Roadside fishing versus backcountry? Philip compares.

The majority of my fishing could be classified as roadside fishing. I drive and park near a river or lake, then walk anywhere from a few metres to a kilometre or two to start fishing, depending upon a whole range of factors which probably don’t need further examination here. Once actually on the water, the app on my phone tells me I can sometimes end up walking surprising distances (particularly up and down lake shores). But I still think of these trips as separate from true backcountry trips.

In a sense then, my idea of a backcountry trip is maybe easier to define as the absence of something. If you can’t get there (or close) by vehicle, I think it’s backcountry. I’m not sure how boat travel fits, but if I end up somewhere that’s difficult to get to any other way, I suppose that’s backcountry too.

I used to think backcountry trips were all but a guarantee of great fishing. However, over the years, I’ve come to realise that, while there are many wonderful elements to backcountry adventures, the actual catching of fish isn’t necessarily one of them. For a start, remoteness often equals uncertainty. Much of the information I rely upon when planning a regular trip, such as the present and recent condition of the river or lake I plan to visit, isn’t easily available for many backcountry waters.

My brother Mark tells the story of going to great effort to reach a seldom-fished backcountry river in New Zealand, only to find upon arrival that it had been so blasted by a recent flood, there was debris caught in trees 25 metres above the water. With growing despair (there was no Plan B other than a two-day slog back out) Mark and his fishing mates worked their way up the scoured rubble of the stream for hours, without any sign of a trout. Not exactly the backcountry of brochures! Then, just when they were resigned to a brutal walk and a wasted few days, they rounded a bend to find a giant landslip… upstream of which lay a much healthier river, and trout. Mark ended up having a really good backcountry trip, but it was a close call and a handy reality check.

I suppose the unknown is part of the package with backcountry. Maybe you find sublime fishing in perfect conditions for trout that have never seen a fly… or you could discover your planned trophy trout tarn has dried up, or the river floods and rain keeps you in the tent. In a sense, backcountry trips feature the risk/reward that financial boffins talk about, although in this case, regardless of the fishing result, there is usually some reward in simply spending time in the wilderness.

A big walk out – was it worth it?

I also like that in the backcountry, there is some connection to pre technology times. We can briefly put ourselves in the wading boots of pioneers like Carl Massey, John Sautelle, Alf Wark and Reg Lyne to name a few, who ventured into remote lakes and streams without the benefit of 10 day forecasts, rainfall histories, or smartphone access to gauging stations. It all feels more authentic, and you get to place extra reliance on your own senses and instincts, rather than devices. When it comes together and you catch lots of fish or big fish, the reward is sweeter. And if it doesn’t work out, maybe you’ve learnt something that will help next time. At least you gave it a shot, and you’re sure to have stories and memories not easily forgotten.

Speaking of links to the old days, backcountry trips come with a requirement for self-sufficiency. No driving to the nearest town for a replacement if you forget your rain jacket: if it pours, you are going to get wet. And a simple thing like no jacket could even end up being life-threatening if the weather turns really bad.

Finally, all backcountry trips face the unlikely but awkward possibility that another angler has beaten you to it. It can be a bit galling to go to all that trouble, only to fish second-hand water. Hopefully, discussions in good faith can help resolve the issue, although you never know!

Roadside fishing is almost like the flipside of backcountry fishing. I seldom forget anything important when I drive to my destination. That’s not due to a superb memory and meticulous organisational skill, but because my car has become a mobile storeroom of spare stuff: fly boxes, gloves, beanies, caps, rods, first-aid kit, matches, water, snack bars… I could just about walk straight to the car from this desk, wearing only the clothes on my back, and pull off a perfectly acceptable roadside fishing day.

Roadside fishing also has the advantage of rapid access to information and options. Proximity to civilisation, and things like gauging stations, weather stations and phone towers, mean you can in fact click a mouse or touch a screen to obtain data about current water conditions, likely weather for your trip – and reassure yourself the stream didn’t in fact dry up last summer! If you don’t do any good despite the checks, or you find yourself sharing the water with too many fishers, it’s merely a matter of walking back to the car and driving to a nearby alternative.

As I suggested earlier, you might think backcountry waters would provide a fishing premium in terms of numbers, size or both – at least given the right fishing conditions. In fact, the reality of my experience is that roadside vs backcountry are usually as productive as each other. On trips where I do both, it can be a bit disconcerting to catch as many fish (and good ones) from a short walk across the paddock, as in some remote mountain gorge I’ve spent hours trekking into.

Still, for all the reasons above and more, I’ll keep fishing the backcountry as long as I’m able. While many roadside sessions have blurred into each other, I can recall every backcountry trip perfectly. That must mean something.

Postscript: We’re introducing occasional cartoons under the title ‘Wind Knots’ from local flyfisher, Bruce Ratcliffe. This one seemed a good fit with the roadside vs backcountry theme…