Jim considers the legacy of anglers who are no longer with us.
When one gets to the eighth decade of life, one comes to the realisation that we are not going to last forever. This correspondent leans towards being an atheist and is not banking on an afterlife or heading through pearly gates to some wonderful trout stream in the sky! However the thought of being dead for the next few billion years comes as a shock, as more mates put their fly rod back in the tube for the last time and one attends their remembrance services or funerals. The light or should I say dark at the end of the tunnel is getting very much blacker! I’m not sure mankind can get its head around the term eternity or infinity. We seem to only understand a start and finish to everything.
I think we all leave some sort of a mark on planet Earth during our short stay. For some, it’s a large impact, for others its very small. The tragedy is that when we die, a lot of what is learnt or experienced is also lost. It’s not passed on. Some anglers are very generous in their secret discoveries; others are stingy, mingy or just plain selfish and keep their experiences to themselves.
I remember David Scholes writing an additional chapter for Trout Quest on this very subject when I asked permission to do a reprint of his earlier work, which had long been out of print. He actually added three very special chapters on night fishing, poaching and reflecting back on a life of flyfishing and becoming elderly.
Fortunately, I was privileged to know David quite well. He allowed my organisation at the time to reprint all three of his original books plus a compilation of his art and best writings, which won an award from the Australian book publishing industry. I was lucky to have spent many hours on the dappled and sunny veranda of “Hilltop” in Launceston discussing the pros and cons of modern day ‘trouting’ with him. David had deep insights on a whole range of subjects, and sadly many never made it to print. However, we anglers today are grateful for the ten books he did write.
Another angler who passed on many years ago was Mick Martin. Mick was the head of a publicly-listed company called Sulphates Ltd. His knowledge of water quality and chemicals was amazing. The Ballarat Fish Acclimatisation Society was the beneficiary of much of his knowledge, enabling the trout hatchery to avoid the disasters and diseases that are prevalent in the intensive production or farming of any aquatic or animal life.
Mick was also passionate about the genetic quality of wild trout and castigated the government hatchery at Snobs Creek, near Eildon, for their brood fish program. He often made the comment that Snobs Creek might raise bigger, fatter and better-sized trout, but they would become more domesticated with each generation, and only good for put-and-take commercial recreational fisheries that were becoming commonplace at the time in Europe and America. Mick convinced those at Ballarat to continue to harvest eggs and milt from wild trout, then raise them and release them back into the wild as soon as possible to preserve and protect their existing natural feeding and living habits.
Today the Victorian Fly Fishers Association has named their library in his honour and a small group of anglers who support and promote the genetic integrity of wild trout have named their syndicate after Mick.
Mick was a great character. He was thrown out of a flyfisher’s dinner after a little too much whisky and being loud, boisterous and questioning of the integrity of the night’s speaker. In his later years, I became his driver on his many trips to Ballarat to fish and visit the hatchery. The boot was always full of some maker’s black bottle brandy to salute our speckled friends, he would say. He always claimed that another long gone angler, Roy Kirk, invented the brown nymph which was the mainstay of every flyfisher’s box in the 1960s. He used to claim it was the world’s first “hackle-less nymph”.
Mick usually demanded that I take him to the annual Wastell Shield hosted by the Ballarat Fly Fishers Club each spring. I learnt from him it wasn’t so much about the catching of trout, but more about meeting with other anglers and discussing the management of the trout fisheries of the day – and of course the necessary lubricant to help the talks along! In those days, the ‘Wastell’ as it was simply known back then, was usually held after a dinner in Ballarat the night before.
This year, the flyfishing world lost a very special, larger-than-life individual, John Philbrick. I’ve written before that I regard John as the father of modern-day flyfishing with polarised glasses. It wasn’t that he discovered seeing through or into water with them, but all that had been written previously was about looking down from elevation or seeing into calm water. John discovered that trout could be seen in rough water; the ‘window in the waves’ as he put it. In my view, he thereby revolutionised fishing in the many shallow lagoons of the Western Lakes in the highlands of Tasmania.
I fished with Philbrick, as we called him, many times. In the Snowy Mountains at Kiandra, on the Monaro, in the highlands of Tasmania; and of course on rushed evenings in spring to waters between Ballan and Ballarat. A late afternoon mid-week trip to Moorabool or Bostock reservoir near Ballan to fish into the twilight was always a welcome break from busy life in the big smoke. John was always the thinker and his narrow-bodied nymph, tied from brown, claret and olive seal’s fur, is still a must-have in any angler’s fly box today. I learnt the art from him of fishing it inert in stillwaters, just watching with extreme intent, the leader greased and floating in the late afternoon reflection on the surface. Or polaroiding an unsuspecting trout and setting the fly as a trap; watching intently when the sun was high in the sky. The slight acceleration of the trout as it took, then striking as the fish slowed down again. Many times with success, but not always!
Whilst I never saw Philbrick in action as a barrister, I remember him quoting an old English jurist and stating that to cross examine does not mean to examine crossly. Described by some as a ‘Rumpole’, he had a gruff, comical and eccentric demeanour. But he was the most intent and genuine angler, the like of which I doubt I will ever cross paths with again.
Space will not allow me to write much more, but no commentary about anglers who have passed on can be written without considering the input of John Turnbull and his hair winged coachman, replacing the double split-wing flies tied in England. Or Douglas Stewart, who arguably wrote the best prose so far in Australia on fishing the waters around Cooma in New South Wales; or John Sautelle and his bottle of whisky, who enjoyed fishing the southern tablelands of New South Wales.
Last but certainly not least, the input to flyfishing of Sir Laurence Wackett. I met Wackett in Sydney during his last days. I wanted to ask him about the flies he had invented with bodies made from plastic. I had read his book Studies of an Angler. I think for readers interested, in Arnold Gingrich’s book Fishing in Print, there is a wonderful review of the book and Gingrich describes Wackett as a ‘worrier’ on matters angling. Gingrich then commented on the need to go fishing at every opportunity, rather than to worry about the weather; but then added that the world of flyfishing needed the worriers as they make important discoveries.
If the editor allows, I might write more on Wackett someday. He was a great Australian and like Scholes, an author, aviator and angler.