Silver Lining

Silvio asks if lockdowns gave us a glimpse into the way it was… or was it really?   

A common dream amongst anglers is to discover a great, unpressured, or even better, a secret fishery. Whilst still possible, after a lifetime of exploring, I can count locations like this on the fingers of one hand. In a shrinking world, with ever-improving exploration equipment and online tools, the odds of finding an exceptional, untouched fishery are getting incredibly low.

My hope of another nirvana had almost faded, when out of the blue, COVID-19, with all its associated limitations, hit. One of the few silver linings was many previously pressured fisheries went back to an almost untouched state. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had indeed emerged.

The two fisheries I visited after the world changed, were New Zealand’s South Island, and Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. While they are different fisheries (salt versus fresh, bonefish versus trout), both had, prior to COVID-19, become immensely popular – too popular for this angler. I had crossed them off my ‘to-fish list’ and instead escaped to far-flung locations, looking for the last best places. However, after the arrival of COVID-19, the escape route to the end of the world had closed, making the South Island and Aitutaki the necessary plan B.

Deserted Aitutaki bonefish flats.

While most anglers will only ever be able to dream about what would happen if all others disappeared, suddenly it had become a reality. I imagined easy fishing and huge fish aplenty, just like the old days. The question begged, was sensational fishing back then the norm, or was it just nostalgia and a product of our imagination?

South Island, NZ

For lots of anglers, the south of New Zealand contains some of the world’s most exciting trout fishing waters, and that assessment is justified. But recently, due to ever increasing fishing pressure, the quality had been on a downhill spiral, especially in the backcountry. The continuous fear of encountering other anglers, or seeing evidence of them, took lots of the shine away. While fish numbers stood up well, trout behaviour changes were obvious and unless all the stars aligned, great fishing was becoming part of the folklore.

All alone!

However, during the recent ‘special’ seasons, trout numbers were about as usual, but their behaviour confirmed the benefits of reduced pressure. Fish could once again feed freely, undisturbed for days, and their condition certainly confirmed that. A great many popular rivers, which in previous years had two distinct angler paths on either side, had not a trampled blade of grass. The fishing was fabulous and indeed easier, as the angler to trout balance got back to reasonable levels.

Like the old days?

My great memories of the old days were rekindled, and I was truly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I am glad to confirm that the notion of past superb fishing – at least in this case – is not all due to nostalgia.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

One year plus without any flyfishing pressure was certainly going to make the big bonefish of Aitutaki much easier to catch. In front of my unit was the beautiful Home Flat. While Aitutaki has other easily-accessible flats, this was the flat I fished when only limited time was available. It carried about ten resident fish and the odd visitor. The maximum number of fish spotted in one session was around fifteen, but often they were big tailing fish, adding lots to the excitement and challenge.

No one around – this should be easy!

When I first waded out onto the Home Flat, the fulfilment of the ‘never-ending bent rods and sore arms dream’ seemed a foregone conclusion. As the first tailing bones became visible and I was able to get extremely close to them, I thought that nothing would be able to stop me. On day one, fly after fly was presented, in decent enough fashion, but no takes.

After that first session, in the typical flyfisher’s manner, I searched to find an excuse for my lack of success. The conclusion at the time was the wrong fly choice. Therefore, on day two, crabs, worms and other patterns were deployed, unfortunately with a remarkably similar end result. The days went by, the odd Home Flat fish was either missed or hooked, but it was far from ecstasy.

Success… eventually.

Then, as expected, the fish became less and less approachable, almost disappearing off the flats, whenever I glanced at them from my unit. Convinced that a combination of being seen, heard, scented and the sediment from walking about alarming the bones, I needed a smarter approach to combat the growing frustration.

I was glad that in the early days of the travel bubble, hardly any tourists stayed on Aitutaki, as a kneeling, almost frozen-looking creature on the flat, dressed in sun-protecting clothing, holding a stick, would have made me the obvious weird tourist attraction. Lowering my profile, limiting movements on the flat, minimising casting and thus rod flash, smaller, lighter flies and presenting them metres ahead of the travelling bones all helped, but the clean-up / sore arms scenario never eventuated. I caught and lost a respectable number of superb Aitutaki bones during my prolonged stay, many of them considered trophy fish anywhere on the planet, but angler absence did not make them notably easier to catch (the bastards)!


The experience of untouched fishing on the South Island and on Aitutaki was vastly different and a great lesson. The lack of angler pressure is an advantage, at least mentally, but it does not guarantee brilliant fishing in all locations or for all species. For an angler to be successful in most situations, adaptation and outside-the-box thinking are often the key to nirvana.

May great fishing be with you, and should you visit Aitutaki, do yourself a favour, hire a guide. They will take you to places with big schools of bones, avoiding torture by the Home Flat Silver Ghosts.

Postscript – A life-changing silver lining

A few months into the pandemic, a good friend stated that one day, we will be looking back on these bleak times gratefully. As a person struggling with limited freedoms and the imposed regulations, it took me a while to find another silver lining.

However, the above fishing experiences – mainly the undercrowding – indeed sparked what I believe was a lifechanging moment. I decided to get a boat purpose built, which could be shipped to far-flung, uncrowded locations around the planet. The boat is only 23ft long, but is well equipped for multi-month, self-contained excursions into remote areas. ‘Kia Ora’ is currently being shipped to Florida, with the idea of fishing French Polynesia and Australia on the way back – which may take some time! A life-changing silver lining? You bet.

Editor’s perspective – Lockdown trout fishing on the other side of the ditch

Silvio’s story above immediately captured my imagination and prompted an assessment of my own lockdown fishing experiences as a regional Victorian.

First, to the lakes close to home. Being comfortable daytrip distance from Melbourne, these waters certainly get substantial angling pressure at times. So, although the more extreme lockdowns were financially and socially punishing, there was indeed a silver lining; most notable in having Moorabool Reservoir (one of the better local lakes) within my 10 kilometre travel bubble.

The Moorabool Reservoir experience

For several weeks in total, Moorabool became virtually my private lake. Not even Ballarat residents could fish it. I couldn’t help but rub my hands together at the thought of big, unfished-for trout cruising around, just waiting for my fly!

Lockdown Moorabool: water everywhere, and not an angler in sight.

The reality was brought home on a perfect Moorabool day I had all to myself. Ducking out at lunchtime for my allotted two hours exercise, I arrived to find intermittent cloud, light winds and a full, clear lake. Heading for a favourite bay, I had to bypass a narrow inlet and as I walked by in the forest, the water right at the top of the inlet exploded. What could only have been a huge trout had evidently attacked a school of minnows huddled in the knee-deep shallows.

Almost cackling in delight at the opportunity, I snuck down to the edge of the forest and waited in ambush, Wets Zonker at the ready. Surprisingly, a patient scan of the little corner revealed no sign of a trout, so after a few minutes, I began to make some careful searching casts. On the third retrieve, a brown of close to 10 pounds suddenly appeared behind the fly and charged towards it… then hit the brakes and peeled off. Although only my fingers were moving, it was plain that the fish had clocked my upright shape and possibly my brighter-than-ideal work shirt. Cursing the missed chance, I reeled in and headed to the bay I had in mind.

After half an hour with no joy and with time running out, I headed back to the inlet, carefully searching my way along it. And then, through a gap in the tussocks, the monster appeared again behind the fly – only this time the follow was half-hearted, almost contemptuous.

Decent Moorabool trout were as challenging to catch during lockdowns as afterwards.

This experience, or similar, was repeated at Moorabool several times over the lockdown weeks. I had the lake to myself (or myself and my brother who lives nearby) and it was convenient to know that all shores would be vacant. However, any notion of ‘easy’ fish was soon squashed. Yes, I caught some, but refusals, spooking incidents, and occasions when the lake seemed simply dead, were no more or less common than when the lake was open to everyone. My takeaway was that once a trout has survived anglers or other predators for more than a few months (let alone years) its survival instincts are going to remain first-class – with or without fishing pressure.

The mid Goulburn experience

The other really interesting point of comparison was the mid Goulburn catchment: the Goulburn tailwater itself plus several very popular feeder streams like the Steavenson, Rubicon and Acheron.

Unlike Moorabool, I only got to experience these rivers when Melbourne was locked out, but regional Victorians could move around again. While I can’t quote precise numbers with any integrity, it was apparent on my trips in spring that a lack of Melbourne anglers had greatly reduced fishing pressure. But how to measure the ‘on-ground’ effect? On the natural streams, flows were much higher than normal due to a very wet winter and spring; higher than I like. While the fishing was okay, it was about what I would have expected. With the stream conditions being what they were, I didn’t feel any obvious benefit from lack of competition. In fact, during sessions on the Little River and King Parrot Creek, I actually felt the action was below par.

The Goulburn however was a different story. The same rain which kept the natural streams uncomfortably high, also reduced downstream irrigation demand, Therefore, the river mostly remained at delightfully comfortable flows – compared to the swirling green mass which can often appear just as the weather warms up and the bugs become active.

The fishing was superb: long-lasting hatches, good-sized trout, and of course plenty of space – there were a lot of regionals about, but not enough to compare with the anglers which normally appear on the Goulburn’s banks from a city of 5 million people.    

When I travelled back to fish the area in mid-January, I braced for the crowds and pressured trout. Not only was Melbourne several weeks out of lockdown (read several weeks of pressure from fishing-starved Melbournians), it was also peak school holiday time. I lowered my expectations… then caught plenty of good fish in the Acheron and Steavenson, plus a few in a high and discoloured Rubicon.

We caught plenty of decent trout in the Steavo and other natural streams, even after fishing pressure was back.

But the standout was the Goulburn. Admittedly, JD and I didn’t get to the water until shortly before sunset, but the clear 1700 ML/d flow (almost unheard of for midsummer) was already coming alive with literally dozens and dozens of rising trout. Of course, it was a challenge to work out what the risers were rising for (some things never change!) and I’m pretty sure they changed from small pale duns to spent red spinners as the evening wore on. Still, we caught several nice fish and had a ball.

Post lockdown evening action on the Goulburn.

It so happened that on our particular stretch that evening, there were no other anglers in sight – go figure! But it was academic, because with trout rising literally as far as the eye could see, JD and I were only able to physically cover a poofteenth of them.

Finally, as a locked-out Victorian, I could only make it to the Snowy Mountains in December, long after my mates north of the border had been pounding the fish for months. But again, despite the relative crowds on the lakes and well-worn streamside paths, the fishing up there was as good as I’ve experienced.  


Overall, my assessment of local trout fishing during the last couple of years of weirdness, is that favourable conditions for fish and fishing (including things like strong hatches), have trumped fishing pressure – or lack of. Through sheer chance, climatic and environmental good fortune has blessed much of Victoria and the Snowys with a remarkable run of abundant water and cool temperatures during all the lockdowns – and probably not coincidentally, plenty of bugs. It seems that if we’re looking for a fishing lesson from the pandemic, it’s something that Trout Unlimited publicised long ago: when it comes to creating good fishing, good habitat (in the broadest sense) is very hard to beat.

Which doesn’t mean fishing effort/ pressure isn’t a thing. Nobody likes fishing second-hand water: finding their favourite wind-lane, shore or run already occupied. The extent to which the actual fish-catching is affected, is sort of a moot point. If you don’t enjoy fishing close to other anglers, or casting to fish which you think may have seen too many flies, fair enough! For example, I mostly avoid the Eucumbene River at spawning time, while fully aware that it provides one of Australia’s best chances to catch a big wild trout on fly. I just can’t deal very well with the physical proximity of so many other anglers… but that’s only me and a very subjective viewpoint.     

Silvio’s backcountry NZ example is compelling though. Could it be that this globally-unique fishery is the exception to the rule? Do relatively low numbers of very large trout in very clear water, create a situation more susceptible to angling pressure? My own pre pandemic experiences fishing NZ backcountry leave me in two minds… Is it simply a great fishery, period, or over-loved? I suppose that’s a whole subject for another day.