Mixed feelings about Lake Eildon feeder streams, can we better care for cod?

Eildon has gained a reputation for fast growing slob sized Murray cod

I’m going to declare at the outset that it is not my intended to ruffle feathers however it may in some quarters, but I feel this topic needs to be laid out and discussed. This subject has being going around in the background for years now although never really openly and I think for a good reason; no one wants to publicise it and burn the rivers. The thing is, by never having the conversation or debate, we will never get close to resolving it, so here it goes.

Following the horrendous drought in the late 2000’s, the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) undertook a massive stocking program to recover native fisheries which had been hit hard. The biggest recipient of stocking was Lake Eildon with over a million fish in 3 years and many more since, importantly these fish were all marked with Calcein at the hatchery stage to aid in their identification as stocked fish via otolith (ear bone) analysis. In 2015, the VFA undertook a survey to determine the success of the stocking vs natural recruitment. The results of the survey (Calcein analysis) showed that 99.6% of Murray cod analysed were indeed from stocking, indicating that natural recruitment was very low. The VFA put forward that the lake lacked the zooplankton required to support emerging fry and there was an extremely low survival rate not warranting the protection of a closed season.

The flow on decision for Lake Eildon was that the closed season intended to protect breeding Murray cod, was not relevant as breeding success is minimal. On the upside, by removing the cod closed season at Lake Eildon it created new springtime fishing opportunities. The thought was that fishing participation and associated tourism in the region would increase, consistent with the State Government’s Target One Million plan. This action clearly made the statement that Lake Eildon’s Murray cod fishery was reliant on fish stocking  i.e. it is managed as a stocked ‘put and take’ cod fishery, a bit like your local lake stocked with trout for the school holidays.

In my fishing circles, the most significant improvements to anglers satisfaction with Lake Eildon have come from the improvements in the quality and quantity of the Murray cod catch, there is no doubt that the VFA’s stocking initiatives have been successful and I am a big fan, I want to make that clear. I have fished Lake Eildon for more than 35 years, however over the last ten I have extensively targeted Murray cod there.  In that time, I have observed a steady increase in catch rate and quality to the point I will now seldom fish elsewhere for cod, where as in the past I often drove significant distances to other impoundments, such as the 1600 kilometres to Copeton Dam in New South Wales.  Make no mistake, Eildon has gone past a lake of great potential, and should now be regarded as one of the very best trophy cod fisheries nationwide. This will only get better, barring a natural disaster such as a genetic catastrophe, this is precisely the point of this blog.

This is the bit I have been shy about discussing, the feeder rivers of Lake Eildon like Big River, the Goulburn and the Delatite and the spawning activity that occurs there. I won’t entertain any discussion to the negative that cod spawn in these rivers, I’ve seen them and so have many other anglers in my circles. On one occasion I counted no less than 11 big cod on my sonar in one pool no doubt sorting out who was hooking up with who for the spring. Now the survey conducted by the VFA in 2015 looked at around 200 fish, what is unclear and I can’t seem to get clarity on, was this survey conducted right across the lake or was it confined to easy to access and high population area’s like Jerusalem Creek and the dam wall? This bit about the location is really important, if it did indeed include a wide diversity of locations across the lake including feeder rivers I will sit down and shut up, but the lack of clarity feeds my suspicion that it was done in a concentrated area where a lot of stocking activity occurs. If so, it skews the result in favour of opening the lake up especially the river arms in the closed season.

Right across Victoria the VFA has restrictions in place to protect spawning cod in flowing waters. Well intended, let’s just say that in terms of Eildon they are pretty loose to successfully employ due to the individual interpretation of where flowing water starts and ends in the lake. It can change inside of an hour, damn it can even shift with a wind change in an instant. It’s clear that the rivers are off limits to cod fishers in the closed season, however this grey area of the lake / river confluence point is almost impossible to resolve. We have seen fishing competitions turned to a farce over this exact issue. Aside from mistakes, unethical targeting of the spawaners occurs well upstream in unambiguous flowing water during the close. I say it’s unambiguous however for the up-river fishers perhaps it’s not so clear without a hard and defined geographical seasonal boundary? Enforcement up in the feeder rivers is pretty low, not saying you will never see a fisheries officer there, but certainly don’t bank on it, I never have despite spending many days well up in the arms, but many times I’ve had a visit in the lake itself, resources only go so far.

Why do I care and why am I shining a light on this? Right or wrong, I believe that the Eildon river fish spawn (not many will disagree) but I feel that they are also very successful at it (yes this is a point of contention). Why this matters to me and perhaps should to you, is that the genetic diversity that they give to the lake has to be beneficial to the health of future generations. In a situation where the lake is currently relying on stockers, some wild fish in the gene pool has to be important, it’s a matter of record that fisheries worldwide that rely 100% on stocking is not an ideal situation due to disease and mutations. There are pretty much no signs of this in Eildon to this point, but this is about the long term health of the fishery and not instant gratification.

Our historical practices around building dams and clearing rivers aren’t great for native fish that rely on ability to move upstream at the right water temperatures to spawn in spring. Lots of great habitat work has been conducted however it is a mighty task to undo the presence of a dam mid river. The regular irrigation season high flows that commence in August into the Goulburn River below Eildon can cause a shock of cold water from the bottom of the dam, known as cold water pollution and is not conducive to successful spawning downstream. To me, these difficulties that native fish face, make successful spawning fish wherever they occur something that surely needs more of our focus. I’m throwing it out there that during the recognised breeding season the river fish above Lake Eildon should be better afforded protection, some of these fish may have been there before the dam was built and romanticism aside, their spawn is valuable in a stocker world where the assurances of long term funding to do so can never been seen as guaranteed.

The VFA has announced a two year tracking study in the upper Goulburn to determine if those fish intermingle with the lakes population, this will certainly be interesting and lets hope we get some answers around genetics while they are at it. Now I am no scientist, but I really feel there are some questions that really need answers before action occurs one way or the other. Considerations around temporary access or activity restrictions around the river arms during spawning periods have to be had at some point, we even do it for trout in some locations and to be blunt cod on the whole have to be seen as the priority. Undoubtedly stocking is the reason our fisheries are doing so well, however surely wild spawners deserve our respect too.

19 thoughts on “Mixed feelings about Lake Eildon feeder streams, can we better care for cod?”

      1. I like this very much and l thankyou . I hope what you have written gets to the right people. And something can improve the natural breeding of all fish in Eldon.

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  1. I have said for years that fishing the arms during closed season should be banned. Simply making No Fishing from the 4knot markers during closed season the easy way to stop the Grey area about running water. Also makes it easier for fisheries to enforce.

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    1. That would be one solution Steve for sure, it could be tricky call some years when the lake is really high or low at the speed zones don’t move. If they did that would probably be ideal. I’d like to see the VFA place marker buoys out each spring.

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    2. Needs to be more flexible then that mate, how many years have the 5 knot buoys been sitting on the dirt or at a level that wouldn’t protect the zone in question. Fisheries are already pressed for resources so to expect the buoys to be constantly moved is unrealistic.

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  2. Surely it can’t be that hard for set boundaries to be introduced. From what I understand having no closed season in the main basin is a great thing. But even if it is a small percentage or chance that these wild river fish can breed and feed into Eildon and effect the genetic diversity and make it a stronger fishery that is worth protecting for future years.

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  3. Fantastic article Johnny

    Would like to see some restrictions put in place and some more research done.

    Well done for putting it out there

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    1. Completely disagree mate they are stocked fish put in there to be caught let’s just catch them, there’s absolutely no science proving that they breed. The lake relies fully on stocking so this is just a pointless topic so many more valuable issues actually effecting wild cod that we could we spending time on instead.

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  4. Great Read!!
    I was apart of the Vrfish young leaders group at the time when Vrfish proposed the all year round opening of lake eildon .

    I have to say I’m a trout angler through and through but I always took a keen interest in the welfare of our native fish. I believe the opening of lake eildon has been a massive success to the economic value of the township. Jews creek back in the day was pretty much a ghost town in winter and now has an abundance of anglers year round!! Massive tick ✅
    But what I don’t agree with is how the study was conducted, we have to be clear that to do a proper survey on that lake would take years and years and lots of money ! The survey was conducted around the dam wall where the fish mainly get stocked . This was a massive push to get more anglers fishing and more license money a narrative pushed by government!

    I also believe that the quality of angler and fishing equipment has got a lot better from ten years ago so a lot more are being caught , but is it having a detrimental affect on the lake?? Probably not but what standards are we setting for the future generations of anglers? And I think that is the main question here !!

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  5. I think it’s time a boundary for closed season by means of buoy or marker be set and policed each season.I’m seeing the same thing every year,anglers throwing thigh fillets in the river in November or trolling XL hard body’s.An unfortunate biproduct seems to be the rubbish,empty cans ,chip packets and chicken trays that get left behind by the same perpetrators .I also hold the view that the upper tributaries keep genetic remnants of the pre-dam fish where in spite of their alpine habitat remain and successfully spawn during summer months.this diversity can only help to enrich the current stocks and the hard work already put in by fisheries.

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  6. I’ll try to articulate this in a way that doesn’t involve me blabbering on.. see how it goes.

    A quick history lesson I think helps paint a picture. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the river system was teaming with native fish as well as stocked Trout that the English settlers couldn’t live without. There are no indicators to say that changed much after the Sugarloaf dam was finished in the 20s. Once the Eildon Dam was finished in the 50s however, and the lake was made considerably larger, it was very evident that cod numbers took a dive (natives in general). By the time Redfin were dominating the lake in the 70s and 80s, fishos weren’t coming to Lake Eildon to target Murray Cod (hell, alot of people weren’t targetting natives in general). My pop used to tell me a story about fishing for reddies in the lake in the late 70s and someone hooked onto a 4ft Murray Cod. Scared the crap out of the people swimming because they had no clue they were in the lake (that fish went straight to the dinner table, sign of the times). A similar story from my Great Uncle who reeled in a meter plus fish as bycatch, when he didn’t think there were any left. The interesting thing though is old local fellas will tell stories of catching cod far up the rivers in the 50s and 60s, I had a beer with a bloke in the Kevington pub a few years back who said they would catch cod as kids almost as high as Running Creek up the Howqua River.. just think about that for a second.

    Clearly, the dam had quite an effect on the Goulburn River’s ecosystem (incl. all those rivers that fed into it). The point of all this, ask any local keen fisho about catching cod in the 80s, 90s and 00s in the rivers. Murray Cod don’t run as high up the Howqua or Big River as they once did, but people were still getting Murray Cod in the rivers, some more so than others. Obviously, certain arms have always had cod, and not just the big cod that made the papers, but the 50s and 60 cm that are generally of spawning age. We know of some small stockings in the lake and slightly larger numbers in the 90s before the 2000s and the million plus helped them make a comeback throughout the lake.

    Taking all of this in, I am of the opinion that there is successful natural recruitment, it simply isn’t enough to sustain the fishery as a whole. Most people will not dispute the point about the poor natural recruitment in the lake, if full scale spawning wasn’t an issue, we wouldn’t need the stockings. I whole heartedly believe that to maintain it’s status as the premier cod fishery that it is, Lake Eildon needs to be stocked. However I also believe, that we need to do more as anglers to protect these river systems. We protect the introduced Trout in the Goulburn River with total fishing bans, we see parts of the Murray River protected with bans, why is our most iconic native fish not given the same treatment in the “Upper Goulburn” river system? It doesn’t need to be a total ban, plenty of carp, Trout and reddies in these rivers in Spring, but every closed season we see these systems showcased with cod caught, usually with chicken, cheese or large yabbies, above the high water mark, bickering and arguing always follows… I don’t think it’s too much to ask to take away the grey area and take away the ignorant defence of “it’s Lake Eildon”. It’s closed season for a reason. In a perfect world, there would be adequate funding to station Fisheries officers in these areas, but we know that simply isn’t the case.

    It needs to be said, we have a great thing going with Fisheries in Victoria. The VFA and their relationship with anglers, I think proves we have the best Fisheries in the country that is just going to get better and better as time goes on, this is a great opportunity to showcase that relationship and show anglers leading the way to protect our native fish. In my opinion the “lake” should stay open year round, but lets take away the grey area on the rivers.

    Well I blabbered on a bit.. well written article John, one which I’m sure has plenty of people thinking. I’m very eager to see results of the tracking study in due time. I’m also very eager to see how the Murray Cod in the lake develop over the next 10 to 15 years.

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  7. Great read ! I’m an extremely passionate cod angler , I have spent a lot of time lure casting for cod and fly fishing for trout in those areas (over a decade) I know it like the back of my hand. From my experience there are resident cod that stay there year round , I’ve caught and seen the same fish in the same areas seasons apart , I’ve also seen new fish push into those areas from the lake , I have witnessed over a dozen cod paired up and chasing each other around during spawning time, I’ve seen fish sitting on eggs and guarding nests as late as mid December and have photos to prove it . The people who fish for those cod when they are vulnerable like that are a disgrace! They should be left alone! I have never fished for cod during closed season and never will. Yes the lake is open year round, But rivers are closed ! Running water is technically a river regardless of the lake levels! I think a marker buoy is a great idea and possibly a bait fishing exclusion zone could be worth considering also ? I mean you are not allowed to fish with bait in the Eucumbene river for introduced trout , I think our iconic fish deserve the same respect surely? In the last couple of years I’ve found 2 large dead cod that had wire trace and ganged hooks stuck in there throats and I’ve spoken to local farmers and local anglers who have told me about many more. Why is this crap still going on ? Unfortunately nowadays it just cops a flogging and the fish have been caught over and over again , the poor things can’t even eat without being caught , I think those fish deserve a closed season. Fisheries need to manage it properly and at the very least educate the bait guys on correct tackle and handling of these fish. They are too important! Our fishery should be getting better not worse, I’ve seen the potential of what that fishery has to offer and it’s worth protecting.

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