Windamere Gold

Thomas Clancy targets golden perch in shallow water

Nestled amongst some of the oldest settlements west of the Great Dividing Range, Lake Windamere stretches across the upper Cudgegong River some 30 km upstream from the NSW Central Tableland’s town of Mudgee. The lake was built to meet the irrigation, stock and domestic water demands in the Cudgegong Valley below. Unlike a lot of regulated dams that vary in water level substantially over the course of a year, Windamere’s water level is reasonably stable. This stability promotes extensive weedbeds and prolific aquatic life, and the resident native fish populations take full advantage. Lake Windamere has a reputation for XOS natives. Huge Murray cod, silver perch and golden perch stalk the impoundment’s standing timber, rocky points and shallow bays. While all of these are worthy targets, it’s Windamere’s golden perch fishery that, in my opinion, truly makes the lake so special. In many mixed native fisheries, golden perch are often overshadowed by their brethren, the bass and cod, and only ever encountered as bycatch. This is not the case in Windamere. Here, the golden perch are the stars of the show, with a very large and very healthy population. In all my years fishing impoundments, from northern Victoria through to southeast Queensland, I’ve never come across perch so consistently well conditioned. Fish in the 60–65 cm range aren’t uncommon, and at certain times of the year a daily catch with a few fish pushing this trophy size is standard. As anyone who has caught golden perch before will know, the size of the fish has nothing to do with the overall length and everything to do with girth. Once golden perch approach the 50-cm mark, they seemingly stop growing lengthways and start going sideways, stacking on weight like you wouldn’t believe. NSW Department of Primary Industries records show the biggest perch caught coming in at 75 cm and a whopping 50 lb! IT’S A SPRING THING While Windamere’s golden perch can be caught year-round, spring is well and truly when this fishery reaches its trophy status. In their natural habitat, the lowland rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, spring provides golden perch with the higher water temperatures (high teens to low twenties) and flow pulse/flood events necessary to trigger spawning. While spawning is considered marginal at absolute best in impoundments, it seems nobody has told the fish. Instinct draws them into the shallow margins of the dam, slowly at first then en masse, where they begin to display aggressive and territorial spawning behaviours. For Lake Windamere, this all starts in the final weeks of winter. From late August, the water temperature starts to push into the low teens, signalling the fish to start moving up into the shallows. The first movement of fish is typically made up of the larger football-esque females; the smaller, more abundant males come later as the temperatures rise further. While the population density in the shallows during late winter is only a fraction of what is to come, fishing during this time can be greatly rewarding if it’s the true trophies you’re after. By focusing on shores that receive the sun’s rays first, you’re sure to be fishing some of the warmest water in the dam, which acts as a beacon to the fish this early in the season. Keep your fly close to the bank, anywhere from a foot to a few metres deep is best, as early season fish will push into very shallow water. For this reason, late winter and early spring can offer up some fantastic sight fishing in the weed-lined shallows. In fact, walking the bank scanning the water in front of you can be a fantastic way to cover water and avoid spooking fish. As the water temperature continues to push into the high teens, hordes of smaller males (as far as Windamere is concerned) follow the females and push into the shallows. In my experience, this typically occurs around mid-September. The males, ranging from 45–55 cm, are territorial and very aggressive – evidence of which is often seen on their gill plates and cheeks. The fish are much more active from mid-September on, and catch rates can soar if you find the right bank. Sight fishing is at its best during this time, too, with the warming water and increased competition freeing the fish of their lethargy. It is a brilliant time to be fishing the lake. For the remainder of spring, things remain relatively unchanged. The only differences being that the fish can generally be caught across a wider range of depths, and angling pressure increases by the day. By early October I like to focus my efforts in the 3- to 4.5-metre depth range and downsize my leader by a few kilos. By the middle of November, the main event starts to wind up. While fish can still be caught on the edges over summer, numbers dramatically reduce. Those that do stick to the edges over summer only do so in the wee hours of the morning, opting to retreat soon after sunrise into the deeper, cooler waters around the dam’s abundant standing timber. GETTING THERE Getting to Windamere is stress-free and straightforward from pretty much any direction. Access to the dam for boat users is via a double lane boat- ramp managed by the Cudgegong Waters Park. The park is gated, and pre-Covid required $6 in quite specific coinage to operate the boom for day access. These days (at least at the time of writing), the park no longer accepts coins, instead requiring you to pull over outside the gate and pay via EFTPOS in the park office, or call the day before if you are arriving outside office hours. If you choose to stay the night, the gate fee is included in the very reasonably priced tariff. Accommodation wise, you can choose to roll out a swag down by the lake, book a powered site further up the hill or stay in one of the onsite cabins. Regardless of your preference, you’ll have access to the toilet and shower blocks within the park. While the day temperatures through spring are, in my opinion, reasonably balmy (I live in Orange, after all) the nights and mornings still have a bite to them, and frosts are a possibility until October. Pack accordingly, especially if you’re going to be camping. I’ve been caught out more than once in this regard. Up until the end of September the lake sees relatively little angling pressure. As spring progresses, though, the weekend boat ramp queue grows almost exponentially. Being such a renowned fishery, the dam hosts several fishing tournaments throughout spring, often drawing participants from all over the country. If you don’t fancy sharing the lake with 200 extra anglers, ring the office ahead of time to see if a tournament coincides with your visit. It’s happened to me twice now, and while there’s plenty of fish for everyone, and the boost to the local economy is great, the washing machine that a flotilla of American-style bass boats churns the dam into isn’t overly pleasant to fish. GEAR TALK A medium-fast to fast 6- to 8-weight rod is ideal for Windamere. It will provide enough backbone to turn over the 2- to 4-inch weighted flies you’ll be casting and will provide some backbone to really stick it to your weighty adversaries. I’ve fished all three rod classes here and have settled on a fast 8-weight as my ideal Windamere stick. It lets me effortlessly deliver long water-covering casts with pinpoint accuracy and can give it to a sizeable perch when needed. It also punches nicely through the wind that plagues the dam more often than you’d think. Springtime in the Central Tablelands is no place for tropical lines, unless you enjoy frustration. The best fly line for fishing the spring edge bite is a fast intermediate or sink tip. These lines are well suited to the slow presentations often needed and the shallow water you’ll be fishing. After trialling a few over the last two seasons, I’ve settled on the Airflo Striper/Cold Saltwater series as my go to. It turns over a weighted fly, sinks at an acceptable rate and is unperturbed by the cold. If you’re fishing from a boat, it also pays to have a full sinking line onboard. This will allow you to fish the 4–6 metre deep flats effectively as the season progresses and fish move out a little wider. An 8–12 lb leader is all you’ll need for the golden perch here. The banks are relatively featureless and the perch relatively leader-friendly, so lighter line can be used with confidence. As angling pressure increases, I’ll drop down to 8 lb or even 6 lb tippet, depending on the conditions. You have a few options when it comes to fly choice. Whatever you choose to cast, make sure it’s a dark colour, has a lot of movement (zonker or marabou is great for this) and is reasonably heavy, as you’ll be imitating fleeing crayfish for the most part. For this reason, the Donnie Brasco fly in the classic native colours of black-and-red or black-and-purple is hard to beat. These are relatively simple to tie, but if fly tying isn’t your thing, Brett from BWC Flies makes one with a proven track record at Windamere. If you want proof, just check out their Instagram account. My other confidence fly is Galloup’s Sex Dungeon in size 2 from the Manic Tackle fly collection, in natural or black. This spring, I was lucky enough to be privy to a few prototype articulated ties from the native-on-fly guru himself, John Everett. John designed these to imitate the shake-and-bake soft vibe retrieve I’d seen used to great effect on the Windamere tournament scene, and I have to say he has done an outstanding job. John – I’ll be hitting you up for another batch very soon! FINAL THOUGHTS Lake Windamere in spring presents a fantastic opportunity to target one of Australia’s iconic freshwater natives, in absolute prime condition, against a classic Australian backdrop. Add to the mix the beautiful spring weather, a rolled-out swag and a roaring campfire and you have yourself a quintessential Australian experience up there with the best.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.