Beating the Winter Blues

From tropical trips to local lakes, Josh lists several ways to make the flyfishing fun continue through winter.

I once hated winter. With cold, rainy weather and the trout rivers closed, it didn’t appeal to me at all. Then, eight years ago, my world – and my perspective – began to change. I started a job as a food auditor, which among other things, meant I had to travel the world. Every year I was given a list of countries I was required to visit, and it was up to me to make sure I ticked them all off.

Early days, escaping winter for the European summer…

For an eager trout fisher, this soon proved to be paradise! For the next five years, I travelled to Europe, North America and Asia during the southern winter. My plan was always the same: work hard for four days then take a three day weekend to do what I really wanted to do: go fishing! I spent time on the water in Slovenia, Spain, Italy, England, Iceland, the USA and Canada.

Slovenian marble trout.

Eventually I quit that job, said goodbye to business class and expensive hotels, and took on the Aussie Fly Fisher guiding business as my full-time gig. Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to escape winter by travelling overseas.

Lake Fishing

During my travels, I’d got a taste for year-round fishing, so whenever I was home, I found I couldn’t go too long without casting a fly. Fishing the lakes was the fastest way to get my winter fix. I’d fished plenty of lakes before then, but I’d always thought anyone who wanted to fish lakes while the rivers were still open, must’ve had rocks in their head!

In between work trips, my winter explorations took me to the nearest lake in my area, Thompsons Creek Dam. With low expectations, I did the generic thing of throwing a Woolly Bugger around the lake’s edges. To my amazement, the first day I was rewarded with a 6lb brown trout and, after returning the following week, another 7lb brownie. The trend continued, with a few more browns ranging from 3 to 5 pounds. It was simple blind-stripping of a wet fly, but the rewards were proving to be worth the effort.

Soon enough, the rivers were open again and I forgot about the lakes. Then eventually, winter rolled around once more and I decided to spend some time and energy working out my local lakes. Day one resulted in a 10lb rainbow and the following weekend delivered a 10½ pounder. That winter went on to produce more trout, averaging 5 to 8 pounds.

Winter lake fishing can be more than just a fill-in until the streams re-open!

And with such massive trout on the board, my mindset began to change. Wait a minute, I thought, this is actually damn fun fishing! Over that winter I worked hard to find the consistent areas, to notice patterns of activity, and to pinpoint the best locations. The challenge was met with chunky rewards – all close to home. I learnt that my stubbornness in not trying something new – winter lake fishing – had been limiting my fishing enjoyment for months each year.

Winter lake rainbow.

While river fishing for trout is still my preferred option, I now enjoy exploring new lakes in the winter months. And as soon as the river season closes, I’m never short of clients wanting to sight-fish the lake edges for big cruising trout.

Winter brown, Lake Lyell.

This year, with the rivers closed, I’ve begun to explore some of the lakes I haven’t visited in a while. First stop has been Lake Lyell, a reservoir in the Lithgow area known to hold trout, redfin and very large bass. Landing our first brown trout there in many years, has me fired up for more winter exploration just 45 minutes from my home.

Tying Flies

I love to tie flies. I spent most of my youth ‘studying’ in my bedroom, while secretly tying dozens of flies for the weekend’s flyfishing trip.

As life got busy with university and the early working years, I tended not to tie as much. It was actually my new-found love of lake fishing that got me back into the craft. I was eager to test new fishing methods with new fly ideas.

I’ve heard it said that if you don’t tie your own flies, you’re not a true flyfisher. In reality, we all have varying amounts of free time and when it gets busy, I’d rather forego the fly tying than miss out on precious fishing time! But come winter, no matter how much I’ve neglected the vise amidst guiding, children and running a business, I still get the urge to kick back over a few red wines and tie some flies – especially if it’s in front of a fire.

Long winter evenings are a great chance to replenish the fly box – and to try some new ideas.

While a busy lifestyle has led to me buy plenty of flies, I highly recommend any fly angler consider tying some of their own creations – especially in winter. There is a great sense of satisfaction when you trick a fish into eating something you personally created out of fur, feather or foam.

Tying your own flies can also help you to better match what the fish are eating at your local hotspots. You can adjust the weight of the fly or the movement to fit certain flows and lake conditions. Fly tying is like flyfishing: it can be as technical as you want it to be. Start simple, and find your level of enjoyment. Be careful though, it’s addictive!

Saltwater Escape

Anyone who knows me, understands I was a complete trout addict for many years. Then came my addiction to Murray cod on fly, which subsequently expanded to include multiple saltwater species. To this day, I can’t answer why I ignored the saltwater fly world for so long. I had ticked off a few Australian salmon and the odd kingfish in Sydney Harbour, but it wasn’t until four years ago that the saltwater bug hit me hard.

Jimmy Laverty casting to milkfish in the waves – Christmas Island.

It doesn’t hurt that saltwater flyfishing normally means sunshine. And so the third solution to winter blues emerges: go where it’s warm! For many, the easy option is to head to the South Pacific: Christmas Island, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and New Caledonia. These range in price with Christmas Island being one of the more affordable destinations.

It’s winter but it’s warm!

However, keep in mind that Australia itself is increasingly known as one of the great saltwater fly meccas of the world. There are numerous species available and beautiful places to fish for them. Over the past few winters, I have ticked off Arnhem Land, Exmouth, Gladstone and Hinchinbrook Island; and I hope to make my way to the famed Weipa area in coming years. These fisheries thrive in winter and offer amazing homegrown flyfishing adventures. Permit, giant trevally, barramundi, tuna, queenfish and mackerel (the list goes on) are all available to us. Why freeze your butt off all winter in the south when you can save up to visit one of the amazing Aussie places on offer in the north?

Wessel Islands permit in winter.

After flyfishing the Wessel Islands in East Arnhem Land last July, I concur that Australia’s saltwater fisheries are among the world’s best. With diverse species on offer, amidst Australia’s wild and remote scenery, you don’t need to travel overseas to find a winter fishing adventure. If saltwater fly is your thing, winter is a perfect time to indulge by chasing the sunshine up north.

But what if I just can’t get enough of river trout?

Don’t worry, I understand! You’re a trouty and you simply can’t go a whole winter without catching a trout in flowing water. So it would be short-sighted of me to not mention one of the greatest winter trout fisheries in the Southern Hemisphere: the Tongariro and Taupo district of North Island NZ.

Dare I say it, New Zealand is considered a local trip for many these days. Let’s be honest, it’s quicker and cheaper to fly to Auckland from Sydney or Melbourne than it is to get to much of Australia.

The Taupo district provides the perfect winter stream fix, close to home.

I’ve fished this general area over summer several times, but it wasn’t until I returned in winter that the fishery really shone. I decided to take four days off at the end of my work commitments and fish the Taupo catchment rivers. Focusing on the Tongariro, Hinemaiaia, Tauranga-Taupo and a few local secrets, it was immediately obvious why people love this fishery. There was a surplus of 2½ – 4lb rainbows just about everywhere we looked, and the odd bigger one as well.

Winter rainbows like these are do-able for the DIY angler in the Taupo district.

The Taupo district fishery is incredibly easy to self-guide. There are marked tracks along just about every river, and even labelled names on the pools. The fishing is deep-nymphing or swinging streamers down-and-across, and those rainbows fight with incredible zeal. I highly recommend this destination makes it on to your winter calendar.

A local challenge

It’s been a while since I targeted a new species in my local area. I have fished my local waters for trout, Murray cod, carp, redfin, golden perch and bass for over 20 years now. But there are still other options to try.

One of my mates told me the other day that he was offended I’d caught a permit on fly before I’d even caught any bread & butter salt species – namely bream, flathead and whiting. So these are on my winter list this year. I’ve also decided to try my best to get a winter jewfish, estuary perch and blackfish. All these species are within an hour of my home, and known to be a good winter targets. Yet in 33 years of life, I have never once given them a try.

This winter, I’m hoping to add a couple more bread & butter species to my list.

In planning this article, my hope was to encourage some other flyfishers to get out this winter and cast a line. But in writing it, I’ve realised I needed the motivation to try something new as well. So perhaps this piece has already served its purpose with at least one flyfisher, me! And in a few months’ time, I hope I can look back and say, this winter, I challenged myself the most.