Article by Philip Weigall and Trevor Hawkins. Courtesy of Flyfisher magazine.
Khancoban Pondage lies just north of the Victorian border in New South Wales, on the south-western flanks of the Snowy Mountains. It was constructed in 1966 to regulate or ‘smooth’ hydro-electric discharge from the Murray power stations (part of the giant Snowy Hydro scheme) before it flows down the Swampy Plains River to the Murray.
Among flyfishers, the Swampy Plains tailwater itself is far more popular and well known than the pondage from which it flows. In fact for many, Khancoban Pondage’s greatest claim to fame is probably as a landmark, a sign that the Snowy Mountains proper lie ahead. As the dark blue water flashes past through the cottonwoods, these anglers are thinking of the Geehi and Indi rivers, or perhaps the Thredbo and Lake Jindabyne. Yet many of the same factors that make the Swampy Plains tailwater an iconic trout stream, impact on the pondage too.
For starters, both receive regular inflows of icy alpine water from the Snowy Hydro storages at much higher elevation, via a network of tunnels and power stations. Over summer this cold water is a substantial plus for the trout population because the pondage, while surrounded by spectacular mountains, is barely 300 metres above sea-level, and hot summers are the norm.
Speaking of mountains, both waters share the same dramatic surroundings. From a flat, clear basin, forested peaks rise all around to over 2000 metres, snow-covered in winter.
As a trout fishery, the pondage has further advantages. It recruits a steady supply of wild trout from abundant spawning beds on the inflowing tributaries, including Khancoban Creek and the upper Swampy Plains system. Add some supplementary stocking and it’s no surprise that Khancoban Pondage nearly always holds a good head of fish. While there are some nice rainbows, browns are dominant, typically solid fish of 1 to 2 kg. Each year the lake produces trophy fish of 4 kg and more.
Khancoban Pondage’s rock-fill wall is over a kilometre long and 18 metres high, and the backed up waters cover nearly 500 hectares when full. Water is released into the Swampy Plains River via two huge radial gates.
As the pondage’s main function is to smooth out the peaks of water entering it during hydro-electricity generation, the level fluctuates regularly (sometimes hourly). As these fluctuations usually have little to do with natural inflows, and a lot to do with day to day power demand, they are difficult to predict. You’re never quite sure at Khancoban whether you’ll find a lake that’s brimming full, half empty, or somewhere in between.
The pondage is roughly rectangular in shape. The north shore is basically formed by the dam wall, rocky but not too steep, and quite possible to fish from with care. Much of the western shore is very steep and forested, and virtually inaccessible without a boat. The eastern shore is easy to access and offers a mixture of bays, points, marshy corners and steeper drop-offs. This is usually the most popular shore to fish. The southern shore offers an enticing mixture of holes, channels and marshes, but most of it is impossible to access without a boat or permission to cross private property.
Khancoban Pondage can fish well throughout the year. Even in the height of summer, the lake can produce good sport if the power stations are running and supplying lots of cold Snowy water. For example, some spectacular fishing can be found during summer from last light till after dark, fishing a large (size 4-6) Muddler Minnow across the surface. While a slow twitch retrieve will bring a solid response, so will a quick strip retrieve, also a violent strip followed by a decent pause. These last two retrieves ‘bloop’ the Muddler and the strikes are often dramatic! Make sure you grease the fly up well so it comes straight back to the surface every time. Moths, including Bogong moths are abundant in the area over summer, and their presence probably helps explain the Muddler’s effectiveness.
Notwithstanding summer opportunities like these, the focus here is the pondage as a cool weather fishery, during the period June to September when the neighbouring streams are closed.
For sight fishing enthusiasts, it is possible to spot fish during the late autumn to early spring period. Wade polaroiding the shallower edges when the light is good and the levels are up will reveal the odd fish, and a stick caddis, buzzer or green nymph presented under an indicator will usually get a response. Make sure the indicator is set at the right depth to keep the fly off the bottom, but not so high as to be well above the cruising depth of the trout.
When lake levels are favourable (and what’s ‘favourable’ varies from spot to spot) some of the steeper edges are also worth polaroiding in strong sunlight, especially where there’s paler substrate beneath the water.
It’s possible to polaroid fish from the elevated vantage point of the wall, though it pays to use a spotter so you don’t lose sight of the fish as you drop down to cast! And while we’ve never tried it, there’s likely to be good polaroiding from a boat along the western shore—looking in towards this steep bank removes glare and offers excellent visibility.
Rises and Swirls
While rises are seldom prolific during the cooler months, trout do feed on midges and you can usually find a consistent riser or two to cover during calm conditions early and late in the day. A boat is an advantage to reach fish a long way out, although if you walk enough shore you’ll usually find one within range. During calm and overcast weather, midging fish can show up throughout the day. Overcast skies should not be confused with fog however. Fog can envelop the valley in late autumn and winter and this often slows the fishing generally, including the midge feeders.
Smelting trout are another possibility at this time of year. The action is unpredictable but can occur under almost any conditions from rough to dead calm. If you find a trout regularly crashing the baitfish, cover the area thoroughly with a small wet like Tom Jones, Wet’s Zonker or small Yeti, retrieved slowly. However ‘oncers’ are just as likely to fall to a larger searching pattern like a Woolly Bugger.
Speaking of searching, this is the ‘bread and butter’ of early and late season fishing at the pondage. It’s important to appreciate that along the eastern and southern shores most accessible to wading anglers, much of the bottom is of uniform depth and quite featureless. Therefore it pays to seek out the deeper channels and holes which break the monotony and attract higher concentrations of trout. These areas include the flooded channel of Khancoban Creek as it winds its way out into the lake, the swimming area (not much used at this time of year!) and the soak that runs in to the right of it. To the left of the main boat launching site is a very deep hole come channel, featuring extensive weed beds which are about 10 metres or so offshore when the water level is up. Then, towards the southern shore, the power station channel enters the pondage, and further along are lots of great holes and channels. Finally, there’s the obvious channel where the upper Swampy Plains River enters the lake.
For searching the pondage during the cooler part of the year, it’s hard to beat prospecting the drop-offs and weedbeds associated with these features. A good starting fly is a bead-head Woolly Bugger, fished on a long fluorocarbon leader on a floating line. To search the really deep drop-offs, try a sink tip to get the fly down significantly and keep it there on the retrieve. Regardless of line, a slow steady figure-8/ gathering retrieve works well—sometimes even as slow as you can stand. Some hits are quite savage, but watch your line carefully for the many gentle takes that will be barely felt. Always strike at the slightest suspicion.
Don’t be dismayed if you arrive at the pondage to find the water level down. Although it’s less attractive to look at when low, such conditions tend to concentrate the trout into the channels and holes, which become increasingly defined as the water drops.
Worth the Trip
It’s little wonder the poor old pondage is neglected by flyfishers. During the warmer months, it competes for attention with surrounding stream fisheries which are some of the best on the mainland. Then when the streams close for winter, it suffers from being isolated—there are no serious alternative waters nearby.
Despite these issues, the pondage has much to recommend it. The trout, especially the browns, are consistently superb fish; in fact some of the best in the Snowys. Additionally the pondage is a comfortable size, and it enjoys a milder winter climate than the higher Snowy lakes. Meanwhile, Khancoban township provides plenty of good accommodation options and services like fuel, all a mere stroll from the water. Perhaps as important as any of these features, the pondage is simply a beautiful place to be out on the water.
Khancoban Fly Box
• Olive coloured wet flies do well at the pondage, especially Woolly Buggers – and don’t neglect those oldies but goodies, the Mrs Simpson and Hamills Killer.
• Smaller wets such as the Tom Jones, Yeti and Wet’s Zonker work well for covering smelters and random splashes and swirls.
• Try a Scintilla Stick Caddis, Sticky Caddis, red & black buzzer or green nymph for polaroiding.
• From last light to dark, a Craigs Nighttime, Phantom, or red & black Fuzzy Wuzzy work well.
• Regardless of fly, in bright, clear conditions use a long fluorocarbon tippet to avoid spooking the fish.