Elsa recounts her flyfishing journey so far.
As we grow up, the opportunity to learn new physical skills becomes increasingly rare. Many of us sit at a desk all day, our minds running with the tasks of our jobs, the things we need to do when we get home; what we will make for dinner or do on the weekend? Our brains are active, but our bodies are left behind. We might exercise – go for a walk, go to the gym, or swim in the pool or the ocean. But how often do we really push our bodies and minds with a new skill? Learning something from scratch. Being terrible at it, not giving up and slowly improving.
This sort of challenge was what I desperately needed in my life. A thing to master and learn, away from my work and home life. It turned out flyfishing was it. I have been lucky over the past year or two to really get to know the sport. I’ve learnt a lot, gotten angry, become weirdly addicted, caught (and missed) plenty of fish, spent a lot of time in the most beautiful areas and fallen in love with the whole lifestyle. So, how did I find myself here? Well, read on.
At the beginning
My Dad has been in love with flyfishing for as long as I can remember. I have many memories of watching him fish off the rocks or at the beach, or seeing pictures from his trips. Being the cheeky thing I was, I used to tease him, saying he was ribbon dancing like a gymnast as he flicked the line back and forward. We fished a lot together when I was younger, off the pier or on the beach. But the first time he took me flyfishing was when I was around 10 years old. It was a day trip to Millbrook Lakes. I loved it – feeling brave being out in the wind and cold, casting out onto the water wishing a fish would bite, falling asleep in the cabin after a long day and being carried to my bed after the dark drive home.
Yet as fond a memory as this was, I didn’t pick flyfishing up properly until about a year and a half ago.
As a strong-minded woman, I dislike starting a story with ‘I met a boy’… but I did, and he’s the reason I got into flyfishing in earnest. I met Cale at work. He’s a very quiet person, but after prodding and picking his brain, I found out he was an avid flyfisher with a love of the outdoors, country music and whisky. For me, growing up around horses and being in the country or by the sea most weekends, meant our worlds collided pretty quickly. It wasn’t long before he had me in a pair of dorky gumboot waders nicknamed ‘The Pickle’, 4 weight rod in hand, on the banks of a beautiful, bubbling stream deep in the Otways.
Learning to cast a fly rod is, honestly, so bloody hard. Not because of the technique or the line, or the fly, or because it’s unlike any other movement you do in your day-to-day life, but because of the patience you need. We live such fast-paced lives and are used to things happening immediately, with a snap of the fingers. But this, this takes time. Cale and I stood in one spot on the river. I had definitely scared off any fish in the vicinity by this point, just practicing flicking the line back and forth. “Pause on the back cast and let your line unravel”. “Keep the rod tip at 11 and 1”. “Lay the line down gently – follow the rod tip down to where you want the fly to land”. It all sounded pretty straightforward, but in reality, I tangled two leaders, sacrificed countless flies to the tree gods and genuinely just felt embarrassed.
Each time we went on a day trip to fish it was like one step forward two steps back… at least for the first month. I felt clunky in the waders (which I want to mention were about 5 sizes too big for me), unstable on the riverbed, and really, just out of my depth. It’s a funny feeling when you are participating in an activity where you are the only one struggling, I mostly felt like I was ruining the fun for Cale and Max (my dad). Surely they would much rather be fishing up ahead than untangling my tippet or showing me once again how to tie on another new fly. They reassured me that it was worth it. And now, I agree, it definitely was.
Eventually I could get the line out on almost every cast, but I was doing something wrong, because my wrist constantly hurt. I was forcing it, I didn’t understand that the power came from the rod, not me. I didn’t need 20 back-casts which almost dislocated my shoulder. I needed three; or sometimes just one if my timing was right. This changed the game for me. I started to get it. Have enough line out, pick it up, wait, one, two, bang. Right where it needs to be.
Alright, so here’s where the fun part of my story comes in – the actual fish-catching. That’s what we are all here for. I was lucky to be fishing almost every weekend, so I improved quickly and was catching a lot of great fish, sometimes even beating Max or Cale for fish of the day. But before I dive into some of those stories, I want to talk about the first fish I caught, because funnily enough, it was by accident.
Cale, his family and I were going up to Jamieson for a weekend, and Cale and I decided to stop at the Steavenson River on the way up to have a flick. Now stupidly, I was a little bit hungover on this day. We were just out of lockdown and I’d had a few too many wines the night before. So, standing unstable in the water in my pickle waders didn’t feel great. I started casting, back and forth, up this absolutely stunning run. I was casting really well actually, probably because I had no energy to force my arm. I let the line drift behind me as I called to Cale for some pointers and he yelled, “Elsa you’re on!” WHAT?
I turned around and I had hooked a fish downstream of me. I was screaming. Cale was screaming. I took deep breaths and remembered ‘rod tip up, give it some line if it needs it, keep it in the water’. I eventually got the trout in the net and I was ecstatic, although I think Cale was more excited than I was. Talk about a hangover cure. I realised once you have the basics down, you can have a lot more fun. Especially having caught that first fish.
There was definitely pressure to get that ticked off, so once accomplished, I felt a lot more relaxed on the water.
We were lucky enough to be living in the Otways for a large majority of the 2020 lockdown. I couldn’t have asked for a more incredible place to learn. You have the beach nipping at the heels of big rolling hills, and tucked away behind you have lush green rainforest. It’s magical and delicate, but also tricky and tight. You can have some great days, and then for others, it’s like nature is against you. Regardless of good days or bad, every weekend and afternoon we were on the water. This meant my aim, and presentation improved exponentially. I had the time and the guidance to go for the trickier spots. The spots you would usually leave untouched, in between branches of fallen trees, or underneath low-hanging leaves. And the trout you pull from those tricky spots are little hits of serotonin. It’s knowing that a challenge has been completed: a task that needs patience, skill and time to pull off.
Lakes and estuaries
Now, winter came around quickly, so the streams were off-limits and the estuaries and lakes were the go. Being outside Melbourne’s ring of steel, we were free to roam regional Victoria, so we beelined straight to Millbrook Lakes for a weekend. This was really where I fell in love with everything around the sport. The cold early mornings that promise adventure, a long day of walking, spotting, casting; then celebrating with a whisky next to a roaring fire at the end of the day. Not to mention the excellent food for dinner. For those who don’t know, Max and I have Italian heritage, so no effort is spared when we are by the stove. Huge servings of cauliflower pasta, or thick T-bone steaks with homemade chips, or my personal favourite, supli – the Roman version of arancini, which is much, much better. Don’t fight me on this.
Fishing at Millbrook is a crash course in spotting and fighting fish. It really is an incredible place to hone your skills. You don’t have to worry about water running past your legs, or river access, or even if there are going to be fish around. All that matters is the stalking, spotting, waiting and casting. Cale and I got up extra early one morning. Cale likes to do this, get up at the crack of dawn and freeze his way through a few hours of fishing before the rest of us wake up. But the specialness of being at Millbrook wasn’t wasted on me, so I groaned out of bed, got ready and headed out. And boy am I glad I did. In the first ten minutes of casting into a section of water, warming up my body and getting my stripping technique just right, I was on and it was big. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening, had I hit a log? The constant pulling kicked that idea out of my head pretty quickly. The fight lasted a few minutes, enough time for Cale to sprint from the other side of the lake back to me, net in hand. It was a beautiful rainbow, roughly three and half pounds. That really kicked off the weekend, and the fish just didn’t stop. From tiger trout to many more stunning rainbows, to a midge hatch right on sunset.
This was also when I really started to understand fly selection and knots. It isn’t always about how far you can cast or how many fish you catch. I wanted to understand the whole sport and not rely on the people I fished with to rig my rod for me or tell me what I should be throwing. I learnt on that trip that casting streamer-type flies like Woolly Buggers, slowly retrieved in a figure-eight, was what really worked. And on dusk, throwing Superglue Buzzers and other midge imitations, to match the hatch.
On the trips that followed, my knowledge grew. From the Grampians to the Aire River, the Curdies, the Howqua, the Ovens and beyond, I was able to be independent in setting up my rod, organising my flies and making the right fly selection. If I can, I like to keep it simple. Royal Wulffs and Stimulators work a treat, especially with a nymph trailing behind. I learned that picking up a rock and inspecting what is squirming underneath can be a great guide towards the type of nymph you should use. But also, paying attention to the conditions, like if the water is a little murky, a bit of flash can definitely help. It’s all this knowledge which leads to the best fish.
Soon, I had graduated from the pickle waders to proper wading gear in my size. I had some amazing trips and fish under my belt, but I wanted more. Nothing could stop me, especially when the lockdown ended. But one trip tops them all. Max, Cale, his little brother Riley and I, were off on a big adventure to the Victorian High Country. I love north-east Victoria for so many reasons, one being my slight obsession with the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly. His history is splattered all over these parts and so, unfortunately, anyone in the car with me on the drive up to the north-east, has to listen to me rattle on about it for hours. Secondly, I’m a horse girl. Always have been and always will be. Since my beautiful horse Jimmy passed on a few years back, anywhere I can find to pat, smell or ride a horse is immediately a winner for me.
Anyway, I digress. Riley, Cale and I, loaded the car, strapped two mattresses to the roof and headed on out. Now, on this trip we didn’t stop for lunch anywhere, but if you are heading up that way, pull over at the Corner Hotel in Alexandra for a Parma and a pint. And not just any Parma, their list of insane options, like the Spudarama, Hawaiian, Outback Jack or Double Banger, are something to behold. Trust me.
We met Max in Glenrowan. Yes, the town famous for the Glenrowan shootout; the last stand between the Kelly Gang and a horde of Victorian policemen on the 28th of June 1880. From there we drove another few hours north and east. As we drew close, Max said to me ‘this is God’s country’. We pulled up at our campsite. There was not a house, person, or structure to be seen for miles and we were right on the river. We couldn’t believe it. We unpacked, set up camp, got our gear on and went to our first spot. It was a wide, shallow, perfect stretch of river. I had never seen a landscape like this before. Max explained to me here that a fanning technique, casting left to right, was the best way to cover all the water. It worked, because within the first twenty minutes I’d caught three perfect little browns. This really was God’s country. We kept fishing, but the clouds above were looking ominous. Soon, we were in the very centre of a torrential rainstorm and when that happens, there is only one thing to do. Have a drink. We beelined to the nearest pub and drowned our sorrows in a few wines and whiskies before finally heading back to the campsite, refueling with some of Max’s famous bean soup and sitting around the fire, before getting into our cars for the night. Unfortunately, Riley, who was sleeping in a tent, had a very wet, uncomfortable night. What followed the next day made up for it though.
In the morning we teamed up and headed out. Cale and I found this amazing stretch of water, a big bend with a deep trough on one side and a shallow bank on the other. The sun was streaming down: already by 10am it was 25 degrees and luckily not a cloud in the sky. Cale went first and immediately pulled a vibrant spotted brown. I netted it quickly. We gawked at the patterns on this beautiful animal as we quickly took some photos and let it go. It’s amazing to me how different these creatures can look depending on where they are.
Fish are so often overlooked as animals to be marvelled at, so when we do catch one, we love to give them the appreciation they deserve, quickly of course. Keep ‘em wet people! Not five minutes later and ten metres further on, I was onto another beautiful brown. As the minutes ticked by, we fell more and more in love with the extraordinary, Jurassic-like scenery that engulfed us. It really is awe-inspiring. For me, this was the first trip where I really felt confident in my abilities and my skill. I wasn’t tangling line or losing flies. I was putting on the right flies, I was catching fish, and most importantly, I was relaxed. In my opinion, this is the level you want to be at to start learning more and taking on more challenging casts and tricky spots. Your brain has the space for it.
We all met up at the campsite. We quickly had some lunch, swapped teams and set off. Max and I meandered up some beautiful stretches. He taught me about hopper presentation and how to spot some less obvious areas where fish might be hiding, perfect for later in the season when the streams have been hit pretty hard. Time passed quickly, as it always does on days as perfect as this. We got back late in the afternoon to find the boys sitting around the fire. We could tell from the grins on their faces that something big had happened. Or more specifically, something big had been caught. We settled in for the night and let Cale and Riley tell us all about the absolute monsters they caught. It was definitely the biggest and most exciting catch yet.
Over the last year or two, this sport has really kept me sane. It is so important for all of us to have something that pushes and challenges us, mentally, physically and sometimes even emotionally. Flyfishing is so unique: it’s meditative, cathartic, addictive, exciting, adrenaline-inducing and so much more.
I think the next big challenge I want to dive into is away from the streams. After a trip to northern Queensland earlier in the year, I often find myself thinking of saltwater flats water and surf breaks.
So, for me, next up is salt. The learning curve continues.