Time to fly

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JUST IGNORE the cold and enjoy the pleasure. STEVE COOPER wades into the wonderful world of fly fishing:

Spring had sprung on the Kiewa River, downstream from Mt Beauty. The river was shallow and, as I waded across to another run, I paused to look up towards Mt Bogong. Snow covered the mount’s slopes like a crisp white linen sheet: it’s a fly fisher’s dreamscape.

Fly-fishing for trout is as much about the environment as the hunt. Early in the season there will be days when you are knee-deep in water that is just a few degrees off being an ice block. A couple of hours after sunrise and your breath still turns to steam, and your leg muscles are tensing as you walk – or stagger – across the uneven, boulder strewn riverbed, trying to avoid the dreaded Arctic bath.

Fly fishing at dawn, in fog, is a surreal experience.
Fly fishing at dawn, in fog, is a surreal experience.

The fly fisher ignores the chill because the trout are sipping. You cast a short arc with a tight loop, and the way the line lays and leader unfolds adds up to a presentation that, hopefully, is as gentle as a windflower landing on the water. Delicate presentations to rising trout in gin-clear mountain streams are the literary substance of freshwater fly-fishing. Conditions are cold but wading the shallows is invigorating, and you soon warm to the occasion when that first trout inhales your fly.

At this time of year many anglers’ thoughts turn to trout and, among non-fly fishers, the possibility of trying a bit of fly fishing. It is a maybe, perhaps, should I or shouldn’t I, thought process. Sadly, most will not follow through.

There are many reasons why fly-fishing has lost popularity. I believe a main one is the mysticism that seems to surround the sport, which attracts more than its share of eccentrics. Some people like to portray fly-fishing as an art form, which it isn’t, and bury the reality behind a veil of technical jargon and double-speak.

Brown trout like this one dominate some waters and are keenly sought by fly fishers.
Brown trout like this one dominate some waters and are keenly sought by fly fishers.

There is also a perception that fly-fishing remains the sport of gentlemen who wear deerstalker hats, tweed jackets and wander about smoking briar pipes and fortifying themselves with claret. All of which is a load of twaddle. Most fly-fishers are normal, everyday anglers who once fished with lures or bait, but these days happen to prefer to fly fish.

Moreover, if there is a problem with the fly, it is the addictive nature of the sport: once you are hooked, there is no getting away. Fortunately, there are no serious health issues to encourage you to break away from what is a fine, outdoors activity.

Two myths that need exorcising are cost and casting. Fly-fishing is not an expensive sport to get into; and basic fly-casting is a matter of being shown how and then practising.

Geoff Lacey working the fly on the pondage at Mt Beauty.
Geoff Lacey working the fly on the pondage at Mt Beauty.

The first thing to understand is that dollars and fancy equipment with designer labels are a consolation prize. While nice to have, they won’t make you a better fly fisher, although you will look the part. Retailers offer entry-level fly fishing combos for less than $200. I went online to BCF to check this out and found several fly-fishing outfits retailing for between $169 and $199. Typical of these outfits were 4-piece, 6-7wt rods, reel, weight forward float fly line and backing.

Items needed to complete setting up include waders, polarising sunglasses, a hand net, line cutters, a tapered leader and tippet material, fly box and, of course, some flies. A fly jacket is not essential but, after wearing one, you will feel incomplete without it and, after all, you do want to look the part.

During summer, many anglers prefer to wear leggings and wade in shorts and sandshoes rather than don waders. However, in early spring you will need to wear waders to keep the warmth in your legs.

Small streams like the Rubicon River near Eildon are great venues for fly fishing.
Small streams like the Rubicon River near Eildon are great venues for fly fishing.

Without getting too technical, there are two types of flies: dry and wet. Fly fishers study the insect hatch and then match the hatch by using a similar fly.

A dry fly imitates an insect on the surface, usually one that has recently hatched and is waiting for its wings to dry so it can take off. A dry fly floats down river over a trout-feeding lane, and to present them you will need to add floatant to your leader and fly. A major difference between using dry or wet flies is that when dry fly fishing you will need to set the hook. Popular dry flies include Royal Wulff, Snowflake Caddis, Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and Coch-y-bonddu.

A wet fly is a sub-surface offering that may imitate the nymphal stage of an insect, or even small fish. Retrieve these flies slowly. When the trout are hungry, you will feel them take the fly and often hook themselves. Popular wet flies include brown or black nymphs with gold bead heads, Tom Jones, Woolly Bugger, Craig’s Nighttime, Green Matuka and Mrs Simpson.

Noted fly tyer and fishing guide Mick Hall nymphing on the Rubicon River at Eildon.
Noted fly tyer and fishing guide Mick Hall nymphing on the Rubicon River at Eildon.

When it comes to learning how to fly fish, there are instructional books and DVDs available but to get a solid grounding seek hands-on assistance. The options are to dig deep and hire the services of a fly fishing guide for a day, or alternatively join a fly fishing club.

As for fly fishing guides, there are plenty to choose. When I got serious about fly fishing more than 30 years ago, I fished the Alpine streams at Porepunkah and Corryong with the late Evan Mathews and Mike Spry respectively.

I remember walking the Ovens River near Bright with Evan, working black nymphs for brown trout that were laying in ambush in the boulder strewn, fast running water: “The trout will be lying along the drop of, under those overhanging bushes or at the bottom of the riffle,” he would say confidently.

With Mike, I cast Royal Wulff dry flies as the Kosciusko mayflies did their ritual vertical dance over the Narial Creek at dusk, and Mike would say: “They’re males searching for females, we’ll work Royal Wulff (dry flies) and float them down to the pool where the trout should be.”

Brown trout like this one dominate some waters and are keenly sought by fly fishers.
Brown trout like this one dominate some waters and are keenly sought by fly fishers.

Both men took pride in their knowledge and ability, willingly passing on their knowledge along without prompting. Evan and Mike were fierce competitors for the same market; sadly, both died within a few months of each other in 1997.

The legacies of these men are the hundreds of fly fishers who started the learning process at their schools. For many years I would spend a few days at Eildon with long-time friend Mick Hall where I underwent a fly fishing refresher course, whether I wanted to or not.

No matter who I meet in fly fishing circles, help is always at hand whether it be choosing a fly pattern or getting a tighter loop on my cast. Fly fishing clubs offer the newcomer a wealth of experience, and it’s a good way to learn and to interact socially with like-minded fisher folk. Remember, everyone started out the same.

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Author: Steve Cooper

STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.

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