With the prime season for the Western Lakes upon us, Craig gives a frank assessment for anyone planning a backcountry trip.
Without doubt, the Western Lakes area of Tasmania is one of the standout trout fishing locations on earth, and any able-bodied flyfisher should have it on their fishing bucket list. The area has a mystical feel. Should a goblin appear from behind a pencil pine, it would not look out of place. The pristine alpine environment, combined with its unique and ancient flora, stimulates the senses. For me, there are few better feelings than looking out over its wild expanse, marveling at the combination of colours and textures, and imagining the trout that live in its hundreds of lakes.
Much has been written about the trout fishery within the Western Lakes area. Normally, the photos depict blue sky days with an angler in shirtsleeves holding a very large trout – in other words, what we would all aspire to. Unfortunately, the blue-sky days which, in my opinion, produce the best Western Lakes fishing experience, do not come around very often. With Tasmania’s very changeable weather, it’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with favourable conditions. This makes it especially challenging for busy, time-poor anglers, and those from interstate and beyond. I have many anglers I guide who are eager to have a Western Lakes fishing experience, yet the weather foils us nearly every time.
Yes, you can successfully catch fish in the Western Lakes in marginal and even poor weather conditions. However, the reality is, there are many more easily-accessible waters in Tassie, with more fish, which produce better fishing in these conditions. Personally, polaroiding fish is the epitome of what a Western Lakes fishing experience is all about. If the weather is overcast and suitable for, say, a dun hatch, I would prefer to go to a water like Little Pine Lagoon.
There is a belief held by some that, because of its remoteness, the Western Lakes must hold good numbers of very large trout. The truth is very different. Most of the Western Lakes have poor fertility. This, combined with the area’s high elevation and Tasmania’s high latitude, creates a harsh environment, which can at times be difficult for trout to thrive in. This is in contrast to some of Tassie’s more fertile and again, less remote waters.
I am probably sounding like a flyfishing Grinch! However, the reality is that most anglers who visit the Western Lakes catch one or two modest-sized trout per day, and that’s when weather conditions allow. True, there are days when the planets align, with anglers getting many opportunities – and there are some large trout out west. But once again, the fact is, very few double-figure fish are caught out west each season. The average size is probably around 3 to 4lb.
For all that, I must temporarily put away the Grinch and admit that when you do crack a blue-sky day with active fish, there is no place on earth I would rather be fishing!
Anglers planning to head out west need to make an honest assessment of their fitness. The terrain can be quite demanding, and almost all of it is as at an elevation of over a kilometre above sea level. Add to that the extremely variable weather and a 60lb pack, and you need to be of better-than-average fitness to fully experience and enjoy your Western Lakes experience.
I mention the weather frequently, because it has such an important impact on the fishery. Without being overly dramatic, it can even challenge your very survival. At any time of the year, summer included, the weather can turn dangerous. On a trip I did last January, we experienced minus 4 degree frosts, snow, and torrential rain. Needless to say, you need to be well-prepared for extreme weather conditions and I would advise against going out if the weather forecast is poor.
Planning a hike
But let’s think positive. It’s sometime between November to March, and you have a backcountry trip pencilled in. Fortune appears to be with you, with the four-day weather forecast saying light northerly winds and mostly cloud-free skies. If that holds, a wonderful experience awaits you.
Without going into all the ins-and-outs of preparing for a 4-day hike, these are some of the small things I do that may not be covered by hiking guides.
I like to hike out and create a base camp. From there I do day trips, usually in the opposite direction. Then, if time out west allows, I move my base camp and repeat the process. At my age, I do not enjoy carrying a large pack and fishing at the same time. I fish with a day pack containing a lightweight raincoat, sunscreen, map, compass, head torch, whistle, snake-bite bandage, note pad, pencil, toilet paper, lighter, firelighter (for emergencies), space blanket, mug (there is so much drinkable water I don’t carry water) and enough high energy hiking food to get me through two days should I get lost and have to overnight away from base camp.
When planning your route, avoid areas of the map marked solid green. They can be impenetrable vegetation, especially in the more southern parts of the Western Lakes. Also avoid walking through dense areas of Scoparia. Believe me, you will only make the mistake once of walking through this beautiful but spiky plant. I forgive it though: to see a valley in early January full of blooming Scoparia is one of the great treats the Western Lakes offer.
When I hike, I wear good quality rigid sole hiking boots, as some areas are quite rocky. Then heavy duty leggings, knee-high gaiters, quick drying heavy-duty shorts, quick drying long sleeve shirt, lightweight polar fleece top, and finally, a lightweight floppy wide-brimmed hat.
It’s important at this point to acknowledge that it’s very easy to become geographically embarrassed out west due to the rolling nature of the terrain, especially if low cloud comes in. I have often found myself aiming for a particular lake, only to wind up on another. Don’t panic! Reference your map to familiar landmarks and adjust accordingly. Should cloud or nightfall impede visibility, it may be necessary to use you space blanket and hunker down for a miserable night, waiting to take advantage of improved visibility the next day. Better to do this than stumble around in the dark, getting even more lost and risking injury.
But most likely, if you’ve planned well and nailed the forecast, you’ll actually have a chance at some exciting, if challenging, wilderness fishing! My fishing gear is kept to a minimum. It includes a 9ft 5 weight 4 piece fly rod, with a 6 weight WF floating line. I like the SA MPX line, as it loads up at short range for quick presentations, yet still works well on longer casts. At the pointy end, I have a 9ft tapered leader with 3ft of tippet added – usually either 6 or 8lb. Add nippers, floatant, forceps, and of course the best polarised glasses. Optional is a landing net to help with the quick release of fish.
I only carry a small box of flies, which contains:
- Black para spinners with a high vis post
- Grey paraduns
- Gum Beetles
- Bruiser’s Bugs
- F Flies
- Philbrick Nymphs
- Stick Caddis
- Green Machines
The fly I use most often is the black spinner, followed by the Bruiser’s Bug.
I try to plan my fishing day walks to work along the eastern shores of lakes in the morning and the western shores in the afternoon. This gives me the best opportunity to have the sun coming from behind, optimising polaroiding opportunities.
My approach is to work slowly and methodically, scanning all the water, especially the water close in. I miss seeing more trout through looking over and beyond them, than any other way! Usually, I don’t cast until I see a fish – remember, you don’t have to be casting to be fishing effectively.
Always pay particular attention to small bays and indentations in the shoreline, where the prevailing wind may be blowing in foam and insects. Any area where water runs in is also worth special attention.
I know us guides bang on about this, but when you’re fortunate enough to get those special hours on a special fishery, it is not the time to start learning how to cast effectively.
So, prior to heading out west, practice making quick, accurate casts into the wind. Just as importantly, practice walking with your fly in hand ready to make a quick cast. Often, you will only have moments in which to present the fly to that Western Lakes trout before it vanishes, or it clocks you. We have all missed opportunities by getting our line tangled up in the excitement. Good ready-to-go line management is key. Always have it in your mind that you might be about to experience your one opportunity for the day at that elusive trophy fish.
Hopefully, I have given you some useful and realistic insights into fishing the Western Lakes. It is without doubt a most unique and challenging fishery. For me, fishing here is as much an excuse to visit one of the most sense-stimulating places on the planet, as it is to catch a trout. I can’t wait to get out there again this season!