Philip charts the path to a big fish from a western Victorian lake.
While I truly enjoy catching trout of any size, I’ll admit that big ones are still the highpoint of most of my fishing seasons. As I’ve written before, big trout are a relative concept – on a small rainforest stream, it might be a two pounder. On my local lakes in western Victoria though, big can mean really big: 6 pounds and up.
In my new guidebook, Flyfishing Western Victoria, I write, “If you want fast fishing, western Victorian lakes are usually not the place to go looking. On the other hand, the trout you encounter are likely to be bigger – much bigger… This is at least some reward for the extra time and effort you need to put into catching each fish.”
The book offers the best advice I can give about where to catch these trout and how. Even so, I thought it might be helpful to walk through the capture of a big western Victorian trout from a few weeks ago; to offer, if you like, a case study.
It’s a blessing, and not entirely coincidence, that my closest trout lake is Moorabool Reservoir. It’s an absolutely beautiful lake, and these days, it holds water and trout (including big ones) all the time. But like most western Victorian lakes, Moorabool has its idiosyncrasies – to put it politely! Just because it always has a reasonable trout population, doesn’t mean it always seems like it has a reasonable trout population. So, although Moorabool is just 10 minutes up the road, I often drive past it to Hepburn and Newlyn, or perhaps Wendouree. If time allows, maybe Cosgrave, Tullaroop, Talbot, etc, etc. Is there such a thing as too much choice? And could it be that convenience breeds… if not contempt, then the nagging thought the fishing might be better elsewhere; and maybe I shouldn’t choose destinations just because they’re so close. (You can see how this kind of thinking can get out of hand!)
Anyway, the overall point is, I don’t fish Moorabool as much as you would think; perhaps once a month if I averaged the last few decades of visits. And more importantly, because the lake is so near, I rarely invest a whole day there, mostly saving it for those occasions when I have just a couple of hours spare. To put it another way, when the lake is ‘on’ for, say, midge feeders, mayfly or smelters, it’s quite likely I’ll fish Moorabool less than several of my mates from Melbourne or Geelong. In that sense, I don’t see it as a lake that ‘owes’ me in the same way as other waters where I’ve invested many big days. It’s ironic, but there you go.
On the day in question, it was simply the first late winter sunshine in a week, plus a free early afternoon, which caused me to impulsively tell Jane, “I’m just going to pop up to Moorabool for a couple of hours.”
Many anglers assume social media is a modern day gift for instant fishing reports, but often, it’s quite the opposite. While a few well-moderated and fact-checked sites, forums and pages provide solid information, for many, it seems successful anglers don’t want to share, unsuccessful anglers want to complain, and the weird ones just make things up. (And unlike pre internet, they can all talk to the whole world regardless.)
So, even for my ‘pop out’ trip, I didn’t once visit Facebook or Instagram for the latest goss. Instead, I looked at the fundamentals.
While you can never know precisely how many trout live in a given lake, you can get a fair idea. I’m confident Moorabool contains a worthwhile head of browns and rainbows thanks to several years of decent stocking (good numbers if not always good size) and over-summer survival. (As water quality is never an issue at Moorabool, this is simply a function of the lake not getting dangerously low).
The same water level information showed that, although Moorabool’s level had dropped considerably during much of 2020 (not ideal), on the day in question it was still a healthy 52% (good) and following a week of gentle rain, it had gradually risen about 1% (great!). While it’s not a perfect predictor of happy trout, I’ll always take rising water if I can get it – so long as it’s not belting up. Oh, and I knew the lake would almost certainly be clear enough to fish: as a top-of-catchment storage, Moorabool only dirties up in deluges.
On the day
The wind was light, favouring spotting (good). It was bright (not so good for this generally shallow, clear lake), but I knew where I could find some shady shores. (Good, given that I could only fish early afternoon; not into evening.)
I also knew August is one of several decent months at Moorabool, and midging and smelting trout would be a chance. And okay, I admit that a couple of weeks earlier, another short trip had revealed plenty of smelt and a few fish eating them just beyond casting range.
There’s no way I’m ever cocky enough to expect to hook a big trout, but whenever I head to a western Victorian lake, I expect the possibility, and prepare accordingly. Before I even walked within sight of the water at Moorabool, I’d replaced my existing high quality 8lb fluorocarbon tippet I had on from my last trip to the Grampians, with a metre of the same – fresh off the spool. To this I added a small, sparse smelt pattern (Wets Zonker – very similar to Craig’s Gambusia). I always like to have a fly on and ready to go; even though I may change it sooner or later as conditions suggest. You don’t want to be fumbling around tying on a fly while your only chance of the session swims past.
I could have arguably tied on a Living Damsel or Scintilla Stick Caddis (all proven patterns in bright, clear water conditions on Moorabool in late winter). But you have to start somewhere, and as I was thinking of those smelters a couple of weeks earlier, I tossed a coin between a Tom Jones or Wets Zonker, and tied on the latter.
Needless to say, I tested the tippet knot and the fly knot thoroughly.
I attached my oversized landing net to the vest magnet, put on my cap and low-light polaroids (to give an advantage on the shady shores), and headed down the track.
With a light easterly blowing, I chose Moorabool’s eastern shore. There are often good arguments to fish windward shores on lakes, but I was going with my ‘lake sense’ approach of investing heavily in trying to spot a fish to cast to, mixed with blind searching. Offshore winds create larger areas of calmer water to investigate, making it easier to sight (and hear) the disturbances of fish from further away.
The added benefit of the section of lake I was heading to was variety: it offered a mix of shallow and steeper shores. There was also some water which would be sunlit, and some shaded by nearby forest – even in the early afternoon. I had my suspicions where I’d be likely to find a trout, but it’s always good to have options in case you’re wrong.
I walked across the almost-empty marsh at the head of the first bay – a possible spot for low light tailers, but way too bright for now. Small smelt, probably juveniles, dimpled the ultra shallows – not a bad match for my Wets Zonker. I continued on to the more defined shore on the northern side. I scanned the bay as I went and listened for any splashes or sips, but all I could detect were three busy dabchicks on the opposite shore.
After a couple of hundred metres, I arrived at the defined point which separates this bay from the vast, open lake beyond. I like this spot. I’ve caught the odd fish in the vicinity, and it gives a really good view both back into the bay, and into the main lake. Also, it marks the first deep water out from the marshy bay; somewhere a large trout might linger while the sun was high in the sky.
The point, I decided, would be a good place to stop and fan out a few searching casts while I observed and got a ‘feel’ for what the lake might be up to. While I carefully figure-8 retrieved the Zonker, varying the pause on the drop each cast and cautiously ‘hanging’ the fly at the end of each retrieve, I looked and listened. It wasn’t just trout I hoped to detect, but also some secondary clues as to where they might be and what they might be doing: swallows working a particular area perhaps, stick caddis labouring past, the dimples of offshore smelt… All these and more may offer possibilities, and add all-important confidence to fly selection and fishing effort. After all, there’s blind fishing and there’s blind flogging (yawn)!
It wasn’t long before a school of smelt swam past me in the mottled shade, nervously hugging the shore. With 2 metres of depth almost at my feet, they were undoubtedly vulnerable – even in the middle of the day. I fished the Zonker with even more care and confidence.
Then I heard it, a loud splash back in the bay. I turned in time to see spreading rings where I’d walked past not 15 minutes earlier; in the shade and about half-way back between the point where I stood and the marsh. Fantastic! I write in my book that these moments are gold – verified proof of a trout, and one that’s almost certainly feeding. What’s more, if one trout is feeding in the area, others probably are too. In this case, I was also pretty sure the fish was smelting – little else creates such explosive feeding behaviour in late winter.
But what to do next? Often, when lake fishing, I would literally sprint to within range of such a disturbance so I could thoroughly cover the area with casts before it was too late. However, there was a problem: a big fallen pine blocked an easy run. I was torn: make the awkward, time-consuming detour back? Or try some casts from where I stood in the hope the trout would be working up the shore?
I started with the second option, but after two of my longest casts brought no response, and there was no further sign of the fish, I decided on option B. I reasoned that smelters often hang around the same general area, and repeatedly attack the same school of baitfish, mopping up the injured and separated minnows down deeper and out of sight between onslaughts.
Holding this hope, I arrived within comfortable casting distance of the initial disturbance and began covering the area, much as I had done on the point. A few minutes had elapsed since I noticed the smelter, but I reminded myself of the many occasions in my angling life when this strategy had worked, and fished accordingly.
Then, vindication – the trout crashed through the smelt once more, almost in the same spot! At that moment, I was taking a quick picture of the bay for my records, so I caught the aftermath by accident, put the camera away pronto, and cast to the middle of the spreading rings. I let the fly settle for a moment, then began what I imagined to be a feeble, stunned smelt retrieve. (When you watch smelters, it’s easy to believe you should match their speed and violence with a fast strip. More often though, the trout are sensibly looking for the easy meal – maximum food for minimum effort. Unlike us, they aren’t in it for the sport.)
I think it was about the third hand twist that I came up tight on what I immediately knew was a trout. It’s funny, it took only a moment for the fish to scream off, leap clear of the water, and put me on the backing. But I’m still conscious of that half second of minimal drama in between: trout eating wounded or disoriented smelt don’t slam them, they just casually inhale them.
This experience is right up there as a reason I flyfish. Yes, I get a lot from the landscapes, the exercise, the companionship, the mind-clearing ‘yoga for dummies’ focus; even the satisfaction of persuading a fish to eat the fly regardless of what happens subsequently.
However, the fight to land a big fish is something else. I’ve been fortunate to catch quite a few large trout in my life, but that history has done nothing to dull the excitement each time I hook another one. And note I said hook, not land – with big trout especially, there’s always the strong possibility something will go wrong and the fish will escape. When I’m into a beauty, my emotions are a mix of sheer delight that I’m a chance to catch such a rare fish, and fear that I’ll lose it. Again, if you think I’ve inoculated myself against this worry through multiple successes, think again!
This is what motivates me to prepare as best I can for the occasional encounter with a monster. As the big, silvery trout lunged and leapt again, I was grateful I could at least trust my tippet and knots.
Even so, there were two brushes with disaster. First, when I finally had the trout’s head up and (I thought) ready for the landing net, I drew it head-first over the frame. But as I went to lift, the fish somehow flipped its great bulk and dived back into the lake. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly, I’m still not sure what went wrong. The net is big enough to accommodate a trout twice that size and this hasn’t happened to me before. I can only assume I lifted the net a fraction too soon, before most of the fish was past the frame.
There were several seconds of horror as the trout sped off again – including a moment when the leader was entirely slack! Fortunately, the hook was well set in the trout’s lower jaw and my second attempt with the net succeeded.
I only realised how close I’d come to another failure when I removed the hook: six inches above the fly, the tippet was horribly worn and abraded. Evidently, in the midst of the fight, the line had rubbed against one of the many submerged sticks and branches in the bay – although I never felt it at the time. Once again, I gave a silent prayer of thanks for the 8lb tippet: even wounded, it managed to finish the job.
I had my best trout of the year, and I was as elated as if I was 12 years old; so much so, I decided against using my remaining hour of fishing time. How could I beat that? As I strolled up the track through the whispering pines, I had time to think about what had just happened. Was there luck involved? Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve ever landed a big trout when good fortune hasn’t played a part. I was suitably grateful that the many things beyond my control had lined up.
But there was also great satisfaction in how I managed those things I could control: my choice of lake, my choice of spot on the lake, my approach to finding a fish once I arrived, the fly choice and how I fished it. (I strongly suspect that a number of similar patterns would have done the trick, but still, that’s the third ‘trout of the year’ Andrew ‘Wet’ Connell’s fly has caught me in western Victoria’s lakes.)
There were also the gear choices: a decent 9’6” 6 weight rod which could deliver the fly quickly and accurately and control a large fish; plus a high quality reel with a seamless drag, loaded with plenty of backing (I estimate the trout took about 20 metres of this). We’ve already discussed the tippet and knots, and the landing net was up to the task – even if I initially wasn’t!
Finally, I gave myself a vote for just turning up. Even for me, with a teenage family and, believe it or not, lots of actual work commitments, it’s easy to find plenty of reasons not to go. But I went, and thank goodness!