Our next river history from True Tales of the Trout Cod: River Histories of the Murray-Darling Basin is the Ovens River Catchment. Will Trueman’s compilation of newspaper articles, oral histories and photos helps us to put together an picture of what this catchment was like in the past.
Early accounts of fish in the catchment
Early newspapers described an abundance of fish in local rivers. One account reported that a water wheel set up on the Ovens River near Oxley, was capturing large numbers of fish which swam accidentally into its buckets:
Argus, 25 January 1871
The buckets are rather deep, and as the fish endeavour to make it up the river, they get into them as they pass, evidently to escape the force of the down current, and are thus lifted and emptied with the water into the flume. Large and small keep constantly turning up, and of all kinds, but they generally come in shoals, and we ourselves witnessed in half-an-hour some two dozen fish, chiefly bream, weight from a few ounce to three and four pounds each. The small ones are of course returned to the river, but believe at least a hundred weight of saleable fish in the 24 hours is the rule and not the exception.
Lagoons near the King River contained numbers of Catfish, while further upstream the Buffalo River was reported to contain ‘voracious Murray cod and perch’ (Argus, 15 August 1884).
In the slopes zone of the catchment, Trout cod, Murray cod, Macquarie perch and Blackfish were reported as abundant, and some Oral Histories collected suggest that Silver perch may have occurred in this zone. Brett Carmody, interviewed at age 90, recalled that Trout cod were almost in pest proportions in the 1920s.
In the lowland zone, most larger native fish species were common in the Ovens River, except for Golden perch and Silver perch. This may reflect an early decline in the abundance of these species.
Oral History from Geoff Holt of Beechworth
My father knew that there were two types of cod, but believed that only one type, the Trout Cod, was present in Lake Sambell. His biggest was a 50 pounder, caught around 1952. In the morning he caught one that was 21 pound and went back that night and caught the big one. He caught good ones every year, always caught some from 20 to 30 pound each year. He fished for the big ones, and always caught them on bait such as yabbies or worms.
There are still cod in the lake, in the last few years I know of someone that bumped into a big one when they went diving there.
Oral History from Bing Kneebone of Whorouly (age 76)
I can remember old Dave Brown, an ex-butcher, used to bring the cod home on a pushbike, used sparrows for bait. He would get them with a shanghai, then pluck them. That was out on the river here, at Whorouly. In the Whorouly Creek, it used to be full of Catfish, in the ’40s; we used to catch them, used to get them up to 5–6 pounds. They were plentiful, common around 3 pound, that would be a good average size. And the bream, in the creek too, the Macquaries, before the redfin got in.
Changing distribution and abundance
Macquarie Perch were reported to have been prolific in the lower slopes zone of the Ovens River in the 1920s, but had disappeared from many areas by the 1940s. By the 1950s the species had become scarce in this zone.
Cod populations also declined during the 1930s, with the scarcity of smaller fish being noted. By the Second World War fewer larger cod of both species were being taken, though the fishing was still considered reasonably good in the Ovens River downstream of Myrtleford.
Bushfires in 1914 and 1939 negatively impacted fish populations:
“After the bushfires, well it wiped both of them [Macquarie perch and Catfish] out, and the redfin. The big rains after the fires washed in the ash, the fish were swimming on top of the water gulping for air. Once the reddies got in they seemed to wipe everything out.” – Oral History from Bing Kneebone
The Current Situation
Since the 1970s Murray Cod have undergone a natural recovery in the Ovens catchment, more recently aided by hatchery releases. By the 1990s the Murray Cod became regular catches downstream of Myrtleford and Whitfield. Stockings of Golden Perch and later Trout Cod have re-established these two species in the catchment.
While the rivers of the lowland and slopes zones of the Ovens catchment clearly have potential for re-establishing major populations of native fish, the upland zone looks somewhat less promising. Although the Buckland and upper Ovens rivers don’t contain obstacles in the form of dams, they have been degraded by alluvial mining. The other two rivers in the upland zone, the Buffalo and the King, have much better habitat but are fragmented by the presence of dams.
The Ovens River downstream from Myrtleford, as part of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s Native Fish Strategy, has been designated as a ‘demonstration reach’ where a range of rehabilitation activities will be conducted with community participation to improve habitat and restore native fish populations.
Ovens River Catchment Video
The map below shows the location of the Ovens River Catchment, including major waterways and key localities.