Back To The Beginning

Philip revisits the streams near Mt Buller where he learnt to trout fish, and finds some useful reminders for the first half of the coming trout season.

There’s an old black & white map in my office titled ‘Watersheds of the King, Howqua, Delatite and Jamieson Rivers’. On the countdown to the Victorian trout stream opening for 2017, I spread it on the kitchen table beside my morning cuppa. I knew the map’s fairly workman-like title disguised a world of wonder: jagged mountains, bottomless valleys, forests of soaring alpine ash and above all, beautiful streams full of trout.

For many childhood years, our family home was in the middle of this map. During the long wait between leaving that home, and being old enough to independently return, that map was my solace. On lowland evenings, far from the mountains and streams, my finger would trace the rivers and their tributaries; remembering bends, secret trails and campsites, and wondering about the places I was yet to explore.

Looking towards my childhood home - no wonder I missed it!

Looking towards my childhood home – about where the forest begins in the middle distance. No wonder I missed it!

After I got a licence and a car, I wasted no time making multiple trips to the rivers on the map; revisiting favourite stretches and investigating new ones. Then, as the years rolled on, the pull of streams further north and east meant I spent less time on my old home waters, although I never stayed away too long.

The rivers have endured their fair share of hard times, particularly bushfires, droughts, cormorant plagues, heatwaves and even huge floods. On a few occasions over the decades, I wondered if the trout fishing would ever recover. But almost miraculously (given that each recovery was down to surviving wild stocks) it did.

Lately, the fishing on the rivers I visit the most, the King, Delatite and Howqua, has been as good as ever. These streams and I go back a long way, so there’s comfort and maybe even some relief in being able to say that. The 2016/17 season finished without any of the biblical plagues listed above, so although I can’t predict future conditions, we’re beginning season 2017/18 with strong wild trout populations in all three rivers. With that in mind, perhaps it’s worth going back through my fishing diary for the first half of last season, for some reminders about what to look out for on those rivers for the first half of this season.

Delatite River, early November

The Delatite was flowing a little faster than I’d like at the Buller Road bridge, and I knew that meant on the narrow stretches upstream, it would be a virtual torrent – about what you expect in early November. Still, the water was clear, not too cold and the air had a touch of warmth that had been missing during a wet, cold early season, so I was hopeful.

In deference to the boisterous current, I decided to start fishing well downstream on the farmland stretches, where the river broadens and slows somewhat. There are also stretches down here where it’s possible to fish from the bank; respite from wading on slippery rocks against the strong current.

After 15 minutes walking down a respectful distance from the bank, I came to a sweeping bend with a tumbling rapid at the top, short deep pool in the middle, and a clear glide at the tail. Too good to walk past!

Now I don’t know about you, but a problem I have with the walk-down-fish-up approach, is that starting a session by viewing but not fishing a lot of water, can leave me impatient and therefore careless when I finally begin. Many’s the time I’ve rushed down to a pool tail (usually the obvious starting point) only to send a fleeing shadow and bow-wave up into the ‘good’ water I was focussed on.

I almost did it now, but something pulled me up and I approached the tail low and slow. The near side was shallow, sandy and featureless; but further out, I could discern large red-brown rocks a couple of feet down, and the far bank was a mess of tea-tree and flood debris. I cast across the stream, Stimulator on top and Hares Ear Nymph 3 feet beneath. A well-timed mend and the favourable current – faster away and slower closer to me – resulted in a lovely drift down the bubble line three-quarters of the way across; even so I lifted uncertainly when the Stimulator went down. Surely it couldn’t be a fish first cast of the day? But it was, a 2½lb brown that fought so strongly and chaotically, I was truly lucky to land it.

The Delatite brown from the pool tail – first cast!

Reminder 1: Early in the season, when flows are still up, some of the best fish won’t be in the head of the pool, but back in the slower water near the tail – particularly where there’s good cover.

After a start like that, the rest of the day could easily have been an anticlimax. However, there were surprises to come. Although I’d attached the Stimulator expecting it to be more indicator than eaten, it turned out that the only fish to eat the nymph was the first brown. All the subsequent hits and misses were on the dry, even though I never saw a rise to a natural. I had a glorious couple of hours; first on that initial stretch, and then braving the rushing water well above Merrijig.

The Delatite above Merrijig was roaring along, but the trout still came to dry flies in the little patches of softer water.

The Delatite above Merrijig was roaring along, but the trout still came to dry flies in the little patches of softer water.

After a while I took the nymph off, making it easier to land the Stimi more precisely in the limited pockets of slower water – mainly the edges and in front of and behind boulders and logs. At high flows, a lot of the water above Merrijig is wet wading country with little bank access and as I pushed upstream, sometimes waist deep, I was glad most of snow was gone from the Delatite’s headwaters. Short casts and quick mends were needed to keep the dry in the zone long enough to attract attention. If the fly could be made to slow down for a few seconds without dragging, a shape would usually rocket up from nowhere through the sunlit water and smash it. My hook-up rate wasn’t great (I blame the over-exuberant fish) but what fun!

Delatite rainbow on the Royal Stimulator.

Delatite rainbow on the Royal Stimulator.

Reminder 2: Even in high early season flows, trout may still come up for a dry in the softer water. 

Upper Howqua River, early December

I spent a sunny Friday afternoon on my own, fishing the middle reaches of the Howqua River. With Mt Buller’s triangular peak looming more than a kilometre above my left shoulder, the river was as clear as I’ve ever seen it. Among the more typical river fish, I landed a 2½lb brown, its condition suggesting it had enjoyed no shortage of things to eat.

This fish (and a few others) were almost enough to take us back to the mid Howqua.

No, that’s not New Zealand! This fish (and a few others) were almost enough to take us back to the mid Howqua.

That evening, I joined my friend JD at his home in the foothills to discuss where we would fish together the next day. Although we had a loose plan to try the upper Howqua, my afternoon on the river’s middle reaches had us wondering if we should go back there instead. As it turned out, by morning the idea of exploring the upper reaches won. We were soon on the Circuit Road, which wound through the shady alpine ash forests on the side of Mt Stirling and over into the Howqua watershed, with the yawning river valley impossibly far below.

Somewhere way down there is the upper Howqua.

Somewhere way down there is the upper Howqua.

Eventually, through a series of switchbacks and steep spurs, the road delivered two impatient anglers to the upper Howqua, at this point more a large creek than the river I’d fished the day before. Smaller water it may have been, but it only took a minute to learn we’d made the right decision. Peering through the tea-tree beside the pool closest to the car, revealed it teemed with fish. As well as four trout swimming in the transparent water right in front of us, several more sipped and splashed in the shadows at the head of the pool.

The young Howqua was simply full of fish.

The young Howqua was simply full of fish.

The next few hours were, in terms of sheer numbers of trout, a first for both of us. The young Howqua was alive with them. We estimated the population at roughly one to two trout per metre of stream; and many, maybe even most, were rising. Looking upstream, there was not a moment when somewhere up ahead, the Howqua’s surface wasn’t broken by a splash or swirl. Most were modest-sized stream fish, typically 6 to 12 inch rainbows with a sprinkling of browns. The occasional fish might have pushed 14 inches and as often happens when expectations are adjusted, such trout were suddenly the big ones, worth a few minutes of careful stalking and several fly changes.

It might have been almost too perfect if so many trout were also easy to catch, but they weren’t. Given the competitive pressure, these fish were surprisingly selective. What seemed like obvious clues: hovering spinners, buzzing beetles and fly ants, turned out to be false leads. By comparison to the number of fish rising, occasional takes on a small Royal Wulff or Stimulator were hardly a breakthrough. After a while, a single fluttering natural persuaded me to tie on an Antron Caddis. That fly did better, although enough fish refused it to suggest it wasn’t ‘the’ fly. JD tied on his own caddis emerger and had similar results. “This is weird,” JD chuckled, “I’m catching a trout every ten metres, yet I know my fly isn’t quite right.”

A typical brown from the upper Howqua.

A typical brown from the upper Howqua.

I had another weird sensation, one where I was fishing in a memory; a day and a stream so remarkable, I was already aware I’d never forget it. Sometimes, like the session the day before on the mid Howqua, I can quite enjoy fishing on my own. This time though, I needed a witness, someone who would nod in agreement when I recalled this day years from now.

Reminder 3: All the research tells us the upper reaches of our mountain rivers hold the most fish. I really should drive or walk the extra hour or so more often.

Upper King River, early December

More than its cousins, the King is a river of parts: the turbid lower reaches with clay banks and snags; the trout-and-cod tailwater below Lake William Hovell; the sometimes hot/ sometimes not trout water from the lake to Top Hut; the trackless wilderness section up to Pineapple Flat, and then the delightful trout stream from here until it shrinks to a creek somewhere above Speculation Road.

JD was my companion once again for a visit to the King on the upper section; specifically, upstream of King River Hut. On a warm, still afternoon full of bush noises and birdsong, the river was flowing very clear and at an almost perfect height: enough current to create an obvious flow on the long pool where we arrived, but not so high as to make access a challenge.

Soon we noticed another sound: the splashes and slurps of rising trout! What a sight to greet us: both up and downstream, several trout were rising hard. JD suggested we turn our backs to the water in order to apply ourselves to the job of tying on flies, and he was only half joking.

Rigging up on the first pool on the King - note the rise in the background!

Rigging up on the first pool on the King – note the rise in the background!

I volunteered to cut down a bend so we could each start fishing straight away, the unspoken agreement being that taking turns could wait until we’d caught a couple! And by the time I caught up with JD 15 minutes later – still on the same pool where I left him – that’s exactly what had happened. We’d caught two fish apiece (he on a Stimulator and me on Royal Wulff) but we both observed that twice as many fish had refused our flies.

As with the upper Howqua on our previous visit, identifying an obvious target for all the rises eluded us; not because there was so little food, but because there was so much. Flying ants, beetles, spinners, caddis… With such a diverse menu, it would have made sense for the trout to be quite opportunistic; willing to eat our generalist flies. But this was only happening sporadically. There must have been some item in the smorgasbord which the trout found more appealing than anything else.

There were some nice browns around on the King, and they preferred little caddis emergers.

There were some nice browns around on the King, and they preferred little caddis emergers.

More because of general confidence than careful analysis, JD decided to try his caddis emerger: small, dark, and hard to see. Come to think of it, quite similar to one of caddis species bouncing around the stream. (I wondered later if their size and subtle colouration meant there were more of them present than was obvious to us?) In any case, that fly and similar patterns – the broad requirement was size 18, some elk hair, low floating and dark – made an immediate difference. We solved the invisible-to-angler problem by tying the little flies about 18 inches behind our big generalist dries. While some fish still ate the Stimulator or Royal Wulff, most chose the diminutive offering behind. I had quite few of those ‘That rise was really close to my fly!’ moments, before realising just in time it was to my fly, I just couldn’t see it.

Reminder 4: Rising trout aren’t always focussed on the bigger or brighter food we anglers can see easily. If there’s enough of them, small, drab insects can be targeted in preference; sometimes, almost exclusively. 

There were some nice browns around on the King, and they preferred little caddis emergers.

JD brings in a chunky King rainbow.

Later, back at the car and a long overdue and slightly sun-warmed sandwich, we chatted about a few things, including our admittedly blind luck that we had stumbled upon such a prolific and long-lasting daytime rise. But there was also some satisfaction in bumping the catch rate up thanks to drab little caddis emergers, fished confidently due to adding a big dry fly sighter nearby.

Reminder 5: Fishing a hard-to-see dry in tandem with a more visible model is a tactic we often use during the evening rise or big lake hatches (especially of mayfly). However, this method can also be really useful on freestone streams in broad daylight.

The King as I'm hoping it will look this coming season.

The King as I’m hoping it will look this coming season.

Looking Forward

Sitting at my desk on a cold, rainy afternoon, it’s not easy to imagine balmy weather, wet wading and the air filled with bugs. But I know those days will return soon enough, and this season I plan to make more time to visit the streams where it all began, so many years ago.