My friend Will texted the other day offering a drift down the Goulburn, which I had to decline due to non-fishing commitments. Then Peter called, suggesting a spur-of-the-moment visit to a certain mountain stream where he’s been averaging 30 trout on dry flies on hot days – like the one forecast the next day – but again, a crowded calendar meant I couldn’t make it. While I love my life, I started recalling a John Gierach passage; something about the inability to go on impromptu fishing trips not being a definition of success. He was referring with disappointment to a busy and now wealthy friend, so I only satisfied one part of the equation, but it had me thinking.

Then my Mum’s operation went way better than expected, a client cancelled a guided day, I was more or less up to date with FlyStream, and my boys had two whole days without soccer training. Suddenly, a midweek window opened. I phoned JD that night (he is much better at impromptu trips than me) and headed up Eildon-way the next morning. I didn’t have a plan, other than simply wanting to fish a stream or two.

On the water less than a day after having the thought.

I enjoyed a modest head start on the Rubicon before JD met up with me mid-afternoon. It was bright and breezy; maybe cooler than ideal for hopper activity, but perfect for a long walk on the river with no time constraints. If the trout weren’t exactly fired up, they were at least active enough for plenty of chances. JD’s home-tied foam hopper was clearly the fly of choice, despite my giving the normally reliable yellow Stimulator and Royal Wulff a decent go. Even if the trout weren’t seeing a lot of hoppers that day, they’d evidently seen enough all month to know what one looked like.

JD’s hopper was the winning fly.

There were a number of moments that stick in my mind from those several hours on the Rubi. One was a willow grubber, who’s erratic rises in a shadowy backwater had me peering for five minutes before I finally glimpsed its dark form. I executed the perfect cast, only to have a wind gust at the last instant blow the fly a foot behind the oblivious trout. I never did find it again. Then there was the good brown that rolled on JD’s hopper near the top of a narrow run. He hooked it briefly – the fish of the day – but for no good reason it came off. Cursing, he half-heartedly threw the hopper even further up the same run… and a trout at least as big smashed it, before it too was gone.

The afternoon produced a steady supply of hits… and misses.

By way of clumsy consolation, I reminded JD of the best trout I’ve ever hooked on the Rubicon a little over 12 months earlier, which simply came off even though I appeared to do everything right. Isn’t it funny how fish lost often stay in the memory long after most successes are forgotten?

And there were successes of course, many of which are already blurring into a happy fastwater sequence of dry flies vanishing in soft swirls, vigorous slashes, or being pulled under as a trout ate the nymph. Speaking of which, my most rewarding fish came not on the dry, but a small dark nymph beneath. Recently, JD wrote a nice piece on the Goulburn seasons, and in the same vein, I suggested to my companion that late February on the rivers be called ‘the season of sticks and bark’. With the trees shedding both after a hot summer, and weeks without flushing freshes, the accumulated subsurface debris soon tests the will of any nymph fisher. Yet I decided midway through our session to give the nymph a good go, convinced that even with the hopper’s relative success, many fish were still ignoring it.

The piece of bark which turned into a fish. No wonder I look pleased!

So I was fishing diligently up a shallow glide, getting increasingly annoyed every time a dry fly dip turned out to be a piece of bark or a stick, when one piece of ‘bark’ suddenly burst into life and became my best trout of the day. Over the next hour or so, a few more fish fell to the nymph, most coming from a similarly uncertain lift after the dry fly indicator slowly sunk as if the trailing fly was merely snagged.

Steak or stay? The sort of dilemma I like to have.

Eventually we got to a point where a decision had to be made about whether to make a long walk back to the car in the dark, or to cook a steak on the barbie in daylight. While the evening rise would probably have justified the former, we’d caught a lot of trout on a delightful afternoon, and under the circumstances, an impromptu decision to finish a little early seemed entirely appropriate.