Flood Watch Fishing

Philip suggests how to use big rains to your trout fishing advantage. 

I’m sitting in my country office with the rain radar lighting up in orange and red. The Bureau of Meteorology has just issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for heavy rainfall. That’s on top of a Flood Watch put out only hours earlier for several river catchments in the general area. It’s barely the start of spring, and this is the second such series of warnings in the space of a week.

The emotionless facts say we are now under the influence of a negative IOD – simply put, warm water off the north-west of Australia which brings a conveyer of moist air across the continent towards the south-east. At the same time, we are in a third La Nina in three years – something which only happens about twice a century.

Weather like this August storm is going to be around for a while yet.

Bottom line, it’s wet in south-eastern Australia, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

We could debate the aesthetics of fishing under sunny skies and along nice dry riverbanks, versus cloud, rain and mud. It could be an interesting philosophical discussion, which might include things like reward for effort, the bliss of a warm, dry haven at the end of the day, sunburn versus mild hypothermia, flood risk versus bushfire risk, and so on. But putting all that aside for now, how about the catching of some trout?

Marginal streams

One of the reasons trout do so well as a species – and bounce back quickly from adversity – is their ability to rapidly recolonise vacant habitat. Before last season closed, I had already found superb fishing in what are usually marginal streams: low, warm creeks (even flowless) during much of last decade; and all but devoid of trout. They had pretty much dropped off my radar. Thank goodness I backed my judgement and checked in on them though, because they often provided even better fishing than their ‘big name’ neighbours.

A prime trout from a stream reborn after two and a half wet years.

All you need to do, is find a usually inconsequential stream which either carries a remnant population of trout, or is easily accessed from a nearby river with a more significant trout population. Find one of these part-time gems, and it can be like having a whole new stream to fish without having to leave your usual area. This season at least, if it looks like a trout stream (even temporarily), it probably is!

Small tributaries

I class these waters somewhat differently to the marginal streams above. In this case, the headwaters always hold trout, but they’re often too small or unimpressive for us to bother with. In wet years though, they can have a double benefit. First, when it’s really wet, they are the last places to ‘blow out’ with unfishable flows and dirty water. Second, the kind seasons can encourage larger than normal trout to move in and hang around. Already this season, I’ve found some pleasant surprises searching the uppermost reaches of the mountain streams.

Still clear and comfortable when the streams lower down the valleys are raging and discoloured.

Ephemeral lakes

Shallow natural lakes are often the first trout waters to go during hot, dry times. But across the south-eastern mainland, most are now brimming with water for the second season in a row. Unlike marginal streams, these lakes usually require stocking to bring back decent fishing. However, they are invariably very fertile places, so once the trout are in, they grow quickly. Check the stocking records at Fish Stocking Database – VFA or Fish stocking (nsw.gov.au) for possible candidates.

Ephemeral natural lakes in western Victoria and the Monaro which were hardly worth a look, are back with the rain.

Big lakes rising

Most smaller trout lakes in the south-east mainland have already filled and spilled. Full lakes will go on to create opportunities for months to come as flooded vegetation rots and provides food for insects like midges; not to mention food and cover for all manner of other trout food. However, lakes large enough to have so far accommodated their inflows, are providing further thrilling fishing – these are the ones to really watch out for.

Flushed food at Tullaroop in early spring.

As long as lake levels are able to keep rising instead of levelling out, these storages are flooding revegetated ground that, in many cases, hasn’t seen lake water in years. Tullaroop Reservoir in central Victoria is a classic case. Right now, the water is rising over ground that’s been exposed since 2013. In the process, the incoming tide is flushing enormous amounts of terrestrial food which the trout are right on to – and aquatic life is booming too. You’re as likely to find frog feeders and smelters, as trout clomping beetles. The tide is almost in though, with Tullaroop spilling as this article goes to (virtual) press. If you’re quick, you may get a bit more rising water benefit as the lake overfills.

Once levels plateau, this particular type of fishing will fade as the drowned food runs out. So, the key will be to identify lakes that are not yet at 100%, and still coming up. The absolute pick of the bunch is Lake Eucumbene, which is just reaching ground which hasn’t been flooded for years. In western Victoria, keep an eye on lakes Wartook, Bellfield and Fyans. The first two will be increasingly messy to fish as the water pushes back into ever-thicker vegetation, but in years gone by, I’ve stood in flooded scrub on the edge of both lakes and had oblivious trout almost swim over my toes.

Anything is possible at Eucumbene, where rising water has already passed the ‘scar’ above the angler (pic taken in August) and is now flooding ground exposed for several years.

Big water havens

High flows on larger streams can seem like a recipe for flyfishing disappointment. As a younger flyfisher, arriving at a favoured river to find it running a banker was always a letdown. On the drive up, I’d have in my mind’s eye runs I wanted to fish and hatches I expected. In those days, access to the pre-fishing data we have now was much less, so it was often a case of turning up and hoping for the best.

Over time though, I slowly realised that it was possible to be on a brimming or raging river and still have good fishing. A key part of the learning curve was fishing the beautiful rivers around my friend Felix’s Owen River Lodge in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. By Australian standards, this is a very wet area, and the lodge guides had long since adapted to conditions that would bring a visiting ‘West Islander’ like me to despair. I have many memories of anxiously lying awake to the sound of rain pounding on the lodge roof, only to be met after breakfast the next morning by a cheerful guide promising, “Yeah, we should be able to find a few.”

Rain-swollen rivers pose little fear for guides from Owen River Lodge, although netting the fish can be tricky!

They always did, sometimes by heading to a smaller tributary, but also by targeting the best edges of the big rivers. It turned out that even in semi-flood, these brawling mountain rivers didn’t simply get faster and faster everywhere. Instead, hydrology meant that there were always softer edges; even quiet backwaters, away from the main flow. Trout have no more desire to fight ridiculous currents than we do. In some circumstances, big flows can actually concentrate the trout population along a narrow strip of riverbank and a few backwaters, instead of spreading them out across the entire stream as happens when the water levels are normal.

While there are many tricks to getting the most out of these swollen river edges, my two favourites are:

  1. Find an elevated, concealed vantage point and watch patiently. Even in a metre-wide strip of quite clear water, it is remarkable how well-hidden big trout can be. Give them time to drift out from under the bank or a log, to rise, or even to cruise into view – at high flows, some edge trout have a cruising ‘beat’ like a lake fish.
  2. Fish with care. A big flow is not a license for rough casts, bad drifts, splashy wading, sudden silhouettes or waving arms. Treat that narrow strip of water like a spring creek.

From a soft edge a few days ago.

Embrace the murk

Sometimes it seems as if months of rain can, ironically, almost flush clay and silt from the landscape, to the point where even high stream flows run clear, and full lakes settle. Still, wet years are likely to feature more than their share of discoloured water. It’s worth accepting that; and recognising the advantages and the disadvantages.

The two best things about some colour in the water: it makes the trout harder to spook, and it pushes them into hasty decisions. Back to my New Zealand experiences again, and the guides would revel in how colour in the water would make the big brainiac browns of clear water, into big dopey puppies.

I admit, on some level, I still struggle to ‘relate’ to the ability of trout to find food (and flies) in discoloured water. But if I take a deep breath, consider the science, and review my own experiences fishing when the visibility feels too foggy, it’s no contest. Yep, once again, trout don’t sense or experience the world in the same way we do. By using their lateral lines, acute eyesight, and viewing their world from within it, not above it, trout are much less inhibited by turbidity. They have to be – their long-term survival depends on it.

I would go so far as to say, don’t automatically go for the biggest, bulkiest, flashiest fly in your collection when fishing discoloured water. Particularly with dry flies, trout looking up from below will locate the silhouette of your drab size 14 Shaving Brush just fine. That size 8 Stimulator may make you feel better, but if it’s early season and the Stimi is well outside the size and shape of floating food the trout are used to seeing, something more realistic may be called for.

This Tullaroop rainbow was caught searching the murky water with a ‘regular’ size 10 natural rabbit Zonker pattern, not something big and flashy.

The same goes for lakes. By all means use a fly you’re confident with, but remember that ultimately, a trout closing the final few centimetres towards your fraud, still has to decide to eat it. While guiding on a murky lake the other day, I watched a trout in shallow water literally headbutt a gaudy pattern that was almost easier to see below the water than the fish! While the fly got the big brown’s attention alright, it all came to nothing when it refused to eat it.

Money in mud

Whenever we get a climatic period like the current one, the old farmers’ saying, ‘There’s money in mud’, rings in my ears – the ‘money’ in this case being trout. We might get a little tired of constantly wet jackets, wrinkled fingers and wiping water off our polaroids. But compared to drought and fires and heat and dust, mud measures up quite well.