Storm Boy(s)

“You won’t be able to flyfish in this weather I suppose?” It was a sympathetic comment from the woman at reception when Max and I revealed the reason for our visit to the west coast, which was being wracked by winter storms thanks to a succession of cold fronts. The wind rattled the office door and rain lashed the driveway in sheets. I couldn’t fault our host’s assumption, and at least she knew what flyfishing was: a characteristic not shared by every staff member of coastal holiday parks.

Mr Percival?

“Actually we will be flyfishing, believe it or not,” offered Max. “We’re mainly chasing bream, and they don’t seem to mind how cold or rough it gets.” That may have sounded like slightly desperate angler bravado, but it was true. I have decades worth of diary entries and pictures which demonstrate that we do in fact catch plenty of bream when the weather is atrocious; perhaps even more than when it’s fine.

A break in the storms makes the weather look better than it really was.

By check-out time the next day, Max and I had proved the point… sort of. The squalls and rain, while broken by patches of watery sunshine, were typical of winter on the Shipwreck Coast. In these conditions, I always feel an involuntary shiver when I think of what it would be like beyond the river-mouth sandbar and in the tortured seas beyond. How ships travel through Bass Strait on days like this is beyond me; how they did it a century ago beggars belief. And of course many didn’t. The loss of life was endless as ships like the Loch Ard went down with scarcely a survivor.

It’s hard to imagine surviving the winter seas just beyond the estuaries.

But back to the fishing, and all we had to worry about was casting in the wind gusts, and the oh-so crucial keeping in contact with the fly. I heard Max’s curse above the background roar of the surf when the gale pushed his line into bow, just moments before a big bream took his Hammerhead. Later, my friend described the couple of seconds of helplessness as he saw the flash, watched the line move, but just could not strip fast enough to set the hook.

Where Max lost contact.

Despite such setbacks, we landed several storm bream over two days, and missed about as many. It was okay fishing – we’ve had better, but we’ve fished enough that we’re always humbly grateful that it wasn’t worse either. The tides were weird – not very high nor very low, so it was confusing how much the swell was affecting river flow in and out, versus the considerable push of freshwater, versus the tide itself. And with west coast bream, you might know it when they’re really on and you find them. But when the hits are patchy, is that their mood, or are they simply not seeing the fly as they move around unpredictably?

A moment of evening calm.

On the long drive home through the salt lakes, barely visible in the drizzly night but present as vast, vague reflections, we talked of little but bream and estuaries, as if we were heading down, not heading back. And what about that massive disturbance on the Hopkins which I saw out of the corner of my eye, a moment of dark back breaching the water that seemed so big, I shouted to Max, “Was that a seal?” Then another powerful swirl… but no other sighting for the rest of the session. So not a seal, but what?

And a success.

That’s the Shipwreck Coast estuaries: they’re half a puzzle solved, and half a mystery you can talk about for hours and never quite understand.