Steve Starlo's guide to dam fishing

By: Steve Starling

Typical dam fishing boat The typical dam fishing craft is a car-topper or smaller trailerboat in the 3.7 to 4.5m length range powered by a 15 to 90hp outboard motor. Typical dam fishing boat
Australian bass caught in dam Australian bass have been one of the great fish stocking success stories in our dams over the past two decades. Australian bass caught in dam
Steve Starlo with golden perch Starlo with an ideal eating-size golden perch taken on a metal vibe lure. Steve Starlo with golden perch

The popularity of dam fishing and impoundment freshwater fishing has grown dramatically. How does this form of fishing compare to more traditional angling?

Steve Starlo's guide to dam fishing
Steven's wife Jo lands a yellowbelly or golden perch on a southern QLD dam.

The construction of dams or impoundments used to store water for irrigation, hydro-electricity, flood mitigation and domestic needs has been a double-edged sword, especially from the perspective of fish stocks and recreational angling fortunes.

These artificially-created lakes disrupt flows, act as barriers to fish migration and can create ‘thermal pollution’ in the form of very cold, de-oxygenated outflows into downstream rivers. None are good things, especially for native fish species.


Dam fishing and impoundments

On the positive side of the ledger, man-made waterways provide greatly increased areas of aquatic habitat in this dry, old continent of ours. As a result, they can eventually become great places to cast a line.

Many need to be stocked with hatchery-bred fish fingerlings to kick-start any sort of viable fishery, and some require constant, regular restocking to maintain those fish populations, especially when the species involved need access to running water or tidal areas to successfully reproduce. Fortunately, the money spent on such programs is usually multiplied many times over in terms of economic activity and social benefits.

Historically the bulk of the fish-stocking effort in this country was focussed on establishing introduced trout populations in the cooler, higher-altitude lakes of our southern states. However, in more recent decades, there’s been increased effort put into breeding and stocking native fish, including Australian bass, barramundi, Murray cod, golden perch (yellowbelly), saratoga, sooty grunter, silver perch and several other varieties.


Native fish

Fishing for native species in dams is a very different matter to chasing them in rivers. While they can potentially grow much larger in still water than their river-dwelling brethren, dam fish can also be damn fish. Many are notoriously fickle, moody beasts, prone to going off the bite for days or even weeks at a time. Nonetheless when dam fishing is good, it can be very damn good indeed!

Fortunately many of our impoundments are also home to tasty crustaceans such as redclaw and yabbies. If the fish won’t play, these critters often will, and increasing numbers of grey nomads, along with other dam-users, now target these shell-clad delights.

Some dams can be fished and yabbied from the shore, but you’ll fare better using a car-topper, trailerboat, canoe or kayak. However, while these may be enclosed waters by definition, make no mistake, many cut up fast and badly in a blow. Dangers are compounded at alpine altitudes and dams like Lake Eucumbene in the Snowy Mountains have a dire record of boating fatalities. Beware and take care.


Best lures and baits for dam fishing

Our freshwater fish can be targeted using baits, lures or even fly-casting gear. Common garden-variety earthworms make reasonable bait for many dam-dwellers, but locally-sourced offerings such as live shrimps and small yabbies trapped in the margins of the lake itself are even better. Be aware that some offerings such as live fish and frogs are not allowed to be used as bait in many waterways, for all sorts of very sound reasons.

Lure fishers, both trollers and casters, often do especially well in our dams, particularly when the water is reasonably clear, with ‘clear’ being a relative and rather elastic term in this context. Basically if you can see the palm of your hand when it’s held 30 or 40cm beneath the surface, you’re a reasonable chance of catching a fish or two on a lure. A metre-plus of visibility qualifies as very clear and 2m or more is verging on being too transparent for reliable fishing during daylight hours, especially under bright, sunny skies. Our clearest dams often produce better catches at night, especially on lures.


Eating qualities of fish

The eating qualities of dam-raised fish are variable, at least in my opinion. Some, such as larger yellowbelly or golden perch, can become very fatty and muddy in flavour as they grow and are hardly worth eating. Much better to let them go. By contrast, a 1kg bass or a just-legal Murray cod from a cleaner lake can be absolutely delicious. Naturally, a lot depends on personal tastes and preferences … or how hungry you are!

In recent years there’s been a dramatic increase in the popularity of fishing and boating on our freshwater impoundments. This not only reflects the quality of sport now on offer in these man-made waterways, but also a growing perception that fishing is becoming a less productive pastime on some of our more crowded coastal waterways.

That perception is only compounded by the creation of new marine parks and no-go sanctuary zones that effectively push more and more anglers into ever smaller areas. It’s no wonder many are now taking to the hills … literally.

In the final analysis, our inland dams represent a paradoxical mix of good and bad when it comes to fish and those who chase them for fun or a feed. For better or worse, we need the water these man-made impoundments store, so we should probably learn to live with the varied angling opportunities they offer. After all, they can be damn good places to wet a line! 


See the full version of this story in Trade-A-Boat #468, August 2015. Why not subscribe today?


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