Sea-run brown trout are an established flyfishing target in Tasmania and New Zealand, but here in Victoria, their status is less clear. Seems there’s some question whether sea-runners in the Warrnambool rivers and parts of Gippsland are the real deal, and I won’t argue the case one way or the other.
However, I have no doubt there are true sea-run browns in Victoria’s Otway streams. For starters, as a boy I watched by torchlight as a large trout (about 20 inches) swam from the breaking waves and up the Cumberland River while my Dad surf-fished nearby. Since then, from time to time I’ve caught trout in the lower reaches of many Otway streams which feature the distinctive silver colouration and flaking scales of trout which have recently returned from the sea.
Often, these catches have corresponded with spring migrations of juvenile galaxias from the ocean; the so-called whitebait runs (which also drive much of the sea trout fishing in Tasmania and New Zealand). While estuary and freshwater resident trout certainly enjoy ‘smelting’ on the little galaxias, over the years, I’ve also caught bright silver trout sporting big mouthfuls of them.
Although all of this is exciting and full of potential, even in the premier Tasmanian locations, fishing for sea-run browns is maddeningly unpredictable. My friends who’ve fished for and studied Tasmanian sea trout for decades, credit whitebait runs as a major driver of sea trout action… but they confess the timing of these runs can vary a lot for all sorts of reasons: year to year, day to day and even hour to hour. I count some of my Tassie sea trout experiences as among the best and most exciting fishing I’ve ever had. However, I have to be honest – there have also been many Tassie sea trout days that were dead.
The point of all this is to recognise that, as a comparatively minor sea trout fishery, it makes sense that the Otways are even more fickle, to the point where some years, a sea trout becomes about as mythical as an Otway panther! Short of living on the lower reaches of a decent Otway stream and monitoring it daily, I’ve come to accept that catching a sea-runner down there is as much about the luck of being in the right spot at the right moment, as anything.
Still, whenever I make an Otway trip in spring, sea trout are on my mind and I usually try for them at least once. There’s no fish more likely to win my forgiveness for a series of blanks, than a sea-runner.
By chance, a cuppa recently with Tom Jones creator John Lanchester gave me the opportunity to hear first-hand his account of giant sea trout he caught years ago amongst the Barwon River mulloway. Not that I expected to match his feat of a near-30 pounder in an Otway stream, but it was an inspiring tale!
So, when last weekend offered another opportunity to see if I could strike it lucky for a bit of Otway silver, I called Max, and we headed to the Aire River.
We arrived to find the unusual combination of high flows and clear-ish water. (Usually, when the Aire is high, it’s also quite discoloured.) It was a good start. The theory with Australasian sea trout fishing is, strong flows push any whitebait to the edges or the lee of obstructions, concentrating the little fish, and making them an easier and more attractive target for trout. That’s certainly been my experience, both in Tasmania and the Otways.
We couldn’t find any obvious baitfish schools, but we fished the attractive, snaggy water with confidence. I searched with a BMS at first, then changed to a black Woolly Bugger. Max went with a Zonker pattern and after we’d been fishing for about half an hour, he scored the first hit – a tantalising ‘pick-pick’ which didn’t come up tight. A little later, I had almost exactly the same experience. We seemed to be getting warm, but were they sea trout plucking at our flies, or resident ‘regular’ trout?
I continued upstream to where a small drain entered on the far bank. Such places are known spots for whitebait to gather, so I threw a long cast out towards the mouth, let the fly settle for a few seconds, and commenced a retrieve. Almost immediately, there was a savage take, and I was into a good fish. Seconds later, and I glimpsed a flash of silver. Woohoo! It was no yard-long John Lanchester fish, but like many sea trout, it was very strong for its size, and it was quite a struggle to keep it out of the logs upstream and down.
After a few anxious minutes, I slipped the net under a two pound sea-runner. Max arrived in time to witness the moment, and I suspect if anyone was watching from afar, they would have wondered why two grown men were making such a fuss over a one kilo trout.
With renewed confidence, we headed further upriver. Not long after my catch, we each saw a fish bust-up on baitfish; however we couldn’t get either fish to take. I did catch a smaller resident brown, but by then a mild October afternoon had turned damp and chilly, with a cold ocean wind laced with drizzle pushing up the valley.
Later in the day, we found some shelter further inland on some smaller creeks, and caught plenty of ‘regular’ trout a fair bit more easily than we’d caught fish in the lower Aire. But as the light ran out in the deep Otway valleys and we headed back to the car, all the conversation was about sea trout. They really can get under your skin.