Under Pressure

Philip explains how to cope when there are a lot of other anglers with the same idea.

This last season, more than usual, I seemed to find myself fishing lakes and streams that were busy – or just after they’d been busy. Now while I didn’t plan it that way, the surprising thing was how successful and downright enjoyable those trips were. Being someone who enjoys sharing fishing with strangers about as much as a 3 year old enjoys sharing lollies, that had me thinking. What made those ‘busy time’ trips work? What made them not just tolerable, but also fun and rewarding?

I should be clear that, given a choice, I’d rather avoid fishing during or just after busy times like public holidays, weekends with perfect weather, or in the middle of widely-reported event, like a Penstock dun hatch. As a rule, I don’t enjoy crowds. My idea of a pleasant environment is not the CBD at lunchtime on a weekday.

But, there are times when I don’t really have any option. Even for me, there are occasions when the only chance I’m going to get to go fishing, is at the end of a long weekend.

Or, on other occasions, perhaps I do have a choice, but the opportunity for sublime fishing is so good, I willingly head out despite the fact I know I’ll be sharing with a bigger crowd of fellow anglers than I’d usually tolerate.

The Tongariro – count the anglers! But the fishing is very good regardless.

For example, last summer, some of the best fishing I had was on the eastern shore of Tasmania’s Penstock when the jassids were on. Regularly busy Penstock was even busier, but the trade-off was captivating, very visual dry fly fishing, and the chance to experience a once or twice in a lifetime event. (Really good jassid falls are rare.)

When I’m fishing pressured water because I have to, I make careful location decisions on a big and small scale, and if necessary, changing tactics from how I normally fish – more on this shortly.

If I fish pressured water because I choose to (as in the Penstock jassids case) I might do both of those things, but also – and crucially so I don’t kill someone – I manage my mental approach. It’s so important to accept different standards of personal space and even angler etiquette if you decide to fish water you know will be crowded.

Trout and Pressure

Speaking of mental, we should diverge briefly to a bit of trout psychology. Most of the time, trout are pretty much concerned with eating, and not being eaten. From this base, you could make a general rule that trout with lots to eat – say, during a big ant fall – are prepared to push the safety boundaries and feed in more exposed positions: away from cover, or in shallow water or in bright light, etc.Tolerance for danger will include putting up with angling pressure more than they might otherwise. On the other hand, trout without much food to distract them, are more timid, will hide more, and have a keener eye for danger; for example you and your fishing gear.   

Where it can get a bit weird is when fishing pressure is regularly intense, and trout become habituated to it. I once fished a river in Japan called the Yu. It’s about the size and character of the Rubicon below Tumbling Waters, except in the immediate background there’s an 8000 ft volcano. Anyway, to my dismay, when I arrived, I found there was literally a flyfisher every few metres! I soon felt a bit better though, when I realised the trout were rising hard to a decent hatch of mayfly and caddis. (Yes, both at once.)

Evidently, being fished to all day everyday for months on end, the trout in the Yu had learnt to feed regardless of the presence of anglers – otherwise they’d starve! What they were very good at though, was picking out artificial flies, tippets and lines, and more to the point, imperfect drifts. There’s nothing like having a dozen rising trout in a row acknowledge your fly and then refuse it, to motivate you to improve your technique! Eventually, I managed an apparently perfect, fly-first presentation, and a fish came up and ate the same Shaving Brush that up until then had been refused by everything.

It actually turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable session The Japanese are very good at personal space so despite the crowd, I soon lost myself in my own little stretch of stream. Finding fish as such wasn’t a problem, so I focussed totally on presentation.

On Montana’s Gallatin River over summer, trout see anglers and flies every day, so a fly-first presentation can help.

Sheer repetition on the Yu drummed into my not-always-receptive brain that to catch pressured trout, first present your fly as if it’s not attached to anything. I’ve found the same pattern subsequently repeated on some of the famous, heavily-fished rivers in Montana, and even the Mataura in NZ. Spooking fish on these pressured rivers is not a problem – or at least not in the sense that the trout flee and then hide for the rest of the day.

We don’t have a Yu or Gallatin equivalent in Australia, although we come close occasionally! What we do have in busy times, is trout that don’t necessarily spook easily or for very long simply at the presence of anglers, but which are super-critical of presentation. I can’t begin to tell you how much that knowledge has helped me catch trout from pressured water here and overseas.

Conversely, and ironically, trout which don’t encounter anglers often can actually be MORE easily spooked by the presence of these big upright shapes waving a stick!

Find Space

So what else can we do to catch trout when the pressure is on? Well, notwithstanding what I’ve just written, in Australia at least, you can also choose to seek less pressured trout during peak fishing times.

One way, is to simply find water that is being fished less. That might sound like the bleeding obvious, yet the equation isn’t always as apparent as it seems. With lake fishing, you can’t beat big water for escaping the crowds. One reason I love lakes like Great Lake, Eucumbene and Tullaroop, is space – and space you have to walk to. The simple formula is, with every kilometre you walk from the nearest vehicle access point, the number of anglers reduces exponentially. Granted, on the first two lakes, there’s a small risk of being ‘jumped’ by boat anglers, but mostly they stay in their boats!

There’s always plenty of space to fish on big lakes like Tullaroop. (J.Douglas pic.)

On rivers, the formula is a bit more complicated. The walk-before-you-start-fishing rule usually works well, but you need to make a couple of allowances. First, the method requires a decent track or at least easy walking to get a bit of distance, without creating a horror walk back at the end of the day. Second, if someone is fishing from the obvious access point, etiquette demands you walk further upstream (or down) than they are likely to reach – and if the stream has even a moderate border of trees and bushes, you may not be able to find them to work that out.

Incidentally, be careful about using your 4WD as a way to beat the crowds. Sounds good in theory, but there’s nothing worse than spending an hour or more grinding down some tortuous track, only to arrive at the single river crossing and find two or three busy camps set up. Now what?

Fish the bits others reject

On a more micro level, you can still go to a busy stream, BUT choose to fish water that others reject.

This approach requires deliberately fishing the stretches most anglers have a natural aversion to. Thick scrub on the banks, a labourious-to-wade boulder or bedrock bottom, lots of log jams, choking willows or that old angler nemesis, blackberries!

Most anglers reject difficult-to-fish water like this on Snobs Creek – and the trout love that!

Anglers might avoid these sections, but the trout do anything but. I’ve had very good fishing with this approach during otherwise hopelessly busy times on streams like the Delatite, Ovens, upper Yarra, Rubicon, Thredbo, Steavenson and several streams in the Otways, just to name a few. What’s a few scratches if the fishing is good?

Fishing the Hidey Holes

Although there’s sometimes a bit of overlap between the above and this tactic, it is often quite distinct. The trick this time is to identify the places where a trout can pretty much stay out of the way of 95% of anglers, AND still manage to drift feed (i.e. have the current deliver food). It is incredible how big trout – browns especially but sometimes rainbows – find these spots. It can’t just be attrition, because even on streams with relatively few large trout, a disproportionate number end up in these lies after their stream has been subjected to a lot of pressure.

The water circled in the Rubicon River shot is probably passed by several anglers on a busy day – but with all the trailing branches in the way, hardly any of them would go to trouble to fish it. Yet it’s perfect from a trout’s view point if you can get a fly in there.

By the way, Peter Hayes and I wrote about a similar situation during the cormorant plagues a few years ago. The difference is though, back then the trout needed physical cover from attack. But when it’s mere angling pressure that’s the issue, they only need places where it’s hard for an angler to place a fly, or get a realistic drift, or where it’s not obvious a good trout would live in the first place. There’s overlap for sure, but these high-pressure hot spots aren’t limited to places a cormorant couldn’t see a trout, or couldn’t get at a trout.

The other thing you can do when the trout are being pressured, and this is truly amazing, is fish water that’s easy enough to fish, but which is ignored as too insignificant to hold a trout. The Murrumbidgee brown pictured is a classic example. The pool I landed it in, an easy walk upstream from a major bridge access, is big enough to hold a trout of any size – but the main ‘obvious’ run feeding it was barren except for a half pounder. I almost walked past the other feeder; a shallow anabranch barely boot-deep. Fortunately, something told me to make a single cast with the Stimulator, and my best Murrumbidgee trout to date was the result.

This Murrumbidgee beauty came from a small, shallow anabranch that most of us would overlook; including me – almost!

The same thing has happened since on the upper Eucumbene River in summer, the upper Murrumbidgee at Long Plain, and on the Rubicon at the end of this January. I didn’t land that one, but it was 4 pounds at least and in an anabranch most people wouldn’t have bothered with compared to the spectacular run opposite.

Different Methods

Another thing to think about during popular fishing times, is to adjust the type of fishing you do.  We all have our favourite methods for particular areas, however if it’s been busy, maybe something different is needed. For example, at the end of the summer school holidays, the Central Highlands lakes in Tasmania are still a great place to fish, but if you want to polaroid the smaller, shallower waters in the 19 Lagoons, expect trout that are pretty much hiding or fleeing from one angler to another. On the other hand, search for risers and nymphing trout among the cover of weed and somewhat discoloured water of, say, Little Pine, and you can have fine fishing despite recent or even current pressure.

Nymphing Little Pine produced several browns like this, despite an angler every couple of hundred metres – and many more in boats.

The same applies to deep nymphing rivers. It’s one thing to ask a pressured trout to come a metre up to the surface to eat a dry fly, it’s a much more reasonable request to ask a trout glued snuggly to the bottom to move an inch to eat a nymph.

A few years ago I was fishing the Karamea River in New Zealand when I polaroided a big trout a long way up a gorge pool. The only way I could hope to cast to it was to clamber up onto a car-sized boulder in chest-deep water. I’d just pulled myself up when I saw a 7 pounder on the bottom right beside me – and hard up against the boulder. At once I realised it could see me, and I cursed the missed opportunity as it pushed in as hard as it could against the rock. But then I thought, what the heck? I lowered my tungsten nymph down until it was about an inch from the trout’s face. I couldn’t believe it when, barely moving, it opened a big white mouth and inhaled the nymph. Turned out to be the best fish of the day.

So in the air-clear water of the Karamea I had a firsthand view of what a fairly spooked trout looks like eating a fly while deep nymphing. I have to assume that trout was 90% scared, but 10% hungry – just enough that some reflex in its tiny brain couldn’t resist a morsel it could eat so easily, and so inconspicuously.

No luck on the dry, but this summer holidays brownie on the Little River couldn’t resist a nymph on the bottom. (J.Douglas pic)

Subsequently, when the water has been clear enough, I’ve seen the same thing happen on other streams like the Howqua at Sheepyard or Frys during heavy fishing pressure – trout huddled on the bottom and out of the best feeding lies, but still prepared to eat a nymph on their nose. Competition fishers euro nymphing know all about this.

What are you thinking?

In some ways, fishing for pressured trout comes back to my original point about mindset. First there’s the more subjective stuff about what you’re prepared to put up with in terms of fishing among – or in – the wader-steps of a lot of other anglers. There’s no right or wrong answer here, although if you’re in a situation where the stress of other fishers is too much, you either need to leave or recalibrate your expectations. After all, the whole point of flyfishing is to have fun and if you’re not, something needs to change.

During that jassid fall at Penstock I described earlier, I was walking and wading back and forth between two less-popular points on the eastern shore that were only a long cast apart. These seemed to have been overlooked by the 20 or so other shore anglers (and who knows how many boat fishers) on that side of the lake that day. Even so, I hardly felt a sense of solitude, and I was congratulating myself on how well I was coping with that. Then, I’d barely moved from ‘my’ first point to the second for the umpteenth time, when a bloke started barging out towards the spot I’d just left! I was going to say something, probably uncomplimentary, when I noticed a little dingy putting over towards him. The boat pulled up, he hopped in, and was gone again. I took a few deep breaths, and reminded myself that it was my choice to fish this busy lake. Five minutes later, I was back on the same point as a good trout started rising within range.

Penstock Lagoon in February with another angler on my point… but that’s okay.

Pressured Conclusions

I generally have a low tolerance of crowds, and not just fishing – which may be a surprising thing for someone who lived in inner Melbourne for 15 years to admit! But what I’ve learnt is, if my world can totally contract to just me and the fly – at least most of the time! – then that’s good enough. That’s what eventually made the Yu River in Japan not merely tolerable, but enjoyable.

Besides making the day basically good fun, this lack of distraction must occur for the second part to work, being the technical or tactical aspects of the actual fishing. You can’t really fish for pressured trout on autopilot. You need to make some thoughtful decisions on WHERE you’re going to fish in the first place (which we’ve covered), and then WHAT you need to do once you get there (which we’ve also covered). A cast that’s ‘good enough’ normally, or an ‘It’ll do’ drift, won’t in fact do this time.

I’m not suggesting that fishing for pressured trout becomes some sort of brutal exam, only that it requires your attention more than normal. And there are worse fates than having to concentrate on your fishing.