Termites, Turn of the Season, and Talking Trout

In southern Australia, October finished and November began with exceptionally cold weather – in fact much of Victoria had its coldest start to November in more than two decades, with snow falling on the mountains and frosts in the lowlands. On the rivers, reports were that nymphs were well and truly outperforming dries.

It was good luck rather than good planning which had me heading to the north-east rivers late on Thursday afternoon – ahead of the Talk Wild Trout conference in Mansfield on Saturday. I made it to the Goulburn just in time, gearing up at the Breakaway an hour before dark – and the trout were rising already! The river looked idyllic at a very clear 2500 ML/d. On the first warm evening in ages, various caddis, spinners, duns and beetles made it challenging to choose the right fly. Eventually an Antron Caddis did the trick, but the real highlight of the evening was meeting one of my favourite trout researchers, John Hayes, the keynote speaker at the upcoming conference.

The perfect place to meet renowned trout researcher John Hayes – during the evening rise on the Goulburn!

A New Zealander, John is co-author of the brilliant book ‘The Artful Science of Trout Fishing’ and he’s penned numerous fascinating papers on trout and trout behaviour. John’s also a keen angler, and he turned up with friend JD, rod in hand, halfway through the rise. Once the action died down, we headed back to JD’s place for dinner. It’s not often you get to talk long into the night with one of trout research’s greatest minds. The trip was off to a good start!

My Friday began under sunny morning skies on the middle reaches of the Delatite. Despite the recent seasonal shift from winter to summer, I assumed the swift 14C water would still favour nymph over dry, and I started with a big yellow Stimulator and a Hares Ear nymph beneath. When the first two trout hit the Stimulator, it was all the encouragement I needed to take off the dropper.

On the Delatite – as you would expect, there was a trout right beside the dead branch.

The next few hours were dry fly bliss. Every likely spot seemed to have a good brown or rainbow only too happy to eat the Stimi. Then, around midday, a caddis hatch bumped the big generalist fly and I had to change to an Antron Caddis to catch the suddenly selective trout.

The mid Delatite species split was about 50/50.

It would have been an easy choice to spend the rest of the afternoon on the Delatite, but as I had lunch in the shade of an old oak tree, I could see puffy clouds growing behind Mt Timbertop and over the Howqua valley. It looked like even buggier weather there – enough reason to take a trip along the Howqua Track to the Delatite’s neighbour.

The Howqua River looked gorgeous; as admittedly, it usually does outside floods and droughts. Football-sized rocks shimmered beneath the crystal-clear currents lined by sword-grass and towering white gums. The humid air buzzed with life as I parked the car and set off down the river track. I made it through the first crossing without a cast, but the bubbling head of the pool just above the second crossing was too much to resist. Two drifts with the big Stimulator down the obvious feeding lane brought no result – was the flow too fast perhaps? I made the third cast into the softer ‘eye’ just left of the main current. The Stimi drifted much more slowly, and a brown, closer to two pounds than one, came up and casually sucked it off the top. What a great start!

A good start on the Howqua.

I kept walking downstream, until just below the third crossing I could resist no longer and started fishing back upstream in earnest.

The fishing wasn’t as fast as on the Delatite, but the next trout was another brown of similar size to the first – again, much better than my Howqua average; and again, in exceptional condition. Then I noticed rises on the pool well upstream, and simultaneously, the flying termites.

One of a few million flying termites.

It turned out that three, possibly four trout were rising in the complex foam lines and at least two of them looked like very good fish. I was about to embark on the most absorbing, nerve-wracking half hour of my fishing year so far.

I suspect what made it hard to get a rise from these fish, was the very narrow ‘window’ as the trout fed so close to the surface; coupled with messy current pulses sending the fish randomly a metre right then left. And then there were the same currents creating all sorts of drag problems. Even though the actual fly may not have been at fault, I changed a lot, working first through my termite patterns, then the ants. Eventually, a CDC ant was sucked down beautifully, but maybe I was so surprised I struck too soon? In any case, that left three or perhaps only two trout still rising – it was hard to say, but at least I hadn’t spooked the lot with my miss.

Looking back down to where the termite feeders were rising. The obvious bubble trail snaked left then right by at least a metre. The trout followed, making for a difficult moving target.

Several more casts with the ant brought no further response. I changed to a size 18 Royal Wulff and clipped the bottom hackle to help it float low, remembering a similar event years ago when, caught out without my termite imitations, I’d managed a couple of fish with the improvisation. A few more casts, and then, what looked like the bigger of the remaining fish, rose three times in quick succession well upstream. Sensing a fleeting opportunity, I hauled a long cast up and over where the other trout had been rising. Just as the tiny Wulff alighted, the trout rose a foot below, then took my fly.

This time, I waited for a slow 1-2 before lifting. There was heavy weight, then a 3 pound brown leapt half a metre above the river and proceeded to go berserk. It was many minutes of head-shakes, runs and leaps later that I finally slid the net under my best Howqua brown for ages. Like the previous two, it was also in outstanding condition for this river, and even allowing for its unusual size, exceptionally strong.

Success – eventually!

A magic day finished with more fish (mainly aerobatic rainbows, back over the range on the upper Delatite), and more termites (how many millions must’ve flown that afternoon?). No further experiences came close to that big termite feeder on the Howqua, yet when twilight called time, I found myself almost skipping back to my friend’s house for dinner. I’ve fished less than I’d like over the last month, and on the eve of Talk Wild Trout, I was reminded why I do – and why me and 200 others would spend the next day in a hall instead of on a river, talking about making Victoria’s wild trout fishing even better.