For my Dad, I think fishing was as much about the social side as anything. Whether for a few hours or a few days, he clearly revelled in the connection with friends and family. While his recollections might include the odd good fish, he’s more likely to recall the hilarious time his great mate John accidentally put sugar instead of salt in the casserole, or the discovery of an idyllic campsite.
I, on the other hand, have always been content fishing alone. Even as a small boy left to dangle a worm off the ancient logging road bridges on the upper Delatite, I was happy in my own little world of mountain ash shade, tree ferns, clear rushing water, busy wagtails landing briefly on my rod tip, and the occasional glimpse of a fishy shape beneath the bubbles and broken water. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, yet I don’t recall ever feeling scared or isolated fishing on my own.
At the other extreme, I have no fond memories of fishing in a crowd, or at least, the wrong crowd. A few decades ago, a succession of very wet years created a short-lived boom of giant rainbow trout at the now defunct Lake Murdeduke in south-west Victoria. Even in its prime, Murdeduke was a bleak place to fish – a huge, shallow and quite saline water, fringed by mud and slippery rocks, and during the prime winter season, usually blasted by cold westerly gales which swept across the surrounding volcanic plains.
Bleak can have its own wild beauty of course, but geez, you had to dig deep to find it at Murdeduke. Once or twice, when the wind had eased for a few days and the sun had come out, I found invitingly clear water and weed-beds on the north-east shore of the main lake. But such moments were fleeting, and non-existent at the two big fish hotspots: the vicinity of a large culvert joining the lake to a swamp at the southern end, and a muddy ‘creek’ (more a flooded estuary of sorts) at the northern end.
As freakishly big fish often do, the rainbows, averaging about 10 pounds, brought out the worst in angler behaviour. It should be noted that the trout themselves were truly magnificent: not recently delivered stockies, but sharp-finned footballs of muscle, which had grown quickly from yearlings thanks to a never since repeated combination of conditions.
For a few years prior, the clear-ish water of the lake proper had offered occasional good fishing for more conventional but beautifully proportioned smelting rainbows of around 4-5 pounds. Under those circumstances, the daunting size of the lake and limited access kept Murdeduke as a mid-ranked western Victorian lake: worth a visit, but not so much as to draw crowds.
By the time word got out about the Murdeduke monsters, the rot had already set in. A couple of weeks later, I was on my way to Lake Purrumbete, but against my better judgement, I relented and detoured to Murdeduke. I walked across the black mud to the murky ‘creek’ (really a twisting narrow bay) and found a small gap in the picket line. The vibe wasn’t of a band of merry flyfishers, but focussed, almost grim-faced anglers on a mission, jackets buffeted by the cold wind, wondering why they hadn’t caught a ten pounder yet. After about 15 minutes, a spin fisher came striding up the creek from the lake, hurling his Wonder Wobbler between and sometimes over the fly lines, to muttered curses from the flyfishers. Hidden behind a balaclava, I couldn’t be sure if his behaviour was driven by ignorance, blind greed or outright malice.
I lasted another 15 minutes, during which time I was aware of a large trout leaping from the water about 200 metres further up the creek, and judging by one angler’s frantic movements, attached to his fly for that moment at least. I don’t know the outcome, because before a result was clear, I had reeled in and was continuing on my way to Lake Purrumbete – which it turned out was pleasantly deserted.
A few days later, an angler was stabbed in a fishing fight down at the culvert. An even more crowded and access-limited spot, the culvert had already gained a reputation as a fishing hell, with hooked trout tearing through multiple other lines, double-parked cars blocking the road, and the best spots ‘booked’ in the predawn winter darkness.
After citing that extreme example, I should say that lots of anglers do not necessarily ruin a fishing spot for me. When I fished Valley Gardens on Montana’s Madison River, there were always other flyfishers nearby, but high trout numbers and vast areas of wadable water, meant I never felt restricted or limited. The same on the Tongariro, where there are plenty of anglers during the peak winter/ spring period, but also miles of good water to go around. It probably helps that both rivers hold trout that are a decent size, but rarely huge, so that desperate edge you might witness in an example like Murdeduke, is missing.
And I do of course enjoy fishing with a mate or two. I hope it doesn’t sound too cold-blooded if I say that, on all but the most prolific days, fishing with another angler seriously helps work out the fish a lot more quickly. Just the other week on the Goulburn, on what looked like a perfect dry fly day, JD started catching the trout on deep double nymphs before I’d had a sniff on the surface. I don’t know how long I would have persisted on top on my own, but I undoubtably caught more fish, and had a better day, because JD worked them out before I did.
It was the same with Mark and Kiel on the Gellibrand last summer, when they found the EPs on the other side of the river, and generously came and rescued me from the inexplicably barren side, thereby granting me one of my best EP sessions ever.
I hope I return the favour occasionally, but either way, when fishing with a friend, there’s more than just a fish catching advantage. It is lovely to share a fishing victory with a mate, which, let’s face it, is usually an exceptionally big one, but may at times be simply a fish caught against the odds. At least as valuable is having a mate nearby when things don’t work out. ‘The one that got away’ stories are more convincing with a witness, and there’s some comfort in the shared experience, and maybe reassurance that you couldn’t have done anything more… could you?
Then, we get into the simple joy of spending the day with someone else. When it’s hard, that helps take the edge off, and when it all goes to plan, it’s good fun to share that too. In both cases, the ‘remember when?’ stories are being made. I enjoy my own company, but I’d make an unhappy hermit.
And yet, and yet… There’s something about fishing solo. While I suspect I’d find spending days on end alone more of a burden than a boon, I do enjoy a few solitary hours, even a whole day. Perhaps it fulfills a sense of self-sufficiency: if the trout aren’t actually on the dry, you need to figure that out for yourself. It can’t hurt that fishing on your own is about as mindful as fishing can get: no wondering how your companion is going, or distracting conversations – as pleasant as both experiences can be.
Maybe that’s what primary school age me was experiencing looking down on the cascading, mesmerising Delatite all those years ago: the simple experience of being completely in the present.