I don’t know what it is about the Tasmanian highlands and its lakes. There are places where I catch more trout more easily (including Tassie’s lowland rivers) and there are places like New Zealand where I catch trout that are, on average, bigger. And while the highlands are beautiful in a wild, harsh sort of way, they’re not the sort of destination you’d choose for a honeymoon.
Yet the highland lake fisheries get under your skin. It’s not just me. Five FlyStream regulars have shacks – read small houses – on the shores of Great Lake, including Jim Allen, whose association with the area goes back to the 1970s (as readers of our magazine are frequently reminded). These anglers regularly fish all over the world; and yet independently, they’ve chosen the rocky, windswept tundra of the highlands as the epicentre of their flyfishing world.
I’m not going to try to sell the highlands to you. There have been more than enough times over the years when I’ve sat forlornly in a cabin or shack, watching the snow swirl past or the wind buckle the gnarly gums and wondered what on earth I’m doing there. Yet I have a picture in my head from just a few days ago of brother Mark leaning against the car in the sun looking about as happy as someone can, with bare Great Lake silt flats and rocky desolation stretching for hundreds of hectares around him. “Well, that’s why I come to Tasmania,” he grinned as I got within earshot, and proceeded to describe in detail the circumstances behind each of the three browns he’d just polaroided and caught.
I think the fish that delighted him the most was the one he found almost back at the car. Apparently Mark was distracted by thoughts of Mars bars and drinks by then, and he spotted the 4 pound brown too late – just a couple of rod lengths away. Predictably, it bolted… but then miraculously resumed feeding while still in view. It swam across a barely submerged mound with its back out of the water to eat his brown Paradun.
Could the sheer scale of options be part of the appeal of the highlands? While there are options there is hope and most mornings from December to March, Jim Allen’s shack becomes an informal briefing room for his very wide circle of fishing friends. The coffee pot simmers away and anglers come and go. Maps are pulled out, forecasts are analysed as if in preparation for a space shuttle launch and Jim – who’s fished just about everywhere in the highlands in just about every conceivable set of conditions – offers counsel on demand. Even on an ‘average-looking’ day (it’s never a bad day at 9 am) there are places that might fish okay, and someone will have a genuine example of when place X did fish okay in conditions just like the current ones.
The highlands trip I’ve just enjoyed with Mark was pretty good. On the downside, the wind proved a bit fickle and was sometimes inclined to suddenly turn 180 degrees from the direction that had had sent us to a particular lake or shore in the first place. (Tassie highland flyfishers can discuss wind with the same authority that Eskimos discuss snow.) Gum beetles proved their usual exasperating little selves, crashing determinedly onto Dee Lagoon and Little Pine Lagoon in vast numbers, but only exciting a few rises on the former and as far as we could tell, none on the latter. (Don’t tell me the fish got on ’em after we left – I don’t want to know!)
However we caught good trout every day, and sometimes quite a few. The late afternoon spinner falls at Penstock Lagoon were lots of fun, followed up by evening caddis and midge action. As you will have already assumed, shore-based polaroiding on the very low Great Lake (minus 17.4 metres) was challenging but rewarding: as long-time fishers will know, low Great Lake levels actually bring the fertile weed beds and silt flats within easy reach, especially for shore-based anglers. If we could locate dark, firm lake bed in 1-2 feet of water, action was almost guaranteed for browns averaging 3 pounds and in fine condition. Mark also found trout midging and charging respectively in close pre sunrise, and caught several of the former.
Yes, all up it was a fine trip that already seems to be improving with age as the tougher bits (such as getting stuck in knee-deep mud) fade in the memory. Meanwhile other bits are coming to the fore, like when I gave up chasing a regularly-rising Penstock rainbow, only to have it appear out of nowhere to eat my Red Spinner while I was contemplating what to do next.
After three plus decades, surely it must be more than selective memory that keeps me (and countless others) coming back to this magical, contrary place.