Jim pays tribute to a great angler, Bob Roles.
Recently, I seem to write more about those that have passed on rather than those still with us. But it wouldn’t be right if the passing of Bob Roles in the midst of Covid last year, drifted into flyfishing history without comment.
Over the years, I’ve been asked many times who is the best angler I’ve known. Without any doubt, that would have to be Bob Roles. Not because he caught more trout or he caught larger fish, but just because when it came to flyfishing, his thought process was second to none.
I first met Bob Roles when I picked him up in my FJ Holden when we were both teenagers. He was hitchhiking near Maroondah Reservoir, Healesville in 1963. He had a mate with him called Arthur Ford. They both were heading to the Steavenson River near Buxton for the weekend. At the time, I was an avid bubble float angler who loved to fish the Eildon Pondage with mudeyes. Driving over the Black Spur, Bob extolled the virtues of fishing with a fly rod. The conversation was all fishing and as they leapt out of the car at Buxton, I made arrangements to pick them up on Sunday night to give them a lift back to Melbourne.
Well, that was the start of a friendship which changed my life forever. At the time, I was working in a department store called Ball and Welch in Flinders Street, Melbourne, in the carpet department. If any readers remember a television show named, “Are You Being Served”, the store was a replica! Little did I know then that four years later I would be in a partnership in the fishing tackle trade with Bob, in a shop called Roles and Allen – the forerunner to the Compleat Angler.
At the time, Bob worked for Turvilles in North Melbourne. Old Maury Turville had had a heart attack and his nephew Jack was now in charge. It wasn’t long before I was kitted up with a Victoria split-cane fly rod, a Silver King fly reel and a Kingfisher silk fly line, all collectors’ items today. We both joined the Victorian Fly Fishers Association.
My flyfishing life with Bob Roles started with weekend trips to the Goulburn River near Thornton, and on The Breakaway, a few miles downstream. Sometimes, after work on Saturday morning, we headed to the West Branch of the Kiewa River near Mt Beauty. A drive up the Hume Highway (two lanes in those days) past Glenrowan, then across to the Kiewa valley, was a trip of some four or more hours. We camped beside the stream and fished from dawn ‘til dusk Sunday. Then, after fishing all day, we’d walk quite a few kilometres back to the car after nightfall along a track with pencil torches, and then the drive back to Melbourne, arriving home about midnight! I look back today and wonder at the eagerness and zest of youth.
At Turvilles, Bob had amassed a small coterie of young flyfishers as his customers, many of whom joined us on the banks of the Goulburn each weekend. I think I’ve written a couple of times about this group, describing them as a sort of university of flyfishers. On Sunday nights after fishing, we all met up at Iven and Margaret Gneil’s Igloo roadhouse at Buxton for T-bone steaks. Bob seemed to run a sort of inquisition about the weekend’s fishing. All attendees were expected to detail their experiences and looking back, we gained an enormous amount of knowledge from those meetings and fishing together. No YouTube or DVDs in those days.
I remember vividly my first trip to the Snowy Mountains with Bob. We stayed in a run-down old hut in the historic gold mining town of Kiandra, just opposite Harvey Palfrey’s Hotel. It was affectionately named Buckingham Palace because of its very rudimentary accommodation. To us boys, it was good enough, with bunks for our sleeping bags and a rough old barbeque outside. It was perfect for a couple of budding flyfishers. Most nights when we weren’t fishing, we spent hours in the bar opposite, often with other anglers from all over. We fished the Eucumbene River, Tantangara Reservoir, Three Mile Dam and everything in between.
Graeme Leith, one of Bob’s friends, had a photo of Brian Gordon, another friend, chopping heads off trout and packing them into a large Esky to take back to Melbourne. The photo was enlarged and pasted to a poster, headlined with a Seal of the Crown, then WANTED FOR PISCATORIAL MAYHEM, BG – The Bloody Butcher of Kiandra, Reward One Hundred Pounds. Graeme had drawn a wonderful artistic copy of an early bushranger wanted poster, and I suspect it hung in the bar until Harvey Palfrey closed the hotel.
However, the lesson for many of us, learned even way back then, was, were we doing the right thing killing all our trout? It was the first time in my life that we questioned ourselves regarding trout conservation. Different times!
On one of my early trips to the Snowy Mountains with Bob, the aim was to fish the streams of the Monaro plains. John Hedge had just published his first book, ‘Trout Fishing in New South Wales’, in which he named many farmers and how to get to their properties. Well, after the book was published, it turned out he wasn’t actually the most popular bloke with the Monaro farming community.
Bob and I called into one farm on the Delegate River to ask if we could fish and received a tirade from the irate farmer, who point blank refused us permission to fish, blaming Hedge. We retired back to the nearby Bombala pub for a few beers before deciding on a change of plan. The local football team had just won the Grand Final and we stayed and enjoyed the proceedings in the pub with the locals. When asked what we were doing, we explained our knockback. The youngster said, “Bulldust, that’s my place and you’ll be welcome. I’ll sort things out when we get back home”. With some fear and in trepidation, sometime later we followed our newly-made friend home as we were very keen to fish the river.
On arrival, a family argument ensued and in the end the dad relented and gruffly said no fires, no dogs and no firearms! That suited us and we camped down by the river as instructed. Next day, Bob took a couple of trout up to the homestead. Well, that started a friendship that lasted for years. Scones, chops and all manner of treats were sent down to the river and of course fires were allowed, and I guess anything else would’ve been. I remember one night the whole family sat around the campfire after a barbeque and songs were sung, Banjo was recited with a touch of CJ Dennis and Henry Lawson added in, and ever so soon, the warm pearly blackness of the Australian night, gave way to a picaninny dawn.
I look back on those early days and similar friendships made on the Kybeyan, the Kydra, Bobundra, Rock Flat Creek and other streams. We were lucky and Bob Roles had a special charm with those much older.
He was an indefatigable angler. I’ve never known a more beautiful caster. Seriously, his casting was poetry in motion. I’ve always claimed to be able to basically get a fly out there in front of a fish, but Bob was at another level, as was his concentration. I remember a difficult trout on the Goulburn. Bob had no intention of letting the trout beat him, and five hours later, it was caught. When I asked why he didn’t keep it, he retorted, “How could I? That fish knew me!”
I remember learning a lesson from him and that was patience. Under a willow on the Goulburn one hot summer day, Bob was persisting for an hour or so on a fish on its beat. The trout would pass by every ten minutes and Bob would wait patiently, studying the fish and its approach to the backwater. Eventually, a sunken small black beetle would be in the exact position drifting perfectly, and was taken. It didn’t matter to Bob whether the fish was landed or not, the important thing was the fish had been tripped up and had taken the fly.
One of our early visits to Lake Eucumbene was planned to be a night fishing trip. Bob loved night fishing, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than to fish a very large Alexandra fly on the windy rocky outcrops on the lake. He preferred dark windy nights with no moon. Usually, rainbows were caught but often an odd brownie too. I don’t know why, but the trout struck the fly with an intensity I’d never encountered before or since. Bob was pedantic with his flies. The Alexandra was large, about a size 6 and tied on a Wilson Low water salmon hook handmade by Partridge in England. He claimed it swam well in the water and nothing else would do!
I remember an incident on the Eucumbene River down from Sawyer’s Hut. We were fishing the pools below when we became aware we were being watched by someone. Eventually, I called out to him, and he wandered out from behind a tree and introduced himself as Jack Rhodes, the local Fisheries Inspector.
He noted we had put a fish or two back into the river and asked why. I informed him we had bagged out through the night downstream at the Portal where the river met the lake, and we had enough fish frozen at our Adaminaby base to take back to Melbourne. Jack laughed and said that was why he was watching us, as some misery-guts had dobbed us in and he was out to catch us. Both Bob and I introduced ourselves, produced our licenses and explained we were partners in the fishing tackle trade and added the last thing we would want to do is break the law and be caught. We all laughed, and Jack went on his way. I later discovered he had a brother Phil, who was also a Fisheries Inspector in Wangaratta, Victoria. Both were outstanding men and Jack, on retirement, wrote a book about his experiences. A good read!
Anyway, as it turned out, my business partnership with Bob didn’t last long. There were parts of his personality that were way too direct for me. He had no idea of time or urgency to complete matters. In the early stages of the Roles and Allen partnership, things were hard. There was little acceptance of our shop from the wholesale trade, a shortage of cash, and other issues of importance to business. But they were not important to Bob. He preferred to write to Dick Wigram in Tasmania or to Mrs. Frank Sawyer in England, the widow of the famous nymph fisher, so we could sell their famous trout flies! He also left to go to Western Australia to earn more money.
To illustrate Bob’s approach to life, a year or two after our partnership dissolved, there was a visit to our new store in McKillop St, Melbourne, by two serious-looking suits enquiring about the whereabouts of Robert William Roles. I refused to divulge, and they introduced themselves as federal police officers and insisted. I asked why on earth they would be chasing Bob? They replied that he had not filed a tax return in eight years and there was a matter of some seventy parking tickets not paid.
Bob thought such things never needed to be addressed. He was a different cat. He had since returned from the west and lived a hermit’s life both in the Snowy Mountains and at a camp near Maryborough in Victoria. Doing an odd job here and there, he could live off the scent of an oily rag! He was the best trapper I ever met. With a length of piano wire, he would snare a rabbit for dinner anytime he liked. Providing an early morning orange was available to be squeezed, a bottle of claret was on hand with some Senior Service cigarettes, all would be well. He always had a neighbour friend whose vegie garden was robbed with permission! He did like to eat well, although he was, all his life, as skinny as a rake. (Very unlike his mate!)
I informed the Feds that last I heard, he was staying at Haines Hut on the upper Murrumbidgee. They said they’d send the local police from Cooma out to pick him up. I told them there would be zero chance to recover any money, but they would meet a very friendly guy who would offer them a treat of smoked trout from the chimney, a cup of coffee and not much else. I also told them they would need to mount an expedition with over-snow transport to get there, as it was the middle of winter and four-wheel drive access would be impossible. I also added that they then might have to house him and look after him, as there would be no way he could return to the hut until the spring thaw. Needless to say, when I quizzed Bob some months later, nothing had ever happened!
Later in life he married a wonderful and patient woman called Murene and they had a daughter who Bob adored. They lived in Bendigo. When told by a doctor he wouldn’t last to see his daughter’s 21st birthday if he didn’t give up smoking, he never smoked another cigarette!
He had an enquiring mind that could never be satisfied if the answers requested didn’t give him satisfaction. I fished with him in the early days all over Victoria and New South Wales. Memories rush back of hot northerlies and bashing riverside banks to make the hoppers jump into the water; of flooded backwaters and watching the tell-tale bubble trails as trout searched for worms. Bob’s observation skills were unparalleled.
Then later, I remember camps on Penstock in Tasmania with his girlfriend, again singing and playing a guitar all night. However, gradually we lost touch with each other. Bob had married and his life – and mine – had changed. The last time I saw him was at a VFFA barbeque at Peter Hayes’ Cressy establishment in Tasmania a couple of years back. Arthur Ford was present (from that first hitchhiking meeting), and I hadn’t seen him for nigh on 50 years. We talked of old times together and I’m forever grateful of that evening. I didn’t see Bob again. Another old friend, Greg Kelly, called me to say he was ill. I regret to say I didn’t make contact and then heard he had passed away. When I received the sad news, I felt quite empty. We had great times together.
Thinking back, and as I remarked at the start of these notes, to me, there possibly hasn’t been a more knowledgeable angler in Australia who lived in our time than Bob Roles.