colby-bassIt has been 20 years since Australian bass were first stocked as fingerlings into Lake Bullen Merri at Camperdown in Victoria’s southwest.

This milestone provides a good opportunity to reflect on the development of the fishery, its future and the recent expansion of the stocking of this species at rates never seen before in Victoria in the East Gippsland impoundments.

Australian bass are an exciting recreational target species and while they are generally classed as a slow growing fish, they are very long lived and have been found to reach more than 15 years of age in impoundments in NSW. Their aggressive nature makes them attractive to a variety of angling methods and as a result they are one of the most popular native fish in the country. While the success of comprehensive stocking programs in NSW and Queensland impoundments is well known the enhancement of Victoria’s impoundment fisheries is beginning to attract the attention of recreational anglers.

The Lake Bullen Merri experiment

Lake Bullen Merri is a cool, deep volcanic crater lake and is probably the last place you would expect to find a bass fishery, primarily because it is so well known for producing some of the Australia’s largest Chinook salmon, brown trout and rainbow trout. During the 1990’s the lake suffered from significant fish kills as a result of poor water quality to the point that managers were looking of new ways of providing opportunities for anglers.

Although not naturally occurring in western Victoria the application to stock Australian bass outside their natural range was granted due to the isolated nature of the waterbody and between 1996-2005 approximately 157,500 bass fingerlings were stocked into the lake in the hope of creating a new fishery with a species that was more tolerant of this waterway’s sometimes unpredictable water quality.

The bass fingerlings survived extremely well and were identified in many of the follow up netting surveys in the ensuing years, reaching a minimum legal length of 27cm at 4-5 years of age. While conducting angler creel surveys for Fisheries Victoria in 2003-2004 I was lucky enough to see anglers begin to target these fish and by the end of the survey specimens to more than a kilogram in weight were reasonably common. A decade further on and the opportunities are excellent with fish of over 2kg on offer. I haven’t landed one under 1.3kg in weight for the past 3 years, so if you hook one it’s sure to be a quality fish and this year a few specimens over 2 kilograms in weight and 53cm in length have been encountered.

The condition of these fish is astounding with short fat bodies and their condition factors are well above what is seen in natural riverine environments. Large ripe females now tend to make up the bulk of the catch, particularly in the winter months when the fish begin to school up and aggregate on the thermocline and rocky points. If you put the time in the fish you can catch are going to be as good as you would find anywhere else in the country.

So how did they get that big? You would think that the lake’s generally cold water temperatures and lake’s location on the outside of their natural geographical range would have limited their growth, but their suitability to this environment couldn’t have been better. The lake itself is very productive and full of forage fish which would have contributed to their growth rates, but for many years invertebrates such as caddis fly larvae (stick caddis) has made up the bulk of their diet. In recent years the prevalence of forage fish in their stomachs has certainly increased, but it’s not uncommon to catch a 1.8kg fish with a stomach full of caddis fly larvae.

In the early stage of the development of the fishery the edge fishing during the summer months was very popular with anglers casting flies and lures or flat line trolling along the rocky points on warm, calm evenings. Over the past 10 years there has definitely been a shift in effort and most success has come from anglers fishing during the winter months looking for fish schooled up down deep often in 10-20 metres of water and then persisting by fishing vertically or by downrigging minnow style lures along the lake’s many drop-offs.

Personally I have found that since the fish have naturally began to mature with age they tend to school up more consistently during the winter months which makes them easier to target. One interesting thing to note is that these fish often suffer from barotrauma when captured from depths of over 10 metres, so if you land a few from down deep and they won’t release, it doesn’t hurt to retain a few for a feed and they are actually very good eating with a firm white flesh similar to that of an estuary perch.

While there are plenty of good quality fish to target at present the future is not so bright for the Lake Bullen Merri bass fishery with the suspension of stocking in 2005. The oldest fish I’ve had aged by otolith cross section from this water in the past few years have been nearly 14 years old. In fact I’ve caught a number of fish from the 2002-2003 stocking in recent times.

With a now aging population, fishing mortality and a focus on re-establishing the Chinook salmon fishery in this water the bass fishery will slowly continue to decline, so the time to chase them is now! The development of this fishery has taken time, but it has been well worth it, all that’s missing are anglers to get out and target them to discover what is really available.

The Expansion of East Gippsland impoundment fisheries

Stocking bass into Gippsland waters is relatively new. Some production and stocking occurred in 2002/03, but of a limited magnitude. After several years of attempting to secure reliable hatchery production in Victoria between 2004-2008, more success came by working with existing private bass hatcheries in NSW. Stockings of bass into several Gippsland waters is already delivering impressive numbers of small fish for anglers as these fisheries continue to grow with recruitment from more recent stockings.

More than 350,000 bass fingerlings have been released in recent years into Blue Rock, Glenmaggie and Narracan impoundments and more recently Guthridge Lake (Sale). More stockings are planned this coming year as part of the State Government’s Target One Million plan, which aims to get more Victorian’s fishing, more often.

In East Gippsland the stocked bass appear to be surviving and growing well, and most importantly getting caught by anglers, which is the ultimate indicator of success for any stocking program. The fish are not big yet, although some anglers have caught bass of legal size. Most success is coming to anglers casting lures (soft plastics, spinnerbaits & hard bodied minnows) in the river arms and amongst standing timber and baitfishing worms under a float or on the bottom.

Since 2002, more than 185,000 bass fingerlings have been stocked into Blue Rock Lake, which has become one of Victoria’s premier destinations for the popular native fish. Access to the Blue Rock Lake bass fishery also received a boost last year thanks to new regulations which now permit boats of any length and any engine size. The new regulations now enable anglers to access the fishery from larger sport-fishing and trailer boats and water skiing and jet skis will continue to be deterred via a 15 knot speed limit, which applies to all boats. These changes followed extensive community consultation and are currently in place for a 12 month trial period.

To help promote the bass fishery, last year a dozen larger mature bass between 30 - 40cm in length were tagged and released into the lake with prizes offered to anglers on their recapture. This proved to be a great marketing strategy of increasing angler participation and as it turns out at least four of these fish have already been recaptured!
The other great aspect of the Blue Rock Lake fishery is the extensive amount of fish habitat offered which includes rocky points, riparian vegetation around its perimeter and plenty of fallen and standing timber.

Nearby Lake Glenmaggie is also showing rapid development receiving 138,000 fingerling bass since 2002. A recent survey of Lake Glenmaggie conducted in April 2016 captured more than 190 Australian bass, the largest of which was 38cm and weighed more than 1.1kg. The survey, undertaken by the Arthur Rylah Institute (ARI), recorded multiple year-classes, indicating that bass from stockings in several years had also survived and grown. There were plenty of small bass captured, which is encouraging for future years and 63 of those bass captured measured 30cm or more, which are more than legal sized for anglers to catch right now! Lake Narracan has also received over 70,000 bass fingerlings since 2010 so its development with also be watched closely in the coming years.

With consistent stocking programs in place and more fingerling bass to be stocked in 2016 the future really is looking bright for East Gippsland impoundment fisheries.

Fingerlings are purchased each summer and released into waters agreed to by fisheries managers, anglers and water managers. Australian Bass cannot breed in lakes and impoundments so these fisheries are entirely dependent on annual stocking. The tables below indicate the number of fingerling bass released in Victoria’s lakes and impoundments. On average these fish weighed about 1 gram each and measure 2-3cm in length. A number of East Gippsland Rivers are now also being stocked with fingerlings to restore dwindling fish stocks in their natural range.

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