Now that autumn is here, Philip’s thoughts are turning once again to this unique trout lake in western Victoria.
When we describe favourite waters to others, writer John Gierach gently accuses us of basing our assessment on our best day ever. My mental picture of autumn at Lake Wartook – and therefore what I’m tempted to tell you – means he may just be right. It was 1 May 2009 when Amac and I wandered out onto the kilometre-long dam wall that makes up most of Wartook’s southern shore.
I say ‘wandered’ rather than ‘jogged’ or ‘dashed’ because the conditions didn’t immediately inspire excitement. It was 13C, threatening to rain, and there was a light north-westerly blowing a ripple onto the neat, gently-sloping sandstone blocks which line the wall. Not awful conditions by any means, but not exactly what we’d hoped for. Then, before we’d walked for more than a few minutes, the wind died to nothing, the lake glassed out, and we saw the midging trout. I don’t know whether they had been rising all along and were merely revealed by the calm water, or if the wind dropping had caused the rise to begin. It was academic. Before us, we could see dozens, maybe hundreds of trout gently sipping and porpoising until the activity became too hard to resolve towards Bear Island, nearly a kilometre offshore.
To this day, that’s the most good-sized trout I’ve seen rising on a Victorian lake. So I was surprised just now when the ‘truth serum’ of the diary revealed that Amac and I caught exactly two trout that morning. Apparently, a lot of fish were beyond casting range (we didn’t have a boat), and of the closer ones, we missed and dropped several.
It wasn’t until two years later, this time on a calm sunny day on 20 May 2011, that we really converted the autumn glory. Using a boat to reach those pesky fish that were beyond range from the shore, Amac and I landed an incredible 30 good trout – risers and smelters – up until we came off Wartook in the chilly twilight, exhausted but delighted after a day of sight fishing that would have competed, we reflected, with any trout lake in the world.
Slightly less than a year later, on 16 April 2012, we had more autumn success; and this time from the bank, landing 14 trout to 4 pounds; again, a mixture of risers and smelters, and all sighted first.
I’ve had good fishing at Wartook at every time of year except midsummer, but autumn is hard to beat. A few things line up to ensure this.
First, autumn sees the summer heat fade and day length shorten. Although related to the first, the second point is important because the sun’s angle and time shining on the water is reduced, lessening solar heating even on otherwise hot autumn days.
Second, settled light wind days with mild temperatures (neither extremely hot nor extremely cold) are most common in the Grampians in autumn, and these conditions really help the feature fishing.
Third, shore access becomes very good, with the gently-receding lake dropping out of the swamps and tea-tree, leaving the angler with kilometres of open, sandy, grassy or rocky shore to comfortably explore.
Three events keep me coming back to Wartook every autumn.
Wartook is one of the better Victorian lakes for polaroiding, particularly in autumn when lower levels result in lots of shallow flats and bays with an even, sandy substrate ideal for spotting fish against. You do need good light to pull this off and the best visibility is often from a boat looking back to shore, or where you can find elevation but with a sandy flat nearby – such as the eastern and western ends of the wall, or off some of the rocky outcrops on the western shore.
Conventional wade polaroiding is worth a try around channels and other structure like weed beds and reed beds, however I often see the trout too late unless the light is exceptionally good. Polaroided trout will usually take a Zulu Tag or Claret Carrot, though at times they want a Scintilla Stick Caddis beneath an indicator.
The shores of Wartook usually teem with baitfish in autumn, mostly galaxias of various ages/ sizes. They seem well aware of their vulnerability to the trout and redfin and the schools may be in water that’s simply too shallow for the trout to reach. However, when the lake is fairly calm, you can sometimes spot pockets where the trout are successfully smashing the minnows – usually along the wall, around rocky shores or on the edge of the weed or reeds. When it’s rough, the activity tends to be too hard to see from a distance and it becomes blind luck to stumble upon a smelter.
Smelter action is most likely early or late in the day or when it’s overcast. Olive Woolly Buggers, Yetis and Green Machines are all good flies to try.
The most reliable sight fishing in autumn – at least if the wind is light – is provided by trout rising gently to midges and terrestrial insects like beetles and ants. I emphasise ‘gently’ because these fish can be surprisingly hard to see. You do get days, such as the one at the start of the story, when the light is just right to make the rises stand out. However white cloud glare, reflections, and the softest ripple can hide sipping trout very well; in fact some days, I can hear them better than I can see them!
If the wind is light and variable, then the areas where the trout are rising trout can seem totally random and you simply have to look all over the lake to find them. However, if the wind has been blowing from one direction and drops out, food accumulations will appear on windward shores and in the lee of islands and points. Often (but infuriatingly, not always) the trout will be there too, snipping away. Wind-lanes and slicks – strips of smooth water with leaves, weed bits, foam and hopefully bugs! – are also likely hotspots.
Autumn midge feeders can appear at any time of day; even at first light if you want to risk it and brave the cold. However, for the soft anglers like me, it’s perhaps fortunate that trout rising for terrestrial food often don’t really get going until late morning, and sometimes not until after lunch. If the day has been good for risers, then evening is usually even better.
Technique-wise, I’ve had days when the sippers slam a Woolly Bugger, and days when two dries worked well. Sometimes, dedicated midge feeders (porpoising and tail-wagging fish) want a small buzzer under a dry. But the most reliable option for this point-and-shoot fishing is a single small dry fly on a long leader. (Often, the very conditions that create a rise also mean the trout cruise around unpredictably, so the long leader gives some insurance against lining the fish.) A Zulu Tag, Claret Carrot, CDC emerger, ant patterns or foam beetles are all excellent. Sometimes, each of these flies work equally well, but there are other occasions when for reasons best known to the trout, one of the above is a killer and the rest are crap. My rule is, two refusals and I change.
Make sure all flies are clearly visible, especially the ants and foam beetles, which will need a bright mast to be visible at up to 20 metres. There is nothing worse than finally seeing a rise in the area of your fly – without being sure it was your fly!
A Cry in the Dark
Last April, Mark, Max and I noticed a forecast for light winds which miraculously coincided with a free day for all three of us, and hastily arranged a trip to Wartook. Driving over the high saddle above the Wartook valley, we could see the lake far below, opal-smooth in the dark crumpled velvet of the surrounding mountains.
Despite the apparently ideal conditions, the first couple of hours of fishing were frustrating as we chased what I call mirage risers near Bear Island: trout that rise enticingly one or two hundred metres away, only to disappear as soon as you move towards them on the electric. It cannot be possible that these fish notice the boat from so far away, though on mornings like this, it certainly seems like it.
Mark wisely called lunch, and after some of Max’s delicious bread rolls, a thermos coffee and few minutes to simply take in the beautiful amphitheatre of forest and jagged sandstone peaks surrounding us, we set off again with renewed purpose.
The break was apparently well-timed, because the activity increased. Soon, the mirage rises converted into fishable rises. Not that the trout tracked well or even rose consistently. A fish would come up three or four times, before vanishing then reappearing a minute later in the opposite direction – and sometimes so close to the boat that we dared not move!
You got one or two shots at best, never knowing for sure if you’d lined the fish or if it was even in the area anymore, except for those few wonderful moments in the course of the afternoon when your fly was suddenly gone in the ring of a rise.
We broke up the boat fishing by taking it in turns on the shore. These bank sessions weren’t a poor second to the boat, with the odd nice smelter terrorising the galaxias, and even an occasional sipper threatening to wander within range. When the sun eventually sank behind the mountains, there was at least as much action on the shore as out in the boat, and soon Mark was soloing along on the electric, while Max and I hunted targets on foot.
By twilight, it was so quiet that twice I chased the soft clipping sound of a nearby rising fish, only to find it was a hundred metres offshore. There was also no mistaking the noise of a whirring reel and splashes of a hooked fish as Max tried to land a trout a bay away. Then above all that, came the cry: “NOOOO!” A heron took flight, ducks splashed for cover in the reeds and even the frogs seemed to fall silent. “You okay Mark?” I called towards the vague outline of his boat. “I’ll explain later,” was the despondent reply.
Soon after, on the run back to the ramp, there was plenty of time for Mark to tell his story. It turned out that he’d chased one fish – a real monster – for quarter of an hour as it marched back and forth along and through a big patch of reeds. Finally, he put his CDC emerger in the right spot at the right moment. Mark explained that the head that came out to engulf it was the size of his hand – and Mark has big hands! He waited… lifted… nothing! Not so much as a pluck on the line.
That’s autumn at Wartook for you – heaven and heartbreak, all on the same day.
FlyStream Facts – Wartook Stats.
Constructed in 1887, Wartook lies in a high basin in the Grampians in western Victoria and impounds 29,300 megalitres of water when full, covering over 1000 hectares in area. The lake’s primary purpose is to provide town water to Horsham and nearby settlements, although it also supplies environmental water at times. Wartook isn’t used for irrigation or power generation, and coupled with its relatively small and well-vegetated catchment, this means it hardly ever rises or falls quickly.
Like most Grampians storages, the lake has benefited enormously from the water-saving construction of the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline system. During this decade, Wartook has never fallen below 40% in autumn (almost always the lowest level of the year). That sounds low, but the lake provides plenty of good water to fish at this height.
FlyStream Facts – Why Isn’t Wartook More Popular?
It’s a good question, and one that leaves me and other Wartook devotees scratching our heads. One reason may be shore access (or perceived lack of it). It’s true that later in winter and spring, high water pushing back up into the tea-tree and swamps can make it difficult (and often impossible) to progress any distance along the bank, although as already discussed, that explanation doesn’t really cut it in autumn, when shore access is mostly easy.
Road access is also limited. The main carpark at the western end of the wall gives walking/ wading access to the boat ramp bay, and easy pedestrian access to the wall itself, though admittedly, the wall can be a tough option in any wind with north in it – particularly for the type of fishing described in this article. The south-eastern bays are also reachable from here but perhaps the 1 km walk puts people off.
The only other realistic road access is from the Mt Difficult Road, where a couple of short but rough vehicular tracks cut down to the water about halfway up the western shore. Still, in total that means kilometres of shore to fish from; and while only a fraction of the full shoreline, more than enough for several days of fishing, let alone a day or weekend!
For those with boats, Wartook has an excellent all-weather ramp and, because the lake is generally shallow (i.e. without the bottomless, ‘sterile’ zones which dominate many lakes), the amount of potentially productive water is immense – almost confusingly so. I can only assume some boat fishers are put off by the 5 knot speed limit (very sensible given the number of barely-submerged rocks and logs at any level). Again, even with this limitation, you can easily reach much more prime water than you’ll know what to do with.
Finally, Wartook has to compete with two nearby lakes that are very good fly fisheries in their own right: Fyans and Toolondo. Almost circled by roads, Fyans is a drive-and-fish delight, while Toolondo frequently grabs the headlines with outsized browns. Maybe these lakes draw anglers away from Wartook? Oh well, more Wartook fish for us!