Following on from Part 1, Steve (with help again from Royce Baxter) looks at a host of other things to make retirement fishing safer and more enjoyable.
For years, I fished from the bank, watching trout rise 60 metres offshore and wishing I was out there in a boat. Now I’m in a boat all the time, watching fish rise along the bank! Boats give you great access options and they’re a lot of fun. But there’s a lot of messing around and they don’t always increase your catch rate. They’re an option, a weapon in the armoury, but not a guarantee of more or bigger fish.
Using a boat does however mean you don’t need to walk as much and you can carry everything you need for a day out, without having to literally carry it – a great option for the ageing flyfisher who likes lakes. What I really need is something that gives me that level of access to smaller rivers. My knees would love that!
The kind of boat you need depends on what you want to do. At the moment I’ve got a 4.5 metre Quintrex on a single axle trailer. I’ve had bigger and smaller. The larger boat was 5.5 metres on a twin axle. Great boat, but the twin axle really meant that you needed a proper ramp, and they’re few and far between on the Snowy Mountain lakes where I mostly fish. Smaller, and it can be a bit uncomfortable if the wind gets up, and a bit cramped even with just two people fishing. Get good advice, and see if you can get onto a boat with an experienced flyfisher before you make this kind of investment.
Competition flyfishing can add a whole new edge to your flyfishing. Whilst I’ve never competition fished, it is obviously a sector of the sport that engenders camaraderie, and one where you can quickly improve your knowledge and skills.
I often talk with flyfishers on the river and can see why they are not catching fish. The most common cause is the lack of finesse. Tippets too heavy, flies too big and rods too heavy. The majority of lake flyfishers are using flies that were popular 40 years ago! A good way to update your skills is to get involved in the Fly Fish Australia competitions, especially for retirees who may be able to travel to most of the venues.
In loch-style competitions, you will have four boat sessions with experienced anglers, many of whom will have represented Australia, and you will get on-the-spot help and see firsthand the flies and techniques used to target the fish. River comps are held with anglers controlling each other. So, you will watch and measure the fish of your partner for two hours and they will do the same for you. A great learning experience.
Some of our best competition anglers are close to and over 70, and there are an increasing number of women too, some retired. Once you enter a comp, you end up part of a friendly club. You get in the boat with a competitor and get out with a lifelong friend.
A safety tip: if you are unlucky enough to draw a fast bouldery beat, then fish it safely fish from the edge and accept a low score. You’re not fishing to win, your catch rate will improve enormously anyway, and you will have fun.
The opportunities to learn from the better social media sites (especially YouTube) should be seized by retirees with time to view videos and read reports on all aspects of the sport. Choose your sites wisely though: as with all on-line media these days, there’s a lot of chaff among the wheat!
Interstate and International travel
I’ve been lucky enough to flyfish in many countries. But there are still many others I want to visit. Putting aside COVID and believing international travel will again be a viable option soon, what things should I think about? The first is obviously where am I going and what am I fishing for? How am I going to get there and travel around once there? Where will I stay, and will this be an organised trip with a guide, or am I going to ‘trout-bum’ the trip?
I really like this whole idea. Heading to an exotic location, meeting new people, learning about history and culture, and still catching a fish on fly. I have never been on an organised trip, but I would seriously think about it in retirement. If I was going DIY, I would research and plan it to death. There are several specialty flyfishing travel companies, and I would definitely consider using one.
My personal want-to-visit list includes Iceland, Patagonia, Chile, Mongolia, US (Montana and Wyoming), and I’m a long way from finished with the UK, Europe, and NZ!
The last comment on travel is that you are going to make a significant investment. This is not the time to learn to cast properly. Don’t be too proud to get your casting in top shape before you go. A guide can do most things for you, but you have to be able to cast well. (More on this shortly.)
Many retired folk go north in winter. Saltwater flyfishing is great and should be considered if it suits your situation.
I may think I know a lot, but I’m also aware there’s so much more to learn. Streamcraft, hunting, fly-tying, casting, entomology, fish diet and limnology… I’ve never been a hard-core club participant, but there is a lot to be said for involvement in an active club which organises regular education and training for its members. Finding a good club is a great way to grow your skills.
Learning to flyfish in retirement
Personally, I can think of no better way to spend a few hours than casting a fly on a freshwater river or lake, or estuary, off a beach, or from a boat. The beauty of flyfishing is you can carry a rod and some basic equipment in a small bag in the car, and more or less fish anywhere. There is to my mind, no better excuse for a walk in the mountains than to carry a fly rod – a fish is a bonus.
Access is critical, which is why lakes in particular can be such a good option. Lake Jindabyne is but one prime example. There is kilometre after kilometre of easily-accessible lake shore, with plenty of parking and not far to walk. The Rydges Horizon literally backs onto the lake. Get yourself into a good spot on a late spring evening with a 10 metre cast and with a well-chosen fly, you would have to have a decent chance of catching a fish.
But I must keep on nagging about fitness, and knowing your limits. I teach people to both cast and to flyfish. An elderly gentleman phoned a few years ago expressing a determination to learn. In particular, he had visited the Gungarlin River and had seen someone flyfishing, and he wanted to do just that. He had bought a combo rod, reel, and floating line and wanted to ‘learn how to drive it’. He had two casting lessons and he grasped the basics. I built him a couple of leaders, gave him some flies – a Royal Wulff and an Elk Hair Caddis – and off he went. I mention this gentleman in particular because he was out of condition, and struggling with balance and coordination. He declined my strongest advice not to go off the grid into the mountains on his own. I did manage to get his son’s mobile number and share these concerns, but time passed, and I heard nothing bad. Or good for that matter.
Normally I tell people it’s best to learn to cast before you learn to flyfish but after this experience, I added getting flyfishing fit. A friend who guides a lot told me of a client who struggled with balance and to stay upright during a days’ fishing, nearly falling in on several occasions. Clearly, he had a problem that presented risks to himself, and to others. In this case, perhaps fitness was not the issue. The client or his family or friends should have recognised his physical limitations. He may have still had options, such as seated boat fishing, but his days of standing near (or in) water to fish, had passed.
If you can find a local flyfishing club, this is an excellent way to get into the sport. Many clubs have a program for newcomers and for a modest club membership, you can get an amazing amount of advice and a wealth of experience from volunteers. Ask at a local tackle shop. They should know the names of local clubs – and instructors and guides.
If you’re in a hurry, you can find ‘learn to flyfish’ courses via the same tackle shops, or the internet, or perhaps best of all, via personal recommendations. These are commercial operations, but with the best, you’ll find some patient and truly dedicated instructors who will go the extra yard for you.
I keep going on about this, but it is just so important to learn to cast properly. If you are already a bait or lure angler, you may have some generally-relevant knowledge and skills. But casting a fly-line is an art form all of its own, and you can’t really teach yourself. I’ve come across a lot of people who proudly tell me they’re self-taught (as I was), who, with a bit of help, can mend their self-taught casting disasters.
Flyfishing is so much better when you’ve had casting lessons. Some help with leaders, fly selection, and choosing the right spot on the river or lake, with some basic lake or stream craft, and you’ll be ready to get into it.
There is nothing quite like catching a fish on a fly you’ve made yourself. It’s part craft and part art. The basics are easy enough, but when you see a great fly tier at work, it is humbling. I catch a lot of fish on my own flies, but I struggle to make two flies looks identical, and they are no works of art. But they catch fish, which probably means we sometimes overthink fly-tying a bit. It is a lot of fun and a great way to spend a few hours indoors on hot/cold days, when being on the water isn’t sensible.
Trips and slips
Sooner or later, you’re going to trip and fall. Seriously, I’ve had solid falls maybe ten times whilst flyfishing. After two of these falls, I honestly thought I was not going to get out alone. Once, I was rock-hopping on the Murrumbidgee and I slipped and landed on my right hip. The second time was on the Eucumbene when my net caught on a branch behind me, mid-stride between logs, and I fell with my leg stuck in the gap. I was left jammed on the ground, with my knee at an unnaturally horrible angle. On both occasions, I was on my own in a remote, inaccessible place. Both times, I sat, caught my breath, let the adrenalin and pain settle, and was able to walk my way out – but I was probably centimetres from a far worse predicament.
Slips on the mud don’t seem quite as bad somehow. You’re walking along the edge of a lake, fishing a deep edge when the muddy clay turns into a slippery-dip, and you’re on your backside, winded and sliding into deep water in full combat gear. Luckily, you think quickly, roll onto your front, feel the rush of cold water down the front of your waders, and crawl out, clawing through the mud safely on your hands and knees, to the sounds of laughter from along the bank.
I have become so bogged on the edge of a lake I’ve had to pull my leg out of the thigh wader and yank the boot out afterwards. A twelve-inch wader tear from a slip whilst climbing through a barbed wire fence; a shredded hand slipping whilst climbing over another barbed wire fence; a bruised ego after becoming hopelessly stuck after slipping on a style crossing; and too many cold wading dips to mention – although there was that one slip, again on the Murrumbidgee, where I stepped off a boulder into a two metre hole.
In 1997, I watched amazed as Editor Weigall leapt into a lake, with his waders on, to successfully retrieve a fly line after a big rainbow separated the line from the backing. (I got the line back but not the rainbow – Ed.) It didn’t seem to do him any harm! Even so, I would seriously recommend that everyone go for a slip-swim in their waders in cold water, in a controlled environment, so you can believe you’re going to survive if it ever happens unintentionally. It’s quite fun actually!
My advice is not to wade unless you are familiar with the water and the conditions, and are confident you can recover yourself if you end up taking a swim. The older you get, the harder and riskier wading gets. I have a love/hate relationship with wading. It is never the same in two different places. Every river is different, every place on the same river is different, and the same places vary depending on river conditions. If you’re used to wading small streams, big rivers are a vastly different proposition. Gravel is relatively easy, mud and clay are slippery, big rocks are just treacherous.
One stormy day on the Eucumbene, I was taking photos of two friends fishing in heavy rain. Looking downriver, one was in the immediate foreground; the other a short way downstream planning to fish a pool from a high bank on the bend, then wade across to the eddy on the far bank. Through the viewfinder I was focused on the foreground when it suddenly dawned on me I could only see one person. I dropped everything and ran downstream to find the other had stepped off the high bank and executed a perfect face plant.
Artificial water releases and flash floods are always a potential risk to be aware of if you are wading. For example, if you cross the Snowy River below Guthega, and Snowy Hydro decides to empty Guthega Dam into Island Bend Dam, there is no way to cross back until they turn it off. There’s no warning.
All things being equal, my experience suggests there is no reason why I won’t be able to enjoy flyfishing at least until I’m 70. That same experience suggests a drop off after that, at least for some. My friends who are over 75 still like to think they can give it a go (and many can with great effect) but the limitations are more obvious. Flyfishing can be a surprisingly physical sport requiring stamina and strength, and a high level of flyfishing fitness if you are going to fish like you did when you were thirty.
On the other hand, I know some septuagenarians who flyfish with considerable success and skill, and they’re smart enough to know their limits. They either ‘stop and prop’ when on foot (a surprisingly successful strategy if you’re patient) or they take a seat in a boat. In both cases, they fish in the company of a capable younger angler.
Anyway, I’m off to join a gym, and to find a good chiropractor!