Being Better

Peter recommends thinking like a guide to make the right fishing decisions.

I’ve been wondering what I can write about in this issue that might help you be better at catching fish. It’s never a simple question and for better or worse, there are no simple answers.

Having said that, I’ve been thinking about my job as a guide and a casting instructor. Cut down to the essentials, it would be fair to say most people pay me to help them catch fish; to help them increase their chances of success. So, how exactly do I do that? Maybe it would be helpful if I could give you an insight into a guide’s mindset; what it’s like to be in my shoes, or more correctly, my head.

What exactly is my job description? I need to own a 4WD and a couple of different styles of boat to help me, but above all else, my job is to be the decision-maker. In many respects, clients pay me to make the right decisions. It’s that simple… and that complicated.

What are the issues I need to be on top of which might enable us to catch more fish on any given day?

Assessing skill level and physical fitness

Firstly, understanding the skill level and physical fitness of the angler is paramount. Knowing how to match the angler’s skill set/ ability with the fishing options available on the day – whilst still meeting their expectations – is sometimes very tricky indeed.

It might be a cracker of a day, and a sensational time of year to fish a fast, bubbly, boulder-strewn river. But if I’ve got a client who will struggle physically with the access and wading, that river isn’t the right choice – regardless of the fishing potential.

Good water and great conditions, but the angler needs to be fit and surefooted.

If it’s a strong north wind day with blue skies, then it’s likely to be great wade-polaroiding the Western Lakes. I know where some 8 pounders live in knee-deep water, and they will eat a dry fly on a day like this. My keen young angler might be fit enough for that, but if they’re also a novice who struggles with their casting, then we’re not going out west.

One of the toughest gigs any guide can have is a day with two anglers who have vastly different experience and ability levels. I nearly always have to play to our weakest link and take the softest (and often, least rewarding) option on the day. At least this way, both anglers are likely to catch fish.

There’s some frustration on these days, when I know I could have had the fitter and more experienced caster out early, wind-lane fishing the Great Lake. He would have caught a dozen 3 pounders on dries before breakfast. We could have then walked 5km over tussocks into the Western Lakes, before wading freezing cold water with a boggy, silty, bottom for the day. He might have had three shots at 6 to 8 pound trout and caught the biggest of his life: a real wall unit. Oh well…

Think like a fish

To have a successful fish-catching day, it helps if you’re able to think like a fish. To have any clue about how to be in this position, you need a deep… no, a very, very deep… understanding of the fish and its environment. This can probably only come from years of study and acute observation.

Seasonal factors and fish food

Understanding seasonal issues and available food sources are both key to helping understand the behaviour of fish. Basically, at times of the year when the water is colder, the fish will feed deeper, where they are hard, if not impossible, to detect. As the air and water warms, terrestrial insects move about more freely and the aquatic bugs start to hatch, so the fish respond to this surface food and become more visually obvious to us. That’s assuming we are keen observers, and listen well too.

With this in mind, during the early months of the season, I’ll try to avoid fishing the colder high altitude lakes. More than a month ahead of the highlands, the lowland lakes and streams will see trout tailing in the mornings and rising freely to the surface during the day.

It’s a big help if you know what the trout are most likely to be eating, and when.

Find the food…

During the first couple of years of my guiding career, I checked the gut contents of every single fish that my clients kept. I always collected a sample to put into a vial of alcohol, which I labelled with the waterway, the date and the type of food. After a couple of years, I only had to look at a fish caught at a certain time in a certain location, and I could almost guarantee what it had in its stomach. Knowing this is a huge advantage when you are trying to catch fish.

For the typical angler to get to this point might be a little difficult; especially if they don’t fish very often, or aren’t very successful. It’s even tougher if you’re into catch-and-release – which you should be.

What you can do however, is make an effort to notice ALL the potential fish food, both underwater and above the water. Try to find mass accumulations of these food sources. I’ve always believed that if you can find the food, the trout have already beaten you to it.

Local knowledge and weather conditions

A clear understanding of weather conditions is paramount to a successful fishing day in the highlands of Tasmania. On most mornings, while I’m eating my breakfast, I have at least three and sometimes five weather apps open on my phone.

The temperature is somewhat important to me, but more critical is the forecast wind speed and direction across the entire fishing day. Second is the predicted cloud cover, and lastly, the likelihood of rain or showers.

On some mornings, even after I have a pretty clear picture of the day in my mind from the weather apps, I will still ‘phone a friend’; someone who lives nearer to the location I plan to visit. I’ll ask them to look out the window and tell me what they see. It happens often enough that someone in Miena, just a bit further west than my place, tells me there’s in fact plenty of cloud out west – even when my forecast app says it should be clear.

Another consideration, especially when trout are feeding heavily on stick caddis, is to know where the wind has been blowing (and how strongly) over the past couple of days. This is especially helpful if you are going to fish on a relatively calm day after it has blown hard for the few days previously.

Wind direction and strength plays a big part in deciding where (and how) we will fish.

Track record

Knowing that a particular lake is fishing really well, in a particular way on a certain kind of day, is gold. The more you get out and about and the more you talk regularly with other good anglers, the more likely you are to have good intel.

Personally, I don’t particularly like fishing the same place two days in a row, even if I donged them there the first day. Most clients don’t see it this way however, and in many ways they are right. Success begets success.

Finally, the big decision

After all these considerations, I need to make the best and most informed decision I can. On what I think are going to be tough days, I’ll choose a place I can quickly and easily get out of and move onto a second option. I’ll hedge my bets!

I remember one day when I kept my client back at the lodge for a coffee, then another and another before I decided that it was late enough to be more-or-less sure the cloud would burn off with a little more sun. We headed out to wade polaroid the Nineteen Lagoons – which is what my client really wanted to do that day. Fortunately, I had the sense to take the boat with me and leave it at a friend’s place halfway up Great Lake (only a short and easy drive from our wade polaroiding destination).

The sun did burn off… but only long enough for us to walk into the lagoons we wanted to fish. Then, after a short while, it completely clouded in and if I hadn’t had the boat nearby, the day would have been lost. Instead, we walked out, drove to my mate’s place and put the boat onto Great Lake. We went on to catch a bucketload of trout drifting the shores and fishing a Chernobyl Ant.

I can remember many dozens of days when I have ‘got out of jail’ by having a sound second option up my sleeve. Knowing when to give up on the first option is part of the key here.

Choosing the right fly?

Deciding which fly to use is usually the very least of my worries on a guiding day. As long as the fly is functional, I’m fine with it. If the trout don’t eat it, then I’ll suggest twitching it at the right time for the next fish. More than likely, they will then eat it. If this doesn’t work, then the angler should be sure to let the fish see the fly land the next time they present it. Particularly when lake fishing, it’s remarkable the flies trout will eat if they see them land. I guess that to a fish, any vaguely insect-looking thing which falls onto the surface of a lake, must be edible.

The reward for good decisions.

So that’s a summary of my guiding day. It comes down to trying to make the best fishing decisions, based on the best information I can access. Ideally, your own fishing day should follow the same path.