After 30 years fishing his favourite part of the big lake, Steve offers an in-depth analysis.
I’ve been fishing the Frying Pan Arm since 1992; thirty years ago, half my lifetime. Back then, I was a newly-arrived Pom, lunking around my Daiwa Boron 6 weight, a box full of Dog Nobblers and sedge wets, and a Fisheries Department-issue swag in the back of the red Datsun ute. From those early days, I can remember the Frying Pan campground, and the lake being as high as I can recall. I was able to stroll down to the water from the campground tree-line and catch a pan-sized rainbow with apparent ease on an olive Pheasant Tail Nymph, freely donated by a campfire regular. There were mudeye shucks as thick as autumn leaves on the shoreline boulders. Sometimes, I would cadge a lift on one of the Dunkirk-like flotillas of small boats heading to a favourable wind bank for the evening rise. Subsequently, there was occasionally the drama of getting back across the lake in the dense summer fog that would form on still nights. This was a long time before GPS could give you a breadcrumb trail to follow home.
I don’t think there is any place I have ever fished which invokes such a sense of nostalgia.
Simply a place to go fishing
There are lot of criteria I consider in the decision-making process about where to go fishing, such as proximity, history of success, productivity, popularity, style of fishing, vehicle access, boat access, available fishing time, time of year, wind and other weather conditions; lakebed type, local intelligence, and somewhere to stay if needed. It’s a subconscious ranking system with each criterion weighted according to another suite of sub-criteria. For instance, if we’re going somewhere to camp for a few days, that’s where I’ll fish. If I’m not tied by location I’ll travel a long way for a particular thing, like, for example big browns on mayfly on an afternoon rise – hard to ignore! Then, there are binary decisions, yes/no, too hot/ too cold, too windy/ too calm. Mostly though, it’s a bit of a random process with perhaps personal experience and local intel being the secret ingredient.
If I did all this in a truly scientific way, there is a strong chance the only place I would ever fish would be the Frying Pan Arm of Lake Eucumbene. It seems to act as a Harry Potter ‘expecto patronum’ charm that preserves happy memories and allows them to repeat again and again. A kind of a flyfisher’s Groundhog Day; but in a good way.
The majority of the people coming to fish Lake Eucumbene do so from the north-east, from Sydney, Goulburn, Canberra. Even if coming from Victoria, Google might suggest a route via Jindabyne or Yass. At around two hours from Canberra, one of closest access points on Lake Eucumbene is the Frying Pan Arm. Even though Middlingbank is a few minutes nearer, and made attractive by proximity to the Buckenderra Holiday Park, the road to Frying Pan (albeit mostly an old gravel track) goes straight down the middle of the arm and takes you right to the lake at water levels down to about 20%.
Below that level, you have to walk, but even then, it’s still worth it. When you get there, you can generally catch fish within 50 metres of the car if you don’t fancy a walk. I always recommend an all-wheel drive, but you can go a long way down the track in a mid-size regular car in dry weather. You can walk left when you reach the lake to find rock and shale banks, and focus on cruising browns on yabby banks. Or go right and find weedy banks with boulders and midging rainbows. The Frying Pan Arm goes for several kilometres and the further you walk, the less chance you’ll see anyone else. You can find shelter from most winds, and I’m as confident in mid-winter as I am in mid-summer.
If you stay at the Frying Pan campground, you have vehicle access and can bank-launch your boat in areas that are otherwise blocked by fence-lines. Otherwise, at some lake levels, you can trailer-launch a small boat from the public gravel track, and it’s usually easy to launch a rooftop kayak. Failing that, the closest boat access is Buckenderra, which is about a five-kilometre run from the northern entrance to the Frying Pan Arm.
Walk down the eastern shore for an hour or so and you reach O’Neill’s Bay and Seven Gates. Walk the eastern shore and you’ll just find more Frying Pan, albeit with numerous soaks, bays and headlands.
Now, back to highlights, and well up the list is autumn hoppers. Once the summer holidays are over, only the die-hards hang on. A core of passionate flyfishers, some local and hitting the lake after work, some retired, some working then driving all night from far-flung parts to get just one more day in before the seasons change. Paul and Stan got me going on hoppers in the mid-90s. Hoppers are often a big deal on Lake Eucumbene, it’s just that in some years, they’re a really, really big deal. You hope for a wet year to grow plentiful grass within hopper flight distance of the actual lake, but not so wet that the juvenile hoppers and eggs get washed away. Autumn days with good sun and light offshore breezes help too. The final KPI of a good hopper year is when you arrive at the lake with a windscreen and front grill striped with yellow goo and an abundance of embedded hopper body parts.
Early one morning, I set off from the campsite and paddled my kayak across the lake into a shallow bay. I reversed it into the pin rushes, until I was aground and stable, disturbing a few hoppers. With the wind behind me, they drifted out and before long, there was a healthy boil at the end of the hopper ‘trail’. The rises steadily moved towards me, until the next piece of candy in the line was my fly. Gloop, it was gone, and I struck, hooked up… but not for long as the water erupted and my 4lb tippet gave up in fright. Those were the days (now fortunately gone) when we were obsessed with fine tippet and even 4lb might be considered ‘a bit on the heavy side’.
On another day, arriving at Frying Pan on my way to the campground on a dead calm and sunny Friday afternoon, I spotted a fish rising right on the shore, nosing hoppers that with a misjudged hop had found their way onto the water. I jumped out of the car, grabbed my pre-rigged rod, climbed the fence stile, and knelt down a few metres back from the water; still in my suit pants. Two nice browns came to the net before I’d even checked in!
All the right parts
Frying Pan is such a hotspot for trout because it’s effectively a very long, relatively shallow food-filled dish. Floods through millennia have washed soil and nutrients into the surrounds of (now mostly inundated) Frying Pan Creek. And even when the lake is low, there are numerous permanent springs and bogs in this arm. All of which makes Frying Pan a food factory, a haven for every type of insect trout love. Midge, caddis, mudeyes, craneflies, termites, dung and thistle grubs, beetles and more. All have their season, and they often overlap at different times of day. Add to this the final ingredient of prevailing nor-westerly winds, which blow surface food towards the shallow end, and you have your magic pudding.
For the last twenty or so years, I’ve fished Lake Eucumbene with the Editor, and rarely has Frying Pan not been on the five-day workplan. And I honestly can’t remember not catching a fish when we’ve applied ourselves to the task. On a brutally cold day with a strong southerly, I was standing on a large eastern shore boulder, hurling big streamers into the abyss and really feeling I was just going through the motions. Yet I still got a cracking male rainbow in full spawning colour. On another day during a drought, we fished in a northerly gale-driven sandstorm (www.flystream.com/fryin-pan-lake-eucumbene/). We’d met Col there and seen him chuck it in and head back to the car, but with nothing else to do, we just plugged away with our backs to the sandblast, catching brown after brown on the western shore’s clay yabby banks.
Busy and quiet
Frying Pan can seem a lonely and almost desolate place for six months of the year. You can normally find what a lot of flyfishers seek: solitude and remoteness. But for much of the rest of the year, it can be quite busy. I’ve stood on the eastern shore in a bay with ten or more fellow anglers, each less than twenty metres apart, and watched as a school of rainbows moved along the line. Everyone either got a hit or a hook-up as they passed by. I hooked a good brown one evening from the kayak and was unwittingly towed towards, and then along, the bank in front of the campsite – to the grumbling and cursing of bank fishers.
I’ve seen a benign unrippled lake surface suddenly enlivened by hundreds of fish simultaneously rising and finning on midge, and wondered where they all came from!
Back when I was a fisheries bureaucrat and following a no-holds-barred Snowy Lakes Trout Strategy meeting in the Cooma one March, I arrived at Frying Pan after dark. Exhausted by the arguments against reducing the bag limits, I made up for it with a once-in-a-lifetime session. The mudeyes were literally crawling up my waders.
That’s the Frying Pan – sometimes fertile and prolific to the point of being fishing paradise; at other times barren to look at and perhaps less productive (although though the two don’t necessarily line up). Regardless, it’s almost always capable of producing a decent trout, and even on bleak days, there’s rarely anywhere else I would rather be.
Dedicated to those who did it well and are hopefully still doing it in a different dimension: Gerhard (Gerd) Behnecke my casting mentor, and John (Johnny scrubworm) Pené, both of whom I spent countless hours fishing with at Frying Pan.
FLYSTREAM FACTS – Frying Pan Flies & Gear
The three flies I would never be without would be a size 10 weighted black Woolly Bugger, a size 16 black and white ‘zebra’ midge pupa pattern, and a size 16 Pheasant Tail Nymph. Add hopper patterns in autumn, foam beetles on summer days, and mudeye patterns after dark on any warm summer or early autumn night.
For larger flies, use high quality 3X, even 2X tippet, while for smaller flies, 4X tippet – in the best diameter for genuine breaking strain money can buy. If you fish lighter tippet, you will bust off good fish. The rainbows in particular hit like a truck.
After dark, everything is 3X to 2X with a 9 foot maximum leader length – there is no point in fishing longer and risking a tailing loop knot, or trying to land a brute with your leader connection accidentally on the wrong side of your tip guide.