Thompsons Creek Dam

Joshua Hutchins discovers a winter venue with trophy trout, not far from Sydney

As memories of dry fly encounters on mountain streams fade and the trout season comes to an end, I prepare to face the winter blues for another year. Frosty mornings, frozen fingers and iced runners are good enough reasons to hang up the rods. However, one discovery drives me to continue fishing through the cold: big trout no more than two hours from Sydney. Thompsons Creek Dam (TCD) is a small impoundment, 15 minutes out of Lithgow on the way towards Bathurst. The dam was initially built for cooling water used by the local power stations, and is still privately owned by Energy Australia. As such, access is governed by plenty of rules and regulations.* The dam is reached via Willow Vale Road, which leads to a small carpark. From this point, entry is by foot. A walk of 1.2 km will bring you to the eastern side of the dam wall, from where you can plan your attack. TCD is not an easy water. The fish are big and can be very picky, the wind can be fierce, and you may wonder if there are any trout in there at all. Some days certainly require plenty of casting and searching to find fish. But when you do, it can be a very re-warding experience. During the winter months, large trout make their way into the shallows and drop-off edges, in the hope of finding somewhere to spawn. Being nestled high in the catchment on the north side of Mt Lambie, there is very little running water for trout to move into the tiny creek at spawning time. An observant walk around the lake can help locate some of the areas where fish are starting to school and pair off in an attempt to spawn. TROPHY RAINBOW It was the first week of July, a very cold, windy and intermittently rainy day, up on the western side of the dam. My mate Pier and I had worked our way along a few of the likely drop-offs without success. The usual method of fishing big Woolly Buggers deep hadn’t produced a take. We made our way closer to the dam wall, unaware of the magic about to happen. “Pier, I’m going to try something different,” I called out as I reached for the floating line in my backpack. Off came the sinking line and I proceeded to rig up two small nymphs on droppers and a small home-tied Glo-bug as the point fly. Casting with the wind at my back, I laid out the first cast into a likely hold along a drop-off close to some snags. On a slow retrieve the line went taut and in a matter of seconds the 5X tippet broke like cotton. “Ouch, bad choice,” I told myself as I reached for the 4X in my vest. Calling out to Pier, I let him know I’d had a take, and set about replicating my lost rig. Back in action, I laid out a cast in a similar direction. Within seconds, the line tightened again. The initial take was slow, but after hook-up the TCD submarine decided it was time to go crazy! It was ten minutes before we caught our first sight of the fish, and not until it turned on its side did we realise how big it was. Once netted, we called out in celebration as the scales tipped right on 10 lb: an absolute football and my first Aussie trophy. The sleet set in and we decided that this had been our moment for the day. But as we walked away, I was already wondering how soon I could return. RE-MATCH A week later, I easily convinced another mate, Eddie, to come back for a TCD rematch. A brisk morning quickly turned into a rare clear sunny day, and the wind died down. I have not had conditions like it since. Pushing our luck, we made our way around the western side, returning to the last week’s trophy grounds with thoughts of replaying the glorious moment. Other anglers had just moved on from our chosen destination, but we still made our way to the water’s edge with heads held high. Same rig, same place, and no more than five minutes had passed before BOOM! This was no slow take! This was no small fish! “Eddie, I think this is another monster!” I yelled as it took me close to the backing in one powerful run. Getting the situation under control, I slowly brought the fish back to the bank. Once again, when it turned on its side there was a resounding “wow!” from us both. The net was out and that nervous feeling began to creep in. The feeling you get when a large fish is so close, and has nearly made your day, but is just not there yet. The net man performed to the highest level of excellence and we yet again paid our tributes to this amazing lake! “Yoooouu Beauty!” With the fish tipping the scales at 10½ lb, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was a magnificent, big-finned rainbow in solid condition, and the day had only just begun. They say that good things come to those who wait. But in fly fishing, I also tend to believe that good things come to those who wait and think! Just like many do at this lake, on our last visit we had worked the water for hours with Woolly Buggers, but it was that one simple change in tactics that produced results. Two in two weeks was just outright spoilt! BIG BROWNS & WINDY DAYS If there is one thing that most fly fishers hate, it’s wind. And last winter, TCD had no shortage of windy days. In fact late August and September brought an almost predictably consistent south-westerly, blowing across the lake. In addition to the wind, late August also brought a change in fish. As if nature just flicked a switch, the trout changed from rainbow to brown. Within two consecutive weekends the rainbows previously found close to the edge were replaced by big browns on patrol. On many occasions, strong winds caused the main basin of the dam to become almost unfishable. As a result, the sheltered areas of the back reaches became a more attractive option. This part of the lake is coated in submerged standing timber, and for those willing, it can provide close combat sight-fishing. Brown trout can be seen cruising in between the drowned timber, but they are difficult to cast to. The only opportunities came on those rare occasions when a fish made its way into a small clearing. Even then, the playing field was so small that break-offs were common. My strategy was to find a pocket with casting potential and then sit and wait, carefully scanning the water in all directions and hoping for a brown to cruise by. To keep the fly constantly in the zone, a small strike indicator, with one or two small nymphs dangling below, proved to be the most successful method. I quickly learned though, that not every hook-up in this snaggy area ends with happy snaps. On the last day of winter, however, I made my way up to the eastern side of the dam on a relatively mild but very early morning. The relentless onshore wind made casting almost impossible past lunchtime, so early starts were essential. We had also discovered that a week of strong winds, in the same direction, blew all the food to the windswept shore. The longer and stronger the wind, the more concentrated the fish. My early start was instantly rewarded by the sight of a large one feeding over the shallows of the eastern bank. I placed a cast two metres ahead of his predictable path, and without hesitation, the fish took my fly. The sun had barely risen, and I was rewarded with a stunning, butter-coloured, 8 lb brown trout. An early wake-up call is quickly forgotten thanks to moments like this. September brought with it some amazing days of sight fishing. As the browns got smarter I found the best method was to continually change the small nymphs being offered. These fish have seen every Woolly Bugger and lure known to man, but small natural flies placed in view of sighted fish make a hook-up far more likely. WHAT WORKS BEST? Don’t get me wrong, the faithful Woolly Bugger is never a bad choice to start searching around this dam. Countless respectable trout have fallen for it. The areas with steep drop-offs are most likely. From my experience, biggest is best in these areas and you shouldn’t be afraid to throw size 2 and 4 flies at the fish. Many of TCD’s large trout gorge on yabbies and bull-headed gudgeon, and the Woolly Bugger covers these bases nicely. Love them or hate them, Glo-bugs do work! In the midst of winter they are extremely effective. I would suggest buying yarn in peach and salmon egg colours and making your own — the smaller the better. Generic, commercially-sold Glo-bugs do work, but a slightly different home-made option could give you the upper hand. And for the purists, there are other winter options. In my experience, slowly retrieved flashback nymphs account for more fish than all other methods. Keep them small, size 12–18, and keep trying a range of colours and styles. The basic Hare’s Ear Nymph is another favourite, but I have caught fish on just about every style of nymph in my box. For years I avoided using midge pupa flies. How could something so small, attract a trout of any size? Not to mention a population of very large trout. Ollie, a fishing buddy, sought to prove me wrong by introducing me to his pure red midge pupa. His red midge, in size 14–18 and suspended under an indicator with a team of nymphs, also proved successful for several very large rainbows on otherwise quiet days on the lake. Ultimately, the fish are searching for food. It’s therefore up to us to think one step ahead — to think, and be different! These methods are a good starting point, but by no means the only way of fooling these big trout. If something isn’t working, change the plan. You never know what might be waiting to eat your next offering. Thompsons Creek Dam has brought some incredible fly fishing moments to my normally quiet winter, and is one of the best locations close to Sydney for catching trout all year round. It is regularly stocked and holds a healthy population of fish for all anglers to sharpen their skills. Why not pull out the thermals and beanie this winter and give it a go? *Refer to www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries/recreational/freshwater/thompson-creek-dam for current rules and information about this impoundment.

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