Burrinjuck DamSouth Western NSW
Starlo returns to the venue of one of his first-ever inland freshwater fishing experiences after an absence of four decades and discovers a vibrant (if changed) fishery that is very much on the upswing these days, and fast developing a reputation as one of our best Murray cod waters.
I poached my first trout over 40 years ago, below the dam wall at Burrinjuck, near Yass in central western NSW. I use the word “poached” advisedly, as I really wasn’t supposed to be fishing where I was at the time! In those days I was a mad-keen ANSA (Australian National Sportfishing Association) junior angler, on my first serious inland fishing foray with a bunch of mates who were also in their mid to late teens. A couple of the blokes in our Nowra-based group were just old enough to have their drivers’ licences and first cars (or to borrow dad’s!), and we’d heard that there were trout, perch, cod and other goodies to be caught out at Burrinjuck, so we loaded up and headed west.
“Today, Burrinjuck is producing good numbers of cod for those anglers willing to put in the effort and time, along with sporadic bursts of exceptionally good golden perch (yellowbelly) action.”
First port of call after the winding, stomach-churning descent from the Hume Highway into Burrinjuck Village was the dam wall itself. Most of us had never seen such a mighty example of human engineering in the flesh, and our jaws dropped at the sheer size of the concrete wall, not to mention the thundering power of all those megalitres of water gushing from a couple of huge outlet pipes into the boiling Murrumbidgee River below. It was nothing short of awe inspiring.
As we stood on the observation platform at the northern end of the wall gazing down in silent wonder at the scene before us, one of the group suddenly noticed something else. Directly below us sat a small overflow pool, ringed with drooping willow tress. As we would discover later, this pool filled when large volumes of water were released from the dam, then became cut off from the river as flow rates declined. It was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool and, as we looked down upon it from directly above, we all witnessed the spectacle of a good-sized fish suddenly materialising from its green depths, smashing something off the surface, then sinking quickly from view.
This sight generated quite a scramble amongst our fish-mad ranks as we raced back to the parked cars to haul out rods, reels and boxes of lures from the jumble of camping gear in the back.
From memory, my mate Jeff and I were the first to finish rigging up and hit the stairs leading from the top of the wall to the limpid, green pool below. On the way we also noticed several signs stating that public access to this area was not allowed, and that water levels could fluctuate suddenly… But we were on a mission by now! Later in the trip, someone in our group counted those stairs. I forget how many there were, but it was certainly in the hundreds. Pumped at the prospect of catching our first inland freshwater fish, Jeff and I practically bounced down those seemingly endless, incredibly steep flights of steps, arriving panting but excited on the rocky edge of the pool just a few minutes later (and vaguely noticing a few more “keep out” signs on the way).
My metal Pegron Tiger Minnow spoon arced out across the water towing a gossamer strand of three pound nylon line in its wake, before splashing into the water and twinkling out of sight. I snapped the bail arm shut on my little DAM Quick Microlite 110 eggbeater (are you old enough to remember those?) and started cranking. The spoon rose into view in the clear water, followed by a menacing, shark-like shape that shadowed it for a short distance before pouncing aggressively. Line squealed off the reel in short bursts as a fat, brightly-coloured rainbow trout danced on its spotted tail across the pool.
I could just hear the other guys whooping and hollering from the peanut gallery atop the wall far above me over the roar of water from the giant outlet pipes. The whole scene was slightly surreal, and burns almost as clearly in my mind’s eye today as it did nearly 50 years ago.
By the time I tired out my first feisty trout, swum it in to the edge and grabbed it, Jeff was also hooked up. They were both solid, beautifully marked fish in the 1.6 to 1.8 kg range (four pounders in those days) and we were understandably stoked! However, we also knew by now that we weren’t really supposed to be fishing there (the signs were pretty clear on that fact!), so we both stuffed our flapping prizes up inside our shirts, tucked our rods under our arms and sprinted for the base of the stairs. As we pounded up flight after flight, becoming increasingly breathless and red-faced in the process, we passed another of our mates, Roger, on his way down, spin rod clutched like a rifle across his chest, a look of determination set in his eyes.
You never forget stuff like that. I’m pretty sure all four or five of us lost our trout fishing virginity in that secret, forbidden pool beneath the wall. We also caught some more law-abiding trout (including a couple of monster browns well over the 3 kg mark) further down the Murrumbidgee, below the power station, where fishing was actually permitted. (And, for the record, I’m definitely not condoning that sort of poaching! We were a bunch of teenagers from the coast, full of bravado and also rather naïve about inland angling regulations. We were probably very lucky not to be caught and fined!)
On that and subsequent early October visits over the next couple of years, we accounted for some lovely trout, both in the river below (the legal bit!) and the lake above the wall, as well as our first golden, silver and Macquarie perch. And while we didn’t actually catch any Murray cod ourselves, we witnessed a visiting truck driver by the name of Ivan weighing in a fat-gutted 15 kg specimen he’d caught somewhere up the back of the Yass River arm of the lake (this was long before any closed seasons for cod, or the widespread acceptance of catch-and-release).
We really enjoyed our annual Burrinjuck forays each October long weekend for a couple of seasons but, as happens, teenagers grow up, leave school, go to uni’ or get jobs, and circles of friends slowly drift apart. So it was with our little gang.
From memory, my last visit to the ’Juck was in about 1977. After that, it seemed to mysteriously drop off my personal radar as my fishing preferences evolved and my life travelled off in different directions. I would probably have returned in the late 1990s if it weren’t for a record-breaking drought that sucked the life from the lake, leaving it all but empty for several years.
Finally, the big dry came to an end and Burrinjuck filled again. By the end of the new millennium’s first decade, stories of good to excellent fishing out that way began filtering through once more, in particular tales of great cod catches on both cast and trolled lures. Burrinjuck was now definitely back on my radar!
I experienced a weird mix of nostalgia and subdued excitement as Jo and I pulled up at the entrance of Burrinjuck Waters State Park a couple of years ago. It was interesting seeing the place vicariously through her eyes for the very first time, while also tallying my old memories against modern reality. Lots had changed at the ’Juck, but quite a bit hadn’t. The twisting, turning drive in from the highway still made my passenger’s buttocks clench involuntarily whenever the road’s verge plunged away precipitously, and glimpses of the vast lake through the trees still evoked confused calls of “Look at that! NO! Don’t look at that! Watch the bloody road!”
The Park itself had definitely grown, with many more cabins and camping spots these days. Burrinjuck’s popularity had clearly increased (along with our nation’s population) over the intervening 40 years. There were a lot more boat trailers parked down by the ramp, too, despite the increasingly inclement weather that greeted our arrival.
We’d booked one of the well-appointed, self-contained cabins up on the hill above the lake, and wasted little time settling in, briefly saying hello to the friendly kangaroos and king parrots that dropped by to check us out, before loading our fishing gear and cameras into the boat and heading down to the long, concrete launching ramp.
The lake was sitting at about 60-odd per cent of its maximum capacity, so while there was plenty of water out there, it was still quite a lengthy reverse down the ramp to launch. But I’m sure these facilities are much more user-friendly today than they were in the mid-1970s!
We had a mud map drawn for us by our good friend Vicki Winter-Lear who, along with her hubby Scott, is rapidly becoming a semi-regular at Burrinjuck, and has started to get the cod fishing there pretty well wired.
While we didn’t break any catch records during our two and a half days at Burrinjuck, we did encounter several lovely cod well into the 70 cm range, along with goldens up to about 50 cm, as well as cheeky European carp that don’t seem to mind belting a metal vibe. I’m sure we’d have done even better if it weren’t for the bouts of 40 knot wind, horizontal rain and metre-plus waves that belted us on several occasions during our visit!
One of the real highlights of the trip for me was being joined for a day and a bit by my old mate Roger Apperley… the very same Roger I’d passed on the concrete stairs to the forbidden pool all those years ago with a lively, poached trout stuffed up my shirt! Even though he now lives in the United States, Rog’ and I have remained best mates, and he quickly agreed that a Burrinjuck get-together on his latest visit to Oz was a wonderful idea.
Our best results on cod came from methodically flogging any standing timber adjacent to reasonably steep, rocky shorelines, especially up along the inside of Wade Island, in the lake’s main basin. Spinnerbaits were our lure of choice for this caper. There are kilometres of great looking trolling runs in this area, too, but Jo, Roger and I all prefer to cast and retrieve, so we stuck to our game plan.
Golden perch (yellowbelly) responded better to jigged lipless crankbaits and metal vibes worked off shallower, more gently tapering points and earthen banks in 3 to 5 m of water. Finding small groups of suspended fish on the sounder definitely helped when it came to catching perch, although these promising targets often turned out to be carp rather than goldens. Surprisingly, we didn’t cross paths with any redfin, although they’re apparently a fairly common catch at the ’Juck today.
Burrinjuck was very much a “mixed species” fishery back in the 1970s and ’80s, with frequent liberations of hatchery-bred trout and even Atlantic salmon from Gaden Hatchery, near Jindabyne. However, by all accounts, trout are only rarely encountered in the lake proper these days, and the emphasis has switched very much to our wonderful native species. Personally, I’m more than happy with that change. There are much more consistent and reliable trout fisheries within a couple of hours drive to the south, so it’s great to see these waters being re-stocked with the fish that originally belonged there.
Today, Burrinjuck is producing good numbers of 50 cm to metre-plus cod for those anglers willing to put in the effort and time, along with sporadic bursts of exceptionally good golden perch (yellowbelly) action, on both lures and baits. Carp (which I don’t believe were present when I first fished Burrinjuck 50 odd years ago) underwent a population boom here in the 1980s and ’90s and remain reasonably abundant, but are not quite in “plague proportions” any longer. No doubt predation by cod is playing its vital role in controlling their numbers. Walking the banks or drifting some of the shallower bays in spring and early summer while sight casting to these whiskery imports with flies or small soft plastics is also a fun way to play your own little part in the carp control picture.
I can’t believe I waited so damn long to return to Burrinjuck! It’s a gem of a spot, and one that’s now very definitely back on my list of regular destinations. Apart from anything else, I reckon there’s a metre-plus cod swimming around out there somewhere with my name on it… I just need to beat Jo to it!
To get to Burrinjuck Dam, take the well-marked turn-off from the Hume Highway about 15 km west of the Yass bypass.
Take extreme care on the 30-odd kilometre drive in to the dam from the highway exit. It is a sealed road, but rather narrow in parts, and also features many tight, hairpin bends. It is best to keep your speed down, drive with your lights on and to sound your horn when approaching some of the more radical corners! Be especially vigilant if towing a boat or caravan, and particularly if traversing this road after dark!