High Times On The Snowy

David Anderson fishes the highest reaches of Kosciuszko’s iconic Snowy River

On a clear morning, surrounded by Kosciuszko National Park’s lofty peaks, the views across the highest reaches of the Snowy River near Charlotte’s Pass take on an almost surreal though not quite Australian feel. Barren rocky ridges still carrying wide patches of a not long gone winter’s snow contrast sharply with the low, thick alpine scrub, wildflowers and stands of stunted and wildly angular snow gums in the distance. Like the air, everything is cool, crisp and clear and a world away from the hazy blue-green valleys baking through the early summer far below. The river, ice cold and fast, runs over a wide tumbling bed of white rocks, boulders and sculpted bedrock, and at 1700 metres where the Main Range walking track crosses, it is not only one of our most iconic trout rivers, but also the highest. My well travelled friend and TV fly guy Micah Adams says that the Snowy River, above Guthega Pondage where it’s siphoned off for hydro, is comfortably the most stunning water he’s fished in Australia — a truth that I, and many other anglers I know, would find very hard to dispute. The other truth here is that this river is, at times, a real challenge to fish due to potentially wild alpine weather including snow at any time of the year, regular cyclonic winds that make casting a nightmare in the wide-open landscape, and big changes in water levels through the season. I have driven up here on a warm spring day in Jindabyne, where everything was flowers and buzzing bees and rising fish on the lower Thredbo River, only to crest the hill at Dainers Gap and be right back in the middle of a winter wonderland. Another time, we walked in from Guthega on a crystal clear December morning with a forecast of late afternoon light rain and ended up doing the hard march out an hour later in a blizzard of stinging sideways sleet and winds that made it hard to stand upright. And last, but in no way least, the fish here can become super spooky or super selective, or both, and sometimes completely shut down. In fact, I’ve never fished anywhere else in Australia where such consistently small trout can so quickly humble even the best anglers in what would otherwise seem ideal conditions. The good news, and maybe what really sets this place apart, is that if you pick your moment and hit a good summer purple patch, the fishing can be absolutely extraordinary. It’s either epic feast or epic famine, but always worth the walk. GETTING TO THE TOP Access to the river is all on foot and available from three points. The very top of the river is reached off the popular Main Range walking track, which runs from the carpark at Charlotte’s Pass to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko in a wide loop that crosses the Snowy River in a little under a kilometre. It’s a fairly easy enough walk down a paved track to the river, though the walk back out, thanks to my old nemesis gravity, requires a little more fortitude. Above the crossing lies a pocket water paradise and the easiest part of the river to walk and to fish. At its lowest water levels, this looks more like a river of rocks from a distance with only a slim flow weaving its way through, but it remains great dry fly water. Below the crossing there’s a short stretch of easily fished pools and fast runs before the river plunges into a gorge of massive boulders over bedrock with steep, heavily vegetated banks. The fishing here is fast paced, very visual and requires focused presentations and mending to get natural drifts through the short and sometimes difficult currents. As a day trip, I like to cut cross-country from about two-thirds down the walking track, following the river downstream from above before dropping in and fishing back up. ABOVE Guthega Pondage The Illawong walking track starts at a parking area off Guthega Road at the ski village of the same name, above the pondage (and here’s a big surprise) of the same name. It hits the river in roughly a kilometre and then follows it upstream to a swinging bridge some two kilometres after that. The walk from Guthega to the swing bridge is a great journey in its own right, through spectacular mountain scenery. The track is narrow through the low scrub though an easy enough walk with just the one short steep stretch after Blue Cow Creek where Parks have kindly fitted stairs to reduce gravity. The river from the lake confluence to the swing bridge has an amazing array of deep, crystal clear pools, white-water runs and short drops through low gorges, and has plenty of small pockets to pick along the banks. In low water it’s a physical scramble with lots of boulder hopping and even a few stretches where it’s necessary to walk around deep water by climbing the banks. In high water there’s little room to manoeuvre around the river for risk of a quick trip to Orbost in the powerful currents, and fishing here in early summer or spring can involve a lot of walking between water that borders on impossible. Above the swing bridge the terrain settles down a bit, even if the river remains fairly frantic, and this is my favourite area to fish with hoppers and other large dries in late summer. Lastly I will mention that, over the years, I’ve finished more than a few tough days up the river by casting to kilo plus trout selectively rising on Guthega Pondage in the last light. Spencers Creek One of the main tributaries of the Snowy and a great fishery as well, Spencers Creek runs from alpine meadows above the Kosciuszko road to the main river some 3.5 kilometres downstream if you’re a crow. Can’t fly? Then it’s a long unforgiving walk through thick, low and undulating scrub that will have you questioning your own sanity if the fish don’t rise to the occasion. Thankfully, this is worth fishing in its own right and a walk all the way to the Snowy might not be necessary. Immediately below the bridge the stream is unique for its series of big, slow pools between the otherwise slim runs, which really set it apart from the ‘hyper’ waters of the Snowy. My friend and Snowy Mountains guide Matt Tripet thinks this section of creek, more than any other in the mountains, is the perfect place to sharpen your New Zealand style trout stalking skills and break out the long, fine leaders, big casts and careful presentations that see them undone. He also recommends paying close attention to bubble lines near the deeper water, and structure, to get the bigger browns that can be found here trying to find cover where almost none exists in the wide open valley. For the mad bush-bashers amongst you, the last kilometre of Spencers before it merges with the Snowy was one of my favourite destinations in all the mountains when I was a younger, perhaps more foolish man. Mixed Gig Tackle wise, the Snowy River is a mixed gig as on the one hand it can be big, fast water, but on the other hand most of the fish are quite small. As much as I love flicking little glass rods and my Scott 2-weights around the high country, this, except maybe in the highest headwaters and through the lowest flows, is probably better suited to a faster 4-weight or heavier rod most of the time. For fly recommendations I asked Matt and Micah for their favourites and Micah suggested a Blue Blowfly Humpy and the highly visible and very deadly Indi Klink, while Matt chose a Parachute Blue Blowfly for prospecting and #14 Chocolate Dun for sighted or fussy fish. Both also recommended the new Bum Fluff Stimulator from Manic Tackle in sizes 12 and 14 as a great late-summer general hopper pattern. The only fly I would add is a small #16 Ausable Wulff to flick around when the snow caddis are dancing in the shade along the banks, and perhaps a #14 gold bead head Hare & Copper nymph to try when nothing else seems to work. To gather up-to-the-minute information on the conditions in the mountains and the recommended flies, call in to local fly shops — High Country Outfitters and The Alpine Angler.

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