I read somewhere once that we progress through different ages of flyfishing: first being grateful to catch a fish, then a lot of fish, then a big fish; and finally, a difficult fish – regardless of size. The implication was that the last step was arrival at enlightenment.

If that’s true, I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. Or more accurately, I move up and down the list depending to some extent on what’s happened recently. For example, I do get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of fooling, say, a fussy fish, or one in a tight spot. However, I appreciate the challenge more if I’ve already caught a few. As for big fish, call me superficial, but I can’t see the day when I won’t care about size.

I’m acutely aware of this last point because I’m just back from a couple of days in the mid-Goulburn system in north-east Victoria, and as usual, it’s the big fish I encountered that stick in my mind. There’s something about exceptionally large fish that goes beyond mere (potential) bragging rights. It’s the element of the outlier as much as anything. Big is a relative thing and whether it’s a 2 pound trout on King Parrot Creek or a 10 pounder from Lake Eucumbene, I think that’s what counts. In either case, you’re dealing with a fish that’s not only large, but one which has managed to get to that size against all the odds. It’s a freak, but in a good way. There you are, having subconsciously adjusted to whatever constitutes normal on the water you’re fishing, when suddenly this outsized shape looms up from behind a log; or even more startlingly, appears on the end of your line.

But back to the trip in question, and the first encounter was on the Rubicon River, a medium-sized, willow-lined and tannin-tinged fastwater. It was an oppressive, overcast afternoon and I was grateful to be wet wading. I’d just changed to a Royal Wulff and had started catching fish after a lean start. Not only was I feeling pretty good about that, but in the neat feedback loop of flyfishing, I knew I was fishing better too. Success = faith in fly and technique = added effort and concentration = more success.

After a slow start, I was in the zone on the Rubicon, and catching plenty of nice browns such as this one.

I came to a little anabranch of sorts. The main current flowed to the right of a barely-submerged gravel bar into a nice run. To the left, about a sixth of the flow spilled down a mini riffle then dawdled along a swordgrass bank with branches and a parallel log mixed in. The water only looked about 2 feet deep and given the limited flow, half an hour before, I would have ignored it completely. But my new mindset included thoroughness, so I decided to dutifully fish this inconspicuous side current before tackling the main course.

My first cast wasn’t quite on target, landing just to the right of the small current line, so the fly just sat there. Again, it was a fresh attitude that made me repeat a cast I wouldn’t have bothered with earlier. This time, the white Wulff wings twirled gently down the foot-wide bubble-line and almost grazed the swordgrass fronds draped on the water. When a dark shape longer than my forearm appeared from nowhere and angled up to confidently chomp the Wulff off the surface, it was all I could do not to snatch back instantly. I took a breath and lifted into that immovable weight that smaller trout simply don’t provide. Thump, thump, thump… then nothing. The trout, certainly the biggest I have hooked on the Rubicon, had gone. The fly was intact, the hook undamaged. What can you do? I caught several more normal-sized trout that afternoon and truly enjoyed myself. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had gone.

The next day, under sunnier and somewhat cooler skies, I fished a couple of other streams just down the road, before ending up on the Steavenson River. This small, somewhat overgrown stream was flowing well for late summer, although spooky trout suggested it had seen plenty of anglers. The obvious, easy spots hardly produced a rise, but hard on the edges or in amongst the logs, a totally drag-free drift often resulted in at least a suspicious inspection, and sometimes a take.

I’d stuck with the newly-favoured Royal Wulff from the day before, and caught a few typical Steavenson browns and rainbows of less than a pound, when I came to the largest pool of the day. Deep and quite narrow, it was lined by a steep, rocky bank on the left, and thick willows on the right (my side). If there was a big trout in the Steavenson, I thought (and in the main stream, these are few) this is where it would live. However, it was also a difficult pool to fish well: too deep to see the bottom, almost flowless, and I struggled to push along the edge of the willows without creating a bow-wave. After a few aimless casts, I crawled through the willows to the top third of the pool and started again.

The big difference here was a distinct current flowing into the pool from the rapid above. About 5 metres in, the current line struck the top of a big old log jutting up almost vertically and crowned with driftwood like a half-submerged osprey nest. Then the current glanced out and continued down to an almost identical feature 10 metres below. This is where I started fishing again, guessing that a trout might be hiding under the driftwood to intercept food carried straight towards it. The water looked way too deep to wade on the downstream side of the log, so pushing against the willow branches for camouflage, I flicked the Royal Wulff across and slightly upstream, so it would drift for a couple of metres before crashing into the snags.

The Wulff was about half a metre from the sticks and at the point when I had to abort the drift or risk losing the fly, when a fat 2 pound rainbow (a real beauty for the Steavo) cruised out from under the snags and nibbled at the Wulff without conviction. I restrained myself from striking and gently slid the fly off the water and out of harm’s way. I changed to a Parachute Red Spinner, hoping the smaller, finer fly might receive a more definite response. It did. The rainbow responded in exactly the same way as the first time, only it ate the fly with one confident rise. I lifted, bent the rod… and the trout was gone.

It was testament to my belief in the Wulff that I immediately changed back to it in preparation to continue fishing upstream. I literally stepped forward, then hesitated. It was irrational to cast again to the spot where the undoubtedly spooked big rainbow had been, but I did anyway. A moment of amazement followed as a trout drifted up and confidently took the Wulff… but then I realised it was only half the size of its predecessor. Of course, I hooked and landed that one with no trouble at all.

I approached the very similar log-and-driftwood feature upstream with anticipation, but also suspecting that the rainbow I’d just lost was the pool’s dominant fish. Nevertheless, I approached and cast carefully. I could hardly believe it when an even bigger trout, a brown of about 3 pounds, angled out of the snags and purposefully inhaled the fly. I waited, lifted, the trout crashed around on the surface… and was off.

So, in two days, I’d lost the best trout I’d ever hooked on the Rubicon, and then the best trout I’d ever hooked on the Steavenson. I’m sure there’s a moral in there somewhere about loss, resilience, balance being restored next time or something; but right now, I can’t help continually replaying those fish in my mind and wondering what I could have done differently.

Philip Weigall