Being Better

Over his next two columns, Peter will look at systems for loch-style fishing, beginning with wet fly.  

 What is loch-style fishing?

Loch-style is a term used to describe fishing lakes from a drifting boat. Generally (but not always) the boat will be drifting broadside to the wind. Anglers are casting mostly in a downwind direction. A drogue of some sort is often used to slow the drifting speed of the boat.

Whilst it is a tried and proven traditional fishing method in Scotland, Ireland and the UK in general, it is a fishing system that has only come to prominence in Australia in the past 25 years. Fishing competitions and fishing guides have been behind the popularity of the method.

Way back in 1995, I actually employed an English flyfishing guide for the peak two months of the dry fly season and to my knowledge, this was the start of serious loch-style fishing in Tasmania. Several years later, Malcolm Crosse of the competition group Fly Fish Australia, engaged internationally renowned anglers John Horsey and Martin Cottis from the UK to travel Tasmania, Victoria and NSW and run seminars on the technique.

It was ironic that in the 2000 World Fly Fishing Championships held in Bristol, England, I was part of the Australian bronze medal-winning team. We had beaten the English on their own turf using the techniques they had only just taught us!

Loch-style fishing is a very efficient searching method. The boat is constantly drifting and covering new territory. The casting is easy and efficient, being mostly downwind. If you are the only angler on the boat, the wind can be quartering off your casting side, so tangles are few.

The highlands of Tasmania have many shallow water lakes and lagoons that are almost perfect for loch-style fishing. It hardly gets better anywhere in the world. Shallow, often weedy water with an abundance of caddis and mayfly activity is perfect. Grey days with a wave on the water from the near constant wind, will have you catching many fish.

Relatively shallow water, typical of the Tasmanian highlands, is ideal for loch-style.

In deeper lakes, loch-style fishing is often done along the shallower edges. This is where a drogue you can steer with comes into its own. By steering the boat down the drift, you can work shores that are not parallel to the wind.

With deep water and little chance of fish being high in the water column, it can be necessary to use sinking lines. Using ‘pulling’ techniques, where lure-style flies are pulled through the water – sometimes at great speeds – can be outstandingly successful.

The boat set-up

Most any boat will do, but the heavier and slower-drifting boats are of course more suitable. Some boats are suitable to be used without a drogue in anything but the strongest winds. Traditionally in the UK, long, wooden, clinker-built row boats were used. The ghillie or guide sat in the middle with an angler (back to the wind) sitting on a bench seat at each end.

For what it’s worth, I think you are better off seated low in the boat for this type of fishing. I believe too many trout are scared away by anglers wearing bright, showy clothes whilst they stand up high on the casting platforms and make far too many casting movements. It probably feels good, but the wild brown trout of the shallow, gin- clear Tasmanian lakes, don’t agree!

Drogues: type and set-up

If it’s calm, and the boat is hardly moving, then for everyone’s sake, including the fish and the bugs and other anglers that may fish this piece of water late in the day – DON’T automatically throw your drogue overboard.

There are two standard types of drogues that are used to slow down the drift speed of your boat. When I started guiding in Tasmania in 1994, there was only one. This was a conical windsock-type design that attached to the boat with a single rope.

The resistance of filtering water through the cone was what slowed your boat speed. Different sizes were required depending on the size (mass) and of your boat, and wind. These drogues were mostly intended for yachties but a few thinking flyfishers in Tasmania were using them.

In my first year of guiding, I could vividly see that this type of drogue was far from ideal for our lake fishing needs. Over the course of a fishing season or two, I designed and developed a totally new concept for a drogue.

The new ‘Peter Hayes Super Drogue’ (yes, that’s what I called it) didn’t have to be pulled in and redeployed every time you moved the boat. It slowed the boat more than any drogue I’d previously used, and it didn’t catch on the bottom as your boat speed slowed.

Most importantly, I had invented a drogue that enabled you to actually steer the boat up to 20 degrees or so either side of downwind. This was a huge asset in various conditions.

The rectangular ‘Peter Hayes Super Drogue’ works like an underwater sail. If it is fixed to the bow and stern of the boat with an endless rope-type arrangement, then the boat can be steered relative to the wind direction.

If the length of rope at the bow and the stern are equal, then the boat is most likely to drift straight downwind. If you shorten the bow rope (thereby lengthening the stern rope if it is an endless rope system) then the boat will drift downwind but towards the bow side of the wind. The same applies in reverse if you shorten the stern rope.

A good drogue can be essential in some loch-style situations.

Loch-style wet fly

Like it or not, if the fish are deeper in the water and not inclined to ‘look up’, then you should consider some form of wet fly technique.

If you need to use wet flies, the leader set-up is important but simple. Whilst ‘it depends,’ there is nothing much wrong with a 15 foot long leader tied up with three 5 foot sections of fluorocarbon. Use a Surgeons Knot to tie the sections together, and leave a 12-inch tag hanging down toward the point fly (the end fly) at each knot. Basically, you will start with two sections of 6 feet each for the top sections, then 5 feet for the last section.

Use a stout leader material, start with perhaps 8 or even 10 pound breaking strain (roughly 3X).

I like loop knots for all my flies because they allow more natural movement of the fly. But I’m a detail kind of guy, so use your preferred knot; one you are confident with.

The point (or end) fly should be the heaviest, and if you are fishing in weedy water, consider tying this fly on a jig hook, which will encourage it to travel point up as you retrieve. Putting most of the weight (commonly a brass, copper or tungsten bead) near to the eye of the hook can provide an alluring jigging action to this fly – especially if there is a substantial tail of say, Marabou, like you would find on some Woolly Buggers, Magoos, etc. Flies like this work wonderfully with stop/go retrieves.

Carefully setting up the basic wet fly rig before heading out.

The middle fly can be something smaller and more lightly-dressed. Many people I know use a nymph of some type, or a stick caddis. Once upon a time, I most often used an Alexander; a long-forgotten ‘lure’ fly.

On the mayfly waters of Tasmania, you would be hard pressed to find a better top fly than a Claret Dabbler; maybe with a fluoro orange head.

The rod

Use a stronger rod than you would for summertime dry fly fishing. You will need to use a heavier line – maybe a 7 weight would be a good choice. The extra line weight is required to comfortably cast the three, often heavy, flies. Longer casting lengths are frequently better too. A 9’ rod is okay but a 9’ 6” rod gives a little more leverage and is easier to cast if you are sitting down. Think about buying one.

Lines for wet flies

Ideally, you need a couple of sinking lines depending upon the depths you are fishing and the drift/wind speeds. Consider some of the newer multi-density lines that sink in more of a straight line, rather than a bow. For those shallower Tasmanian lakes, you can start with your regular floating line and find the depth with the weight of your flies. However, if you opt for this approach, don’t use a tapered leader. Its thick diameter just won’t get depth quickly enough.

The wet fly cast

At the end of the retrieve, try to use no more than one single false cast after an initial roll-cast. Whatever delivery length this gives is what you should be happy with. Remember, the name of the game is efficiency and covering the water.

I like to vary the angle of the cast until I find an angle that gives me a good ‘dabble’ toward the end of the retrieve – more on the dabble shortly. If you cast straight downwind there will be no dabble. At right angles across the wind, it can be impossible to control the dabble and the ‘hang’ if the wind is too strong. (More on the hang soon too.) Play with the angles and see what you learn.

When the flies land, immediately take a 2 foot strip of line. This is to ensure that the line is now tight to your flies. This movement is also to incite a take if a fish was nearby and it saw or heard the flies land.

This fish took on the drop.

Now count your flies and line down while you figure-8 retrieve line for the boat drift. Thousand and one, thousand and two, thousand and three – I’m sure you get it. This counting down is time to get flies to your desired fishing depth. It also allows time for the trout to eat your flies ‘on the drop’, so be prepared and stay in touch as they sink.

Naturally, you will want to play around with your sink time until you find the depth at which the fish that will eat. Sometimes, you need to be very close to the weed-beds.

The retrieve

Once you are at the required depth, start your retrieve. Do it fast, do it slow, do it short and do it long, or roly-poly it. The late, great Muz Wilson had a wonderful analogy regarding wet fly retrieves. We fishers are like puppeteers. But instead of imparting life-like movement with several strings, we have just one. Always believe there are fish following your flies. I call them invisible window shoppers. Muz had a great, and unbelievably effective, variable retrieve system he called ‘musical tunes’. That story is for another day. Your job is to vary the retrieves until you find something that works for you (and the fish) on the day.

‘The hang’ can turn window-shoppers into trout in the net.

Near to the end of the retrieve, when you have, say, two rod-lengths of fly line out the tip, you can rise your rod tip high into the air until the dabbler reaches the surface. Learn to use the fly line and top section of the leader like a spinnaker and allow the dabbler to wake across the water for 10 feet or so. Then, after this long, straight line, constant speed movement, suddenly stop the retrieve, hold the rod tip stationary, and watch the hang of the leader for a pull. Competition anglers call this ‘fishing the hang’ and it can be unbelievably successful on some days for catching the invisible window shoppers.

The downsides of loch-style fishing

There are plenty of times in trout fishing where you should consider either:

  1. getting out of your boat and wading as you fish a productive area, or
  2. Anchoring your boat (ideally with two Micro Pole anchors) and fishing from a stationary boat.

Productive weed-beds should be worked over diligently – not drifted over. Likewise, drop-offs are most often fished more thoroughly and carefully from a stationary position. So too are areas with lots of submerged timber.

Above all else, steadily feeding fish should never be fished to from a moving/drifting boat. Get out of your boat and wade fishing occasionally.

With fish visibly rising along the shore, it made sense this day to park the boat for a bit and wade fish.

Another huge negative issue for loch-style, which occurs on windy waters that are heavily fished and shallow (like Penstock Lagoon in the highlands of Tasmania), is the fact that boats and drogues plough through so many square metres of trout habitat each day. Apart from scouring the weed-beds and messing with the aquatic insect life, drifting boats and drogues certainly spook the trout.

Furthermore, at the end of the drift (in Penstock Lagoon’s case this is often only 400 metres in a westerly wind) the outboard motors are restarted and the boats motor to a new position, further spooking the fish.

I sometimes wish that drogues were never invented. Some of our waters are just too shallow for them, and our fish are often the easily-alarmed wild brown trout – unlike the stockies of many UK waters.

Boat speed and retrieve length

On very windy days when your boat drift speed is high, another problem presents itself. Your flies spend very little time in the water before the boat runs over the top of them. Sometimes, you almost can’t retrieve the line fast enough to stay in touch with the flies, let alone impart some meaningful movement to them.

When conditions are like this, you need to work on one of two options:

  1. Cast long and retrieve fast – often, using the roly-poly technique. This method comes with plenty of line management issues, but it can work wonders in the right conditions.
  2. Cast a short line and work the flies back toward the boat with the rod tip and a figure-8 retrieve. A simple roll cast will have your flies back in the water again and working just how they need to be. Fishing close to the boat in big winds is not a bad idea. Try it. It’s efficient and effective.

Next time, and as the weather starts warming up, we’ll have a good look at loch-style with dry flies.