Peter looks back on the wins and losses during his three decades guiding and flyfishing in Tasmania, starting with 1994 to 2004.
1994 was a great time for me to start my guiding business. The hit movie ‘A River Runs Through It’ in 1992 had most outdoor enthusiasts wanting to learn to flyfish. Then, just a year after I started my business, Rob and Libby Sloane launched the exciting new flyfishing magazine, ‘FlyLife’. This was quickly followed by the ABC series, ‘A River Somewhere’ in 1997. I don’t think there was a single person I took fishing at that time who didn’t rave on about how wonderful that program was. Peter Morse and the ‘Wildfish’ series in 1998 was the icing on the cake, and continued this massive momentum for Australian flyfishing.
In those days, Tasmanian guides often fished while guiding. Some, like Bill Beck, were clear about that and called themselves ‘fishing companions.’ To my knowledge, I was one of the first in Tasmania to NEVER fish. Not even once. It is now the norm in Tasmania for a guide to be there solely to guide.
Over the last 30 years, there has been change right across flyfishing in Tasmania; some of it positive, some of it not so much.
In this column, I’ll focus on the first decade of those thirty years.
Blue sky days
Cobalt blue sky days were gold and still are. We would always head of into the Western Lakes / Nineteen Lagoons area to polaroid. To my mind, this is still the premium flyfishing in Tasmania; the sort any flyfisher with a soul should live for. On the right day, and on the right water, if you have the right skills, we still have a world-class trophy brown trout sight fishery here in Tasmania.
In this initial decade, it was rare you would find another angler out on these lakes, and it was common to find many fish cruising the edges. That has changed. Even on a cloudy day, each of the carparks will have a car or two in them. The fish are perhaps less numerous, and not so keen to feed on the shore. (In 1994, there were no formed carparks along the road to the Nineteen Lagoons, which was only halfway decent and ended at Rocky Lagoon. Beyond, it was rough 4WD tracks only.)
Blue sky days also offered great opportunities for us to fish the larger clear water impoundments from a boat. Peter Wilson and Jim Allen had just pioneered ‘Shark’ fishing on Great Lake, which was wonderful sport. Strong, warm northerly winds often brought gum beetles onto the surface of the lake. As time has marched on, the beetles have become less prolific.
On the subject of Great Lake, it reached an all-time high level during 1994–96, and the shore fishing was spectacular; perhaps a once-in-a lifetime event.
I remember watching fish swim between our legs as we waded. It looked like they had spaghetti hanging out their mouths and their bums. It was the worms the trout gorged on; so full, they literally couldn’t fit another one in. We used a plastic silicon worm bound on a hook to easily catch dozens of these trout each sunny polaroiding day. (This may have contributed to the subsequent popularisation of the Squirmy Worm or San Juan Worm in Australia.)
Great Lake’s Half Moon Bay was flooded, and the midge population exploded with the inundation and rotting of native grasses. Twenty fish days were not uncommon. At that time, we used a boat simply to get us quickly and efficiently to the productive shores – amazingly, we never actually fished from a boat!
Great Lake dropped from about 1996 onward, and despite the odd comparatively minor rise, it has never offered fishing like it since.
Although those heady days of the mid 1990s are unlikely to be repeated, nearly thirty years on, there can still be exceptional fishing on Great Lake, including early morning midge fishing in wind-lanes, and daytime sight-fishing the foam lines and wind-lanes. And there can still be a great evening rise.
Grey sky days
Grey days were not so welcomed by us sight fishing, walk-and-wade, polaroiding purists. On such days, we would look to the mayfly waters to provide our sport. These were the shallow and weedier lakes and tarns in the Western Lakes, and especially, Little Pine Lagoon and Arthurs Lake. The dun hatches were prodigious to say the least. Fish would stay up near the surface and sip every adult dun they could find. The fish would ‘track’ and you could casually walk over and know exactly where to cast to easily catch them.
Now it’s a different story. I don’t think I have seen as many tracking and easy-to-catch fish over the last 15 years. Perhaps this is a function of excessive boat activity and general angling pressure.
Additionally, the hatches days are not as numerous nor as intense or prolific. The fish are definitely spookier, and much more inclined to rush up and belt an emerging nymph before they piss off back down to the bottom as fast as they can. They have evolved and have worked out that this is the best way to feed and stay alive!
Arthurs Lake was an unbelievable fishery for me in this first decade of my guiding career. The topography of the lake set it up to be easily the best fly water in Australia. Jim Allen once called it ‘the brown trout factory of the world’.
The islands offered shelter from the wind if you wanted it. The lee shores provided a silt bottom and superb weed-beds, where mayfly and stick caddis abounded. Rocky wave-washed shores gave up hundreds of fish a week to us if we pulled a Bill Beck Cat Fly or the Silver Bullet.
Almost without exception, every trout was in unbelievable condition, and from November to February, their stomachs were packed to a beer can volume with stick caddis. John Fox said to me one night in this first guiding year, “If Sorell and Arthurs ever tip over, we should give up guiding.”
I’m so pleased I didn’t have a crystal ball! Sorell fell over within a year or two, and 15 years later, Arthurs Lake followed.
In those days, I called the last hour of the day’s light ‘Happy Hour’. A Cubits Mudeye twitched around a calm, tree-lined shore provided spectacular sport, while bag limits could be caught in this last hour if you pulled a Cat Fly or Silver Bullet over the top of a reef. Twenty fish days were a regular occurrence for me, Bill Beck and Foxy at this time on Arthurs.
Towards the end of this decade, Foxy started to guide Rex Hunt who came to Arthurs with his Victorian mudeye and quill float techniques. I learnt a valuable lesson from watching them fish. They tied the boat up to dead trees in deeper water over lush weed beds, and stayed in place until there were no more fish. Only then would they move trees and repeat the process.
I later used this concept, combined with the deep nymphing techniques I learnt from participating in the World Fly Fishing Championships in Bristol, England in 2000. On windy, tough, no hatch days, we kept our catch rates high fishing deep from a static boat. It taught me the value of anchoring to fish.
Foxy and Rex’s average days were more like 40 fish days and Arthurs Lake could easily handle this.
Penstock was definitely not in the mix of productive fisheries in the first decade of my guiding business. The lake was chocolate brown. The water was turbid and putrid.
Having said that, after a great day of catching cricket scores of fat 2½ -3½ pounders at Arthurs, I would occasionally drop into Penstock on the way home. If you could catch one, the trout there were up to 5 pounds and in cracking condition.
The water turbidity affected the efficiency of our fishing, so I would only ever fish nice evenings during stable weather patterns, using a Cat Fly with plenty of movement. On every second visit or so, we would catch a monster; sometimes two.
Lindsay Haslem was often the only other angler I saw at Penstock during this era. He camped for weeks at a time with his lovely wife Jean. He loved the place and didn’t give a rats about the filthy, stinky water. Lindsay used a version of an Alexander he called the ‘Rainbow Warrior’. An Alexander is an often forgotten but very deadly fly. I doubt new flyfishers would have ever heard of it. It was almost impossible to catch fish at Penstock on dry flies.
Penstock’s sad state was down to a decision to divert water in a way which allowed most of it became a stagnant pond or appendage below the moving, fresh canal water.
Eventually, it proved a simple job to cut a slot in a newly-built weir at the southern end of Penstock, and sacrifice just a small amount of canal water to flow through the lake. Thirty years on, the water is crystal clear once again, the dense, robust hatches have returned. At the time of writing, I’ve just come in from a prodigious Penstock hatch.
The problem now is that there is often a ‘hatch’ of 24 boats and dozens of shore anglers too! But that’s a story for another decade.
(A very similar water flow situation occurs at Little Pine Lagoon and my crystal ball tells me that if fisheries managers are not careful, a similar problem could arise – the saving grace at the Pine being that it gets a huge winter flush over the wall.)
Lagoon of Islands
Lagoon of Islands produced some of the greatest dry fly fishing for brown and rainbow trout up to 12 pounds. Sadly, 1994 saw the beginning of the end of this truly world class fishery. A change to the water management regime proved a disaster, and in a few short years, we lost a great flyfishery. Yet we all moved on with barely a squeak. It was pathetic.
Lake Sorell and Lake Crescent
Lakes Sorell and Crescent took a huge nosedive at about the same time. Carp were found in Crescent and both fisheries were shut down for the next 20 + years. Foxy really wasn’t happy. If we fast forward 25 years, both lakes have been reopened and Fisheries have done a world-leading, first class job eradicating ALL the carp from both waterways. These fisheries guys deserve a medal – if the carp had escaped into other Tasmanian waterways, it would have risked a slow and painful decline for some of our other wonderful and unique trout fisheries.
Lake Burbury – a new Lake Pedder?
Burbury was a newly-flooded lake on the west coast of Tasmania near Queenstown. Many anglers hoped it might turn into another Lake Pedder – where a similar flooding years earlier created a short-lived ‘boom’, when some trout grew to 20 pounds. As it turned out, that didn’t happen, but we did get a terrific new fishery.
A mate and I built a bush camp (Club Burbury) way up in a remote arm of the lake and I started taking clients down there to camp and to fish.
The morning wind-lane fishing was spectacular, and Burbury became a world-class fishery for mostly hard-fighting, well-conditioned rainbows. Although the trout were sipping from the top, we found a small lime-green and black bead-head nymph drawn past them was best for catching lots of fish.
It wasn’t easy though: during one morning session, I had three clients catch just three fish, while within sight of us, and fishing the same lane, my friend Shayne caught 56! Now that’s a cricket score for a single angler in just a few hours fishing. To this day, 30 years on, I don’t know anywhere else you could do that.
Burbury remains such a remote and beautiful place. It’s delightful and good for the soul to fish there. You get the feeling these big, ancient rocky mountains have your back.
In the mid to late 1990s, Fisheries arranged to have a budget estimates committee meet with me at my house. I guess the rationale was, I was a new kid on the block with a prominent guided flyfishing business, and they were interested in my views about the Tasmanian fishery and its management.
After much small talk, one of the guys asked me, if government were to give Fisheries more money next year, did I think the fishery would improve?
I pondered this question, one I’d never ever thought about before, then answered, “NO”. Instead, I said you need to give Fisheries just 2 things. One is the brains to make the best and smartest strategic decisions to benefit the fishery. The second? Give them the backbone to carry those decisions through to completion. Then, with clear wins on the board, the angling community would become unbelievably supportive of the Fisheries, and everyone would be working together to implement the best changes.
A few years after this I, along with Malcolm Crosse, agitated to rehabilitate Shannon Lagoon. Eventually, Fisheries set up a fund called, ‘The trout habitat trust fund’ and the Shannon project was slated to be one of the first projects to be looked into.
Everyone thought this to be a good initiative and many people donated a lot of money to this cause. What has happened? How has it worked? This great idea, and wonderful forward thinking, was cocked up over the next 20 years with procrastination and plain bad management. The fund was recently wound up. Pathetic.
These days I (and many other thinking anglers) still see a future for the restoration of the Shannon. I’ll tell you about my current thoughts in reflections on my third decade in Tasmania. Stay tuned.
Boats were rarely used for flyfishing when I started guiding in 1994. In fact, it was almost a novelty to see someone flyfishing from a boat. The few who had boats only had small ones and they were limited in where they could go in the usually windy highland weather.
My Tri Hull plate boat ‘Tight Loop’ was a monster at 5.2 metres, and I started with a 60 HP 2 stroke Yamaha. By the end of this first decade, I had the latest 4 stroke 130 HP Honda on the back. My crystal ball was telling me that for environmental reasons, I needed to switch over to a 4 stroke motor. As it turned out, how right this was.
To my knowledge, I had the second Minn Kota bow-mount electric motor in Tasmania – Shayne Murphy had the first. These were expensive at the time but were clearly a game changer for astute flyfishers. Nowadays, nearly every fly boat in Tasmania is fitted with one.
I could go anywhere in any weather safely in that boat – others with smaller boats could not. Shayne Murphy had taught me to use the boat to get to the shores I wanted to fish. The time of the season and wind direction on the day – and the days preceding – dictated exactly which shores these would be.
A brown on the shore is a feeding brown, and often much easier to catch than those down deep or in open water.
The fly of choice was a floating Cubits Mudeye. This pattern invented for those monster browns of Lake Pedder by Leon Cubit from Hobart. This is a fly I still use today, with great success. What trout in the world doesn’t like a big fat mudeye twitching its way slowly through the surface film?
In these early days of my guiding career, I often watched in bewilderment when long-time guides Bill Beck and John Fox drifted past in their boats with conical windsock-like drogues to slow down their drift, while we caught lots of fish on dries in a foot of water along the shore.
At the time, my crystal ball didn’t tell me that in just a few short years, I would be designing, with the help of new clients Peter and John Austin, a new and innovative rectangular drogue that worked like an underwater sail. By adjusting the forward and aft ropes, the boat could be steered sideways down the wind. Another huge benefit was that you could drive off and the drogue would come into the boat automatically without the heavy heaving in needed for a conical drogue arrangement.
These drogues were branded the ‘Peter Hayes Super Drogue’ by Bill Classon of AFN fame. Eventually, they were mass produced in China and over the next decade or so, I sold thousands of these drogues. They have since been used in World Fly Fishing Championships, and are now used by nearly every flyfishing boat in Australia, not just Tasmania.
But in hindsight, I wish I had never invented the Super Drogue. I could write reams on how I think the use of drogues in shallow, weedy lakes and tarns has changed the quality of the fishing for the worse. Stay tuned for more on this in the third decade missive!
Single full-hackled dry flies like the Red Tag and Pecks Highland Dun were the standard in the highlands in my early days. These were cast out and left to sit stationary – often for many minutes at a time. Drag was a no no.
I thought I was smart bringing my parachute duns with twinkly mylar tails down from Victoria. I also changed the design of the Red Tag, so it was a better client / guided fishing fly (more buoyant and more visible). One of the biggest mistakes of my 30 years of business, was calling this fly the ‘Guides Tag’, not a ‘Hayes Tag’.
Do yourself a favour and research the differences between this fly and the original Red Tag. I strongly feel the Guides Tag is a much superior fly for lake fishing situations. It has a fluoro pink tag, which glows much better in ultra-violet light, and the black palmer-hackled body over shiny green tinsel never becomes waterlogged. The still trout love this fly. On most occasions, a trout will eat a Guides Tag in preference to natural gum beetles.
I always tied two flies on, three feet apart: a Guides Tag (being a generic and practical terrestrial pattern) on the point, and a Parachute Dun (mayfly pattern) on the dropper.
I thought I was smart because we caught over 50% of the fish each day by giving these flies a good 2 foot pull every 15 seconds or so. Dragging the dry fly in broad daylight! Very few anglers were onto this at the time.
In 1997, Malcolm Cross and Rob Sloane produced the wonderful book, ‘Australia’s Best Trout Flies’. This was a fundraising project for Fly Fish Australia – the competition fishing organisation. My advice is, you should seek out a copy if you haven’t got one. Interestingly, a large percentage of the flies detailed in the book were dry flies. (Its 2016 follow-up, “Australia’s Best Trout Flies Revisited” reveals some notable changes in popular fly patterns and styles.)
Sage came out with the delightful SP range of rods and then shortly after, upgraded (supposedly!) to the SP+ range. One of my clients from Seattle (where Sage is based) set me up with a guide’s buying program. I immediately bought several of these rods in different weight ranges.
One, a 490-3 SP+ was an absolute dog of a rod. It was so stiff you just had to haul to make it work, plus use a 5 or 6 weight line, which defeated the purpose of buying a 4 weight. After 48 years of participation in unbelievably intense competition fly casting, half of it at world championship level, the only time I developed an injury was after using this piece-of-poo rod for less than a week! I got a tennis elbow from hell, and the pain and inconvenience were with me for the rest of the season.
It is my not so humble opinion, that for trout fishing, you should avoid stiff, fast-action rods like the plague. There is very little upside to owning one.
Towards the end of the 1990s, loch-style fishing from a boat with a drogue was becoming more popular, and many anglers were experimenting with longer rods. The 10’ Sage XP became the standard for those who could afford them. 9’6” is a nice boat rod length too, and I used this length for guided fishing for some years. These XPs replaced the Redington workhorse rods I started with in 1994. The Redingtons were the first fly rods with an unconditional lifetime replacement warranty – which is why I bought them.
For 2 months in 1995, I employed an English flyfishing guide, John Smith. John was an Orvis guide on the Hampshire rivers. He bought long 10’ rods with him, and this was the first time I watched and understood loch-style fishing. John’s method was primarily a three wet fly method. Fish the drop, strip, then dabble, was the pulling system. It was unbelievably successful, but the clients didn’t really go for it. I guess it is better suited to flogging-the-water kind of fishing, and we have so much stalking /sight-fishing here.
Competition flyfishing was getting a giddy-up by the mid to late 1990s, and Malcolm Crosse had the bright idea to import an English flyfishing champion, John Horsey, to Australia. Fly Fish Australia would sell spots on his workshops, and use the $$ as a fundraiser. We hosted John here in Tasmania.
John Horsey taught us top water loch-style fishing. He used three bright, scruffy flies made from seal’s fur. They were tied at least 5 feet apart on a level 4 pound Maxima leader. Short, rapid casts were used, and the flies were twitched repeatedly, and sometimes roly-polyed flat out. Forget about that ‘drag is bad’ stuff!
It was an eyeopener for me. And for many years, my clients loved to fish like this. I eventually got bored with it, and as my clients and I grew older, we moved on. I would not have used a loch-style system like this for maybe the past 15 years. Not that it’s no longer effective, it certainly is. It’s just that I’ve moved to alternative (and what I now regard as more satisfying) fishing methods with my ageing client base.
As an aside, just three years after John Horsey taught Australian competition anglers loch-style, our team – which I was fortunate to be a part of – won a bronze medal in the World Fly Fishing Championships held on John’s home waters in Bristol. The poms finished several places behind us. Either he was a good teacher, or we Aussies were fast learners. Probably both!
Next time, we’ll look at Tasmanian flyfishing from 2005 to 2014.