How to

Small Boats, Big Dams

There are numerous freshwater impoundments all around the country and most of them are full of fish.

Regardless of whether you’re chasing trout in the south or impoundment barras in the north, there’s probably a dam somewhere near where you live which is stocked with either trout, bass, yellowbelly, barramundi, cod or saratoga.

Over the years I’ve spent a fair bit of time fishing freshwater impoundments, mainly in Queensland and NSW. These areas are ideal places to take the family for a day on the water.

Unlike a lot of saltwater fishing, where you have to travel long distances by water in potentially rough conditions, still water impoundments lend themselves well to small tinnies, kayaks or smaller fibreglass boats.

And if you do spend most of your time with your boat in salt water, a few days on a dam has the added benefit of washing all the accumulated salt away. Looked at it this way, going fishing in a freshwater impoudment is actually a form of preventative maintenance for your boat!

In general, catching a few fish in a dam is pretty easy. Obviously, large trophy fish like big barras and Murray cod won’t come along every day, but species like bass, trout and yellowbelly aren’t usually too tough to catch – most of the time, anyway.

A well set up small boat makes a big difference in dam fishing. If you add a bit of technology it can greatly increase your catch rate.

The first thing to remember is that dams are still, the water is usually clear and they are quiet places where fish are easily disturbed by noise.

For these reasons small outboards, preferably four-strokes, and electric motors make a big difference and minimise disturbing the fish you’re chasing. A stealthy approach is the key to getting more bites, especially with fish like impoundment barramundi.

Over the past two decades there has been a massive investment in stocking fish in freshwater dams and these fisheries are a big part of the local economies of small towns, attracting plenty of visitors when the fish are on.

I remember a few years back when Lake Awoonga was in its prime seeing more than 150 boats on the dam. All of them were clearly spending a lot of money around the nearby towns buying lures, petrol, accommodation and food.

Fishing in Queensland’s dams has really come of age in the past 15 years, which is remarkable considering prior to stocking with desirable species most of these dams were a fishing desert.

While the stocked trout dams of southern NSW have been great fisheries for more than 50 years, the stocking of bass, yellowbelly, cod and barramundi is actually still relatively recent.

There are three basic methods of fishing freshwater dams, regardless of what species you are after. They are bait fishing, lure trolling and lure casting.

I don’t do much bait fishing in the dams so I’ll concentrate on what I know best, which is using lures to catch impoundment species.

The first and most important part of dam fishing is you have to find the fish. Most good fishing maps will point you in the general direction of likely spots, but one of the major issues of fishing dams is that the water levels change quite radically and the dam you visited last year may be a totally different body of water to the dam you fish today.

This is where a good echo sounder greatly helps. The pictures you get from a good sounder in freshwater dams are nothing short of brilliant.

To illustrate this, I recently fished Pindari Dam near Ashford in north-west NSW. My friends the Grylls family came out for an afternoon fish, and Heath Grylls has a very good working knowledge of where the yellowbelly would be.

These fish graze like a herd of cows across the flats of relatively featureless bank in three to six metres of water. This was quite an extensive bank.

What I found after watching Heath is that by using side imaging and slowly motoring along the bank in a searching pattern with the side imaging set at 50 feet either side, I could soon find where the fish were.

The brilliance of side imaging is that it displays fish well away from the boat, and a lot of fish won’t show up on a normal down scan sonar as they are disturbed by the boat moving overhead and don’t go under the transducer. But when you see a bunch of solid fish 10m away to the side you will soon be able to get a lure to them.

Despite the obvious advantage of technology, the beauty of dam fishing is the simplicity. If you like trolling you can sit back and slowly motor along a quiet bank while watching the scenery and wildlife (plus keeping one eye on the sounder).

This can be a great way to fish with small kids. Everyone on board has a rod in the water and an equal chance of a fish.

To troll effectively you need to understand at what depth the fish will hold. In most dams in calm conditions there will be a thermocline.

What this actually means is that the top layers of water heat up, and will be distinctly warmer than the deeper layer that are often very cold.

On a good sounder you can find where the thermocline is if you increase the sensitivity and you will generally see a distinct line at between two and five metres.

When there is a distinct thermocline most fish with the exception of trout will stay above the thermocline, which effectively means this is where your lure needs to be. Additionally, nearly all the baitfish and other food will be above the thermocline.

When there is a good thermocline in the warmer months we catch a lot of fish trolling well out in the middle of the dam itself.

This particularly applies to bass and barramundi. In these sort of conditions you use lures that will run just above the thermocline when trolled. I’ve caught stacks of big barras in 30m of water trolling lures that run at three metres.

Impoundment tackle
Regardless of which species you’re chasing, you will need a range of lures.

The types of lures vary with the different methods used in a session. As an example, when we target impoundment bass we start fishing at dawn or before.

At this time the bass are actively hunting the surface layer and we use poppers, fizzers and stickbaits to get good surface hits.

When the sun hits the water the fish go a little deeper and we will change to spinnerbaits and shallow running hard-bodied lures like the small X-Rap Rapalas.

When it starts to get hot the fish move out to even deeper water and we might use deep soft plastics, blades and vibes to catch them or try a bit of trolling.

At the end of the session I’ll usually have at least six to 12 lures that have been on the end of the line at some stage, and this mix of lure styles applies to all the other species as well.

The best way to get good lures is to get local advice. Some species can be fickle when it comes to colour and lure type, but if you use local tackle shops and internet chat rooms or follow the many fishing tournaments on dams you’ll soon get a good idea of what is working in which dam.

The one lure type that is really useful if targeting bass, saratoga, yellowbelly and Murray cod is a spinnerbait.

This lure type doesn’t get much use in the salt, but if you are a saltwater fisho heading out to the dams chasing the above species invest in some good spinnerbaits. The Bass Man and Secret Creek brands have worked very well for me. The 3/8 and 5/8 ounce models cover most options but big cod seem to prefer the 1 ounce monsters. I always use a stinger hook on all my spinnerbaits.

For most impoundment fishing, tackle can be quite simple. For species such as bass, trout, saratoga and yellowbelly, a few light threadline outfits filled with 6lb braid with a short 4-8kg leader covers most of the options. Apart from barra and big cod, most of the fish you catch will be less than a couple of kilos in weight.

It pays to keep things simple when fishing dams. All you really need in any boat is a tackle box, a few rods and a net. This allows you to keep the decks clear and leaves plenty of room so anglers can stand up and cast.

Fishing freshwater dams is quite a relaxing pursuit, and in most dams most of the good fishing is early morning or late afternoon, which gives you plenty of time in the day to swim, bush walk or look after your camp.

If you haven’t tried it, put it on your “to do” list. It is a very satisfying form of fishing regardless of the species you chase.

This story was first published in the Fishing World October 2013 issue.


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