Happy Trout, Happy Angler

Philip looks for contented summer trout in north-east Victoria.

Tim couldn’t have timed his phone call any better. Peter and I were driving home after a few idyllic January days in the Ovens catchment, chasing cod and trout – and Tim was a day away from driving up. It won’t come as a surprise that Tim was after a fishing report, and we were only too happy to share our good fortune. As far as trout went (Tim’s main interest) the Ovens above Bright, the King a short distance below Lake William Hovell, and the Buckland above Buckland Junction, had all been excellent. I described successful flies and tactics (nothing too out of the ordinary) and after the usual pleasantries, wished him luck – which he probably wouldn’t need. After I hung up, Peter and I had a chuckle at the thought of Tim, even more inspired than usual, packing with extra speed and attention.

Peter lands another one on the upper Buckland. Tim would be in for a treat… or so we thought.

After receiving fishing advice (flies, locations, conditions to look out for; even time of day to be on the water), part of the unwritten code among flyfishers is to report back to the advice giver. This system works both ways among me and my fishing contacts, and I waited with almost proprietorial pride for what I was sure would be a glowing account from Tim. But then a few days passed after I thought he said he’d be back, and then a few more. Finally, unable to cope with the suspense any longer (and perhaps just a little perplexed that he hadn’t rung) I called Tim.

“So,” I asked brightly, “How did you go?”

“Ah… not too well actually,” Tim replied in a tone that wasn’t exactly dripping with gratitude. Tim’s a nice, even bloke and I can’t imagine what it would take to make him openly hostile, but I immediately sensed he was feeling a little ripped off.

“Where did you end up?” I questioned, trying to contain my incredulity. Tim’s a good flyfisher who knows north-east Victoria fairly well. How could he not have caught plenty of trout simply by fishing where we described? After all, he was there within days of our successful trip, and the conditions had hardly changed.

“I stayed on the Buckland,” Tim replied, “And fished above the junction – just where you said.”

I imagined a concealed sigh as he continued, “Hardly saw a fish – caught two small rainbows in three days.”

“But, but that just doesn’t make sense,” I blurted. “What about the pool about two bends up from the West Branch? We must’ve seen a dozen trout rising there at once on evening.”

There was a silence on the other end of the line. “What West Branch? I was fishing up from the Ovens junction and the Mt Buffalo Road?”

And just like that, the mystery was solved. Tim had been fishing the lowest, warmest part of the river up from the Ovens junction – rarely a good midsummer prospect – while we had been 20-30km further upstream around Buckland Junction, where the water was probably 5C cooler and the trout much happier.

Happy Temperature

To catch more stream trout, there are all sorts of things you can do in terms of actual performance on the water – good fly presentation in its many and varied forms, fly selection, stalking… the list goes on. However, it all counts for nothing if the trout aren’t in the mood to feed; or worse, aren’t there at all.

Like most mobile animals, trout will respond to the stresses of danger or great discomfort by either laying low or moving out. On north-east Victorian streams, Wild Trout Program research shows that trout exposed to excessive summer water temperatures will move upstream seeking cooler water. It’s not surprising then, that summer trout surveys typically find the highest numbers of fish in the upper reaches of the catchments.

The upper Buffalo River: elevation, a narrow, steep-sided valley and lots of canopy – assuming flows are okay, a good place to find cool water and happy trout.

In Tim’s case, there were clearly a few unhappy trout still present where he fished on the lower Buckland: he had caught a couple of them. Maybe those fish were lingering at the bottom of deep pools or beside cold water springs and soaks in the stream bed. But mostly, the trout would have moved out; or more to the point, moved up to where Peter and I had enjoyed such great fishing, and beyond.

It’s difficult to prescribe the water temperature parameters which ensure happy trout. It doesn’t help that the maximum tolerances often quoted in overseas literature, are way lower than what Australian trout can cope with; especially trout acclimatised through steady exposure to summer heat. But the fact remains that the 25C-plus temperatures which are fairly common in high summer on the lower reaches of many recognised north-east Victorian trout streams, are enough to make trout either move out or hunker down. Whichever, they’re mostly not available to eat a fly.

To find happy north-east trout in hot midsummer weather, simply head well upstream on the main river – usually, the closer to the shadow of the high mountains, the better. If you’re feeling adventurous, explore some of the upper tributaries: you may be surprised just what you find lurking in what is normally considered a nursery stream.

Main stream or feeder, anything with a decent canopy is especially promising. If you don’t have to worry about your back-cast, you’re probably on the wrong stretch.

The King River tailwater not far below Lake William Hovell, sometimes experiences useful summer cooling.

Of course, tailwaters are another place to look for happy trout in high summer (see the FlyStream print Annual 2016/17). The two most important north-east Victorian tailwaters are the Goulburn and the Mitta. The former can (mostly!) be relied upon for cold water this summer with Lake Eildon at 75-odd percent; more than enough to provide reliable cold water releases assuming the irrigation and/ or power generation demand is there. Lake Dartmouth is even fuller; approaching 90%. So any releases into the lower Mitta will be nice and cold, though releases are less predictable than for the Goulburn. Large scale water transfer to the Murray may change that – keep an eye on live river data and related MDBA information, such as weekly reports.

Happy Hiding

In his book ‘Fly fishing Small Streams’, John Gierach writes, “It may not be universally true that big trout live in the hardest spots to fish, but it’s true often enough.”

This thinking holds up on our north-east streams generally, and it’s amplified through midsummer, when flows are lower and the trout are likely to have seen quite a few holiday anglers and other predators. I sometimes think of hard-to-fish spots on otherwise decent, accessible streams as a lazy man’s backcountry – sort of. No need for a helicopter, EPIRB or a five hour hike into a ravine; simply look for the spot by the road or trail which everyone (including you at first) regards as just too much hassle to fish. Maybe there’s a log jam involved, or blackberries, or overhanging or semi-fallen branches, or rock walls dropping straight into water that’s too deep to comfortably wade.

Chaos on the Thowgla Creek…

Or perhaps it’s nothing like as dramatic – simply a tangle of gum roots on a small section of bank that threaten to steal your fly, or drooping sword-grass hiding a deep undercut. What you’re looking for is a place where a large trout can keep out of sight or at least out of reach, while still accessing a decent supply of food drifting down the current.

… but despite losing a fly under the branches on the left, I eventually pulled this nice brown out on a big Stimulator.

Sometimes these spots are easy enough to cast to physically, but it’s almost impossible to achieve a decent presentation. For example, think of those ‘L’ bends on streams like the Nariel, Ovens, Rubicon, etc. where the main current runs hard, straight towards the overhanging willows or other vegetation, then glances off and travels down, but just out, from all that deep, shadowy water on the far side. While it’s relatively simple to put a nymph or a dry there for a moment, both will be almost immediately and unnaturally snatched away by the current between you and the fly. Assuming access from the far bank is impossible (and it usually is) it’s going to take some skilled casting and mending (see Nick Taransky’s article in the 2017/18 FlyStream Annual) to achieve the natural drift that will persuade a trout to eat.

Happy Dining

If there’s one thing that will make a trout happy, and therefore more catchable, it’s food. At least a few times each summer, I’m amazed at the sight of one of those big, usually invisible browns frolicking like an excited puppy – and the reason is almost always food.

Food does strange things to trout. If the dining is good – read, plentiful, nutritious (and dare I say it, tasty) food – it can even offset the unhappiness brought about by, say, warm water or poor hiding opportunities. I’ll never forget a grasshopper plague on the Indi River several years ago. On a hot, windy January afternoon, trout were coming up in 24C water for foam hopper patterns, culminating in a 3 pound brown, glowing in the late afternoon light, that rose up through a deep, dark slot in the bedrock to suck down my friend Ray’s Poly Hopper. Magic!

Grasshoppers can make otherwise unhappy trout feel much better!

Falls of flying termites or ants can also transform wise old north-east trout into overgrown toddlers. Fish that remain hidden for most of the summer can be found shouldering the lesser trout out of the way as they rise recklessly midstream. Never mind cover, they want the spot where the greatest concentration of insects weaves down the current.

Why termites and ants seem to have such a seductive effect on trout is unclear, but as potential colonisers, perhaps these migrating insects carry more than their normal share of calories. Could it also be that their powerful, distinctive odour alerts trout to an easy meal? Whatever the explanation for the appeal, during the calm before or after a thunderstorm, be on the lookout for ant or termite feeders – and carry imitations at all times!

Willow grubs are another food which can create uncharacteristic behaviour in summer trout. Hot, breezy weather can see willow grubs falling wherever gnawed brown branches reveal willow grub infestations. By association, the grub feeders are often found safely under cover of the willows delivering the supply. However, some willow limbs jut far enough from good cover to lure the trout out into the open – and often with little relationship to regular feeding lanes and bubble-lines. If you’re on a willow-lined summer stream, and you find good fish rising in an otherwise unappealing spot, willow grubs are a suspect.

An evening caddis hatch adds good dining to cooling water and the security of low light.

Of course, the evening rise often combines good food, with the security of low light, and the beginnings of a fall in water temperature. No wonder these events regularly create the happiest summer trout of all.

Happy Fishing

“Do this, do that…,” my good mate DJ often mumbles as I describe yet another tweak to his technique that’s needed to catch a fish. Or worse, a new technique altogether. Just as he’s getting the hang of one method, it now needs to be replaced because the circumstances have changed. As a few-times-a-year flyfisher, DJ likes to keep his flyfishing simple and being a bit of a klutz at any number of non-fishing related things, I can relate to that!

Part of successful flyfishing, is finding happy trout to cast to.

But even DJ might be able to see the value in finding happy trout next time he’s out on the water, because all other things being equal, these trout are simply the easiest to catch.