Bream, browns, ‘bows… and Bullen Merri

When I flyfish the Curdies – or any other easily accessible estuary for that matter – I expect some degree of interaction with non-fisherfolk as they walk their dog, kick a ball with their kids, or just enjoy a sandy stroll. Usually it’s just a polite ‘G’day’, perhaps with a comment about the weather (being outdoors, we have that much in common), or at the very least, waiting until they’ve passed so I don’t hook hound or human on the back cast.

However, Friday’s walker, with handsome black Lab in tow, stood back patiently while I finished my cast, then came over for a chat. It turned out that Andrew was a local, and he knew enough to understand that I was probably flyfishing for bream – although it was soon clear that the concept of flyfishing was relatively new to him. Apparently, he had recently acquired a basic second-hand fly outfit, and was keen to learn whatever he could about how to put it to good use.

Incoming bluewater

In situations like this, I always find myself torn between wanting to help a potential convert to see the light, and actually fishing. In this particular case, the latter cause had most of my attention, because the tide change I’d been waiting for all morning had just arrived, creating a clear boundary between the tannin-coloured and brackish water of the river, and the beautiful aquamarine seawater pushing up. This boundary is a short-lived hotspot, and given the bream fishing over the last day or so had been quite tough, I was keen to exploit it.

Andrew was very understanding, and was happy to watch while I fished and occasionally added a brief explanation about what I was doing. Evidently even that small break in concentration was too much however, because midway through describing my retrieve with the Bream Bugger, it was hit hard and I responded with a stupid trout strike. Oh well, at least Andrew got a real-life example of what not to do.

I had a better opportunity to talk to Andrew a couple of hours later, once the blue water had pushed way upriver and spread across the whole lake above. With the defined hotspot having dissipated into a vast ‘they could be anywhere’ area, the urgency was gone. Fortunately, by then I’d caught a couple of nice bream, and I’d also met up with my partner for the trip, Peter, who had been exploring a nearby beach for salmon.

A bream from the colour change.

Over a coffee, we gave Andrew a crash course in flyfishing, and a couple of flies to add to his surprisingly decent beginner’s collection. In the process, we got talking about other flyfishing options nearby, such as the Warrnambool rivers, and the crater lakes, Bullen Merri and Purrumbete. At the mention of the last two, Peter and I shared a lightbulb moment. Maybe we should have a fish there on the way home? It wouldn’t be much of a detour.

Wishing Andrew good luck with his new quest, we hit the road and chose Bullen Merri, which we regarded as the better of the two crater lakes for shore-based fishing in the strong south-westerly wind. Less than an hour after departing bream water, we were fishing Bullen Merri and it looked good – as it usually does, even on a windy, showery day like this one. As long as the algae blooms stay away, Bullen Merri has an abundance of good shores for the bank angler, and I rarely feel disadvantaged without a boat. Silty flats leading to steep drop-offs, rocky ‘coral’ shores plunging straight down, or gravel/rubble edges where the gudgeon like to hide. There are even weed-beds in places, though never substantial enough to inhibit the fishing.

I started with an Assassin – a natural rabbit Zonker variation. This is a pattern I’ve always had confidence in at Bullen Merri since I hooked (although ultimately lost) the biggest Chinook salmon I’ve ever seen while fishing this fly there many years ago. Soon after starting this session, I had a more modest capture – a tiger trout of about a pound. Meanwhile, further up the bank, it looked like Peter was catching a couple of tigers of similar size on a Magoo. Maybe pattern wasn’t important for now, but at least the Assassin wasn’t not working.

Releasing a tiger on the Assassin – sounds like the title of a crime novel.

It turned into a pleasant late afternoon of fishing despite a few icy squalls: relaxed, comfortable, and interesting, with the odd miss and sighting of fish to keep us paying attention. Then, out of nowhere, I hooked something big. Whatever it was, I fought it for a couple of minutes… and then it was gone. I reeled in to check the fly before recasting, only to discover that the hook had snapped clean off. Bugger, or words to that effect. Once every couple of years I have a hook snap, and while a one-in-hundreds event, I rate it as one of the worst ways to lose a fish.


As I was mostly equipped with estuary flies, I couldn’t even replace the Assassin with another. Never mind, I thought, I had plenty of Muzz’s olive BMS (Bullen Merri Smelt) in the box, so maybe they were meant to be. A few casts later, I hooked a decent but not huge fish on the BMS… and then it came off too. Not my afternoon, but at least the fly worked and the hook was intact.

By now, Peter had caught up and we fished in hundred metre leapfrogs; close enough to keep in touch, far enough away to each be fishing ‘new’ water. While the action wasn’t frantic, the promise of it never went away. The odd fish swirled out wide, and a couple even charged in hard along the bank.

We caught a few more tigers (the best maybe 2 pounds), and then the weather really turned bad. Black clouds came over the crater wall from the south, and soon the lake was swept by gales and freezing rain. In all the chaos, I heard Peter yell something, and looked up to see his rod buckled by what was clearly a good fish. I jogged up to see what was happening. Peter battled the fish in the virtual surf for several minutes, before finally bringing a superb maiden rainbow to the net.

Rainbow in the squall.

I was walking back to retrieve my rod and see if I could catch one, when Peter called out, “On again!” With the weather still raging, Peter played another slightly smaller fish, this one a silvery brown. As I helped release it, I could feel the distinct shape of a large baitfish in its stomach, perhaps a big gudgeon? We wondered if the sudden surge of waves had dislodged or at least disoriented the gudgeon, leading to a brief frenzy from the trout. It was only a theory, but Peter recalled a very similar event at Bullen Merri many years earlier.

Landing a nice brown in the surf!

Whatever the explanation, once the weather settled down, so did the excitement. Under much calmer skies, we caught one or two more smaller tigers, but then even those fish seemed to go quiet. No worries, it was almost dark, and we had a few hours of travel ahead.

On the drive home, there was plenty to talk about, including the vagaries of bream, ‘bows, browns; and particularly Bullen Merri – one of the more magnificent yet mysterious waters we know.