It usually happens like this: you’re standing beside a lake surrounded by farmland on a late winter or early spring evening, hoping for a midge hatch. It’s cold – cold enough to consider gloves – and you have to remind yourself that midge don’t care about cold, as unlikely as that seems for such a seemingly fragile, vulnerable insect. (In fact, many midge species, or more correctly chironomid, have antifreeze in their blood, but that’s another story.)
You got to the water early because occasionally, the trout start eating the emerging chironomid before sunset. However, they don’t this time – well, not unless you count the odd random swirl, mostly too far out to reach. The breeze is a little strong but dying as the orange light leaves the tops of the hills. Still not much happening. You pace the shore, trying to control the anxious feeling that you might be in the wrong spot. Your logical brain calmly reasons that this shore tends to be good in a northerly, but another part of your brain is panicking – maybe you should be up in the shallows half a kilometre away?
You’re about to crack and jog to the shallow shore, when there’s a ‘tail-wagger’ rise about 10 metres away; then another. Relieved, you cast your pre-rigged and bushy Claret Carrot, with a Milly Midge about 2ft behind. The Carrot is primarily there as a sighter and to keep the Milly high in the water column. This is where the trout expect to find midge pupa congregating as they make their pathetic attempts to break through a surface film – which resembles sheet ice if you’re 10mm long.
Two casts later, there’s a distinct bump on the Milly, but you lift into nothing. The midge rise, or more accurately, midge finning, increases. You’re plotting the next intercept cast, when a black blob buzzes past your ear and out over the lake. Moments later, in the midst of the gentle midge swirls, there’s a savage clomping rise. In your lifetime, you perhaps see this happen every second year, and then on a handful of evenings – keeping in mind that you can’t be out on the water every time. But you know straight away what’s going down: a cockchafer beetle fall.
While you’re waiting for the next rise to target, your Claret sitting just out in front of you with the invisible Milly underneath, the size 10 dry is suddenly gone in a most unmidge-like clop. A nice brown is soon in the net, and the first order of business after its release is to cut off the Milly. You know from previous cockchafer seasons that once trout work out what the fat dark beetles are, they won’t refuse them – and that goes for otherwise midging trout too.
In fact, when the cockchafers have been around for a while and are beginning to fade, trout will still actively search for them – even when there are hardly any real ones left. It’s quite the party trick to throw a big, fat dry out onto a windswept lake on a cold September evening that’s totally lacking in promise, and have a big trout come out of nowhere to eat it.
As I flagged a couple of articles ago, cockchafers are back this year. In common with other semi-mythical trout insects (like jassids for example), predicting when they’ll appear, exactly where they’ll appear – and for how long – is next to impossible.
I thought this late winter/ early spring (typical cockchafer season) would be a flop, because of how wet it’s been. (The cockchafer spends most of its life as a subterranean grub eating grass roots, and so can drown in waterlogged pastures.) But what would I know? A sopping winter in Victoria’s central highlands has apparently not been a problem, and for about the last week, the cockchafer falls locally have been fantastic.
How widespread? Because of the travel restrictions, I can’t say. Normally, I’d be eagerly dividing my evenings between Hepburn, Newlyn, Upper Coliban, Lauriston or Tullaroop to find out. All have solid form as cockchafer lakes, being surrounded by lots of grazing land as opposed to cropping. Who knows if restrictions will ease in time to find out? I’ve seen cockchafer falls last until early October, but sometimes its all over by mid-September.
In the meantime, I’ll be making do with what I can. If the falls get as heavy as they did last night, I may start to wonder if a big Claret Carrot is actually the best fly, and if I get another chance, I’ll try a brown or black foam beetle – I have half a box of these for just such occasions. It occurs to me that collection is out of all proportion to the value of cockchafers if calculated as a percentage of total fishing time. But it does go to show the impression cockchafer beetles have made over the years. Long may they buzz!