Fish attractors: Dams of dreams

Researchers at Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries have designed and built bespoke structures, called fish attractors, to create realistic habitat for fish at some of Queensland’s dams. Fish attractors are part of the Habitat Enhancement Research Program, a program co-funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, to improve recreational angling and regional tourism.

In this episode of Turf ‘n’ Surf, President of the Toowoomba and District Fish Stocking Association Peter Taylor chats about the fish attractors in Toowoomba’s Cressbrook Dam, Toowoomba Regional Council’s Councillor Nancy Sommerfield talks about the benefits a dam brim full of fish brings to the local community and Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Principal Fisheries Biologist Michael Hutchison explains the aims of the Habitat Enhancement Research Program.

Turf ‘n’ Surf is a podcast that tells stories in Queensland’s farming, fishing, biosecurity and forestry sectors. It features interviews with people at the heart of the state’s primary industries and looks at how the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is helping to grow this important sector. Catch up on our other episodes.

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Meet our guests

Peter Taylor Peter Taylor
Councillor Nancy Sommerfield Councillor Nancy Sommerfield
Michael Hutchison Michael Hutchison
Fish attractors used in Cressbrook Dam Fish attractors used in Cressbrook Dam
Sonar images of large fish and bait balls near a fish attracting device in Cressbrook Dam Sonar images of large fish and bait balls near a fish attracting device in Cressbrook Dam

Transcript

Program intro: Welcome to Turf and Surf, powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: If you build it, they will come. It’s one of Hollywood’s most famous lines. And just as Kevin Costner built his field of dreams researchers at Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries have designed and built bespoke structures to tip the scales in favour of fishers at some of Queensland’s dams.

The structures called fish attractors are part of an Australian first program to improve recreational angling and regional tourism.

I’m Brad Muir. In this episode of Turf and Surf, we’ll look at how fish attractors are luring fish and the fishers looking to hook a good feed.

Program segue: You’re listening to Turf and Surf, the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: Peter Taylor is a keen angler to say the least. Peter is the president of the Toowoomba and District Fish Stocking Association, used to own his own tackle store in Toowoomba and presents the odd segment about fishing on local radio, television and in the newspaper.

Welcome Peter. Can you tell me about the fish attractors? What shapes do they take and what materials are used in their construction?

Peter Taylor: They are all different shapes and sizes. We do cubes which are obviously a cube shape, mainly out of PVC and poly, excellent for attracting what we call as bait fish.

It’s a part of the food chain for the bigger fish and it’s excellent for encouraging more growth in the food chain like shrimp, hardy heads and bony bream. They all get in there and live and that attracts the bigger fish because that is where they know they can get a meal. It’s a bit like walking into a fast takeaway food outlet I guess.

We also make spiders which are, a spider is a bit like a big blob of concrete with black poly flexible pipe sticking out of it. It’s concreted in and they look like big spiders on the ground.

And we make trees as well. Big poly trunk with smaller poly branches that push through the holes so they all have to be drilled and pushed through and put together, a bit like a meccano set.

We have got hedgehogs or porcupines as they call it which is like a horse trough of upside-down of concrete with the black poly pipe sticking out of it everywhere, a bit like a porcupine which attracts fish right down close to the bottom.

We have got stationary trees that we built and they get concreted bases and they actually stand up around in different areas in the dam and then we have got the same trees actually go in as being suspended. So they suspend off buoys on the surface and weighted down to the bottom so they work extremely well in the deeper water.

And then we’ve got brush bundles which are big bundles of tree branches all bound together into a big bundle and they’re distributed, weighted and distributed around different areas.

Host: So they are basically replicating fish habitat aren’t they?

Peter Taylor: I am glad you mentioned that Brad because that is what is missing in Cressbrook Dam.

When Cressbrook Dam was built it was clear felled, in other words all the trees and structure were taken away before it filled up. Once it filled up and we got the okay to stock Cressbrook Dam with native fish, golden perch, bass and Mary River cod, there wasn’t any structure for them to sort of hang on and attract food.

So it has been a problem over the years to get some structure in there, to help catch the fish.  Everybody knows that goes fishing, especially in freshwater, if you go to a river system the first place you go to is where a big tree is sticking up out of the water or where a dead one has fallen into the water, that’s where the fish hang out.

So we’re putting in these fish attracting devices which become habitat for the native fish.

Host: Peter your group’s been involved in deploying the fish attractors into the Cressbrook Dam, tell us about your work there?

Peter Taylor: We have had quite a few working bees where local anglers and members alike get together and we work with the DAF scientists in putting all these structures together and it’s been a bit of an eye opener.

Already there has been some great results. It took quite a lot of time to work out the plan on where the best areas were to put them.

I spent quite a bit of time with Andrew Norris from DAF looking at different bays. There is a lot of bays in Cressbrook Dam and there is some open country.

Host: Peter you mentioned you have already seen some great results. Can you give me a before and after snapshot of the fish attractors and fishing in Cressbrook Dam?

Peter Taylor: I believe that after about two weeks the slime and everything is growing on the poly pipe straight away.

We’ve seen underwater footage of that and already the smaller baitfish had moved in within those two or three weeks which means that they work almost instantly which shows that it’s needed.

And also, we’ve seen some footage from drones underwater of bigger fish moving into those areas and already we have had anglers catching fish off those structures. It’s an absolute bonus of what is happening out there and will happen in the future.

And it can only get better and it’ll be a huge success. And in my opinion the catches and the results of golden perch in Cressbrook Dam will probably double over the coming months mainly because the goldens are the ones that really do look for structure to live on so it’s certainly going to be a great future for Cressbrook Dam with this set up.

Host: So it sounds like an anglers paradise and the proof as they say is in the pudding.  What’s the feedback been about the fish attractors from your members?

Peter Taylor: Oh it’s been excellent. Myself, I felt 100 percent confident it would work and along with the DAF scientists and it is working.

Really it’s going to be a bonus, bonus, bonus for all the anglers and for those people that go out there and camp as well. There is a camping area there and hopefully the local council will see their way clear to upgrade the camping area because it will certainly be attracting more travelling anglers to the area.

Program segue: This Turf and Surf podcast is powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: On this episode of Turf and Surf we are talking about fish attractors. Purpose designed and built structures to improve fishing in Queensland’s dams.

Joining us now is Toowoomba Regional Council Chair of Water and Waste Committee Councillor Nancy Summerfield. Nancy from a council perspective what’s the benefit of having a dam brimming with fish?

Nancy Summerfield: Look we were so delighted when this opportunity came our way because the dam had been built to a period where the trunks, tree trunks had all deteriorated to nothing so there were basically, there’s basically nothing in the bottoms of our dams to, places for fish to go and hide and breed and all that sort of thing.

So for us to be able to have a lot of fish in our dams it brings a healthier dam but it also brings opportunities for our anglers. We’ve got a lot of anglers in our region but also it brings other anglers which therefore increases our tourism opportunities as well.

We are a beautiful region and to have people come there and be able to fish in our dams it’s a really good outcome for everyone.

Host: Nancy, a Department of Agriculture and Fisheries survey found a massive surge in the number of people fishing in the Darling Downs. In the 12 months to 2019, 49,000 people fished in the Darling Downs, that’s up from 16,000 in 2013.

So what plans does council have to leverage off that and promoting Cressbrook Dam as a fishing and tourist hotspot?

Nancy Summerfield: Look we are certainly monitoring it at this stage and making sure that you know those fish numbers are increasing and that sort of thing and we do plan to do some promotion around that to encourage others to come because it does provide really good recreational activities for not only our residents but for people coming to our region.

Host: So apart from increased fishing opportunities around the dams the fish attractors themselves, have they had any other impacts around the local community? Have they bought community groups together for example?

Nancy Summerfield: Look I believe there have been a number of groups that have come and offered. The Scouts have been up there giving a hand to, with the actual fish hotels to get them in place and to have those other sort of community groups involved as well is another good outcome as far as we’re concerned.

Host: You’re the chair of the waste and water committee and Cressbrook Dam is part of Toowoomba’s potable water supply system, what impact do the fish attractors and the fish have on the city’s drinking water? I imagine that could be an issue there.

Nancy Summerfield: Look that is always monitored to make sure that there isn’t an impact there. But we do have good, we monitor our dams very regularly and ensure that our chemical balance is right, that there’s not unusual readings, spikes in readings there and if there were unusual spikes then obviously we would look into it but I really can’t see that the fish themselves would have any impact.

You would have to look at human activity of course would be another thing. And human activity is something that our staff are very wary of in relation to our dams. We need to make sure that they’re not impacting our water but at the same time we also need to be able to enjoy those dams.

So there’s a lot of different things you can do with dams. We’re also looking at hydro for our dams at the moment but that’s a bit off course for fishing. But there are a lot of different things you can do with dams and we want to try and make the most out of them.

Host: So Nancy what else can you see the fish attractors bringing to the city?

Nancy Summerfield: Oh look they bring people there, people come, they stay, they end up doing other touristy things while they are in our region so it’s not just Toowoomba that benefits, it’s also you know the likes of Crow’s Nest and the lovely Hampton area which is a developing tourism and micro industry there.

So when people come to fish they also stay, they play, you know go and spend money to have meals and that sort of thing so there is a good spin-off for it.

But my son is a fisherman, he loves going fishing and it’s such a good thing for people to do.  Fishing for men is not unlike men’s shed you know and not only men, it’s not only men that fish, don’t get me wrong but majority are men that do fish and it’s a very good mental outcome for people as well.

Host: So the message is come wet a line and stay for the other attractions.

Nancy Summerfield: Absolutely. We have a lot to offer so come and do some fishing but also have a look around, it’s a great time to go up to our dams and do a bit of fishing as well.

Program segue: You are listening to Turf and Surf, the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: On this episode of Turf and Surf we are chatting about fish attractors, purpose designed and built structures to improve fishing in Queensland’s dams.

Michael Hutchison is a Principal Fisheries Biologist with Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Michael has been working on the fish attractors as part of an Australian first program, the Habitat Enhancement Research Program, which began in January 2018.

Thanks for joining us Michael. What are you trying to achieve through this program?

Michael Hutchison: Well basically we are trying to improve overall angler catch rates and just make overall fishing better for anglers.

We’re also looking to get better survival of the fingerlings that are stocked into the dam and also improve the quality of the fish such as better growth rates or improved condition of the fish.

And I guess the overall objective is to increase the amount of anglers that visit the dams to benefit the local regions through increased tourism.

Host: So how do the fish attractors work?

Michael Hutchison: Well they work in a number of different ways. The main way is through provision of cover. Fish like to feel that they’re safe so they will move to cover because they feel protected from other predators that may be around in the dam such as cormorants or sea eagles.

But they also work by starting off new food webs. So when we put a structure in the dam it quickly develops cover, known as a bio-film which is a mixture of algaes and bacteria, that grow over the structure. And these bio-films bring in small fish and shrimp that feed off the bio-film and then those in turn bring in the larger fish which feed on the smaller fish and the shrimp.

So we’re actually creating new more improved food webs in the dam so that’s what may help to contribute to the better growth but it also attracts the bigger fish into the structures that we put there.

And that also makes it easier for anglers to find where the big fish are holding because they know where the structures are, they know where to go and fish.

Host: What species of fish are the attractors designed to catch?

Michael Hutchison: Well they are designed to bring in a number of different species depending on which dam they are put in.

In Cressbrook Dam, for example, the main focus is on Australian bass and golden perch and to a lesser extent Mary River cod and the eel tail catfish and some of the more northern dams our focus is on barramundi, sooty grunter, sleepy cod and saratoga.

Host: So when you’re designing and building the attractors and all this other habitat what researchers are you basing those designs on?

Michael Hutchison: In part from what has worked overseas but also what we know about the behaviour of the different species.

For example, we know that Australian bass and golden perch are attracted to cover so we try and mimic the natural types of habitats that they are attracted to. In the case of saratoga, they are usually associated with lily beds so we are putting in structures or vegetation that provides that kind of cover that they like.

But we’re also basing some of what we are doing on what has worked very well in the USA on different species of fish but fish that have similar kinds of habits to our own native fish species.

Host: We’ve focused mainly on Cressbrook Dam in Toowoomba today but you did mention that the fish attractors were in some of the northern dams in Queensland. Where else have the fish attractors being installed?

Michael Hutchison: Well we’ve installed fish attractors into Kinchant Dam near Mackay.  We’ve put about 200 structures into that dam.

We’ve just begun a program in Mount Morgan Dam which is a little bit inland from Rockhampton and the focus in Mount Morgan is to try and get going a saratoga fishery and to improve the existing golden perch and sleepy cod fisheries.

In Kinchant Dam the main focus is on barramundi but we are also trying to improve fishing there for sooty grunter and sleepy cod as well.

Host: Michael what sort of results are we seeing from the fish attractors?

Michael Hutchison: To date we have been detecting lots of large fish marks gathering around the structures that we’ve installed in the dams so at Kinchant Dam you can see large marks of fish that could only be barramundi sitting around the cubes and the artificial tree structures that we’ve installed.

In Cressbrook Dam, we’ve run underwater cameras past some of the structures and you can see small bait fish gathering around the structures as well as Australian bass. And we’ve also been able to catch golden perch and bass off those structures so they’re definitely starting to work.

Host: Michael how can people find out more about fish attractors?

Michael Hutchison: Well they could keep an eye on the fisheries Queensland stocked impoundment website.

Host: Thanks Michael. Queensland has 63 dams and weirs, including Cressbrook dam, that recreational anglers need a stocked impoundment permit scheme permit to fish with a line.

Locations of those dams and weirs, and details of how to get your permit, can be found on the Queensland government’s website, www.qld.gov.au/recreation/activities/boating-fishing/rec-fishing/dams.

Program outro: You’ve been listening to Turf and Surf. Turf and Surf is produced by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. For more information or to subscribe, visit our website at daf.qld.gov.au.