At this point in the season, it’s time to reassess what’s actually the best water, writes Philip.
Being late summer, I had to assume the roadside pool had been flogged to death. The stream I was fishing was small, close to Melbourne and not exactly a secret. Earlier that morning, the slippery rubble bends I’d fished above the bridge had curved into dense tea-tree, blackberry and forest – something of a disincentive perhaps to less dedicated anglers. I’d caught a couple of small ones and missed a couple more. But now the stream had swung in close to the road again, to the point where I could see cars flash by, and their dust drifted onto the water.
Right by the road was the best-looking pool I’d seen all morning: it curved like a crescent moon: with a metre-high bank dropping vertically into deep water at the apex of the crescent, while shelving onto a gravel bar on the other side. I stood just below the tail-out, and the rapid flowing in at the top of the pool was about 20 metres away. Yes, it was a gorgeous piece of water, but except for the screen of tea-tree atop the steep bank, an angler could have cast into it from an open car door. The pool was the archetypical obvious spot, where you might expect all the summer trout population to have either been caught, or harassed into a nocturnal existence.
I was about to walk past without wasting a cast, when I noticed an interesting feature. In the middle of the steep bank, two fallen tea-tree angled into the water, bookending a small gap which was maybe half the length of my rod. The bubble-line somehow wound in between these two snags, inches from the mini-cliff. A cast looked all but impossible without wading in and disturbing the pool. On the other hand, if there was anywhere a feeding fish might conceivably be, this small gap was the spot. With nothing to lose beside flies stuck in tea-tree, I flicked the Royal Wulff and its Tyenna Caddis Grub dropper at the target.
Somehow it all worked, with the two flies plipping in just downstream of the upper tea-tree. A quick mend, and the white Wulff wings drifted slowly with the bubbles. It took only a couple of seconds to reach the lower tea-tree. Then, just as I was about to rip the flies out to avoid snagging, the Wulff quietly slid under and I lifted into a heavy, living weight.
I admit that after a slow morning (and for small fish) it could be that my desire to actually land what felt like a decent one, may have amplified how hard the trout appeared to fight. But honestly, a couple of times I was sure something was about to break as I bent the 5 weight to the cork, trying to keep the brownie out of both tea-tree snags. When I finally slid the net under the old buck… well, I’d like to say it was a 2 pounder, but in fact it was probably a bit lighter. The fish was past its prime; still good-looking, but with the somewhat oversized head (and finger-shredding teeth) that suggested it once had shoulders to match. Still, I’m sure it fought harder than any other fish that trip, including some younger, fitter looking specimens on the Goulburn, so go figure. And I was delighted anyway – it was a ripper trout for a small summer stream, and I was chuffed I’d pulled off the tight spot presentation needed to catch it.
Several years ago, Peter Hayes and I were fascinated to discover we were having almost identical experiences during a cormorant plague – about 500 km apart! In both northern Tasmania and north-east Victoria, the vast majority of anglers had decided the trout streams had been virtually cleaned out. However, to cut a long story short, we’d both independently concluded there were still plenty of good fish to be caught: you just had to focus on the cover where cormorants would struggle to hunt successfully.
A similar kind of thinking is well applied going into late summer/ early autumn. In many years, not only is this the time of the season when the trout have been hard fished to for months, it’s also the time of lowest, clearest flows. Those lovely, open and comfortable runs and pools still look appealing to us anglers, but any trout there probably feel like we would standing naked in the middle of a stadium: anxious and desperate for a bit of cover! So, those neat instructional diagrams in books and magazines illustrating prime trout feeding lies, begin to fray. While good cover usually carries at least some weight right through the season, now it becomes the prime ingredient, to the point that in daylight hours at least, trout will sacrifice leaving the best drift-feeding positions, for physical security. I guess on a primitive level, they‘ve learnt there’s no point being well-fed, then dead!
Refuge from Anglers
There’s obviously some overlap between spots that provide shelter from cormorants, and those that provide shelter from angling pressure, but also some differences. In a year like this one when cormorants aren’t much of an issue, it’s only refuge from anglers that I focus on.
Awkward to access
There’s a spot I know on a very popular north-east Victorian river. All around it, the angling pressure during summer is pretty intense. But in this one little stretch, maybe 50 metres long, the trout hardly see a fly, bait or lure. That’s because to fish it, you first have to wade a chest-deep slot, then climb over a rickety logjam. And forget about approaching from the bank: there are impenetrable thickets of rushes and blackberry on both sides.
If you do manage to climb over the entrance logs without breaking something (and that itself is literally impossible unless flows are low) you enter another little world. It’s like instantly travelling to a remote stream. The trout are bigger and more willing than anywhere for kilometres in either direction. On a recent afternoon, I’d struggled to catch a couple of tiddlers until I got wet and climbed into the hidden world. In four casts, I had three trout well over a pound grab my Stimulator. Admittedly, I only landed one – another I missed on the strike and another, close to 2 pounds, ran through my legs and into the logs downstream before I had a chance to say ‘bother’! Still, after an hour of almost nothing, the difference in the hard-to-access bit was profound.
Put it this way, at this time of year, if you consider a piece of water and think, “Nah, too hard to get to”, well that may be exactly where you should fish.
I love these spots, and almost have to stop myself cackling like an old wizard when I notice one. They’re the little side channels and anabranches which nearly everyone bypasses for the sexy main flow, where most of the water is, and most of the fish too… right? Well, that’s exactly the point. The unassuming and all but ignored water, becomes a place where angling pressure is negligible; not because anglers can’t fish there, but because it just doesn’t occur to them.
I’d like a new box of nymphs for every time I’ve caught the late summer/ autumn trout of the day from such spots – I’d never have to beg JD for nymphs again!
A difficult cast
These spots are self-explanatory: if they could hold a trout, but are physically hard to get a cast into, chances are most people haven’t! Therefore, if you can get a cast in, your fly might be the only one the trout has seen in recent memory and it’s very likely to eat. There’s no getting around the fact that these spots demand a tight casting skill set, which takes practice to develop. But it’s worth the effort.
A difficult dry fly drift
This one is often like a magic trick, because it’s superficially easy to get the fly in, but bloody hard to get the drift right. Banksides and undercuts are the classic case: it’s a challenge to get a realistic dead drift, because you almost always end up with line in faster currents than the friction-created slow water right against the edge. Hard-fished-to trout are so unforgiving of drag, if you didn’t know any better, you’d just assume your unrewarded cast, centimetres from the swordgrass, means there’s no trout present.
In fact, whole techniques and equipment are built around trying to fish precisely this type of water, which also includes back eddies, the lee of rocks and logs, and so on. Maybe you don’t have the motivation to equip yourself for the Japanese LDL techniques described by Nick Taransky in FlyStream Annual 2017/18, but you can at least learn a reach mend or other simple mends which allow some drag-free drift in tricky spots. Simply lengthening your tippet, or carefully choosing the best position to cast from, can help too.
A favoured lie for trout under pressure, especially big trout, is right at the point where the current disappears into a logjam. The fish are often invisible, with no sign of them until a snout suddenly appears just as your fly is about to crash into the timber! Best for dry fly only, this fishing is like a game of chicken: how close to the mess do you dare your fly to go before you lift it off? If you’re not getting snagged regularly, not close enough!
Not visible vs not present
I know I bang on about this, but it never ceases to amaze me how often anglers not seeing trout, equate that with trout not being present. “Nup,” they announce sadly, “I didn’t even spook one.” No trout in that part of the stream. Case closed. However the same anglers would know that when they release a fish, even in a small, clear stream, it vanishes from view in seconds.
Being invisible is a key part of the job description for trout. I remember how, at the top of a pool on a low, late summer Eucumbene River, I was disappointed I hadn’t been able to coax a trout from what was one of the better pools I’d fished on a generally tough day. Maybe the old guy at the bridge was right, and all but the sprats had dropped back to the lake?
More out of habit than conviction, I cast across the river to the last little bit of undercut that could conceivably hold a trout; only inches deep. I was so incredulous when a three pound brown slid out and ate my Stimulator, I barely remembered to strike.
I try to turn the late summer/ early autumn low, hard-fished water thing into advantage. I skip past the easy stuff with barely a flick, but then carefully fish the not so easy. In a strange way, this actually focuses effort on what is, at least temporarily, the best water. And it’s so rewarding when it works (as it often does) you have to fight feeling smug about it.