A dry fly season on the Goulburn River

John suggests a different approach to categorising the Goulburn’s seasons. 

The European-derived Gregorian calendar has rigid dates to define four seasons. In contrast, indigenous calendars vary in the number of seasons recognised. This is because indigenous calendars are based on a much deeper understanding of the ecology and weather patterns associated with a location. For example, the Tiwi islanders recognise 13 ‘sub-seasons’, all precisely identified, if sometimes overlapping. I particularly like the definition of Mumpikari – the season of muddy possum tracks. After the first rains fall, the possums return to their trees from foraging on the ground at night and leave tell-tale muddy footprints on the trunk of the tree, making possum hunting easier.

Indigenous calendars vary across the country and demonstrate a far more involved and detailed knowledge of weather and ecology – and a much more logical way of describing seasons than the coarse European construct of summer, autumn, winter and spring.

From a river trout angler’s perspective, I’m often guilty of recognising only one season – the open season! All the rest is just waiting for open season and therefore doesn’t count. Of course in reality, there are subtle yet distinct periods within the trout fishing year that have little relevance to the Gregorian seasons and are better defined through an approach similar to the indigenous examples.

A late November storm closes in; a reminder that Goulburn dry fly fishing can’t be simply defined around our 4 seasons.

For those of us who love dry fly fishing on the Goulburn River, the new trout season is a bit like getting a Labrador puppy: full of promise and potential. And while a trout season won’t chew the lounge cushions or have an indiscretion on the carpet, it will disappoint you at some stage. The overall season will have good times for sure, but mixed in will be a few frustrations, disappointments and setbacks. Even so, just like that puppy, you’ll love it anyway and miss it when it’s not there.

The Goulburn has many moods and if you’re lucky enough to live nearby like me, you can work around them. However, if you can only spare a few trips up to the river each year, then it can be a bit of a lucky dip regarding river flows, weather and bugs. So some type of calendar could be a useful guide.

Waiting Season (The time of hoping things will go to plan during the coming trout season.)

This season can roughly be categorised as beginning when the previous trout season closes (Queen’s Birthday in June) and lasting until the new season opens in early September. Without the opportunity to be on the river, this season is defined more by angler behaviour and mental state than weather patterns. It’s typified by anxiety and nervousness through the long dark winter months. The symptoms manifest as anglers immerse themselves in everything about trout fishing…  without actually going trout fishing.

Look, but don’t touch! The Goulburn can look very appealing on the right midwinter day.

Waiting Season infects angler’s minds with a desire to sort out fly boxes, tie flies, repair waders, justify buying new gear, read about flyfishing, watch fishing videos on YouTube, and generally think about trout every time a bridge is crossed. Some poor souls may even go and fish in a lake, knowing deep down they would rather be on the river. Like the build-up to the Wet up north, the Waiting Season builds up pressure which slowly increases towards September. The pressure can only be relieved by standing in clear, flowing water, ideally in a natural setting, and seeing a dry fly get sucked down by a hungry trout.

The opening of the river trout season marks the end of Waiting Season, immediately followed by Relief Season. However, Relief Season is often short-lived and is soon followed by the next major season…

Relief! A September brownie caught on a Para Adams during a rare perfect early season day.

Impatience Season (The season when the weather, flows and hatches are fickle and just won’t settle down.)

Impatience Season is categorised by a seemingly endless run of disappointments as the optimistic thoughts generated during Waiting Season aren’t immediately realised. Early spring on the Goulburn is a time of unpredictable flows, unpredictable weather and unpredictable hatches that all culminate to impact on the success or otherwise of the hopeful angler. This is the time leading up to Melbourne’s spring racing carnival and picking a hatch can be harder than picking the cup winner.

Early to mid spring is the angling rollercoaster ride. If it isn’t rain, gales, or freezing cold; it’s dirty water or high Goulburn flows. It’s cold fronts, blue-sky days, the first snakes, fish looking down, and anglers wondering when will things will just settle so they can all get on and have a decent fish. Fortunately, there are some more reliable small streams in the area which can assist in calming the frustrations of the Impatience Season – providing they are low enough to fish.

If the main river is not behaving during Impatience Season, at least the local smaller streams can usually provide a backup plan.

Depending on river heights (rising or falling), early season on the Goulburn can see a range of hatches. In general, the hatches get stronger as the days progress – as long as flows stay lowish and steady. If mid-November is reached without flows jumping up, then the action can be incredible! But waiting for this to happen – if it happens – can play on the angler’s mind, and not in a good way.

Meanwhile, because an evening hatch can’t be predicted, and those that occur are generally weak, there are many nights during Impatience Season when only the odd fish (or even none) show themselves. But then there are some evenings when a few trout may be up and about, and the fishing improves. The angler is in a state of confusion, trying to work out whether to fish and risk disappointment, or go anyway – just in case.

In summary, dry fly expectations should be modest during Impatience Season. The lack of rises to cast to, means that for many of us, one or two fish nights are realistic, and zero is highly possible.

Usually, things eventually settle and there is a window before the irrigation flows really start pumping. The hatches are good, the fish are up, and the Goulburn is kind and benevolent. This is the dawn of the Goldilocks Season.

Goldilocks Season (The season when things are just right for hatches and insect falls.)

The Goldilocks Season arrives when the previously unfulfilled hopes of Impatience Season begin to be realised. The fragmented start to dry fly fishing is forgotten and now there are likely to be some rising fish throughout the day. On evening, there are strong hatches of caddis and duns; with spinners, beetles and ants likely later. The river is low enough to wade in places and not yet a raging torrent, so it is highly fishable and enjoyable. The southerly winds often calm down on dark and the river is a wonderful place to be. Grab it while you can!

A calm, warm evening in late November and the Goulburn at a stable 3000 ML/d. Perfect!

Despite all the activity, it is still not easy fishing. The Goulburn is a technical river and the trout can be fickle. It’s mostly a ‘match the hatch’ scenario. And just to complicate matters, the fish can –  and often do – change their menu as night approaches. Noticing the switch in food, and modifying your offerings quickly, is a required skill. Get it wrong and you’re frustrated; get it right and you’re at peace with the world.

Evening rises are reliable during Goldilocks Season.

Big Bug Season (The season of heat, cicadas, grasshoppers and the plop of willow grubs.)

Good things don’t last forever, and the Goldilocks Season ends to a large extent when the river starts to further increase in flow to meet summer irrigation demand. This suppresses the hatches and falls, so the evening rise is often not as intense as during Goldilocks Season. However, the dry fly fishing remains good; it just changes as the focus shifts toward large food items and willow grubs. This is the season of the terrestrials.

Fly selection is fairly straightforward at this time. The high-pitched buzzing in the trees, or the clicking in the grass, indicate cicadas and hoppers are on the trout menu. Meanwhile, underneath the willow canopy, so is the willow grub. Terrestrial food becomes very important to trout and they start to get into the swing of things as the air temperature rises. With the high flows, fish are found towards the edges and take advantage of the unfortunate hopper that misjudges a leap, or a cicada that crash lands on the water. Smaller caddis, beetles, ants, etc. are on the water too and being eaten by the trout; however, the joy of using big dries is hard to ignore.

A big cold river, crackling grass and a hot, windy day – welcome to Big Bug Season.

Depending on what types of cicadas are about, fly choice is pretty straightforward too: black or green? With hoppers it can be anything from beige to bright green… just as long as it has the rough shape of a hopper and maybe some rubber legs. I should also mention that although grasshoppers are around most years, cicada and willow grub numbers can be a bit less predictable.

While hopper and cicada flies can be fished along open banks, the willow grub requires getting close to or even right under the willows. When the grubs are about, they can create great opportunities, but also challenges such as limited casting room, numerous snags and finding a pattern that the trout will actually eat. You may see a lot of fish, cast at some, and land only a few.

The trout grow fat during Big Bug Season.

Willow grub fishing almost demands the tactics of jungle warfare, including the clothes to match. Willow grubs can be a highlight of the season and a lot of time can be consumed creeping about in the shade; especially on hot days when the grubs are particularly active and the trout will be feeding only metres from you.

Depending on weather and river flows, Big Bug Season can last for some months, but once the irrigation flows wind back and the river drops, the turn of the season has begun.

The Turn of the Season (The season when the river is very good to fish, but the window is limited.)

The Turn of the Season is defined by the end of the irrigation flows. It sees the river levels drop, lower, clear water and a return of the hatches. A clear sign that The Turn of the Season has started, is the hatch of vehicles that suddenly appear at all the access points. And no wonder. Dry fly fishing at this time is at its best with little wind and mild temperatures, while access to the river is greatly improved, with lots more wadeable water and even places where it is possible to cross from one side to the other.

Perfect dry fly conditions in April.

This could arguably be called Goldilocks Season – The Sequel. There can be rising fish throughout the day, evening hatches and often stunning blue-sky days. A whole a range of aquatic insects are now back on the agenda, and this will continue as long as sustained cold weather holds off.

Au Revoir Season (The season of endings.)

Inevitably, as the last leaves on the deciduous trees turn yellow, the hatches (and the size of the insects) slowly decline; all but ceasing by the time the final leaf falls. Then, the stark tree skeletons, often shrouded in fog, march towards winter with the return of rain and cold.

Well before the official close of the season on Queens Birthday Weekend, the insect activity fades to a few midges and maybe a sparse midday mayfly hatch if the day is fine and you’re lucky enough to be in the right spot. Surface activity gradually slows to the point where dry fly fishing is hardly worthwhile. The trout are starting to think about spawning and the river takes on a dead feel under grey skies, and leafless willows.

The quiet river becomes a reflective place at this time – pleasant enough in its own way – but the reality is, for the dry fly angler, it is now time to put the cue in the rack for another year. The end has arrived and although the next season is months away, it is time to start thinking ahead, and wondering what the new season will bring. The waiting begins…