Ovens Gold

David Anderson profiles Victoria’s Ovens River

Sitting out in front of the Ginger Baker cafe in Bright, eyes slowly being seared by the lycra-clad hordes cycling past, it’s hard not to wonder if Bright’s founding fathers, upon naming the town in 1866, could see into the future. No, as well as that fits for me, they were more likely blinded by all the gold being hoovered out of the river and not paying any attention to all the cyclists.
Thankfully the mining has stopped and the Ovens River, despite having been virtually flipped end-to-end by gold diggers and manipulated through the whole valley to grow everything the miner needs from hops to tobacco, has recovered into an easily accessed freestone trout water above Bright and some of the best running cod water in Victoria below.
The only real wilderness water on the Ovens is above the village of Harrietville where the river splits into two creeks, the West Branch and the East Branch. Both are wonderful 2/3-weight ventures in much more natural surrounds than the bigger river below.
The wildest, the East Branch, runs out of the Alpine National Park off the flanks of Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop and is accessed via the Bon Accord walking track off the East Ovens road in Harrietville. From the trailhead, it’s a relatively easy and beautiful 3–4 kilometre walk on a well-graded and maintained track through mountain forest to the footbridge across the river near Washington Creek. Upstream of the bridge, there’s everything I love about small Northeast Victorian freestone trout water, with short, fast sections between the ripples and shallow pools flowing through the big tree ferns and dense bush. At summer levels, as small stream fishing goes in these mountains, this is generally easy dry fly water with good overhead casting room and nothing too challenging from tricky currents or fast deep water. The trout are no rarity either and display all the rich colours that wild fish offer.
The West Branch is less of a walk and accessed from the West Ovens Track off the end of Mill Road, and like the East, it is thick with chubby stream-sized trout. Bush bashing to get to less accessible water, like most of the river, is made very difficult by epic blackberries and thick undergrowth.
A couple of other twiggy options in the Ovens valley are Snowy Creek, which runs into the River just above Germantown, and Morses Creek, which joins right in the middle of Bright’s most popular and over-populated swimming hole in Lions Park. The Snowy is as fishy as it is overgrown, and a proper pull-your-hair-out twig-water experience with all the suffering and rewards for those foolish enough to fish it. Morses Creek, on the other hand, is more open, even park-like in places, and both easy to cast a fly around and loaded with fish. It also flows near one of the best pubs in all of Victoria, at Wandilligong, where even the worst day’s fishing can easily be saved with one of their brilliant meals and a beer.
Below Harrietville the river runs very close to the road most of the way down to Smoko and there are lots of great short sections, perfect for a quick end-of-day session, with my favourite being the water around Stony Creek Road and the trout farm. In some ways, because of all the large willows, this area reminds me of the best trout waters on the western divide in New South Wales and has both a lot of stream-sized fish and a few bigger if you take the time to seek them out.
I also really like blindly flipping hoppers up the long, uniformly fast water below the Bibby Lane bridge in late summer, where paying close attention to slightly deeper or slower currents around the edges and overhanging vegetation can add up to a lot of rainbows.
For scenery, if nothing else, the shallow gorge just above the locality of Germantown, near the turn-off to Mt Beauty, has some deeper water with more challenging casting and presentations though it offers perhaps the best opportunity for stalking good fish with a second spotter from above.
Walking along the edges through the sometimes-thick scrub on all the loose piles of rocks from the gold rush is hard work in places, but well worth the effort.

From Smoko and through to Bright, the Ovens is lined with blackberry infested pine plantation and, to be honest, lacks character to the eye. Fortunately, the water is fast and clear, there are plenty of tracks that provide car and foot access, and the fish don’t seem to care about aesthetics.
Bright itself is very busy and you would be nuts to go anywhere near the river in town when it’s full of holidaymakers — and trust me, it literally gets full. That said, there is good fishing around the golf course and through some of the pine forests downstream in the long wide ripples towards Porepunkah. For trout, early in the season is best before it all heats up and they get sulky and seemingly evaporate until dark.
Then again, if you’re under the impression that trout are put off by the great unwashed having a wash, have a look at the small weir in the park just above the Porepunkah bridge during an evening hatch. I’ve seen the water boil with holidaymakers through the day and then boil with fish on dark.
The Ovens is one of those rivers you could probably pick half a dozen standard fly patterns for and do well throughout the season, but after spending a lot of time here with Myrtleford guide and cormorant Cameron McGregor of River Escapes, I have let him suggest the best.
In season, from December 1st till August 31st, cod are on offer from Porepunkah through to where the river joins the Murray just above Lake Mulwala (which is also full of cod) some 130 odd kilometres downstream. Like the upper river, there’s easy and well-spaced access at the bridges and it can be fished on foot in a lot of places.
Cameron, who does drift-boat trips through here for cod, tells me the best fishing occurs prior to the start of May before water temperatures cool off. He says cod will feed both off the surface and in the depths around snags. Surface fishing can be achieved with both floating and intermediate lines depending on the inherent buoyancy of the fly pattern being used. Best times for surface fishing are early and late in the day and into the night. During the day, typical fishing revolves around covering snags with subsurface presentations and is best done with sinking lines. If you could only own one line for cod, Cam says it would be an intermediate due to its versatility, but some deeper and faster flowing sections are best fished with faster sinkers.

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