Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

PREFACE

WINTER

INSTINCT

FIDDLER ON THE VISE

TROUT GALLERY

ROD AND LINE

THE GULF

SPRING

A STREAM FOR SEPTEMBER

BIG TROUT

CHANGE OF PLAN

SMALL STREAMS

CONFIDENCE

SPONTANEITY

LOSING FISH

SUMMER

MITTA MOMENTS

MEAL TIME

THE FOOD CHAIN

BLOWING IN THE WIND

SUMMER AND SNAKES

COD

LOST IN TRANSLATION

AUTUMN

LOST AND FOUND

SALMON AND TROUT

LUCKY

THE CREEK

THE LONG MARCH

ONE LAST CAST

FLYING BLIND

A WORD ON MEASUREMENTS

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

FRONT COVER FLAP

BACK COVER FLAP

BACK COVER MATERIAL

To my dear boys Daniel and Sean, wishing you many happy seasons.

PREFACE


Like rise, nymph and dry, in the language of flyfishing the word ‘season’ takes on a few meanings. Sometimes it simply describes the period when certain species may legally be fished for. Another usage is to define when a particular type of fishing is prevalent, say, mayfly season or grasshopper season. Season can even be used in place of ‘fishing year’, as in ‘last season’ or ‘this coming season’. This definition is often employed when reflecting on a mistake or misfortune in the past, with a promise to correct it in the future.

In this book, the structure revolves around a fourth definition of season, being the passage of twelve months marked by a migrating sun, changes in the weather and, in the higher latitudes at least, the quarters of winter, spring, summer and autumn. During most of my fishing adventures (and I’m sure yours too) the season in this context is, at a minimum, the canvas on which the events are drawn. At other times, the season dominates to the extent that it pretty much is the story, and the incidents occurring around it are almost secondary.

The relationship between the seasons and flyfishing really struck me when looking back through some of my magazine columns, and proved the inspiration to put this book together. Some of the tales that follow have appeared in these columns, at least in part.

So this book is a journey through a fishing season, or should I say fishing seasons, as the events take place from the present back over 30 years and more. There are hot days and cold, the hard days and easy, the victories and defeats, people and places. Maybe more than anything else, this book is about all those small things that make flyfishing a life sport, which leave me as smitten with it now as I was in the beginning.

WINTER


INSTINCT


Peter Julain and I go back as far as my first fly rod. When I was about ten years old Dad and I befriended Peter, his brother David and father John. At the time John and Peter (and to a lesser extent David) flyfished, while Dad and I used bait and spinners. I was catching my share of trout on little Celta lures, and grasshoppers and mudeyes drifted down the current beneath bubble floats. Flyfishing seemed like an interesting but unnecessarily elaborate way to snare a fish.

Nevertheless, from time to time I picked up my fly rod and had a go. I still have that rod, a 9-foot 7-weight fibreglass model that was (and is) very difficult to use. Somehow I persevered with it, catching the odd trout that forgave my short, sloppy presentations. But I always fell back to the reliable spinning rod when things became difficult.

Fishing my Celtas and Floppys, I kept up with Peter most of the time, catching as many if not more fish. However, Peter and his fly rod dominated in two important areas: he caught bigger trout than me, and he caught trout during the frantic evening rise. During this rise, when as many trout as we ever saw dotted the water with their swirls and slashes, the spinner was the most abject of failures. In the course of the dozens of these rises that Peter and I fished together, fly versus spinner, I can’t recall catching a single trout. In hindsight some must have actually dodged the treble hooks, otherwise I would have eventually foul-hooked one.

It would be exaggerating to suggest Peter taught me to flyfish—there aren’t too many adults who have the patience to instruct their friends in flyfishing, let alone kids. However, I could observe what Peter was doing. And occasionally, if he was feeling benevolent after a good session, he might take a few moments to show me a nail knot, or to recommend a Red Tag.

Over time my casting improved and so did the fly rods I used. Slowly, I began to catch trout. Most of my initial successes could be politely described as lucky—a trout on a drowned Royal Coachman that was hooked as I went to lift off; another as I was simply feeding a Matuka downstream without even casting. But then I began to catch trout more deliberately during the evening rise.

Finally, I caught some big ones. I recognised many of these latter fish as those that would merely ‘follow’ when spinning—the large trout that tantalised by chasing the lure to my feet without actually eating it. Decades later, I still marvel when a big trout follows my fly, then suddenly and gracefully engulfs it.

To my disappointment, I can’t actually remember when it was or where that Peter and I finally went fishing together and I didn’t at least bring the spinning rod along just in case. In any event our flyfishing trips together since are too many to recall. As I’ve spent the last couple of decades with flyfishing as my profession (to use the term loosely) as well as my passion, I’ve been able to close the skill gap between us. However, he still produces the odd surprise.

Which leads me to a recent winter trip to Tullaroop Reservoir, a large water storage in central Victoria less than an hour’s drive north of my home. When levels are high, Tullaroop verges on attractive, with a mixture of grassy and timbered slopes framing fertile bays and corners. But after a few years of drought, the lake was low and stable, and kilometre after kilometre of the eastern shore was featureless. Well, featureless is a bit harsh. The water was pleasantly clear under a sunny mid-winter sky, and a narrow weedbed followed the shoreline contours. However, defined bays, inlets, sharp points, shallow flats or rocky headlands were non-existent. In other words, all the places one looks for inspiration when the trout become invisible were missing from a remarkably uniform shoreline.

Yet after half an hour of walking, chatting and throwing the odd aimless cast, Peter suddenly announced, ‘I think I’ll have a go here.’ There was nothing at all to distinguish the spot from any other over the last kilometre. Just more rock and clay shoreline, sprinkled with the odd clump of winter-bleached grass, then just offshore a dark-brown weedbed perhaps half a rod broad dropping away into blue-green water beyond. Bidding Peter good luck, I continued. I halfheartedly set my sights on a group of skeletal drowned trees in the distance, but I hoped to see a trout move before then.

After I’d walked on for about five minutes, a cry of ‘Whooo-eee!’ carried on the light breeze. I looked back. In the middle distance, Peter’s rod and posture had combined to adopt the question-mark shape of an angler hooked into something worthwhile. And although I was too far away to see detail, a large splash offshore confirmed he was into a good one.

Torn between the desire to catch one of my own and that almost childlike eagerness to see a big fish caught, I chose the latter course and gracefully jogged back to Peter in my clay-clogged waders. I arrived in time to witness the victorious beaching of a fat, silvery 4-pounder. Actually, I think Pete drew the fight out a little to make sure I experienced the full drama, but I guess that’s a successful angler’s prerogative.

The brown was a beauty, and when I looked closer there was a surprise. Firmly imbedded in the jaw scissors was a Bibio Hopper dry fly. An English loch-style dry in mid winter? Plainly, something a little spooky was going on here. Peter had not only stopped as if he’d hit a brick wall to cast over an essentially featureless spot, he had also taken the trouble to change to a pattern neither of us had previously even contemplated at Tullaroop, let alone in July. Yet soon after, he had caught a very nice trout.

Now, for the benefit of the scientifically minded, let’s analyse what happened. We arrived at the lake late morning. I, admittedly, had fished it recently. Peter, however, hadn’t visited Tullaroop for a few years, and then rarely on the east shore and never at that water level (fairly low). I had generously shared the benefit of my recent experience, suggesting a Tom Jones as a point fly and a small bead-head nymph on the dropper to imitate the abundant corixia. Peter had politely rigged up this way at first, but evidently, as soon as I was out of sight, he’d changed to a fly I hadn’t even considered, let alone discussed. All this without an obvious reason to stop and fish in the first place.

Of course, I cross-examined Peter in an effort to uncover the real story behind his fine catch. Had he seen a fish rise? No. Had he seen a fish move? No. Had he imagined from a distance that he might have seen a fish move? No. Had he seen any insects on the surface? No. Had he spoken to anyone else recently about Tullaroop flies or hotspots? No. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even know we were going there until that morning. ‘Then why did you stop here and fish with that?’ I asked with exasperation.

‘I don’t know,’ Peter shrugged. ‘It just felt like a good idea.’

It seems there are only two possibilities to explain Peter’s success. One is sheer luck. Given our decades of friendly competition, this is a tempting explanation but, in this case, an unconvincing one. The other is instinct. Had Peter, by using what we sometimes think of as a sixth sense, known intuitively where to stop and what fly to use? That is certainly the more intriguing explanation.

This instinct thing is a source of fascination to me. When I’m having a good day, I sometimes anticipate a take to an invisible fly seconds before it actually happens. I can’t make this feeling happen, but it’s nice when it does. Another example is striking into a fish on a dark night, without really knowing why you struck in the first place.

Wild animals—including trout—clearly use instinct much more effectively than we do. Arguably, we modern-day humans retain the potential to use instinct effectively, but it seems that our ability to do so has largely been smothered by 21st-century life. We are now so insulated from the natural world that even extremes of weather which would have been lethal to our ancestors—like Victoria’s snow-to-sea-level cold snap a couple of years back—are no more than an interesting novelty. The capacity to sense an impending blizzard in time to prepare fire and shelter no longer carries the life-saving benefits it once did. And if you don’t use it perhaps you lose it.

I often find myself trying to explain to acquaintances (and sometimes even to myself) why fishing is so important in my life. A part of the reason is surely the opportunity to return once again to a place where instinct matters, where I can really use and test the wonderful intuitive abilities we are all born with—even if my fishing mates sometimes use those abilities better than I do...

FIDDLER ON THE VISE


The rest of the family has turned in for an early night and the house is quiet. The fire crackles in the hearth, casting a flickering light on the leatherbound first editions in the bookcase. Ransome, Scholes, Ronalds ... A cold wind splatters rain on the study window, but you are warm and dry. A steaming coffee, fortified with a dash of single-malt scotch, waits patiently beside your right hand. Dire Straits play softly in the background, slightly muffled as the rain on the roof changes to sleet.

Although it’s mid winter, your mind is five months in the future, visiting a mountain river in early summer. Dry-fly time, with long, warm days, clear water and gentle flows. Several patterns have proved indispensable during early summers past, however none more so than the Geehi Beetle. And not just any Geehi Beetle, but the one you tie with an extra-fat body and a short hackle. While it may not be the best floater, you have no doubt that trout are powerfully drawn to the half-drowned ‘footprint’ this fly leaves.

You open the top-left drawer of the desk, where temporarily redundant fly boxes rest, awaiting their season. Beside the box labelled ‘Grasshoppers – Dry’, is the one you want: ‘Beetles – Dry’. Unexpectedly, seeing both boxes side-by-side causes you to revisit the confusion of a few summers ago, when an acquaintance insisted that the Geehi Beetle was, in fact, the best grasshopper fly he knew of. Then the moment passes, and you open the Beetle box, satisfied that the Geehi is correctly classified.

‘Aha, just as I thought,’ you murmur to yourself as you lift the lid. Two things are immediately obvious: there are only three Geehi Beetles left in their otherwise empty row; and all three are badly beaten up. Time to fix that.

The three survivors are pulled from the foam ridge. There is a moment of hesitation before you piff them into the wastepaper basket—after all, these flies served you well. But this is not the time for sentimentality. With the box now ready with an empty row, you begin.

First you reach for the bobbin, dangling from its hook on the wall. Then you open one of the little drawers in the timber box at the back of the desk, labelled ‘Dry Fly #12’. The Geehi works best in large sizes. A hook is fastened into the vise. Quick turns of thread with the bobbin make ready for the golden pheasant tail. The golden pheasant is clearly marked (of course) in the CD file that works perfectly for storing small packets of fly-tying materials. You’re getting into a rhythm now and, with barely a pause, you pick a prime peacock quill from the canister beside the desk. A few herls later and the body is satisfactorily plump. Next the hackle—genetically grown, needless to say. These hackles are so long and easy to work with it almost feels like cheating. Almost.

In no time, the first Geehi is tied. A dab of lacquer behind the hook eye and it is on the foam drying row. You admire the new fly briefly, and then move on to the next. Like a machine, you produce fly after fly until, just as ‘Water of Love’ (appropriately) begins to play, the twelfth Geehi Beetle joins its companions.

There is a moment to lean forward and admire your work. After a slow sip of coffee, you ask yourself the hard question. Could any of those Geehis be better? Be honest now. But no, each one is perfect. Into the box they go.

You put the coffee down and notice that it is quiet outside. A glance at the window reveals that the sleet has turned to snow, settling on the sill. Shivering involuntarily, you get up from the chair and put another log on the fire. Now, how are the Red Tags...?

***

The cat has been sick on the carpet, and your toddler is trying to find out how many pieces of Lego will fit in the DVD player slot, when you notice you are all out of Milly Midges. Your angling companion will be arriving in half an hour for a trip to the central highlands lakes. You sponge up the cat’s mess, fighting the urge to make your own much larger contribution. For a moment your crowded mind calculates how old the cat is—shouldn’t it be dead by now?

But the thought is interrupted by a strange whirring sound from the DVD player, and a delighted giggle from your two-year-old. Gently restraining child with one hand, and inspecting the Any small fly I was too disorganised to put in the right box -box, you look desperately for an alternative. The Shipmans perhaps, or those slightly worn-looking superglue buzzers. They’ll do won’t they? ‘Yeah right,’ says a voice of bitter experience from deep inside your head. If you don’t have any Milly Midges, then guess which fly will be the only one the trout want?

With a reluctant acceptance of this reality, you distract your offspring with a giant toy caterpillar that talks in a slightly spooky Chinese – American accent, and sneak off to the study. Shoving a half-finished manuscript and some bills (about the same mass) to one side, you sit at the study desk and reach hopefully among the pile of opened packets in the hook drawer. Size 12 grub hooks are what you need and, eventually, in the morning’s first small victory, you find the right packet—but then notice only two hooks are left. Never mind, you make a start anyway.

After a few false beginnings, the first Milly is almost finished. Perhaps it’s a bit emaciated around the thorax but time is marching on. With some satisfaction, you make a final turn with the bobbin ... and the thread inexplicably snaps. The peacock herl springs gleefully from the hook, while the Hi-Vis gill appears to vaporise. Fingers stiffening with cold (keeping the study door shut also blocks the heat from the living room fire), you reach tiredly for more Hi-Vis and herl.

Three-quarters of the way through the second Milly, the toy caterpillar has gone silent and soon after comes the slow pounding on the door: ‘Da-da, Da-da’. Distracted, you finish the fly but dab too much lacquer behind the hook eye. The resultant spillage onto the peacock herl leaves the second Milly Midge sporting a distinct Mohawk. Oh well, variation in nature...

You begin the search for a third hook that will substitute for a size 12 grub hook, but already your mate’s tyres are crunching up the gravel outside—right on 10a.m. You bundle the two slightly ratty Millys into an already chaotic box and head for the front door. ‘Morning!’ greets your friend, looking annoyingly neat and organised. ‘Great day for it.’ He grabs an armful of your gear from the table beside the front door. ‘Thought there might be some midges about,’ he continues, as you both walk over to his car, ‘so I tied up some Millys last night. Here,’ he says, reaching for a small film canister on the dash, ‘tied up a few for you too.’