowledge built on regular use can help local anglers catch fish. Unfortunately, visitors expecting a trophy fish or two can do it hard. It’s quite possible to go fishless even in heavily stocked waters. Do some research before you go. Be prepared to try a variety of techniques to find and catch the trophy fish we all dream about.
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