Jim describes fishing for open water surface-feeding trout – ‘sharks’ – on Great Lake, Tasmania.
Shark fishing on Great Lake in Tasmania’s highlands is unbelievable – until you see it for yourself. To me, it offers amongst the most exciting visual flyfishing in the world, as the trout cruise like sharks just under the surface while hunting floating insects in the deep, open water.
A lot of time has passed since this form of fishing was discovered some thirty years ago. There have been many changes to both the habits of the fish and the techniques used to catch them.
The best shark fishing tends to be from late November, when it’s warm enough for decent numbers of gum beetles to appear, until mid-February, when the lowering angle of the sun starts to impact visibility beneath the surface. Otherwise, the two basic requirements for shark fishing are simply a blue sky and a good breeze; preferably from the north, although that’s not essential.
In the early days, it was thought shark fishing was only a matter of food on the water. If the gum beetles had fallen, the fish would be up and on to them. But it’s turned out to be not so straightforward. Sometimes, the beetle falls are so prolific, it takes no more than half an hour before the trout can’t fit another beetle into their bloated stomachs. The fish go deep, the rise is over and there are no more shapes in the waves to be seen.
I’ve heard stories from old-timers that the beetles sink, and the fish pick them up off the bottom. I doubt it. The beetles float until they drift ashore and the fish feed until they’re full. The better beetle-driven shark fishing days occur when just a few fall onto the water.
Sometimes, the best shark fishing follows a dawn hatch of midges. The day often begins with a fog-shrouded, mirror-calm lake. (A wonderful fishing time in itself for those who don’t like their beds!) An hour or so after the sun rises, the fog usually lifts and the first zephyr of a northerly breeze will come down the lake, forming large wind-lanes. The remnant midge from the dawn hatch seem to condense in these lanes. Ideally, before noon, the breeze gets up to about 10 knots; hopefully backed by a cloudless cobalt blue sky to give a perfect shark fishing day.
Experienced anglers will often polaroid the now-invisible wind-lanes until they find perhaps a single rising fish. After casting to it, they will then activate their GPS anchor (a common feature of modern electric motors) and hang about for a few minutes, hoping the initial fish will be joined by a procession of trout feeding on the midge remnants.
Browns and Rainbows
Two things often eventuate. Another trout – maybe more – will cruise up the old wind-lane, or a group of rainbow trout, which often feed together, will speedily move past, porpoising through the waves. Rainbows seem to love midges. A mate calls them one shot wonders; another calls them the princesses of the lake as they are so frustrating to cast accurately to, but good fun nevertheless!
Personally, I regard wild brown trout as the mainstay of the Great Lake fishery. For decades, fishery managers have strived to create a better Great Lake rainbow trout fishery, partly by transferring thousands of competing brown trout to the Western Lakes and other waters. I have my doubts about this program and feel it is misguided, although I’m not a fisheries biologist. To me, it is still the browns that reign supreme in Great Lake and with the increased angling pressure of the past few years, the lake needs its wild brown trout population protected.
There have been many changes since the early days of shark fishing. Often, the trout now cruise a little deeper in the water and are consequently harder to see. Increased fishing pressure over the years has probably contributed to this and whilst some days, the trout are still mainly all on the surface, it is not quite like it was 10 or 15 years ago.
The fish have also become spookier. Less than a decade ago, a catch of a dozen fish was not unusual with often double that caught. On rare days, even three dozen fish came to net on some of the more experienced boats. Nowadays though, landing ten or more trout is considered noteworthy.
Besides the ability to spot surface-cruising trout against deep water (as opposed to the lake bed) the other main angler requirement for success is casting ability – speed, accuracy and off either shoulder. I struggle to be patient when an angler is unable to get the fly in front of the fish, particularly when the wind and cast are side on. I’ve been known to scream, ‘They don’t eat it with their tail!’ to quite a few anglers, with the odd adjective thrown in…
I usually apologise later, but always add a lecture on casting. The time to learn to cast is in winter at a casting school; not on the water at a top fishing destination, after spending all that holiday time and money! It has always amazed me how often I discover anglers who can’t cast into a breeze and who seem quite content to not further their skills. On a positive note, I do like it when, as recently, I have both a right-handed caster and a south-paw on the boat as we zig-zag across the waves.
Incidentally, most anglers who fish the Great Lake frequently, have painted their boats in slightly darker colours to get closer to the trout. Gunwales have also been darkened to lower reflection when looking for the quarry. And nearly all ‘shark’ boats now have electric motors to quietly cruise the water at right angles to the waves and to get closer to the fish.
Finding the Fish
Some shores and islands seem to fish better than others. A few coteries of flyfishers have developed in recent years to share information. Mobile phones are used extensively and are essential for safety and knowledge. (Most of the lake has coverage these days.) A call to another part of the lake can yield important information as Great Lake is a big paddock and the food supply is not evenly distributed. Sharing of information has become important. Some members of these groups launch at the north end of the lake while others keep to the south. When someone discovers some food or trout up feeding on the lake, there’s usually lots of space to spare and share. Those who are generous usually receive reciprocal dividends!
The old adage of the fish being where you find them, rings true. There’s no doubt that if you’re not on the water on blue sky days, you’re missing out. The major enemy is the build-up of high wispy cirrus clouds, which often herald a change in the weather. In the late afternoons, particularly after a high-pressure system has moved east, a build-up of cirrus will wreck the light for seeing fish and consequently end shark fishing for the day – the action being totally dependent on good light for polaroiding.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of all fishing for the day though, just a change in tactics. A late afternoon drift along any of the Great Lake shores will often yield a trout or two. It’s not shark fishing but it keeps you out of the pub for a while longer!
For this writer though, it’s likely that, after the shark fishing light has gone, he’ll head to the boat ramp, then a late afternoon G&T on the shack veranda. There, he’ll relive the fishing earlier and plan for the next day. Perhaps the change in the weather and resultant grey skies might indicate a day of outstanding dun fishing on the morrow.
Once, Bruce Gibson’s beetle patterns were all you needed when shark fishing. Today though, the fish are often more selective. Along a windy shore, a large Chernobyl Ant might be a better fly. Alternatively, a much smaller Bibio Hopper might be more successful out in the middle of the lake, particularly if the wind is lighter than usual.
We are indeed fortunate in Tasmania to have a rich diversity of lakes, rivers and styles of fishing. More importantly, we can still fish for wild trout that have never known a hatchery: hatched from eggs in a creek somewhere, from wild-born parents. Hopefully, this will be the case on Great Lake – and many other Tasmanian waters – for decades to come.