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CRAIGBOURNE DAM

South Eastern TAS

While it is best known for its world-class trout fishing, for better or worse, Tasmania’s freshwater is also home to some quality redfin perch, and one of the best places to chase them (along with stocked trout and Atlantic salmon) is Craigbourne Dam, in the island state’s south east.

Jo with a cracking redfin perch from Craigbourne Dam. It fell for a jigged soft plastic.

“Craigbourne is one of several lowland impoundments around the state that are regularly stocked with hatchery-bred, grown-out Atlantic salmon and trout, including a sprinkling of very large ex-brood stock.”

As well as brown trout like this modest specimen, the dam contains rainbows, Atlantic salmon and lots of redfin.
Not all the redfin are large. In fact, many are much smaller than this one.
Sloping shores and points with adjacent weed beds hold lots of redfin and the odd trout.
Jo with a pair of much better than average redfin. At this size they produce a couple of lovely fillets.
An average brown trout taken amongst the redfin.
Private farming land surrounds much of the dam, so bank access is only possible at a couple of points.
Some rocky shoreline further upstream.
Redfin perch are highly cannibalistic at all sizes.
Some areas of the dam have steeper, rockier shorelines.
Standing timber can produce both redfin and trout.
The weather can change fast in Tasmania. Be sure to pack warmer clothes and a jacket, even in summer!

Our only island state is justifiably famous throughout the fishing world for its superb trout fishing, and 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the successful introduction into Tasmania of these popular salmonid fishes from the northern hemisphere. However, something that far fewer Australian anglers realise is that Tasmania is also home to another introduced freshwater species, albeit a less welcome and much less celebrated one.

Interestingly, redfin perch (also known as English perch) actually arrived in Tasmania a couple of years before those first trout. In 1862, two brothers, Morton and Curzon Allport, apparently organised a shipment of live perch to be sent, in tanks, aboard a sailing vessel travelling from England. Eleven fish survived the arduous journey and were released into Tasmanian waters. It seems that all of the redfin found in Tasmania today are direct descendants of those 11 fish, just as all the redfin on the mainland can trace their origins to seven fish liberated in a swamp near Ballarat six years later, in 1868.

I’d long been aware that Tassie had redfin, but I was under the impression that their numbers were relatively small, their distribution patchy and their size typically diminutive. In fact, the only mention they usually received in mainstream fishing literature took the form of passing references to redfin “pin fry” (juveniles) being a reasonably important component of trout diets in some waterways at specific times of the year, and I understood that there were a few fly patterns tied to imitate these young-of-the-year perch pin fry.

On my various visits to the Apple Isle over the years chasing trout and saltwater species, I’d never actually seen or caught a redfin, and had heard very little reference to them. However, all of that changed one April when Jo and I took our 4WD and trailer boat across Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania vehicular ferry to embark on a 12 day exploration of the Devil’s Playground.

Part of that trip involved catching up with our old fishing mate, Rory Muller, who’d moved from the mainland to live in Hobart. As is his wont, Rory had quickly tapped into the fishing in his new temporary home. As well a single-handedly doing his bit to keep the lower Derwent squid population in check, Rory had also sussed out the “stockie” fishing at Craigbourne Dam, an hour’s drive from his new home.

Craigbourne is one of several lowland impoundments around the state that are regularly stocked by the IFS (Inland Fisheries Service) with hatchery-bred, grown-out Atlantic salmon and trout, including a sprinkling of very large ex-brood stock fish. Some of these fish (mostly salmon) weigh anywhere from 3 to 6 kg and, not surprisingly, are keenly sought by anglers!

Switched-on Craigbourne regulars like Rory closely watch the IFS website for news of brood stock liberations. Fishing action for these silvery torpedos is usually at its best in the days and weeks immediately following their release. The big fish, in particular, feed actively and most are quickly caught, killed and kept by delighted anglers, which is exactly the intention of this popular put-and-take stocking program.

Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a brood fish liberation for several months prior to our visit, and Rory reported that his last couple of trips to the dam had produced nothing except for a couple of small redfin. All the same, we decided to make a day trip up the Coal River Valley and check the place out. Rory was particularly keen to join us in our boat, as all his experiences to date at Craigbourne had been land-based. He was itching to explore some of the less accessible reaches of this small irrigation impoundment.

FINDING FISH

We kicked off our session at Craigbourne by trolling some hard-bodied lures adjacent to the rocky edges and standing timber along the dam’s northern bank, while keenly scanning the sounder screen for any signs of fish. Although we marked a few possible targets, our lures remained unmolested, so I eventually arced the boat out across the centre of the lake and tracked towards a tapering point on the south eastern shore.

As we approached this low point, the bottom shelved up, dense weed growth became apparent on the sounder and we experienced our first strikes and hook-ups of the day. Those initial couple of fish turned out to be small redfin perch in the 15 to 20 cm class, and while it was something of a milestone to break my Tassie redfin duck (and even more noteworthy for Jo, who’d never encountered this species before), the novelty soon wore off as these tiny, spiky customers hit our lures one after another on each pass over the weed beds. Some were barely bigger than the lures we were using and the best wouldn’t have topped 25 cm, so they were really more of an annoyance than anything else.

In the middle of this torrid redfin bite, one just-legal brown trout of about 32 cm did jump onto my trolled minnow, giving us hope that the area wasn’t totally dominated by stunted reddies. There were also a few interesting targets on the sounder. I turned to troll back across the weed edge that had produced the trout and Jo’s rod suddenly dipped and lunged to a significantly heavier fish. After a short, spirited tussle, a lovely redfin of around 40 cm flapped beside the boat and was quickly netted aboard… That was more like it!

CHANGE OF TACTICS

That big redfin gave me heart that the perch here at Craigbourne weren’t all stunted runts. With this in mind, I suggested to my companions that we try an alternative strategy. Instead of continuing to troll, I wanted to set up a wind drift, controlled by the bow-mounted electric motor, and bounce soft plastics across the bottom, hard up against the outer edge of the weed bed. Jo and Rory readily agreed.

Over the next couple of hours we went on to take nearly 100 redfin and a lovely brown trout of close to a kilo using this method. While the majority of that cricket score catch of reddies were small specimens in the 10 to 25 cm range, we also accounted for a scattering of 30 to 35 cm fish, as well as several more hump-shouldered, 40 cm-plus beauties. These fish all fell to plastics rigged on jig heads, either bounced across the bottom in clearer patches of water, or slow rolled just above the weed tops. The most productive styles were Squidgies Fish and Wrigglers in the 65 to 85 mm size range featuring natural colours such as Black Gold, Bloodworm, Wasabi and Rainbow Trout, all strung onto 2 to 5 gram ball head jigs with No. 2 hooks.

I was more than a little impressed by our results, which would rate amongst the best sessions I’ve ever experienced on redfin… anywhere. Later, I was also impressed by the eating qualities of these fish. I already rated redfin amongst my favourite freshwater table fish, but these cool water Tassie perch were, if anything, even tastier than their mainland brethren.

I have a hunch that at least one session chasing redfin will be on my agenda every time I visit Tasmania in the future, and I’m particularly keen to have a look at Brushy Lagoon, near Westbury in the state’s north. Apparently it’s loaded with redfin, including the odd beast up to at least 2.5 kg in weight! Now that’s something I’d like to see… ideally on the end of my line!

THE REDFIN CONUNDRUM

Talking to Tasmanian anglers later about our day on Craigbourne and showing them photos of the bigger redfin we landed, I repeatedly encountered the same reaction, which basically went: “Bloody redfin! Pests! Hope you killed them all?”

To answer that question: yes, we did kill them. And yes, I agree that they’re an exotic pest fish that we’d be better off without. But the fact is, they’re here, and they don’t show any signs of going away. I wonder, therefore, if we mightn’t be better off accepting that fact, targeting these abundant fish, and killing as many of them as we can?

Naturally, we need to strongly condemn any attempts to translocate or propagate this pest fish, either accidentally or intentionally, and we should encourage all anglers to keep and correctly dispose of every redfin they catch (which, for me, means filleting and eating any specimen over about 20 cm in length). But does that mean that we shouldn’t even talk about them, write about them, target them, or be excited about catching bigger ones? Personally, I don’t believe there’s much mileage in such a head-in-the-sand attitude.

In closing, let me challenge you with a little riddle: Who am I? I’m a fish that was once native to Britain and Western Europe, but has since been widely translocated around the world. I’m an opportunistic predator with a large mouth, and I’m known to prey heavily on native aquatic fauna in the places where I’ve been introduced, potentially threatening the survival of some endemic species. I’m good to eat and fun to catch, although in some waters I have a tendency to over-populate, resulting in reduced average sizes.

So, who am I? Well, there are actually two correct answers to that riddle. One is redfin perch… The other is brown trout.

Food for thought?

Craigbourne is easy to find and get to and lies about an hour out of the centre of Hobart.

CRAIGBOURNE FACTS

Craigbourne Dam is in the Coal River Valley, about 50 km from Hobart. It’s reached along highway B31, via the historic town of Richmond.

Operated by Tasmanian Irrigation Schemes, the dam has a surface area of around 200 ha when full. Fishing for salmonid species is typically best for the week or two following stocking, then declines. Stocking information is available at www.ifs.tas.gov.au 

Craigbourne is open to angling year-round, with fishing permitted from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset, and anglers may use any legal baits, lures or flies. Fishers over 14 years of age must hold a current Tasmanian angling licence. Casting from the shore is popular, and shoreline access is good, apart from some areas of private property. There’s also a public boat ramp.

Craigbourne Dam is subject to periodic algal blooms, especially in summer, and may be closed at such times. To check for closures or obtain other information, call 1300 INFISH.

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CRAIGBOURNE DAM

Craigbourne Dam

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