2023: A flyfishing year in review

To some extent, flyfishing opportunities and experiences follow the weather, and down in the south-east of Australia, 2023 started flush (figuratively and literally!) with the legacy of a very wet 2022. My first fishing of the New Year centred on Victoria’s Central Highlands creeks, which, for much of the previous two decades, had been a non-event. But a succession of relatively cool, wet years saw the trout in these creeks return like the comic book ‘sea monkeys’ of my childhood. Just add water and poof! there they were.

A little later in January, my river fishing turned to north-east Victoria and the Snowy Mountains – both much more reliable stream fishing destinations compared to my ephemeral home waters. Here, it was a break in all the rain which created opportunities to access water that had spent much of the previous year in varying degrees of flood. The size, condition and numbers of fish to be caught reflected that trout thrive in the huge flows which we mere humans find intimidating. And it made a pleasant change from much of 2022 to be able to fish ‘regular’ pools, runs and riffles once again, and to be able to wade across a stream without risking life and limb.

Rivers like the Goulburn resumed normal programming in January after months of flooding in 2022.

February for me began in the Tasmanian highlands, where lake levels were okay, without being off the charts. The exception was Arthurs Lake, which was just 1.2m from full. For our party of Millbrook guides on holiday, this much-maligned lake produced as good a fishing as we have ever had there – even compared to the halcyon mayfly years of the 1990s. Our success was largely due to finding jassid feeders on the western shores. In any weather from rain to full sun, and we sight-fished cricket scores of good browns on dry flies. Paradise! Elsewhere, Penstock dun fishing was solid for us, while Great Lake wind-lane fishing (both at dawn and during settled sunny days) was outstanding. Due to the pull of the bigger waters, we didn’t spend much time on the Western Lakes; a fact not helped by finding the fishing there to be only fair compared to elsewhere.

An Arthurs jassid feeder, sight-fished on a dry. We caught dozens and dozens of fish this way on our February trip, rain or sun.

Late February saw my first visit of the New Year to Lake Eucumbene. At 68.3%, the lake was no longer rising, but was nevertheless ridiculously high for late summer. While the action was first class, the really big trout from pre-Christmas were less common. Also, hoppers, stick caddis and little nymphs performed better than big wets. The smaller high altitude Snowy lakes fished well, as they usually do at this time of year.

March offered continued good levels (and fishing) on the tailwaters and fastwaters of north-east Victoria. However, by the end of the month, the first hints of a drying trend appeared in BOM’s long range forecasts, with the possible return of the dreaded climate drivers El Nino and a positive IOD flagged.

A brownie from a mountain creek in March. Flows were still strong, but would they last?  

My April highlights were mayfly sessions on Moorabool Reservoir and Lake Wendouree. Although things had begun to dry out locally, a return to good rain this month saw both lakes maintaining decent levels and water quality, with duns appearing and trout well and truly on them – if you could find the right bays or shores.

A decent Moorabool dun feeder from an April session.

By early May, my fishing was shifting away from the streams, but not before a top trip to the Eildon feeders. Although it felt like we were going to miss the autumn boat (so to speak) due to cold, grey and drizzly weather, streams like the Howqua and Jamieson were in beautiful condition. Duns popped and fish rose despite the wintry weather, a fitting end to a brilliant stream season. Conversely, with the duns finished on the central Victorian lakes, the stillwater action was nothing special. Normally, by this time of year, I can’t wait to hit Tullaroop Reservoir. However this May, I found a lot of the lake discouragingly (and inexplicably) dirty, with only relatively small areas clear enough to fish with confidence.

Although it was cold and cloudy with a few spots of rain, JD and I found surprisingly good fishing on the Howqua and Jamieson in early May – including plenty of dry fly.

By June, some international agencies were already declaring El Nino had begun. Even though our own BOM held off making a similar declaration, climate forecasts remained dire: hotter and drier was the headline. It was a surprise then, that June turned out to be a cold, wet month across most of Victoria. On the central Vic lakes, levels stabilised and then increased, with good fishing at Hepburn and Newlyn, and especially at Moorabool, where some quality midge action appeared on settled evenings. On the coast, a decent push of freshwater opened the estuaries and stirred up the bream and EPs. I even managed my first ever mulloway on fly.

Estuary fishing on the Glenelg River in June.

Lake Eucumbene was the standout fishery for July. Cold weather, snow and ice are understandable deterrents for most flyfishers. Fortunately though, trout are a cold water species, and year after year, we find good winter fishing on the big lake. July was no exception. Although Eucumbene had dropped to 63% since my February visit, the fishing was at least as good. Big wets were back in favour, and amongst the numerous and very entertaining 1-3lb rainbows and browns, some real beauties (mostly absent from our February catches) were back, alternately offering joy and heartbreak. Lake Jindabyne fished very well too – once you moved away from the snowmelt-chilled inflows.

Don’t let the nearby snow fool you – Steve and I had great fishing on Eucumbene in July.

Consistent estuary fishing on the Victoria’s south-west coast continued into August, with the extra distraction of solid action on the nearby crater lakes, particularly Bullen Merri. Amongst the newly-popular tiger trout, browns and rainbows continued to show up in typically great condition to bother the baitfish. Later in the month and closer to home, cockchafer beetles created some patches of amazing evening dry fly fishing. Having been all but drowned out during the wet winters in 2022 and 2021, it was good to be able to fish a big foam beetle on the lakes in winter (albeit late winter) once again.

Bullen Merri with Peter in August.

September heralded the start of a new stream season, but it was still lake fishing which caught our attention early on. Evening midge fishing at Moorabool was providing exciting if technically difficult fishing, with my son Sean eventually landing a monster brown on a size 16 Milly Midge to go with the more typical 2-3 pound models. Meanwhile, fairly high, cold flows made it feel a bit too early for stream fishing on the mountain creeks and rivers in Victoria. Deep nymphing produced a few trout, but nothing to compare with the heady fishing earlier in the year. Then later, in East Gippsland, we found exceptional salmon action – big fish and lots of them – to offset the weird fishing for other species (lots of them but hard to catch)!  And finally, BOM declared an El Nino, with the double whammy of a positive IOD developing. Out on the water, it still didn’t feel either warm or dry, but the threat was there.

KIel, Mark and I found ridiculous salmon fishing in East Gippsland – definitely a 2023 highlight.

After the mayfly fishing in autumn, I couldn’t wait for October on the central Vic lakes. However, the reality was mixed. While Wendouree was producing some of the best hatches (and fishing) in years, I could only find a sprinkling of duns at Moorabool, and even fewer at Newlyn and Hepburn. To confuse my October lake fishing summary further, the Grampians turned on some fantastic sport. Brimming, crystal clear Lake Fyans had its own mayfly feeders (mainly on spinners). There was some great polaroiding in the flooded trees at Bellfield, and with water way back in the tea tree, Wartook felt more like a Tasmanian wilderness lake than a Victorian one.

In October, the Grampians lakes were hard to beat.

November continued the theme of climate driver threats not playing out in real time. For some unknown reason, the decision was made to send an artificial flood down the Goulburn, despite Nature having delivered a much bigger one of its own just a few weeks earlier. Still, the Goulburn, and many other north-east streams, really started to turn on the fishing as, Goulburn floods excepted, good flows coincided with a bit of buggy warmth. At Lake Wendouree, the exceptional mayfly fishing just continued… and is still going in patches as I write.

November near Eildon.

And so to December. Being the freshest month in my memory, it’s harder to narrow down the highlights. A few hours on a ‘born again’ Snowy River with the Allen boys? Some magical sessions all alone on some other half-forgotten Snowy streams? Lake Eucumbene with decent browns and rainbows scooting around in inches of water – even in the middle of the day?

Good trout sight-fished in shallow water were a highlight of Eucumbene this December.

Throw in mudeyes on the local lakes and 5 inches of rain for the month, and I’m feeling pretty good about 2023. For a year which threatened to be hot and dry (conditions that not only looked likely based on the climate drivers, but which simply felt like we were about due for), it’s been remarkably benign. I guess if 2023 proves anything, it’s that, as much as we might like to, we can’t predict the future. When it comes to flyfishing, Nature will usually have the last word.

Daniel with a Moorabool mudeye feeder towards the end of 2023.