As winter sets in and Philip moves from streams to lakes, there are some notes to share.
Perhaps the end of stream season for you was gradual and ultimately voluntary; or, for a few Victorians and New South Welsh-people, maybe it was like a door slamming shut some time after sunset on Queens Birthday Monday. Either way, it’s over now – unless you count a smattering of anomalies, such as a handful of streams in Victoria’s south-west.
For most of us though, it’s now a choice between salt, estuary, or lakes. Lakes eh? Poison for some, a passion for others. In any event, I think I’m past trying to convert hardcore stream fishers. As I see it, we ultimately flyfish for fun, so if it really is that painful for you to cast a fly on stillwater, so be it. More water for the rest of us I guess – not that there’s any shortage.
So, as I say goodbye to the streams for season 2021-2022 (and in case there was any doubt, that’s with some reluctance) what’s new – or at least front of my mind – for winter lake season 2022?
The last couple of years have proved the value (if proof was needed) of plentiful water and mild summer temperatures. This applies across lakes and streams.
While trout can survive surprising extremes, to really thrive, they need relatively cool water, and plenty of it. Thankfully, Victoria and New South Wales have been blessed with both since the hot, dry conditions and terrible fires two-and-a-half years ago.
Except for a few waters in far western Victoria like Toolondo, the result otherwise is that the ‘fundamentals’ for most lakes are as solid as they’ve been for years: good stocking numbers (if not always good stocking size), good growing conditions, and good over-summer survival. Whatever else might be a challenge on a given lake fishing day, for 90% of waters, the presence of trout won’t be one of them.
I’m not a fly snob. Christmas Tree or Red Superglue Buzzer, if I think it might catch a trout, I have no qualms about colours or materials. If anything, I drifted more towards bright and flashy in recent years.
And yet, if I look back on my lake fishing beginnings, drab flies were all we used. Following the advice of the understated masters who stalked the shores of Fyans, Tullaroop, Greenhill, Cairn Curran, Hepburn and Eucumbene, we fished flies with no beads and no flash. Not because we consciously avoided such trimmings, but because they weren’t even on our radar. A lake fly was a Hamills or Mrs Simpson, or a Tom Jones, or a nymph in a natural shade like brown, olive or green, or a Matuka variation, or a natural rabbit fur Zonker of some sort. Even a Woolly Bugger was radical and seemed ‘a bit much’, as old Ed once suggested to me when I proudly showed him my new fly straight from The Compleat Angler.
So far this winter, I’ve been rethinking my use of flashy flies. In fact, the unease dates back to the end of winter last year at Tullaroop. After a mediocre morning, I was daydreaming and contemplating a move, when a huge hook-jawed brown – the best I’ve seen in years – loomed up behind my Magoo. It was the classic ‘follow’, the sort that used to haunt my childhood spin-fishing days: curious, but clearly with no intention of eating. As the monster nonchalantly turned and sauntered away, I frantically changed the silver-flecked and brightly-beaded Magoo for an inoffensive Tom Jones. But the moment had gone, and I never saw the trout again. I planned a return bout for a day off a week later, however a Covid lockdown intervened. (Remember those?)
This season at lakes like Hepburn, Tullaroop and Wartook, I find myself going back to drab more and more. A memorable afternoon at Tullaroop had me starting with a nice, bright bead-head Magoo complete with crystal flash, but then rethinking after two follows for no takes. A change to a Fulling Mill Living Damsel (a drab olive fly with no bright bead or flash) quickly caught a nice rainbow, followed not long after by a chunky brown.
Coincidence? In flyfishing, it’s rare to know for sure if it was the fly change which made the difference. However, I recalled that, a week earlier, Peter broke off the trout of the day on an old-fashioned and flash-less Hamills Killer.
Perhaps a more recent trip to Lake Wartook mounts a more convincing case for drab. On this day, I tried some brighter flies for the odd bump and follow, yet in the end, it was an Olive Emu Bugger which caught all six trout I landed. True, this fly has often been a Wartook favourite. Yet in recent seasons, it had slipped from favour somewhat, so I can discard fly confidence bias as a major factor in that day’s success. (Hence starting out with ‘louder’ patterns, including an orange-beaded Magoo.)
I should stress that, over the years, I’ve certainly fooled plenty of decent western Victorian lake trout on Shreks, Christmas Trees, and the aforementioned Magoos in various bright and flashy combinations. But a quick review of the largest trout I’ve caught on these lakes over the years (7lb plus) reveals that all took drab flies: brown nymph, Tom Jones, Wet’s Zonker, and Olive Emu Bugger.
I know – fly fads come and go, both broadly and with us as individual anglers. Flash undoubtably has its place, including to attract fishy attention from distance, and to help flies stand out from the (natural) crowd. I’m not about to empty out all the glitzy wets from my boxes, but I do have a feeling that their plainer cousins will be seeing more action this winter and spring.
Paul Kelly sang, “From little things, big fish are caught…” or something like that. While indicator colour might seem to be at the extremely small end of the lake fishing’s little things, I’m more convinced than ever it matters quite a lot.
I’ve written before that an indicator needs to do three things effectively: ‘carry’ the fly or flies beneath it without sinking, be visible to the angler, and not alarm or alert the trout. On the last point, I’ve been troubled a few times lately by trout appearing to either spook at the sight of indicators in hot colours, or actually inspect (even bump) them. The latter might sound like a positive, but not once has this resulted in a hook-up. Given that indicator fishing is an important part of both my own lake fishing and my guiding, I’ve been looking for an indicator which is easy to see, but which is also ignored by the trout.
The simplest solution is, surprisingly, a black indicator. Black silhouettes very well against almost any lake surface, and on the rare occasions it doesn’t (such as against a very dark reflection) adding a splash of white solves the problem, while gaining no extra trout attention. I use wool or yarn for most of my lake fishing indicators, so the mix is easy. For other types of indicators, applying permanent marker should do the job.
By the way, you may wonder why I don’t make more reference to using a dry fly as an indicator. Sometimes I do use them, but that’s more of a spring, summer, or autumn thing. During the cooler months, when dry fly eats are less likely, the liability of a potentially snagging hook in the ‘indicator’, usually outweighs the benefit.
Minnows = Smelters
I get a bit nervous forecasting specific events, as nature has a habit of throwing predictions back at you. Still, it’s hard to ignore the large numbers of galaxias and smelt nervously crowding the shorelines of many lakes this winter. Like trout, I suspect the minnows have thrived during the relatively benign conditions over the last couple of years.
So far, I’ve seen what I’d call normal levels of smelter activity in response. However, I suspect the action will only ramp up this winter as other food sources diminish in the cold, making baitfish a more significant target.
Embrace the chill
We’ve just been through 10 days in Victoria’s Central Highlands without a maximum over 8C degrees. Those are the sort of numbers that arguably encourage flytying over flyfishing.
But as I have to convince myself every year when the real cold arrives, it actually isn’t that bad. We live in an age blessed with high tech clothing and equipment, and once you’re properly dressed, cold can become all but irrelevant. Trout are, after all, a cold water species – as opposed to say, barra or bonefish. If you want to target them, chilly weather is not the enemy.