If you want to really test your flyfishing skills, Kiel says smelters are for you.
A lot of lake trout flyfishers wait for certain times of the year: spring and autumn for mayfly hatches, warm summer nights on the mudeyes, or wintry afternoons on the midge to name a few. But many of us look forward to trout chasing baitfish; aka smelters.
Smelting is quite a broad term. Typical of fly-speak, it’s confusing to normal human beings – the ones who don’t flyfish. Maybe they think these trout are working with steel like some sort of fish blacksmith. But in our world, this word means the trout are chasing and feeding on smaller fish.
Historically, the term ‘smelters’ was coined to describe trout feeding on Australian smelt, but nowadays it means trout chasing just about any small schooling fish.
Whatever their target species, the aggressive boils and rises of smelters can leave you overcome with excitement. Are your hands shaking from the cold or adrenaline? Or, from that break-off after 326 casts because you weren’t expecting it. Running down awkward shores, chasing browns charging baitfish only feet from the dry land. All part of the smelting game.
Sometimes herding the minnows up like a Kelpie. Swimming from the deep, pushing the bait into the shallows with aggressive splashes and swirls. Trout belting along the banks, pushing bow-waves for metres, chewing up their prey. Sometimes even slow sips from the surface as they feed on the slower, clumsier baitfish; especially the wounded or the juveniles – not to be mistaken for an emerging nymph eat (which took me a lot of outings and wrong fly choices to figure out)!
The main baitfish
In south-eastern Australia, the most common smelting targets are galaxias, Australian smelt, gambusia (mosquito fish), and redfin fry
Less commonly, trout feed on schools of young roach. They also eat gudgeon, but these little fish don’t tend to school up, instead living, hiding and feeding solo. Trout still ambush them on shorelines in a smash-and-grab type of take. ‘Oncers’ as we call them.
A smelting favourite of mine are the gambusia feeders. Gambusia were introduced to Australia in 1925 by the military to control mosquito populations. That didn’t work, and they’ve now spread to every state in Australia except NT. They’re classed as a noxious pest as they compete with native fish. Gambusia also feed on trout food such as midge and nymphs, so they aren’t ideal to have in trout waters. Nevertheless, they are there and trout love to feed on them.
Gambusia feeders are very tough to catch or trick, as fly size, colour and retrieve rates vary from day to day. You also need to be quick and accurate to cover a fish before it disappears again. Trout feeding on gambusia change their habits depending on how the baitfish are acting, and that’s something you need to figure out on the day. Sometimes schools of gambusia are hiding in the shallows or weed beds. This is when you’ll find trout hunting the shallows, most of the time moving quite quickly, causing bow-waves as they smash the bait, and sip them ‘rise style’ as well.
Gambusia feeders are pretty much a template for smelters in general. It might seem like it’s going to be easy to catch these aggressive trout, but it often isn’t. A trout will be heading in a straight line for metres, then just as you prepare for a cast, it suddenly turns around to start the beat again (sometimes swimming the same beat until they’ve been spooked or had their fill).
This is where you’ll need to be as quick as possible. Find that feeding trout and wait, watch it’s beat or habits, (don’t wait too long though), and have your line out and fly ready to cast.
A huge point here: smelters sometimes turn straight back around to feed on the stunned or injured smelt they just ploughed through. In this case, you’re better off casting your fly where they were, not where you think they’re going.
Shallow water feeders are exciting and frustrating, and you’ll need to keep trying if you’re to eventually land one. Don’t give up! They’re hard to catch for many reasons, including how focused they can be on their target, hence the need for accurate casts.
Another thing to think about is fishing to trout mopping up the stunned or injured minnows. These trout can create those apparent ‘rises’ I talked about earlier, particularly in the case of redfin fry and gambusia feeders. I like to cast the fly to the zone and simply let it sit for a 5 or 10 second pause, then retrieve it at a medium pace. Personally, I prefer a long draw here rather than a tick-tick retrieve.
At the other end of the spectrum, trout chasing bigger baitfish, especially big galaxias, can like a fast pull.
It’s possible to find trout hunting schools of baitfish at any time of year, but there are a few things to look out for. First, as lakes recede and weed dies back in autumn, hiding places for baitfish reduce, making them an easier target for the trout. This is especially so for gambusia and Australian smelt.
Alternatively, in winter and early spring, many galaxiid species spawn on shoreline rocks or flooded vegetation, and the trout soon figure this out!
With redfin fry, it’s simply a seasonal availability thing. Redfin spawn in spring, so the juvenile redfin fry as we call them, get to a size of 25-40mm around December, January, February – depending on the season and location. This is the perfect time for trout to focus in on them as a source of food. As the season wears on though, the surviving redfin become too large for an easy meal and the huge schools disperse. (A few very big trout continue to chase them, but rarely enough to target.)
Although smelters can be active at any time of day, my favourite times are early morning and dusk. This is when I find the smelters most active in the shallows. Under low light, the trout get the courage to feed in close. You can have some very intense and exciting fishing just feet from the bank.
This is probably a good time to mention pin fry: the tiny, transparent newly-hatched baitfish which school in their thousands if not millions. All the baitfish mentioned above have a pin fry stage, and trout feeding on pin fry are famously difficult to catch. It seems likely that the fish push through the huge schools, inhaling these tiny ‘pins’ by the dozen, rather than chasing down individuals.
Your only hope is a quick and accurate cast with a small fly, which must almost land down the trout’s throat. Or, you can pull a bigger pattern and hope to distract the occasional fish – a long odds tactic. I’ve known experienced anglers to spend hours on pin fry feeders, only to leave them at it in disgust.
Although presentation is critical when targeting smelters, it’s also important to think about fly choice. Trout can home in on certain sizes or colours. For example, with gambusia, the females are larger and during spawning time, they have a prominent white belly with a black spot. On the other hand, ‘average’ gambusia are slimmer, and are green with a darker back and large white eyes. Juvenile gambusia are very slender and range from black to green to light green.
Great flies for these smelters are:
- Tom Jones
- BMS in olive to dark green, with green glass beads or black beads.
- Slim Magoo-style flies, weighted & unweighted.
- Yeti-style flies
- Craig’s Gambusia
For juvenile gambusia imitations, try a small damselfly nymph, a mink Zonker, or even a green nymph.
Australian smelt are slim and a silvery translucent, with an olive to purple back and a clear silver streak along the sides. They usually grow to around 75mm and are occasionally found at 100mm – certainly worth a trout’s while!
Galaxias vary depending on species, but can grow quite big – up to 150mm and more. They often have large iridescent eyes; something to think about when tying flies.
A key point here: as experienced anglers have written before, many baitfish can change colour quickly as a camouflage tool, often leading to darker minnows against darker backgrounds, and vice versa. If you’re lucky enough to get a day with off and on sun, you’ll get trout attacking the minnows which don’t camouflage quickly enough on the light change.
Where it gets really interesting, is when sick or injured minnows can’t change colour at all. A single darker minnow in a school of pale cousins, is an obvious target. This may explain why flies which aren’t an exact colour match for the species you’re trying to copy still get eaten at times; and sometimes even get eaten more.
Great flies for trout on galaxias and Australian smelt in close include:
- Olive or white BMS
- Grey Ghost
- a variety of Yeti-style flies.
- small Woolly Buggers.
If the trout are smelting out wide, add:
- all Magoo variants
- straggle Zonkers
Carry a range of weights, sizes and colours.
Allrounders for both smelters in close and out wide:
- Yeti-style flies
- Green Machine
- Cormorant Red
- Minkie Tan
- Beck’s Krystal Cat
Some of us flyfishers don’t like blind flogging wets, dredging deeper water with a sinking line in a search for a trout after 500 casts. But if you pick your day, you’ll have some very exciting sight fishing to hungry smelting trout – sometime as close as your rod tip. It’s coming into the right time of year for smelters right now, and for many months to come. So get out there and hang on!
FLYSTREAM FACTS – Smelter hotspots
South-eastern Australia is blessed with many fantastic smelter locations. Here are just a few:
Penstock Lagoon – shoreline galaxiid feeders early season.
Great Lake – shoreline galaxiid feeders all year in areas open to fishing, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Khancoban Pondage – particularly late autumn, winter and spring.
Lakes Purrumbete and Bullen Merri – May to October.
Moorabool Reservoir, Newlyn Reservoir and Hepburn Lagoon – April to November.
Tullaroop Reservoir – April to November.
Wartook Reservoir – April to November, but particularly winter and early spring.
The list above doesn’t include estuaries, where both resident and sea trout can provide fantastic smelter action in late winter and early spring. Tasmania is the clear winner here, although there are a few good estuaries in south-west Victoria too.