Abstract An 8-m long experimental fishway was trialled at three different slopes [8.3% (1:12), 14.3% (1:7) and 20% (1:5)] to examine the potential of the single-plane Denil fishway for the passage of small- and large-bodied native fishes in Australia. Fish between 45 and 630 mm ascended the fishway. The lowest slope enabled the full size range of bony herring Nematalosa erebi (Günther), from 45 to 350 mm fork length, to ascend the fishway successfully as well as a higher numerical proportion; 88% at the 8.3% slope compared with 31% at the 20% slope (fish numbers per trial = 33–3936). These results dispel the notion that Denil fishways are inherently poor for small fishes. Manipulating the design parameters of slope, length, width and possibly depth-over-breadth ratio enables Denil fishways to pass a wide size range of fish, which may greatly extend their present application and enable them to make a greater contribution to the rehabilitation of diverse fish communities.