Flying Blind on the West Coast

Fishing blind? I know some people who just won’t do it. For them, it’s sight fishing or nothing. And it isn’t difficult to make an argument for the latter over the former. Aside from the immeasurable confidence boost that comes from casting to a fish you can actually see, there’s the excitement of watching its response. Even a last moment refusal can leave you breathless.

For all that, my last two trips have centred around blind fishing. And not because the sight fishing failed. I knew before I packed the car we’d be flying blind, because the species we would be targeting rarely reveal themselves – at least not on the Victorian west coast in winter. Down here, bream are usually our main objective, though even bycatch like Australian salmon or estuary perch usually come to a fly fished blind.

Salmon in the west coast surf are usually impossible to see.

Salmon in the big west coast surf are usually impossible to see. Spinning the surf may be the easy (sensible?) way to catch them, but this trip, I did manage a couple on fly.

Sight fishing can push your senses to the limit including hearing (should that be sight/sound fishing?) as you squint and stare and listen for the often subtle clues that give a fish away. It’s exhilarating when you pull it off; especially on a tough day when the light is bad and the other signals are few. Then, somewhere deep in your genetic memory, a hunter-gatherer beats his chest at victory against the odds.

A chunky estuary salmon, fished up blind.

A chunky estuary salmon, fished up blind.

But let me put it to you that blind fishing success can be every bit as exciting and rewarding – and because of the sheer level of difficulty, perhaps even more so. Here I really should switch terminology to blind searching, because when I’m hunting a west coast bream, that’s what I’m doing. Although there’s usually no sign whatsoever of the fish, I’m anticipating where they might be, how they might be feeding; and what I need to make my fly do to get one to eat. This is all done with no visual reinforcement at all. Ten big bream might nose to within a centimetre of my fly, but in the discoloured water, lit by a feeble winter sun, I’d never know it.

Even under a bright sun, most Painka;lac Creek bream come by feel, not sight.

Even under a bright sun, most Painkalac Creek bream come by feel, not sight.

Instead, I need to guess where the fish might be. This trip, on the over-full Aire estuary, we couldn’t even see the bream-attracting weed-beds – we had to rely on the feel of the fly bumping them a metre down. On another estuary, the Painkalac, I strained to sense the fly bouncing along a patch of clean riverbed where a bream might mistake it for a crab or yabby.

A bream located by first feeling for the weed-beds with the fly.

A bream located by first feeling for the weed-beds with the fly.

And then there’s the take. We can all feel the decisive hits, but it’s detecting the featherlight enquiries that can turn a miss into a fish in the net. Sometimes, when a blind fisher is really in tune, it seems the take, or imminent take, is detected by some sort of sixth sense. (I’m re-reading Guy de la Valdene’s wonderful memoir ‘On the Water’ and in one chapter, he describes how his retired bird dog, Heather, will cock her head in expectation a couple of seconds before an invisible bass, deep in his pond, hits the lure.)

Max fishing the Barham.

Blind searching the Barham.

The last bream of the trip came on a section of the Barham estuary we often ignore as too featureless, but gouging tidal currents had transformed it. Doubly encouraged by an unexpected follow, I worked a rock ledge drop-off, trying to keep the green BMS fly deep while not snagging it on the sandstone. When it came, I could see but not feel faintest twitch in the line; enough for me to strip back and hook a silvery bream. That fish was the smallest bream of the trip, but it was caught in an obscure spot, hooked by responding to the tiniest twitch, and I couldn’t have felt more satisfied.