Catch & Release in the Goulburn Valley

Many of you will read our reports and notice that we release all of our fish. Those of you that have been guiding with us or have read about our services will know that we have a catch and release policy on all guided trips. While most people are too polite to ask why this is the case, we feel it is something worth qualifying here in writing, so that everyone can read our/my reasons and decide for themselves what is the best for them.

Catch and release is the only way that we as individual anglers can ensure the survival of the trout fishing in our local rivers. Australia is a harsh landscape and trout are on the margins in terms of maintaining healthy, wild, self-sustaining populations. The number one reason that most mainland trout fisheries struggle is the climate. We have hot, dry summers here and this has a huge impact on fish populations. We also have droughts which run for up to ten years. The most recent one had a massive impact on trout populations with fish kills being recorded on all local rivers (most went unseen as no one was fishing due to the conditions).

Then there is the lack of suitable spawning sites. The Goulburn is a wonderful river but its flow is the reverse of an undammed river system. It runs high and cold in summer and low and warm in winter; as valuable autumn, winter and spring rains are captured for irrigation releases during the months Dec-Mar of each year. Unfortunately these minimum releases fall below the ideal level for trout spawning in most sections of river. Typical releases of 250 MLD through the winter mean that the Goulburn is basically a narrow creek when otherwise it would be a wide, full river.

This means that only a few key places are ideal for fish spawning in terms of depth and flow rate over the appropriate riverbed. If the flow rate was upped to say 2000 MLD then the amount of suitable places would be increased by a factor of 15 or even 20. But at these low flow levels there is only so much water that a fish finds suitable for egg laying, which results in a cycle of fish digging each other’s eggs up, as each successive run of fish occurs.

On top of this the water releases from the lake can vary wildly as companies like AGL and other groups can call on their water entitlement at any time. It always happens at trout spawning time. This is not a fatalistic statement but rather plain fact as the power companies will often hold onto their entitlements and use them when the demand is at its peak. Typically when we get hot spells in summer and everyone switches on their AC and cold snaps when we all turn on our heaters. This can cause the river to be raised and dropped in a relatively short space of times i.e. days or weeks.

The worst case scenario is when the river runs high for a week or two at spawning time, and then suddenly drops as the demand for power drops to normal levels. All those fish that spawned at the higher river levels have their eggs left high and dry. This is disastrous and something that in other parts of the trout world would lead to legal challenges and ultimately compensation being paid by those damaging the fishery. All told a small amount when compared to the huge profits derived from peak power generation, but nevertheless money that would go back into the fishery, into things such as stocking or habitat restoration. No such thing happens here in this country and as anglers we all suffer for it without even realising it is going on.

The Goulburn’s feeder streams are also vulnerable at these times as they are all low and accessible in the early part of the spawning period. Fish massing in pools ready to spawn are hammered by mostly unscrupulous folks (i.e. they know what they are doing), who tend to kill as many fish as they can. Even those fishing to spawning fish with the intention of releasing them are doing damage by disrupting fish from their task, often resulting in accidental injury, the fish failing to spawn or even just tramping over egg beds and adding to the huge mortality of eggs at this critical stage. Many so called ‘anglers’ specifically target these fish when they are at their most vulnerable and totally preoccupied. Something akin to shooting a bird on its nest.

To illustrate how we feel about the situation know this. You will never see an egg fly for sale in our shop; nor will you find us fishing them. We have never sold them and never will. This is not some holier than thou position we have taken purely to take some ‘perceived’ moralistic high ground. It is simply a logical step to remove ourselves, our clients and our customers from being part of the problem. Sure the guys on our trips fish egg patterns in British Columbia to steelhead and salmon. But these are extremely healthy fisheries that are managed and self-sustaining.

Then we come to the elephant in the room; our Fisheries Department and their lack of anything even resembling management. First off let’s banish the myth I often hear trotted out in defence of killing our wild fish. ‘But they are stocked for us to catch’. Once and for all; our rivers are not stocked. They are not ‘Put and Take’ trout fisheries that are continually being restocked. Our rivers receive no stockings or assistance from those charged with maintaining them. A few years ago we received several small token stockings of a few hundred fish (election year?!) at several of the key access points along the Goulburn but due to the timing of the fish releases, the points at which they were liberated and the amount of self-promotion that was done by our Fisheries Department, more fish were taken out than went in.

Our Fisheries Department are not pro-active and show no desire to manage or improve our river trout fisheries. This is a fact.  They have a blanket 5 fish per day, per person bag limit for all of Victoria’s rivers. In fact Victoria is the only place anywhere in the world that trout are found, where the Fisheries Department in charge fails to manage its waterways on a river by river basis. Even many of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, still healing from civil war with their economies in tatters, have taken the time to protect their trout fisheries from overharvesting by enforcing catch and release and a key part of this is understanding what each fishery is, and protecting it with the appropriate regulations. At very least the major systems like the Goulburn, Kiewa, Mitta Mitta should have regulations specific to their unique needs.

So we have a 5 fish per day limit on our rivers that are not stocked, that are affected by drought, that have limited natural recruitment and are affected by poorly timed releases of water from a lake. What could possibly be worse? Well the fact that our Fisheries managers choose not allocate any resources to actually enforcing their own inadequate regulations. Instead they prefer to make a big deal about ‘high profile’ policing i.e. checking licences at the Eildon Pondage on busy weekends e.g. Trout Opening, Melbourne Cup Weekend, Easter etc. The irony being that the Pondage is a stocked lake; a put and take fishery! Rivers don’t even factor into the equation when it comes to enforcement.

I have guided here full time since 1997. Not once have I, or my clients, been asked to produce a licence. There is no enforcement and the people who do the wrong thing know this. Once the river drops and we move into June, I will see the same cars, at the same access points, day after day. These people use trout eggs for bait and flout what little protection the trout are afforded by the current regulations. These people do this because they can.

All this and the fish of the Goulburn River and its feeder streams maintain reasonable populations of naurally spawned fish. Despite the hostile Australian climate, poor natural recruitment, lack of management or indeed any meaningful enforcement of the woefully inadequate regulations; the trout of the region hang on and provide us with excellent fishing at times.

Back in the early 90’s we concluded as a group that killing fish was damaging our local fisheries and we have since made a conscientious effort to minimise our impact on the fish stocks here in the valley. I can personally attest to seeing the same fish caught 7 times this season by my clients alone and so I do have a grasp of the economic benefits to be gained by releasing fish. But this is about more than my vested interests as a guide who earns his living on these waters. This is about the ongoing viability of the trout fishery itself.

If I want my children to be able to go out in twenty years time and fish to a trout that is selectively feeding on emerging pupa or to stalk a willow grub feeder in a backwater on the Goulburn, then the only option is to release my fish and encourage others to understand why it is necessary to do the same. My view is that if we cannot get our Fisheries managers to take the job seriously (and do what they are paid to do), then it is up to us as responsible anglers to do everything in our power to educate our fellow fisherman and set the correct example.

Some will call me elitist because my position conflicts with their world view. So be it. I live on this river. I play on this river. I make my living on it. When it comes to the Goulburn there is not a lot that escapes the motley crew in this fly fishing centre, as we are all fanatical about the trout and the rivers of the region. We see a lot, we share everything that we see and we speak to others that are fishing the waters that we love so much. As such I feel that we have an obligation to share what we know and hopefully help protect what is, when all is said and done, a fragile and finite resource.

I implore you to take a greater interest in our rivers and to make up your own mind. Read the published studies that speak of low fish numbers and inadequate natural recruitment. While I personally have no grievance with folks taking a feed of fish from the fisheries that can handle it, our rivers just don’t fall into this category. I am writing this at 10.30pm on Easter Sunday 2013 and if you could have seen the numbers of fish killed so far this weekend, you would understand just how big the problem is.

The ironic thing is that I have fished in many of the premium tailwaters in Idaho/Montana and in terms of the river as a blank canvas, we have something every bit as good they do when it comes to the Goulburn. We have the hatches. We have the water from Lake Eildon. We have some terrific feeder streams. All that’s missing are the populations of fish. If we could now just convince the majority of anglers to release their fish, we would have a tailwater of true world class status. It would take 4-5 years but we have the raw ingredients necessary to create a superb trout fishery, here in our own backyard.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and all the best for the coming low water season.

Antony Boliancu

Goulburn Valley Fly Fishing Centre

PS – I am not advocating making rivers fly only here. I think all rivers should be managed based on their unique character and needs. I think that making certain streams ‘catch and release’ would have a dramatic effect on the quality of the fishing on offer. Slot limits should also be used. Electro fishing surveys could be used to determine the profile of the river and we could allow say 1 fish at between x and y cms per person per day. But with regulations you need enforcement. The current 5 fish per day is a joke but I haven’t yet decided whether our Fisheries managers are totally malevolent, incompetent or a mixture of both.