It was a tough enough start to a day at Lake Wartook with JD and Peter. Not dead, but not awash with opportunity either. I’d landed a couple of modest-sized rainbows, a couple of hours apart. I think at that stage, the boys had caught a fish or two as well, but again, nothing special. The weather, which had been atrocious when we fished Lake Bellfield the day before, had settled down, although it still had a bitter edge which suggested there were probably snow flurries in the breeze at Mt William, less than 20km away.

It could have been worse, and it could have been better, and the latter thought had me pulling two wet flies instead of one. I can have misgivings pulling two flies. For example, I often wonder what the fish make of two flies moving identically, a fixed distance apart. And I have a lot of stories I could tell about what can happen with a second exposed hook when there’s a big, angry fish on the other one. Still, right there and then at Wartook, I was wondering if my size 8 Olive Emu Bugger was actually the best fly (too big?) and so I added a smaller Tom Jones as a dropper.

Peter persisting on a cold morning. (JD pic)

I was moving west along the lake shore when I came to bay of sorts, bounded on each side by islands of reeds. It looked fishy: nice open water to search, which also appeared to be free of the fly-snagging stumps that dot many parts of Wartook, yet with the reeds hopefully providing attractive structure for trout and minnows alike.

I fished the ‘bay’ diligently, trying to stay focussed. A slow/steady figure-8 retrieve with pauses had enticed the two trout landed earlier, and another which I’d missed. I kept my eyes and ears alert for any indication of a fish. Nothing disturbed the grey sheen of the lake, but I visualised what my flies were doing out there in the cold and slightly tannin-stained water, and what a take would look or feel like. Unusual tension lifting the line at the rod tip, or steady snag-like weight, or a tap-tap or yank, and I would bring the rod tip up in a firm strike. No questions asked.

But as a few uneventful casts into the bay became a dozen, maybe more, I think my concentration must have faltered, because when the hit came, it was startling. My flies were equidistant from the two reed clumps, and another 20 metres out, when suddenly my line was alive, and I was scrambling to catch up with what was happening. I barely computed that the fish was bolting the 20 metres required to reach the reed clump to my left. Later, JD would say, ’That trout knew exactly what it was doing.’ Could a trout in a lake with two metres visibility at best, have situational awareness that good? It certainly seemed so.

By the time I realised what was happening and desperately waded out to apply side-strain, the fish was only a few metres from the reeds. Too little, too late. The trout made its sanctuary.

Now, you might understandably think that’s the end of the story. However, although I was clearly no longer attached to a free-fighting trout, there was a faint throbbing through the rod tip. It was still on! Keeping the rod up and tension applied, I waded out to the reeds, with JD advising how much freeboard I had. Not much. Standing in almost chest-deep water, I could finally see the trout – a male brown about two feet long – thrashing about almost on the bottom with the Emu Bugger still in its jaw. Meanwhile, I could make out my Tom Jones firmly snagged on a reed about half a metre below the surface.

JD snapped this during the ‘Battle of the Reeds’. Not much of a picture – unless you understand the desperate context.  

Incredibly, the trout couldn’t quite break off. Apparently, the combination of 8lb tippet and the spring of the reeds was denying it the required force. Tip-toeing further, I began reaching down for the Tom Jones. If I could only pull it free. Icy water ran down my sleeve, but the sight of the still-attached brown egged me on. Yes! At last I felt the Tom Jones, and slid it off the reed. For a fleeting moment the trout pulled directly against my handline… and then was gone in a cloud of stirred up silt.

Soaked through down my left side above the waist, I waded back to shore, discovering on the way that the Emu Bugger was still attached to the point of the tippet. At least the hook had simply pulled free and not broken off. A small consolation.

As unlikely as it was that I could hook another big brown quickly, realism isn’t front of mind at times like this. I began wading out and casting again, but after a couple of minutes, commonsense kicked in. I needed a dry shirt and jacket if I was to continue fishing for the rest of the day. Back at the car, I changed into fresh clothes, had a coffee from the thermos, replaced the tippet with a new piece, and removed the Tom Jones in the process. After my reed experience, one fly would be enough.

Over the next few hours, I caught some more fish, including a rainbow decent enough to at least reduce my grumbling to JD and Peter about the lost brownie. Yep, overall it turned out to be quite a good day.

Perhaps there’s a moral in there somewhere, but even now, weeks later, I can still feel the disappointment of the brown that got away. I never have been one to lose good fish gracefully. I honestly don’t know if that’s a personality flaw, or simply a trade-off: if you want to catch a big fish badly enough, then maybe it’s unavoidable that losing one hurts.