History lives in weir and river

Construction began on the Berembed Weir site in 1908.

Berembed Weir, located 34 kilometres east of Narrandera, and the Murrumbidgee River itself, are the source of some interesting historical facts.

The weir is where water moves into the Bundidgerry storage and the Bundidgerry regulator is the start of the irrigation canal system owned and maintained by Murrumbidgee Irrigation. The Main Canal then feeds the supply channels that take the irrigation water to the farm gate.

A historical photo of Berembed Weir.

These early photographs of the construction of the weir show what a major project it was and equally as interesting are some of the tales from anglers of those early times.

In a publication called ‘True Tales of the Trout Cod’ William Hill is pictured with a catch of Murray Cod from the Murrumbidgee River near Narrandera, c1940. The lowland habitat of the Murrumbidgee once supported a magnificent cod fishery with the Hill family making a living from it.

William Hill commenced fishing in the Narrandera area in 1906, before relocating to the Bringagee area just before the First World War. He assisted David Stead in tagging experiments and H K Anderson in his pioneering work at the Berembed Weir in 1916 to artificially propagate native fish. He travelled to Fiji accompanying a shipment of Australian bass in an effort to translocate them to that nation.

William can be regarded as one of the early pioneers of research on native fish. Born in Narrandera he went to school in the town, married and had 11 children. In 1922 he moved to Bringagee and bought a station there. He artificially inseminated cod for the first time ever. William lived until his eighties and died in Narrandera. He and his sons were basically professional fishermen.

In October 1914 valuable work was performed in the transplantation of a consignment of ovigerous Murrumbidgee crayfish (Astacopsis spinifera) from the Murrumbidgee River at Bringagee to the McIntyre River at Inverell. The crayfish were captured by William Hill and F Archer, another professional fisherman at Narrandera, and kept in wire netting cages until ready for dispatch. The consignment consisted of 161 mature crayfish, 8 to 18 inches in length, 51 being ovigerous females, whose eggs were at the time actually hatching, 47 females whose eggs had been hatched, and 63 males. They were released in four different places around Inverell. None were lost in transit.

Construction began on the Berembed Weir site in 1908.

William Hill placed his horse and sulky at the disposal of the Government and to accompany the officer undertaking the work, piloting him through the district along the Murrumbidgee River from Berembed Weir to Carrathool inspecting and testing the fish and food contained in the stream itself and its principal outside channels. This work took place over 21 days.

In the Narrandera Argus in October 1920 some interesting points in connection with the habits of Murray fishes were mentioned by J H Jarman of Narrandera. While the trout cod, recognised in his locality as a distinct variety of sub-species of the Murray cod, and always commanding high prices from those who know its merit as a table fish, were fairly common in the Murrumbidgee, he found that didn’t exist in the western rivers such as the Lachlan and the Darling.

Macquarie perch, while plentiful in the higher reaches of the Goodradigbee and in several other tributaries of the Murray including the Goulburn, was never caught by rod or drum net in the Murrumbidgee near Narrandera. The Murrumbidgee River was the focus of research into the biology of native fish in NSW from an early date. Harald Dannevig successfully stripped and artificially fertilised cod eggs on the Murrumbidgee River 20 miles from Wagga Wagga in 1905 (NSW Fisheries Report, 1905; Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1905).

It was proposed to establish a cod hatchery at Oura on the Murrumbidgee. Alternate sites at Albury, Corowa and Cooma were also considered (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1907; Adelaide Advertiser, 23 May 1908).

The observation of large numbers of native fish perishing in the drying lagoons near the Murrumbidgee led to the development of the Nature’s Waste Scheme commencing in 1915. During the course of this project, many tens of thousands of native fish were translocated from ephemeral water holes to permanent waters within and outside of the Murrumbidgee catchment.

William Hill of Narrandera helped catch the fish and transport them. In 1916, native fish spawning trials were conducted by H K Anderson, assisted by William Hill and resident surgeon and naturalist Dr H O Lethbridge of Narrandera at the newly constructed Berembed Weir. In 1917 in less than a month 90,000 juvenile native fish were harvested from waterholes near Darlington Point. In the 1920s a hatchery facility for native fish was constructed at Burrinjuck Dam, but damage by floods and the inability to secure ripe broodstock, along with financial cutbacks during the Great Depression, led to its abandonment (NSW Fisheries Report, 1925; 1929; 1932).

During the late 1930s, additional work on propagating cod was undertaken by William  Dakin and Geoffrey Kesteven at  Berembed Weir (Dakin & Kesteven, 1938).

Angling in this area dates back many years with evidence provided in newspaper correspondence by historian Mary Gilmore indicating that Aboriginal people constructed large numbers of elaborate fish traps in the Murrumbidgee catchment. The  smallest were formed by placing tree limbs across gullies carrying ephemeral creeks. This created permanent ponds which supplied both fish and water.

Single gullies, in some instances, had dozens of these ponds. Larger wooden structures were also built across billabongs. Stone traps were also constructed, using removable key stones to regulate fish passage and stream flow. A stone trap between Narrandera and Hay was the focus of large gatherings and other such traps existed, including one in the upper Murrumbidgee.

The wooden fish traps were destroyed by Europeans who used them for firewood, the last disappearing in 1880, while the stone traps were dismantled and used for building hearths. European exploration of the upper Murrumbidgee area commenced in October 1820 after Aboriginal people reported the existence of a very long river called the ‘Mur-rum-bid-gee’ meaning ‘big water’ (Lea-Scarlett, 1972).

Concern for the declining stocks of native fish ultimately led to the establishment of the Inland Fisheries Research Station, now known as the John Lake Centre, constructed at Narrandera in 1959.

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