Winter, spring, summer or autumn, Tasmania’s Great Lake is waiting, writes Philip.
It was Rob Sloane’s writings all those years ago which first persuaded my companions and me that it might actually be possible to catch a trout on a fly from this inland sea. This was no small feat of Rob’s – it was one thing for my teenage brother Mark and our friends, fairly new to Tasmania, to tackle the lakes of the Nineteen Lagoons where in places you could have a shouted conversation from one shore to the other. But Great Lake? You couldn’t even see from one end to the other; not across the water anyway.
What Rob offered, was the idea that Great Lake’s intimidating immensity could be broken up into bits: weedy bays, wave-washed zones of silty, productive water and so on. Over the years, other friends like Christopher Bassano, Peter Hayes, Jim Allen and Greg French added to the concept that Great Lake was a water of nearly endless possibility, rather than endless bleakness.
For a mainlander used to weedy and comparatively luxuriant lakes, it took a leap of faith to believe in the trout-attracting power of seemingly frugal features like black silt, sparse weed or even coarse granitic rubble. Over subsequent years, it took an even bigger mental leap to grasp that, in the oceanic waves miles from shore and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you could actually polaroid trout eating insects off the surface, and catch them on dry flies in water many metres deep. Scarcely less amazing was fishing to risers in slicks way out in the lake; trout working like fish in a small pond, except surrounded by square kilometres of water.
Race forward a couple of decades to yet another Great Lake visit last month, and I’m sitting here now, thinking about the fishing and dreaming of my next visit.
In those shallow bays mentioned earlier, the trout come right in close on evening. This isn’t just a seasonal thing: I’ve seen it now in summer, autumn and spring; and with a lot of Great Lake open all year, even in the dead of winter. Depending on water level, there are literally dozens of shores that fit. Look for bays with a gentle gradient, and visible black silt, light silt or weed lining the shore: a clue to what lies beyond. Having said that, some shores are deceivingly rocky from a distance, but turn into fishy paradise just below the waterline. So when you’re scouting locations, drive (or boat) around and investigate any bank which slopes gently into the lake, using polaroids to see beyond the edge.
I’m not trying to be coy here – there is so much of this kind of water available on Great Lake that if I start naming places, I’ll run on for the next couple of pages, and still feel deceptive for leaving spots out!
There are many good reasons for Great Lake trout to sneak into the very edge (I’m talking mere centimetres of depth) once the light is low enough for them to feel safe, but galaxias and stick caddis are two big ones. Ideally, look for a calm lee shore so you can spot the fin tips, subtle swirls and gentle boils that give away trout sneaking along. Admittedly, when the trout ambush galaxiids, you could spot the commotion in surf, but in between attacks, even these trout can be just as surreptitious as those feeding on less active prey.
Regardless of their main target, these shallow water trout are pretty obliging if you present the fly well, and we’ve found a reasonable-sized ‘pull-able’ dry like a Claret Carrot or black Bibio Hopper works really well, and using a dry avoids getting caught on the bottom at the crucial moment.
If it’s too rough to see much (a distinct possibility on the windswept Great Lake) don’t give up. I’ll just about guarantee the trout will still be there, and carefully searching the shallows with a small unweighted Woolly Bugger, Magoo or Yeti, is likely to produce a take or three.
Distinct from the action just described, and not as reliable, is trout rising on evening to a hatch or fall of insects. One of the best opportunities is a caddis hatch: these are most likely on settled evenings, especially after rain. There can also be midges, and sometimes the trout will mop up the day’s windfall if there’s still enough of it left on the water. Find a position with a view towards the western sky if possible, and be prepared to stay until it’s truly dark: often the best action is at very last light.
For the diehards, fishing into the night is usually worthwhile if it’s reasonably calm, and a Black Muddler or black Woolly Bugger quickly cast towards the sight or sound of a rise, will get a take more often than not.
The same shallow shores I described for evening edges, are also excellent for polaroiding, and because of the scale of Great Lake, you can always find plenty of water all to yourself. Try to pick a day with as much blue sky as possible. Reflected white cloud creates blind-spots and because Great Lake is usually surrounded by a huge light-coloured littoral scar, there are seldom dark backdrops (like forested slopes to the water’s edge) to help take the glare off the water for the wade-polaroider.
For set-up, simply use a visible, reliably-floating dry on its own. My favourites are a brown Paradun or Claret Carrot; and possibly add a foam gum beetle for those warm summer days. These dries will often do the job (as no doubt will many others – Great Lake trout are usually opportunists). However, you may want to add a Scintilla Stick Caddis a foot or so beneath during the cooler months, and on other rare occasions when the trout are being tricky.
As when lake polaroiding anywhere, Great Lake trout aren’t often evenly distributed – even in the best-looking areas. It’s important to accept this. I still have sessions where I cover a hundred metres of prime water without seeing a thing, and I begin to doubt my eyesight or if the trout are ‘in’ at all. It’s essential to keep confidence and focus though, because suddenly, for no apparent reason, there’ll be three good trout in the next 50 metres. The other thing I would recommend is a zig-zagging path, so you cover all depths from thigh deep to very shallow. There are occasions when all the fish are shallow, or all are deeper, and if you just wade a certain depth, you may miss them.
If you have a boat, the wide-open expanse of the main body of Great Lake can provide one of the most remarkable flyfishing experiences there is. On warm, windy summer days (preferably but not essentially with a wind from the north), trout way out in the blue-green depths, will cruise up concentrated strips of food blown off distant shores. Because of their green/gold colour, gum beetles are easily noticed by us anglers, but the trout have no trouble finding ants, stonefly, caddis, midge, other kinds of beetles; even duns and spinners. The fish don’t really care: so long as there’s enough food of some description, they’ll get up.
The great psychological challenge is believing it is actually possible to polaroid the trout as they come up the wind-lanes and foam-lines (some of which are kilometres long) towards you. For this reason, it is best to try sharking first with a guide or experienced friend. In ideal conditions, the waves and chop make it difficult to spot rises, so you really need to locate the fish subsurface – and in time to put a dry fly to them before they see you or the boat. Uninterrupted sunlight and a mostly cloud-free sky downwind are pretty important. But if the light is right, incredibly, you can actually see the trout mooching around in the waves (or in the case of rainbows, scooting around).
The dry flies already mentioned often do the job: the challenge is making that quick, accurate cast just ahead of the trout before you are spotted!
Jim Allen gives a comprehensive account of Great Lake sharking here. If you get a chance to do it, take it!
Slicks and Eddies
Mild to warm days on Great Lake with lighter winds (often but not always when the weather has some east in it) will see the same food that attracts the sharks get onto the water as the day warms up. Frequently, these conditions have too much cloud and not enough wind for genuine shark fishing. However, there are advantages. For one thing, residual slicks of foam, and eddies where the wind blows lightly off points, can be visible from miles away, and these are often the places where rising fish can be found. These fish can be hard or impossible to polaroid because of the messy cloud reflections and intermittent sun. But because the wind is lighter, you can see (and hear) the rises, giving a decent target.
Another handy feature of Great Lake slicks and eddies is that often, you can find what you need in reach of shore, meaning that, unlike sharking, it isn’t necessarily boat-dependant fishing. Yes, a boat can be handy for scouting and there will be some good slicks you can’t get to from the bank. However, on the right day, driving around the lake from late morning onwards, or walking likely shores (particularly points with a light breeze pushing off) will often reveal spots with enough food to have rising fish.
Ideally, as with sharks and polaroiding, go for a fast, accurate cast just ahead of the last rise. However, slick and eddy feeders can be a bit random in their tracking; wandering left, right, back and forward in a much more disorganised way than the sharks. The trade-off is, these fish will often hang in an area as long as the food is present, methodically mopping up every morsel. This means that if your patience (and nerves) can stand it, simply throwing your fly into the zone and waiting can be a good tactic; especially if the rises are random or infrequent.
From July blizzards through to hot summer days, Great Lake has rarely let me down. True, cold grey, windy conditions aren’t as engrossing as those when there’s polaroiding light, or its warm enough for rises. Perhaps the real surprise, gradually revealed to me over the decades, is that this dauntingly huge lake contains an equally substantial population of good-sized trout; lovely browns and rainbows I’d be happy to catch anywhere.
On the worst days, standing on a bare, rocky shore, Great Lake might seem like a barren wasteland. But clearly, for the trout (and therefore the committed angler) it is anything but.