Snowy Mountains Lessons

Every trip has its teachings; some more than others, writes Philip.

After many decades of flyfishing, to say I never stop learning may sound like a platitude. But it’s hand-on-heart true. Admittedly, some learning is reinforcement, or a reminder of a technique or concept half-forgotten. The value is the same though, in that I catch fish where I otherwise wouldn’t have.

After 18 months and two Covid-cancelled attempts, a couple of weeks ago, I finally caught up with mate Steve and the Snowy Mountains. It was the longest I’d been away from this trout paradise since I was a kid, and merely turning up would be a victory. As I drove up the Hume beneath heavy clouds and sheets of rain, I was okay with whatever nature would throw, including flooded streams (not ideal) and fast-rising lakes (could be good).

In the event, the Snowy fishing gods must have taken pity on me after such a long absence, and the weather began to improve virtually as I arrived. Day one was still cold and cloudy, but the wind and rain abated. For the rest of the week, the sun came out and the gales stayed away.

Frequent bouts of bad weather notwithstanding, Lake Eucumbene and surrounds have received glowing reviews for months, and it wasn’t easy to keep my expectations in check. The combination of very good trout stocks and lake water flooding new ground at a steady but not ridiculous rate, seemed to justify the hype.

Still, I’ve fished often enough under supposedly ideal circumstances to know we might face challenges, and so it turned out. I don’t think there was a single water where we just rolled up and immediately started catching trout. Instead, we had to think things through, change tactics and even get our heads around apparently illogical trout behaviour, to get a result.

Lesson One – Persistence

I read somewhere recently that simply continuing to fish can be one way of turning a bad day around. It’s a plain enough observation, but the writer was reflecting on the ‘what ifs’: if he had fished through the fifth hour, instead of stopping after the fourth, what may have happened? In the Snowy Mountains, it’s very easy to give up on a water prematurely, because there are always other options (and quite beguiling ones), nearby.

Sometimes it does make perfect sense to ditch a dud early, and a major attraction of the Snowys as a destination is the extent of options to fall back on. However, the risk is that you can fail to give a water a fair go, and end up spending most of the day walking, driving, or motoring across a lake, instead of fishing.

Beautiful but barren Guthega.

There were a few occasions on this latest Snowys trip where giving up and moving on seemed like the sensible choice. Instead, we stayed and persisted… and got a great result. The standout was a session at Guthega Pondage which I reported on recently. For all its beauty and promise, on this trip, the lake was unbelievably lifeless. A few hours in, Steve and I reached the fork in the track so to speak: continue up the hill and back to the car, or detour to the eastern shore? By the barest of margins, we chose the latter, and half an hour later, I had my best-ever Guthega brown in the net.

Lesson Two – Lakes and little flies

Many years ago, I was fascinated by the old timers brother Mark and I encountered fishing Victorian lakes like Cairn Curran, Hepburn and Tullaroop. Even if the water was rough or discoloured, anglers like Ed, Mick and John would search with what we thought of as tiny flies – often a single, small, basic nymph – with a painstakingly-slow retrieve. They caught big trout and caught them often, however back then, we simply couldn’t muster the confidence to replicate their technique. While the evidence showed their slow little flies worked, faced with acres of water and visibility often down to a metre or less, we mostly resorted to pulling large Woolly Buggers, Yetis and the like.

It was actually at Eucumbene in the 1990s, on a trip with friends Ian and Tony, that I finally gained the confidence to fish a little nymph slowly on a big lake. At O’Neills Bay, the occasional rise wasn’t translating into hook-ups, so I tried a small red/brown nymph with a black wing-case – a fly which had worked for me on some slower streams. The change brought immediate success, and I was soon sharing my few samples of what I now think of as the Murrumbidgee Brown Nymph (named after the Mike Spry dubbing) with friends.

Fast-forward to Providence with Steve more than 20 years later. With Lake Eucumbene flooding the flats and trout rising regularly on a calm and partly cloudy morning to a mix of duns and a range of flushed food, things looked very promising indeed. Sure, the rises were erratic ‘oncers’ but there were a lot of them in total, and I was confident the good old Claret Carrot would get eaten. Which it was within a few casts, and again several casts later. I missed both fish, jumping the first before it threw the fly, and barely pricking the second.

However, this early action turned out to be a false promise. For the next couple of hours, Steve and I chased risers by boat or on foot, but they always seemed to be where our dry flies were not.

We agreed it was time for a change and a reset. By now, the rises were occasional rather than regular: proof there were trout about, but too infrequent to meaningfully target with a dry. While Steve headed down to a favourite corner with a Magoo variant, I looked for inspiration in my fly boxes… and spotted a couple of Murrumbidgee Brown Nymphs. I hadn’t use one for ages, but memories of past successes and in particular, that O’Neills Bay episode, had me thinking, why not?

Little flies can trump big flies – even on a huge lake.

Attempting to channel those wise old anglers from way back, I tied on a size 14 version. Trying not to succumb to the feeling that I should be using something bigger and flashier to gain the attention of the trout swimming around somewhere out there on the vast aquatic prairie, I cast the nymph out, let it settle, and began a slow figure-8 retrieve with pauses.

If it wasn’t my first cast, it was certainly my second when the restarted retrieve met resistance. There was a disbelieving moment when I assumed I’d just hooked some of the half-metre high flooded grass, but then the trout and I woke up simultaneously. The 2 pound brown leapt and fought with the crazy power apparently common to just about all Eucumbene trout, but unlike earlier in the day, it stayed on.

So began one of my best Eucumbene sessions ever. I called out to Steve and he joined me, tying on one of his own similar little nymphs. After several trout to 3 pounds, both browns and rainbows, my nymph began to disintegrate. I then realised that my only other size 14 had a broken hook point. I thought about changing it for a size 12 version, but in contrast to my mindset half an hour earlier, I was now suspicious of larger flies!

Steve converting a slow little nymph into a very fast Eucumbene trout.

Instead, I hunted around for something alike in a small, slim nymph, and found a few very simple size 14 tan nymphs I’d tied up ages ago with a tiny red bead head. With some trepidation that the results with the Murrumbidgee Brown Nymph would not be matched, I nevertheless did my best to fish the replacement with care and confidence.

First cast, bang! A 3 pound rainbow was zooming all over the place while I tried to keep up. With fly faith restored, I fished the rest of the afternoon with all the expectation of a kid at 5am on Christmas morning. It was wonderful. Blind fishing takes on a whole new meaning when you anticipate (and often get) a take a cast. And you know things are going well when fish missed or dropped are greeted with laughter rather than curses. And we lost count of trout landed, although I can safely say it’s a long time since I’ve caught so many decent fish in a lake session.

Rainbows and browns were equally happy to find and eat our little nymphs.

Whatever the total number of hook-ups, the way in which trout were able to find those single, slow-fished flies in all that water was a real wake-up. I need to fish the same way in more places, more often. Intellectually, I understand the remarkable ability of trout to locate food (or flies). But there’s always this mental battle where I try to superimpose my comparatively weak human senses as an indicator of what a trout is capable of, instead of believing the science. Anyway, that small fly lesson at Providence is going to stay with me for a while. I’m already thinking of times and lakes where I want to try it this coming lake season (and regretting where I didn’t try it last season).

Lesson three – Find the food?

One of flyfishing’s appealingly simple rules, is find the food, find the fish. The only problem is, it turns out there’s more to it, and I received much-needed reminders of this on my Snowy Mountains trip. To go back a step, and to follow on from Lesson 2, it seems there are elements of trout behaviour which at times defy what we land-based humans regard as logical.

There were a number of occasions in the Snowys where we did find the food, but not the trout. Huh? On hyper-productive lakes, such as some waters in western Victoria, I can live with surface food being ignored. However, for all their attributes, none of the Snowy lakes are overwhelmed with fertility. In fact, that’s one of the things I really like about them. Usually, the trout have to work for a living, and if there’s significant food on the surface, they find it and eat it.

And yet, on several occasions this trip, we found insects on the surface going begging… at least at first. The most striking example was at Three Mile Dam. An inspection right by the roadside revealed plenty of beetles, caddis and even mayfly drifting in the ripple, but no rises. After voicing my frustration that trout in an alpine lake were ignoring perfectly good tucker, I took a deep breath and began exploring. Eventually, half a kilometre later, I found rises off a blunt point with the breeze converging from either side. An enjoyable hour followed catching small brookies on Zulu Tags and little Shaving Brushes, and missing a couple of better rainbows.

It took over an hour of exploration, but eventually we found the fish at Three Mile.

Over the course of the trip, similar experiences occurred at Lake Eucumbene. The lesson is, if there’s lots of food generally, but it’s most concentrated in certain spots, that may be where the trout are dining. I guess even in tough environments, trout may still choose the easiest meal – read wherever the food is most abundant – if that’s on offer. Sometimes, the only way to find such a ‘hotspot’ is to patiently explore.

Lesson four – Tricky spots for big fish

This one falls into the reminder rather than revelation category. Still, it left me shaking my head a few times. We had a couple of sessions on the Eucumbene River and as regulars would know, large trout can be found here long after the spawning runs are over, particularly if flows remain high – as was the case this December. But, and it’s a big but, mostly you wouldn’t know it. The great majority of trout encountered are what you would expect in most alpine streams: rainbow and browns from half to one pound or so. Now, I will never look down at stream fish of that size, and it was plenty of  fun to flick dries and nymphs up through the pools, runs and riffles, and catch colourful trout (or at least get a take) in most of the obvious spots. You could do this all day and never know what else is lurking beneath the sparkling currents.

Into a good one from beneath an overhanging currant bush.

By this point of the season, the days of ‘easy’ big fish have passed. There are distinct angler tracks worn along many sections of Eucumbene River bank, and the better trout are now lying low, or else feeding where they feel safe. Places where the current delivers food to deep water, or undercuts, or beneath overhanging bushes, are all good options for large trout, but also difficult to fish correctly. Fly drift is key; drag is disastrous. Yet casts from well back are difficult for drag, while getting close enough to fish a short line risks spooking the trout.

This brownie came from a deep undercut on my side of the river which Steve noticed before I did. Thanks Steve!

There’s no easy answer, which is sort of the point. However, identifying the top lies from a safe distance, then spending time plotting an attack, can pay off. On one occasion, Steve noticed an impressive undercut on my side of the river, which I would have walked straight past. With his guidance, I snuck into position on hands and knees, flicked out the Stimulator just beyond the appointed tussock, then found myself looking down the throat of a big brown as my fly came back into view! Speaking of which, remember that when you hook these beauties near cover, that’s exactly where they’ll make a charge for. Be prepared to jump in to improve the angles.

Easy and hard

One thing I liked about this Snowy Mountains trip, was how no day began with easy fishing. Every morning held promise of one kind or another, and yet converting that promise into trout in the net invariably took persistence, some change in technique, location, or all three. Steve and I were regularly reminded of the need to be flexible, even experimental, and of the fact that if the trout are there, they can be caught – eventually!

Believe it or not, even seeing a morning rise like this from the cabin window did not equal instant success. But we got there in the end!