Lake or Stream?

Philip considers the virtues of stillwater versus flowing.

I’ll tell you the story of two recent days on the water, less than a week apart.

The first was lake fishing in the Grampians. Mark and I planned this trip from a few days out, picking the best forecast during a generally iffy week of weather. As the Thursday got closer, the forecast slipped somewhat – as forecasts can do. It was going to be a bit breezier, and a bit cooler. Still, Thursday undoubtedly remained the best day, with cold winds before, and westerly gales after. It’s true I’ll often simply fish when I can, but for lakes, I pick my conditions if at all possible.

As it turned out, the Grampians day was almost a perfect microcosm of lake fishing, warts and all. We spent some of the day in a boat, and at the start, within a hundred metres of the ramp, a nice brown rose in the glassy water. I covered it with a Claret Carrot I already had on, and third cast, it slurped it down

I never take a good start on a lake for granted.

After some testing lunges for the sticks, I had the trout in the net. Brilliant!

I’d barely released the fish however, when a big gust of wind came down the lake. The two other risers Mark was getting ready to cover disappeared.

Chasing mirages

We spent the next two hours chasing what I think of on days like this as mirages. A calm patch or slick would appear in some random area (usually at least 200m away) and trout would start rising in this distant spot. We’d get there as fast as possible on the electric (think slow jog), have just time for one or two casts and… bugger! The wind would rush in again, and the trout would vanish. Waiting… searching for another calm patch… hum over… repeat. While it was exhilarating to regularly see fish (always a particular plus when lake fishing), it was increasingly frustrating how they seemed to be everywhere we were not.

Quick, a calm patch!

For something different, I got out on the shore for a break – which I always like to do after a few hours in a boat, regardless of conditions. Being on a boat with an electric motor and a talented skipper is like a magic carpet ride, but there is something about the unilateral control you have being on foot. Anyway, it was good to be on solid ground, even if I did, of course, immediately spot three nice rises a hundred metres out. Still, I worked the bank carefully with an Olive Magoo – in close, out wide, deeper, shallower, against that dead tree… and then there was a single gulping rise right beside me. Cursing that I’d taken off the Carrot dry, and worried I might have spooked the fish, I nevertheless dropped to my knees and flicked the Magoo into the spreading rings three rod lengths away. I let the fly settle for a few seconds, then gave it a steady strip. Bang! A decent brown slammed it. Mark, who was on his way offshore to the latest rises, generously detoured and snapped some pics.

A bit of luck on the Magoo.

Fleeting chances

Soon after, I re-joined my brother on the boat. It was a very exciting afternoon, including when, with several metres of depth right under us, a brown of at least 6 pounds, lit up like a goldfish and nonchalantly cruising in inches of water, came right up to the boat and almost grudgingly swam off – as if it was a little annoyed we’d got in the way! This happened after half an hour of nothing, and we were having a coffee break, so neither Mark or I were totally focussed at the time. There was a Benny Hill-esque flurry as rods were grabbed, lines caught on seats and cup holders, and flies snagged various parts of the boat and ourselves, before we finally and forlornly cast in the direction of the now-invisible trout.

By way of contrast, the other really big trout I encountered was on foot in the ultra-shallows of a tea-tree and driftwood-cluttered bay. Sneaking into position for a cast into open water, I just about stood on a 2 foot brown, thereby startling both of us. For someone who preaches the need to pay attention when lake fishing, I think that was my second demerit point.

As it often does on lakes, the action increased towards evening. When the sun disappeared behind towering mountain battlements a full half hour before true sunset, the nagging breeze finally dropped out, and trout started to rise more consistently: both to the day’s accumulated windfall, and newly-emerging midge. If there was a complaint, it was the fast-falling temperature. We blamed this for the way a trout would get up and rise half a dozen times, then stop while we waited impatiently for it to reappear so we could take a shot. More than once, that happened right beside the boat.

A lovely lake trout on the bank.

If I was lucky with that first fish, and the ‘one shot’ shore-based brown around midday, it now felt like we were ripped off. Perfect casts, perfect takes… but no hook-up three times in a row? I guess that’s how it can be with lakes, or any type of flyfishing really. We trust things will even out, and they do; eventually.

It wasn’t crestfallen anglers winching the boat onto the trailer with cold fingers as the frogs called in loud chorus to the first stars overhead. Mark and I hadn’t even left, and we were already plotting our return. That’s what lakes can do to you.

… or Stream?

A few days earlier, I’d been fishing with JD on the fastwaters in the eastern Victorian ranges, and the contrast wasn’t lost on me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but unless something goes badly awry, if the destination is a mountain stream, I expect to catch trout. Size, numbers, and how the fish are caught are all exciting variables, however the risk of not catching anything is negligible. I wouldn’t dare say the same about lakes, where success, at least in terms of actually landing a fish, can sometimes feel very precarious.

Admittedly, September is not prime time on the mountain streams. But given conditions weren’t horrible (the water was quite clear and, away from the higher country, an acceptable 10 or 11C) the stress of whether or not we’d catch something wasn’t present. Psychologists tell me there is such a thing as good stress, and no doubt that’s what you might experience during, say, a difficult day on a lake.

Relax, it’s a mountain stream.

As JD and I followed the first creek downstream to our starting point, I couldn’t have been more relaxed. The sound of rushing water, and glimpses of swirling pools and runs through gaps in the scrub, all suggested a very pleasant few hours ahead. And so it played out. Fishing generalist dries with basic bead-head nymphs beneath, we landed a steady mix of browns and rainbows. They were small, many roughly a handspan long; with the odd 12 inch beauty. As always, we quickly adjusted expectations, so the larger models got an approving “Nice fish!”, despite being smaller than almost anything we catch on the lakes.

“Nice fish!”

There were enough misses – as in good-looking water which didn’t produce – to keep us from becoming too complacent. The size of the trout didn’t equal stupidity, and if drifts were unnatural or off target, they were ignored or rejected. As they should have been.

The other challenge was space. After a winter on the lakes, I occasionally forgot that I didn’t have limitless back-cast space, and I spent more time untangling two fly rigs from the tea tree than I hope to later in the season.

Second stream

Bigger, faster.

Stream number two was bigger, faster and more difficult. JD and I had to work more for fewer fish to hand, although they were on average larger. Even here, there wasn’t much doubt we would catch something, it was just that we needed to apply ourselves more than on the first creek. By the time we were back at the car, I think we had landed a very modest total of four, and dropped about as many.

Now that really is a nice fish… for a mountain stream.

Over a now traditional steak dinner that evening, it was a lot of fun to relive the day. We couldn’t help being a little self-congratulatory, although we did concede a few spots where we should have done better – maybe some dedicated deep nymphing would have been more appropriate on the second stream we fished. Yep, our reluctance to ditch the nymph/ dry probably cost us.

But that’s the thing about streams, or at least the classic freestone versions. They can be fished with what may not be the best method for the moment, yet you still catch something.

So… which one?                

As spring arrives, I can almost manage a tinge of envy for a flyfisher who’s wish is as straightforward as stream fishing for trout; or at least, I can admire the simplicity. In my case, the opening of stream trout season occurs at the same time as lake possibilities are increasing exponentially. This can make my head spin, and it’s happening as I write. Like a kid with keys to the lolly shop, I often can’t decide what to grab first.

Even allowing for the fact it’s not the perfect time for streams – the water is very cold and insect activity is subdued – usually within a few casts, I have my first trout, or at least my first take. This is on the back of three months of winter lake fishing, when it is quite possible to go two or three hours without even seeing a trout. Superficially then, the choice would seem to be obvious.

But you know I’m going to say it isn’t. I look back at the Grampians trip just gone, and the preceding stream fishing with JD, and I’m grateful for both. While streams might have the edge for easy fishing, lakes add a depth (sorry!) which flowing water can’t replace.