Any Excuse

When does a reason become an excuse? Or to be more precise, when does a reason for not catching fish, become merely an excuse for not catching fish? Probably more often than we’d like to admit.

A few weeks ago, I joined JD in the Eildon district for what promised, given a lovely, settled forecast and decent stream flows, to be some quality autumn stream fishing. Even grasshoppers, which had gone missing for most of summer, were apparently back on the menu.

Well, we both started fishing hopper patterns with enthusiasm. However, that began to fade after an hour or so of not much. A possible excuse was that the trout were simply not ‘on’. Recently fished over by other anglers perhaps? (There was that fresh boot print, and a suspicious car parked in the middle distance.) Not windy or warm enough? Or were hopper patterns, despite outward appearances and recent experience, not quite the right fly? I changed to a size 18 ant pattern, and immediately turned my day around. Good fish, and plenty of them, were happy to eat the ant. Hoppers shmoppers.

‘Should’ want a hopper, did want an ant.

The next day, my response to JD’s suggestion of a session on the Goulburn, was lukewarm. To explain, I’d been spoiled all season by more low-flow fishing on the Goulburn than anyone has a right to expect. I love the Goulburn at sub 2000 ML/d, when it’s more a large stream than a brawling tailwater. You can cross it, wade it, there are soft currents everywhere; and given a bit of planning and effort, there are few trout truly beyond casting range.

But now, at close to 4000 ML/d, I pictured most of my favourite spots in recent months as unfishable torrents, or simply unreachable. I was too polite to say it, but wouldn’t we be better off fishing a nice natural stream with ant patterns? In my mind, I’d already made my Goulburn excuse. “Nah mate,” I’d respond sadly if anyone asked, “The best fishing has gone with the big flows. A few on the edges and in the backwaters, but the natural streams are a much better bet.”

Luckily, I had the sense to give in to JD’s persuasion. It turned out there were hundreds of metres of soft edges; gin-clear water over waving green weed. And despite all my misgivings, if you looked hard enough and confidently enough, there were trout – from good ones through to jaw-droppers – cruising, rising, appearing suddenly out of weed or from behind a log, then vanishing again. It was simply fantastic fishing; very different to the Goulburn over preceding months, but every bit as exciting and rewarding.

Big flows? Who cares!

After landing or missing several nice trout, time ran out and I really had to head for home. “Are you sure?” asked JD, “The next bend is even better.”

Then last week on some small north-east streams, the forecast of ideal autumn weather suddenly turned to rain. Even when the models said it was about to stop, it didn’t. Sometimes, East Coast Lows just don’t give up.

I don’t mind lakes in the rain, and I’ve actually had some of my best estuary fishing in downpours. But when stream fishing for trout, rain is usually something to wait out by the fire with a coffee, or a convenient opportunity to catch up on the diary, or to make some overdue phone calls, or restock with supplies from the nearest town.

Incoming rain, and the end of good fishing?

While I have fished streams in the rain, sometimes even with success, the prospect doesn’t excite me, and that’s especially true in autumn. Rain is right up there as an excuse for failure, so with my trip coming to an end, I headed south-west from the NSW border, trying to outrun the models and the rain radar. But when I reached my intended stream, the rain caught up and soon enveloped everything within striking distance.

With a sense of resignation, I got out of the car, and attempted to wader and jacket up in the meagre shelter of the tailgate. I was already categorising this session as merely a streamside stroll, simply reacquainting myself with a stretch of creek I hadn’t visited in years. Perhaps I might make a half-hearted cast with a nymph, or a down-and-across throw with a Woolly Bugger. But I didn’t really know how many (even, if any) trout were in this part of the stream. It hadn’t been promising on my last visit, and it was only the incredible district-wide turnaround, brought on by two years of ideal conditions, which had me looking again. In the rain though? Hardly a fair test.

I wandered downstream in the wet gloom, disturbing numerous drunk-looking grasshoppers in the sodden grass, passing a bend under a high bank with less care than a confident angler would have shown. A bright orange willow leaf, drifting in the current beneath me, must have caught my eye amidst the monochrome landscape – and then a good trout rose up and ate it!

You can imagine the transformation in attitude. I dropped to my knees, and rapidly replaced the nymph on my tippet with a small Commonwealth Hopper. I was now fishing again, and the fat drops pitting the water were immediately irrelevant. The hopper plopped onto the water a metre above where I’d seen the rise… drifting, drifting, clomp, strike. Way too soon on the lift. Damn!

One of several trout to eat the dry in steady rain. 

Then, in the top of the very same pool, another rise… no, two rises. This trout was clipping softly though, not looking for hoppers. Something must have been actually hatching. I couldn’t see what on the rain-pocked water, so I changed to a small Royal Wulff. First cast, it was gone in a gentle sip. A fat 1½lb brown leapt from the water and then did its best to bust me off beneath every undercut in the pool before I was able to slide it into the net.

The rest of the session was the best small stream fishing I’ve enjoyed in ages. I caught more good fish, most of which I managed to see rising first, despite the rain. I missed some too, but I honestly didn’t care. By the time I got back to the car, my lens cloth was too wet to wipe my polaroids, and I could feel a disconcerting trickle where my hood met my jacket. It didn’t matter. I’d just experienced stream dry fly fishing at its finest – and in the rain.

Excuses? I see flies blamed for failure, along with weather, tides, and even, on heavily-fished waters like the Goulburn, ‘hook-shy’ fish – as if that’s an attitude the poor old trout have to somehow correct. Yet as the past month or so has reminded me, excuses are often just that: lame reasons we can’t catch fish when in fact, with a bit of optimism, thinking and effort, the catching could just be as good as it gets.