There’s no point denying it, I like catching big fish. Love to land them, hate to lose them. Fortunately though, I can still enjoy fishing for small ones. It’s all about proportion.

Lately, I’ve had a couple of sessions where the fish were, by some measures at least, small. Yet the enjoyment was of giggle-out-loud standard, while the drama was sufficient to draw the odd expletive, or even a plaintive plea to the gods of fishing fortune.

The first of these outings was on a small mountain creek. Although the neighbouring river had three cars parked at the bridge, there was no sign anyone had fished this creek in the recent past, let alone that day. No angler trail at the obvious access points, no boot prints on the edges. Perhaps the creek’s lack of popularity is due to the fact that in many places (particularly the stretches most obvious from the road above) it’s a boulder-strewn tunnel in the tea-tree and difficult to both walk up and cast into. Or it could be because it’s simply a stream where a big trout is not a realistic chance. No hidden secrets in this respect – the creek is a tannin-tinged fastwater, surrounded by wet forest, deep within a steep-sided valley which must admit almost no sunlight from May to August.

Small water, small expectations.

On the plus side, the trout here never have to worry about water temperature; not even on the hottest summer days. However, with the first signs of winter appearing on my mid-autumn visit – such as permanently dew-soaked undergrowth along the shadiest banks – my fishing mate John and I wondered aloud how the trout make a living when the creek is bank-to-bank winter whitewater, blanketed in perpetual shadow for weeks or even months on end.

So, it makes sense that the trout here usually range from ‘charm bracelet’ size through to maybe 10 inches. I’ve fished for long enough to know just about anything is possible on just about any water. (I once polaroided a 2 foot monster in Crystal Brook on Mt Buffalo: a creek you can step across and which is cut off from any migration by a thousand foot waterfall.) Still, on this stream, large trout are rare enough as to be beyond reasonable expectations.

The first few rainbows and browns were indeed small, but truly made up for it with a combination of beautiful colours and a willingness to eat a dry fly. And while it’s easy to make the assumption that small trout are silly trout, some nose-on-fly refusals and the odd fish spooking despite a Ninja-like approach, proved otherwise.

This all would have been enough, but then came three trout which really made the day. The first I didn’t catch. It was a rainbow of maybe 12 or 13 inches, sitting on the shallow, quiet side of a pool that was substantial enough to warrant extra care. Instead of going straight for where the main current flowed over a thigh-deep slot in the granite, I dutifully cast the little Wulff and nymph over the sandy backwater. The big rainbow drifted over and carefully inspected both flies, before rejecting them and somehow disappearing again in water shallow enough to see the bottom.

I just noticed how I said ‘big rainbow’ when describing a fish roughly a foot long. It was the same thinking when we actually caught the next two trout; John a rainbow at least as large, and me a 14 inch brown. Both fish were clearly residents, slightly lean compared to the chubbier trout in the main rivers we’d fish the next day. But here, these were really nice fish, worthy of genuine congratulations and a moment of appreciation for our good fortune.

A 14 inch brown is a beauty.

For as long as I can remember, my subconscious has automatically assessed any fish caught in perspective to where it was caught. In the little brook below my childhood home near Mt Buller, any trout at all, no matter how tiny (and often they were literally finger-size) was a worthy catch. At the other end of the scale, on many New Zealand streams, especially around my friend Felix’s Owen River home, a two pounder is so small as to be a genuine curiosity; a trout not even counted in the day’s tally, but perhaps mentioned with a chuckle over dinner. The former isn’t stupidity and the latter isn’t snobbery – it’s just how it is. I admit I’m not immune to species bias: I can’t get excited about catching a carp or a toad fish. But when it comes to size, in the right place, anything can be big and exciting.

This mindset opens up a lot of water – and opportunity. Just recently, with only a couple of hours free between family commitments, I took my youngest son down to a small estuary on Victoria’s Surf Coast. Sean saw them first: boils and splashes by the dozen, alongside a sandbank about a hundred metres from where we parked. Australian salmon! There’s something about any fish feeding hard and visually, and there was mild panic as Sean and I set up and raced towards the commotion, fearing it might cease before we got within casting range. Fortunately, the salmon kept it up and we soon had the first fish bow-waving after a fast-retrieved red BMS, which it grabbed at Sean’s feet, before heading back towards the sandbank with the disproportionate power salmon have.

We went on to land a dozen or so. The estuary had been blocked from the sea for a while and the salmon had taken on the fantastic colours that are typical of the species in brackish water.

In fact, it was surprising how much these fish had in common with the creek trout a few weeks earlier. As well as looking great, they were small compared to many salmon we catch elsewhere. By salmon standards at least, they weren’t particularly easy to catch either, appearing suddenly and then disappearing just as abruptly, only to show up again in a totally different area. They wanted a particular retrieve too: fast and smooth. Any hesitation, and they’d lose interest and peel off.

Of course, as often happens with stolen fishing moments, right in the thick of the action, time mercilessly ran out, so we were casting and walking back to the car at the same time. The ocean breeze had backed off and the oily estuary surface seemed to be broken by even more swirling salmon, some of which appeared bigger than those we’d landed – maybe even a pound?

In a few weeks, I hope to be fishing in a place where a salmon of a pound won’t make it into the fishing diary, but right then, such a fish was a beauty I wanted badly.

Philip Weigall