Nick is reminded that there’s more to Adelaide flyfishing than you might think.
I’d done everything right… or so I thought. My clothes were camouflaged. I’d kept low and still, and I hid behind bankside bushes to conceal my presence. But the gig was up – I’d been spotted. “Hey, I can see you!” a voice yelled out as a stern-looking man strode purposefully towards me. You see, it wasn’t just the fish I was hiding from, but also potential poacher police! Such were my early days as a youthful Adelaide trout angler.
I’d been fishing the Torrens Gorge, in the Adelaide foothills, which was leased exclusively by the Water Commission to my nemesis – the much-feared South Australian Fly Fishers Association. I only knew of SAFFA from people outside the club, who described them as a closely-guarded group of snobby elites, who actively discouraged new members to protect their stuffy clique. Even if I wanted to join, I was too young to apply without a parent or sponsor in the club, and not coming from a fishing family I had no path for entry. So, I would get my mum to drop me off on Gorge Road, and I’d happily poach all day, hiding from both trout and SAFFA until mum would pick me up at an agreed rendezvous time further up the road. I’m so grateful that she was willing to be my accomplice. With no parked car to hint at my presence, I was only ever caught this one time.
After receiving a tongue lashing from the irate ogre, I stammered out my case – I really did want to join the club but couldn’t. The fellow calmed down a bit, and said that I could apply to join the club when I turned 18. But he made it clear that if he ever, ever caught me again, there would be hell to pay! I respectfully apologised and agreed, and he went on his way. And of course, I fished my brains out for the next four years, but took even more care to not get caught, which was probably excellent training for stalking fish!
When I was finally old enough to join SAFFA, I found that the rumours of their secret old boys club to be far from the truth. There was quite a lengthy provisional stage to joining, involving a Green Card being signed off on a dozen or more working bees and other volunteering tasks, and only being able to fish with other members. This was actually an opportunity to learn about all the roles of the Club. SAFFA, as it turned out, was (and is) far more than just a fishing club. It ran a hatchery, did the stocking of streams and dams, sold fry to the public for stocking private dams, and did a lot of stream improvement work too – all on a voluntary basis. It was really wonderful to be immersed in an organisation that created and managed the fishery, instead of just using it. The club even owns lovely fishing cottages north of Adelaide at ‘Yacka’ on the Broughton River.
While I’ve lived away from South Australia for twenty years now, I still look back fondly at both my fishing there, and the club. I recently spent a few weeks in Adelaide, on my way to move to New Zealand, and had the chance to do some fishing and also give a talk at the monthly SAFFA social meeting. It was really nice to get there again. I’d highly recommend the club. They’ve even moved from the Green Card system to a mentoring program for prospective members, to make the joining process even more welcoming. You can find them online here.
The trout fishery
Aside from the Torrens, where I began my trout fishing, there’s a diverse range of waters within a comfortable drive from Adelaide. To the east and south, bushy small streams dominate the fishery. The wonderful part about these is that many hold healthy mayfly and other insect populations. To me, this is the very foundation of trout fishing, and brings in the culture and relevance of the literature which makes flyfishing for trout such a passionate pursuit.
To the north of Adelaide are more open reed-lined rivers, with large, deep pools and large cruising trout. Sprinkled all over are stocked farm dams, with access kindly granted by landowners and booking access respectfully managed by the club. More recently, some of the state water supply dams have started to open for public fishing too, creating new opportunities for Adelaide-based anglers.
I don’t want to overstate the quantity or quality of South Australian trout fishing though. Like everywhere, there are pressures on the fish and the fishery. The climate, land use, and government policy (reducing the streams that can be stocked) are making the fishery more marginal and fragile. But the trout are still hanging in there. Even with some streams being banned from stocking, many have proven to be able to survive through natural recruitment. One creek I know of, only around 30 minutes from the CBD, holds a wonderful population of wild fish, despite being on the edge of a city that experienced its record maximum temperature of 47 degrees Celsius in 2019.
Regarding access, nearly all the trout water in South Australia is on private property, so permission needs to be sought from landowners. While it’s certainly possible to do it on your own, it can take quite a bit of time and effort doorknocking before you can even think about actually fishing. This is one of the huge benefits of joining SAFFA. They have developed strong relationships with many landowners, paving the way for access. This explains why joining the club has been interpreted by some as an onerous process. When accessing a property with access negotiated by SAFFA, your actions reflect on the club as well as yourself.
Permission to fish is one element of access. The other is actually getting to the water! When thinking small streams, it’s tempting to romanticise bucolic settings and English chalk streams with manicured banks, or open high country tussocky creeks. While there are some lovely open stretches of water in South Australia, most of the Adelaide-accessible creeks can involve a significant walk or climb in and out, and major bush-bashing to get to the water. And even after you make it there, casting can be difficult or totally impossible. In many places, you can’t even see the water because of overgrown vegetation. It can be even more frustrating to see a nice trout sitting happy under a woven tangle of blackberries, branches and other obstacles that even a bow-and-arrow cast or short dapped fly won’t penetrate. But in truth, it’s this sort of protection which allows these fish populations to exist at all so close to a capital city. You just have to make the most of your chances, and develop stalking, casting and line management skills to tackle situations to the best of your ability. It’s interesting that in all my travels and experiences in nearly 20 years of fulltime rodmaking, some of the most highly-skilled stream anglers I’ve come across, cut their teeth on the small South Australian streams.
A case study
A day out on my recent trip to Adelaide demonstrates many of the elements of the fishery. Fellow bamboo rodmaker Quentin Blows took me to a tiny self-sustaining brown trout creek less than an hour from the CBD. Quentin is a SAFFA member, but had access to this stream through personal connections.
After chatting to the landowner, we made a steep scramble down a rough track carved through the bush to the valley floor. For the last part of the descent, the glorious babble of the creek was audible. And slivers of crystal-clear water were visible in places, with some glistening pebbly runs, weedy glides, and dark pools stirring my heart. But in most places the water disappeared under a thicket of all sorts of vegetation. In many spots, it would take five or ten minutes just to bush bash 20 metres from one fishable pocket to another. In the places that we could get to, there were trout – lots of them – and some of really good size for a stream that you could literally straddle in most places. It seemed like nearly every potential lie held a fish.
This presented a problem of its own though. It was so difficult to move through the blackberries and other vegetation, that any small but necessary movement through the mess would spook the nearest fish. This would send it charging upstream, often right through the next little pool, spooking more fish on the way. It was a little deflating to know that it would take a solid few minutes of navigating through to unspoilt water, where the whole process was repeated again. In these situations I think you just need to accept the inevitable stuff-ups and embrace the challenge. I’d love to say that we caught some of the 12 inch plus fish that we came across. I’d like to say we caught anything! We did have a few chances at actively feeding fish, but for one reason or another, trout were the winners on the day, and neither of us landed a fish.
I didn’t really mind. It was enjoyable to see such lovely water (when it was visible at all), and such a health population of trout. And taking a bit of a beating can really get you thinking about how to do better next time. I think Quentin and I both agreed that a pruning saw would be a good start!
I did redeem myself on my next trip out, which was my final session on the water before flying out to live in New Zealand. It was on a small spring creek-like water, not far from where I caught my very first trout on fly, forty years ago. That first fish, a rainbow of maybe 12 inches was so memorable, but no more so than the brown of the same size I caught on my last cast in Australia. I’m certain that nearly every fish I catch in New Zealand will be a lot bigger, but I’ll struggle to catch anything which will mean as much. Sentimentality about that last fish is part of the reason of course, but for me, why I fish is more about earning fish in challenging environments than size or numbers. In that respect, I think South Australians have a higher quality fishery than many people realise.
It’s worth mentioning that there is more on offer to Adelaide flyfishers than just trout. In freshwater, there are carp, redfin and natives, but the sheltered waters of St Vincent Gulf provide a variety of land-based light saltwater opportunities. Trout weight gear is ideal for the bream, garfish, mullet, whiting, juvenile Australian salmon and other species which live in these waters. Aside from these nationally-familiar species, the Australian herring or Tommy Ruff (or just ‘Tommies’ as they are locally known in SA) are a prolific source of fun on light fly gear. These smaller relatives of the Australian salmon are found all around the south of the Australian continent. Near Adelaide, they are abundant and it seems that if nothing else is happening, there will almost always be a school of Tommies willing to attack your fly.
On my recent visit, I spent a few days staying at Largs Bay, on the long stretch of virtually uninterrupted Adelaide metropolitan beaches. The sheltered nature of the Gulf waters can make Adelaide metro beach fishing feel more like tropical flats fishing than beach fishing! With temperatures regularly topping 40 degrees in summer, as long as you wear sun protection, standing waist deep in the water is probably the best place to be even if you aren’t fishing!
Outside of flyfishing, most land-based anglers gravitate to the jetties that punctuate the metropolitan beaches. While these are too high above the water to flyfish from, they do give you a wonderfully elevated vantage point to do some reconnaissance for potential fly targets, and observe fish behaviour in general. You can then apply this knowledge when fishing elsewhere from the beach. The jetty pylon structures, right close to the shore in the shallows, are a fish magnet and are home to some astonishingly large (and intelligent!) bream. I loved watching them and the schools of mullet, whiting, garfish and Tommies feeding at various stages of the tide. All of these are legitimate fly targets and I think with some time there, you would have scope to become an Adelaide flats specialist.
Aside from the beaches, the Port River, West Lakes, several breakwaters and other estuaries present all sorts of diversions for the trout angler.
Bring your rod
While it might not be considered a flyfishing destination as such, it’s well worth bringing your fly gear if travelling to Adelaide. And as a place to live as a fly angler, there is a lot more scope than many people realise. While I’m not regretting the NZ move, visiting Adelaide for a few weeks really reminded me of that. The saying is, ‘you can never go home again.’ But maybe you can…