Between my own fishing trips near and far, I guide at Millbrook Lakes near Ballarat. That’s where I found myself on Monday, almost licking my lips in anticipation of a great day.
After weeks of warm, sunny and often windless conditions, the weather systems were changing. The day’s forecast promised cloud, some rain and even thunderstorms. Sure enough, for the first time in ages I woke to a dark sky out the window, and the sound of showers brushing the roof.
Now, it wasn’t as if the previous few weeks had produced terrible guiding conditions. We’d had some good days and some great evenings – and if nothing else, settled weather does wonders for the player comfort index! Still, for many places I fish (Millbrook included) I find continuously benign weather can actually start to work against the fishing if it drags on for too long. Things start to go… well, stale. Water levels begin to drop and the bright conditions seem to wear away at the trout, as if being constantly exposed turns them into nervous wrecks. In fact, just two days before the break in the weather, a friend called to complain about the tough fishing in the Otways. He could see plenty of trout alright, but apparently, it was impossible to get a fly anywhere near a fish without it fleeing in terror.
Nothing fixes ‘stale’ conditions better than a burst of rain, some cloud and maybe a bit of wind. I pulled up at the first lake, imagining the rejuvenated trout out and about, hunting hard in an almost celebratory mood. (For someone who’s supposed to bring a professional, objective eye to observing trout, I sometimes get a bit carried away!) I could hardly wait for the arrival of my guests for the day, long-time client Craig and his newbie mate Peter.
Well, a few hours later, I was beginning to rethink my reset theory. On paper, things couldn’t have gone much better: almost total cloud cover, mild temperatures and the odd downpour – but not so much rain that it kept us off the water for more than a few minutes at a time. And yet, the fish and the fishing weren’t quite right. Perhaps somewhat impulsively, at the start of the day, I’d shared my predictions for great fishing with Craig and Peter as we stood in the drizzle setting up. They’d chuckled good-naturedly at my ‘guide talk’, which only fuelled my insistence that some amazing opportunities lay ahead.
In fact, the trout had proved relatively hard to find, and when we did locate one to present a fly to, the response was usually a half-hearted inspection, or total ignorance. To emphasise the difficult fishing, the boys were doing their part very well. After struggling early, Peter had got the hang of it and was putting lots of good casts just where I asked him to. Meanwhile, Craig was fishing better than I’d ever seen him fish on numerous trips together. In terms of delivering the fly where it needed to be quickly, accurately and gently, not a chance had been wasted.
Eventually, through sheer weight of good presentations rather than any change in the uncooperative nature of the trout, the boys managed to hook and land a decent trout each. Peter’s fish especially was a victory, being his first-ever lake trout on a fly.
Still, time was ticking on and despite the unfailing good humour and positive attitude of my guests, I was quietly becoming more and more perplexed that the idyllic-looking conditions weren’t being matched by the fishing. With Craig beside me, I hunted a lake shore that rarely lets me down, staring until my eyes watered for any sign of a trout. In the evening light, freshly washed by rain, everything looked glorious. But still the fish were scarce – ‘oncers’ like a distant dragonfly leaper, or a single fin breaking the ripple, never to be seen again.
At last, in the middle distance in a little bay, I thought I saw something… yes, definitely a swirl. As we got closer, I noticed nervous water just a metre from the bank… and then that fish vanished like all the others. With no better options, I decided we’d best wait in the bay and hope the trout moved again. A few minutes later it did, revealing itself as a 2 foot brown when it cleared the water to take a dragonfly. Craig’s Claret Carrot was in the zone in an instant, but nothing. Then the trout rose softly and with a single cast, Craig landed his fly a metre ahead of it. The cast couldn’t be better… surely this time? Nope. “Bugger!” I exclaimed in frustration, “What the hell do they WANT??” Craig said nothing, and cast again, a little further right. The trout quietly sipped the Carrot off the top in that incongruously gentle way big browns often do. Craig paused for a moment, and lifted into chaos.
The trout tore across the bay, leapt several times, briefly found some weed, then leapt high in the air again. When Craig finally steered it within range of the net, I can’t think of too many fish I’ve been more relieved to see landed.
And so a tough day ended on a high note, with a single great fish from a lake that had offered precious few chances. Later, alone on the drive home, I found myself pondering that day more than most days. Sometimes, we look for a moral or a lesson when there really isn’t one. But at the very least, the day had emphasised the value of never giving up, of being mentally ready right up until the close of play (and that applies to the guide as much as the guest)! I reflected that with any fishing, guided or not, you never know when your chance may come, regardless of how tough the preceding hours have been.
As for why the trout were so generally uncooperative when all my experience suggested they should have been active? Well, I’m reminded of Jim Allen’s line in his latest FlyStream column, where he notes that if the book of flyfishing is a hundred pages long, he’s up to about page ten! Maybe I need days like Monday simply to remind me that I still have a lot to learn.