My Brown Yarra

Chris Fiddes sees beauty in Melbourne’s fringes

I had been driving the road up the Yarra Valley for over 20 years, hopeful as every angler must be, yet ready to take home only the day’s small moments. Then one day on the radio they were talking about Tony Birch’s novel Ghost River, and playing Georgia Lee’s ‘Yarra River Blues’. The novel explored the lives of Melbourne’s fringe dwellers who once lived along the Yarra’s banks, and the song was about a child lost and washed out to sea. Both linked people’s lives to the river, and I saw it was part of my story too.
The Yarra is Melbourne’s major river, flowing 242 km from its source near Mt Baw Baw to Port Phillip Bay, but I’d been so bitterly disappointed the first time I fished it. Coming to Melbourne for university, I’d already read Scholes and Wedlick, and so drove up above Warburton one weekend. The water was brown. Really brown. Not just tannin-stained, but full of dirt, and spotting a fish seemed a joke. The riverbed was clay and silt with grey sedimentary rocks, leaf and branch litter and snags. The overgrown banks were littered with empty cans, and there were abandoned fireplaces and rubbish at almost every access point.
The only trout I caught was tiny. Such a change from the beautiful Kiewa, King and Buckland where my dad had taken me on weekends at home. It took me years to try the Yarra again, and longer to grow to love her as she deserved. Now I feel a growing anticipation as I start to see tree ferns and mountain ash, blackwood and sassafras and try to get that first glimpse of water through the window. And I wonder if I’ll see the turquoise spiny freshwater crayfish, or a platypus or other old friends of the riverbank.
Today nearly half of Melbourne’s four million-plus people live within the Yarra Valley, and the river has been hard used by them. In turn they are often confronted by media stories of heavy-metal pollution from industry, spiking E.coli levels from sewage overflow causing swim safety alerts, and urban trash from storm water. Official advice is not to eat the black bream or mulloway that can be caught under city bridges.
A series of reservoirs have been built on the Yarra’s tributaries and finally on the river itself: Yan Yean (1857), Toorourong (1885), Maroondah (1927), O’Shaughnessy (1928), Silvan (1932) and Upper Yarra Dam (1957). Diversion weirs were also built on a number of small tributary creeks. Upstream, all these catchments have been closed to fishing, though clearfell logging remains permitted.
The Woori Yallock Creek at Yellingbo Conservation Area is similarly closed to the public to protect the endangered helmeted honeyeater (Victoria’s avifaunal emblem) and significant floral populations, as are sections of Macclesfield, Sheepstation, Cockatoo and Shepherds creeks.
Of the significant Yarra tributaries only the Little Yarra, Don and Big Pat’s creeks flow unhindered and accessible, save for private property of course.
Nature too has treated the Yarra Valley harshly, with many lives lost and major environmental damage from the bushfires of Black Thursday 1851, Black Friday 1939, Ash Wednesday 1983 and Black Saturday 2009. Droughts occur regularly, though after the last major drought period environmental releases from Upper Yarra Dam were instituted at 17 per cent of expected natural flows.
Although the Yarra’s original fish species ranged from the little Australian grayling to the abundant river blackfish, the early colonists attempted several introductions. In 1857 Edward Wilson, co-proprietor of The Argus and driving force of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, arranged for Murray cod and ‘bream’ (Macquarie perch) to be transported by horse and cart from the King Parrot Creek, a Goulburn tributary, to the Plenty River and thus the Yarra. Their descendants survive in parts of the river today. Trout were released in 1872 into the Watts River near Healesville, and later to other Yarra tributaries and the Yarra itself.
You can still see the first Victorian caught trout from 1870 in a jar of spirits at Melbourne Museum (it was caught in the dam at William Robertsons property Wooling, near Macedon).
Though it’s hard to believe now, trout could once be caught on the doorstep of Melbourne. In 1941 The Age reported a 3¾ lb trout from Dight’s Falls in Collingwood on the opening weekend, and the Abbotsford Fish Protection Society and Angling Club, which closed in 1970, claimed 10 lb fish were twice caught there. I was quite sceptical of this until finding out that a State Fisheries and Game Department hatchery was located in the Yarra Bend parklands early last century, though only a row of aged cypresses remains.
Big trout also came from the upper reaches. David Scholes wrote of a seven-pounder he caught, and regretted never getting onto one of the Yarra’s true monsters. In 1955 a 31-inch 13-pounder caught near Launching Place made the newspapers. But since the Upper Yarra Dam, and encroaching urbanisation and population growth, those days are gone.
So why still fish there? Many Melbourne anglers don’t anymore, but choose to drive to the north-east or Ballarat, and more and more to hop a flight across the Tasman or Bass Strait.
Yet there is something about the Yarra. Access is good and half-to-one pounders are always there if you are careful. Last season I made 13 trips, usually fishing dry-and-dropper for 2–3 hours, for 79 trout and a blackfish. The best was 2 lb, the best trip an even dozen, and there was only one blank (on the very day I persuaded my friend Brian to come and take pictures for me). My best so far is not quite 3 lb, and most often a generously-weighed 2-pounder is my fish of the season.
I don’t doubt a few 3-pound-plus trout are there but they are quite hard to find. Plain luck is probably the best strategy, followed by putting in lots of time, or fishing at night in deep snaggy spots no one else gets to.
And the season has its moments. I await every year with anticipation. Early-season nymphing can be a real highlight. Rising trout are a rarity, but every spring there will be a week or two when small grey duns come off in the middle of overcast conditions, enough to interest most fish. The evening rise with snowflake caddis is perhaps the most reliable event, especially around Warburton where there are kilometres of riverbank paths with parks and even lawn down to the water.
Summer polaroiding (yes, you can do it in Yarra water!) can be a real test of your skills. Good fish that are hard to see will hold right on the edge of the tail of pools where the current picks up, and you won’t get many chances for a second presentation. The most unreliable but perhaps best fishing comes with falls of orangeish flying termites in thundery weather in late spring and summer when I have seen the river boil with rises and caught little browns that I thought would surely burst if I touched them.
Most of all I look forward to autumn when the river slows and the water clears, and nature starts its slow hurry towards winter and the trout start cautiously sipping the bubble line.
If you fish at this time of year, you too should heed Augustus’s maxim ‘festina lente’: make haste slowly.
Of all the Yarra Valley waters I have had a special fascination with Badger Creek at Healesville, which is also named Corranderk Creek as it runs beneath Mt Toolebewong. (The ‘badgers’ were wombats). This site was chosen for the release of the precious newly hatched Atlantic salmon from the ‘Norfolk’ shipment of 1864, never to be seen again. Here also was the Wurundjeri community of Corranderk from where their Ngurungaeta, William Barak, twice walked to petition the Victorian Parliament, and later carried his dying son to the Melbourne Hospital, and then created his famous paintings now in the National Gallery of Victoria.
In 1920 Healesville Sanctuary was founded here as a native animal refuge, and you can walk its paths and, from the bridges, watch trout swimming in the little creek. Even in midsummer in drought years I’ve seen them on the fin in the middle of the day, feeding in the open in behaviour quite different from those in the rest of the valley. Needless to say, you’ve never been able to fish in the Sanctuary. Above here is a short section of the creek that flows through suburban Healesville and a caravan park, where you can have some fun with half-pounders and maybe even a three-quarter pounder.
So there it is, still. From the Maroondah Highway crossing to the Upper Yarra Dam, there are over 50 kilometres with more than a dozen named tributaries of unconventionally ugly troutable water, whose beauty can still be seen by those who care to try, brown water and all.

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