With all the makings of a good winter ahead on the lakes, Philip suggests it’s time to brush up.
It was a grey June afternoon at Hepburn, and the first day I’d been allowed to travel any distance – regional Covid restrictions had just been relaxed. The fishing had been good if not easy at Moorabool Reservoir, the only lake I’d been ‘allowed’ to fish, but of course being permitted to travel more than 5 kilometres for the first time in a week, that’s exactly what I did.
Hepburn had been on my mind; perhaps because you tend to want what you can’t have, but also because, as with most western Victorian lakes, the fundamentals stacked up nicely and were only getting better: quite good stocking in recent years, two seasons of new regulations limiting take, a healthy level over summer, and reasonable if not perfect water quality (this from my own observations pre lockdown).
What I really liked was a small but significant rise in level showing on the Goulburn-Murray Water site since my last visit. On lakes, gently rising levels have promise (for all sorts of reasons, trout like them) and in Hepburn’s case, I was also thinking about some borderline unfishable shores and channels that might be fishable now. Plus, the forecast light south-westerly would be ideal for some of those banks I hoped to explore.
I pulled up at the end of the track to the western shore, a bit surprised to find I was the only one there. Admittedly, Hepburn in winter is a fairly uninviting place, and with low, heavy clouds spitting flecks of cold rain between patches of weak sun, there was little shelter for man or beast besides the odd bent shrub and a couple of lonely clumps of trees. But regulars expect nothing else. The second surprise was the wind – stronger and with more south in it than I’d planned for.
I was just contemplating all this and wondering if I should drive to the dairy (south-eastern) end instead, when a 4WD pulled up. It turned out that, like me, the two occupants had jumped at the opportunity to expand their fishing horizons, although they’d travelled from Barwon Heads, a bit further than me. We had a short chat and it turned out that one of them wasn’t too keen on wind, so I suggested the dairy end, where a lot of wind would be straight offshore (not strongly on the right shoulder as it was where we were).
They concurred and drove off, leaving me once more alone on the lake. While I prefer a less ruffled surface for spotting swirls and rises on a grey day, I usually don’t mind fishing a crosswind, or even an onshore wind. The problem at Hepburn is drifting weed. The lake is as weedy as any I fish, and the thick strap-weed likes to break off and float on the breeze. Casts into, or even across the wind, can see flies and leader quickly fouled by brown debris, rendering fish-catching impossible.
I tied on an olive BMS (smelters had been a feature on my pre lockdown visits) checked the knots at either end of the 8lb tippet, and started casting. Although there was no sun, through my low-light polaroids, I could make out the dark mass of an offshore weed-bed, and the light colour of the lakebed this side of it. I tried a couple of casts across the wind and through this likely-looking channel, but both times I hooked a foot-long strip of loose weed within a hand twist or two.
I gave up and headed further south, where a huge raft of broken weed had actually formed a sort of boom, temporarily preventing most loose weed from drifting further. The area of open water looked great, but I was still caught by surprise when I felt a solid pull halfway through the hang. A chunky two pounder leapt out and proceeded to bounce all over the open water, despite my attempts to bully it in quickly on the 8 pound tippet.
It’s always good to get that first lake fish into the net, and it often takes a lot more than three casts!
In the time it took to land the fish, take a couple of pics, and release it, more good news arrived. The wind dropped slightly, and shifted just a little towards the promised south-westerly direction. As a consequence, small mirrors of calm water began to form between the bank and the ripple, and no sooner had I noticed, than swallows suddenly appeared. Midge! It took perhaps another minute before I spotted the first subsurface boil on the edge of the ripple, which I eagerly covered with the BMS. Nothing. A few more searching casts, a few more minutes… and another boil. Again though, no apparent interest in the smelt pattern.
I always find it hard to change a fly that’s recently caught a fish, but the evidence was starting to recommend it. Although the midge weren’t exactly pouring off, I guessed from the boils and the swallow activity that there were enough for the trout to switch focus to this little delicacy. After all, there’s three times the protein of steak in every pupa! I changed to a favourite set-up for when I’m confident midge are on the menu, yet they’re not prolific: a red Superglue Buzzer, tied on a dropper a metre from a Scintilla Stick Caddis (a ‘meat & potatoes’ pattern for most western Vic lake trout).
Frustratingly, in the time it took to change flies, the wind picked up again and moved back to the south. No more mirror, and the swallows had vanished. Still, I stuck with the plan, and half-a-dozen casts in, there was a firm pull and I was hooked up to a better fish. More of a torpedo than a leaper, the buck rainbow took several minutes to bring to the net… during which time the wind eased once more, out came the swallows, and a trout boiled only a few rod lengths away.
When the barbless Stick Caddis fell out in the net, I didn’t bother with a pic and quickly began covering the area of the boil instead. After a few casts, I was about to widen the search when I noticed the slightest lift of my fly-line between the rod tip and the water: ski-jump turning to ramp. I struck, and was straight into a heavy fish. This one chugged out into the lake in low gear while I hung on and let the drag do its thing. Then the fish rolled on the surface about 20 metres away, a good brown!
This was one I really wanted, but no sooner did I get that glimpse, than the line went slack. A forlorn rig inspection told the story: the buzzer hook had bent wide open.
You guessed it, the wind swung and strengthened again. Such a productive area deserved another half hour anyway. However after that, and with no further signs of life besides the splashes of coots, I reeled in and made the long walk to the southern shore. While I scanned the western bank the whole way, with the ‘noise’ of waves, drifting weed and now drizzle, I realised I’d have to be lucky enough to be tuned into the exact spot when a fish moved to have any chance of noticing it. A long shot, and it didn’t happen.
There was enough shelter on the southern shore to offer a narrow strip of mirror before the ripple, and after a further quarter hour of carefully searching the weed channels, I finally saw a fish move. Once again, it was the more sedate boil of a (possible) midging fish rather than the violent surge of a smelter – for whatever reason, the smelters just weren’t happening today. The first cast with the Sticky plus Buzzer (one with a better hook!) wasn’t touched, but then I noticed a faint shimmer a few metres in the opposite direction from where I thought the ‘boiler’ had been heading.
The two flies were there in an instant, I let them settle for a moment, and had time for only half a hand twist before a hard pull. It was another nice rainbow and as with nearly every rainbow I’ve hooked in Hepburn these last couple of years, it was bloody hard to bring in. But I did, and with some relief. It was on the buzzer again (decent hook this time) and the trailing Sticky had a tail of strap-weed. While the two fly set-up had proved its worth, I was reminded of the possible cost: the chance of the trailing fly snagging.
After one last patch of watery sunlight, the wind got stronger and the sky even darker. The radar showed a band of heavier rain racing up from the south, so after another 20 minutes of casting, I wound in and walked around the hillside and back to the car. I packed up the rod and wriggled out of my waders just as the first fat drops of proper rain splatted on the open tailgate.
Go back several months, and it was a kind summer on western Victoria’s lakes. People who keep meticulous records of these things tell me the water temperature at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat ran 2 degrees below average during what is, of course, the hottest time of year.
You would be within your rights to extrapolate similarly cool summer water temperatures across most trout lakes across western Vic: outside the far north-west, the state had its coolest summer for 15 years, and it was wetter too. For those who want to mine the detail, it’s all here.
But if we don’t fish the lakes much over summer anyway, what does all that mean for now? Well, based on experience so far in 2021, it seems likely the cool water over summer – coupled with reasonable lake levels – has had a significant effect on trout size and condition; and possibly even survival numbers. (Summer is usually the season of greatest trout mortality on the lakes.) Averaged out over all waters, the trout are bigger, fatter and possibly more numerous; it’s like we’ve had our own equivalent of a New Zealand mouse year.
It’s less clear why there are so many baitfish around as we head into winter – both Australian smelt and galaxias – but they’re certainly welcome!
In any case, everything is lining up for a good winter of flyfishing on the lakes in the Victoria’s western half. If you were ever tempted to give the lakes a try, it’s as good a time as any.
But I get it: lakes are big and relatively featureless compared to streams, and trout numbers per square metre are never a match for those lovely eastern Victorian fastwaters we’ve just finished fishing. So how do you make the transition?
Just as I did with Hepburn, it’s well worth researching recent lake history (trout stocking, water levels and water quality), and then current conditions, when making decisions on where to fish. Trust me, this is a much more reliable method than searching for the latest social media hot-spot. This winter, the first part is easy: the vast majority of western Vic lakes I considered worthy of listing in my latest book on the subject, are in either good or very good shape – decent trout stocks and very decent size, plus good water quality and levels. The only exceptions are a few waters like poor old Toolondo, which is so low, trout fishing seems an unlikely prospect until there are several months of substantially improved levels.
Elsewhere, in winter 2021 you only have to concern yourself with the real-time conditions affecting the water/s when you plan to visit. Luxury! Look for reasonable water clarity (2ft plus is enough), and stable or rising levels. Very rapid rises in level can equate to dirty water from flooded inflows, and can also create too much of a good thing for the trout, which cheerfully feed on drowned terrestrials a long way out from shore (and down deep). Algae blooms are the other reason water can discolour, and while unpredictable, problematic blooms are less likely in the cold water of winter.
Weather is another real-time factor to consider. During winter, I’d rather avoid very strong winds because the wind-whipped surface makes spotting harder; and I’d rather avoid extreme cold, because already cold water temperatures which are falling even further, tend to suppress trout activity. Wind direction is a real consideration, and for some waters, it will be the element most likely to determine if I visit – or not. For example, anything with east in it counts in favour of a Purrumbete visit because there’s good fishing on the eastern shore and reasonable foot access. But I don’t like easterlies at Wartook because the eastern shore is inaccessible… unless I have boat access.
Cloud or sun? Rain or fine? On most winter lakes, I’m not too concerned as none of these necessarily works against good fishing… although fishing in a downpour can reduce angler willingness to persevere!
For all that, the adage about fishing when you can certainly applies in winter. On a recent Grampians trip, JD and I knew we’d be fishing in less than ideal conditions, but we only had a two day window and so we went anyway – and caught fish. While the action was certainly below par, it was nevertheless an enjoyable trip, and JD even managed a reasonable rainbow at Wartook in an icy south-easterly gale: conditions I would never recommend.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to get your winter lake confidence up, maybe you should avoid adverse conditions and wait until you can pick a trip during fairly settled weather.
You’ll want a rod and line which, if necessary, can cast a large fly easily in strong winds. I use a 9’6” 6 weight, and usually, a floating line. Floaters are the most practical lines for sight-fishing, and this is always on my agenda – even if chances are few and fleeting. Sinking lines can be useful, but more from a boat than the shore (and I mostly fish from the shore). If I need to get deep temporarily, a heavy fly and a long fluorocarbon tippet will suffice.
Speaking of tippet, the priority is strength. More about this… and big nets… and a decent reel, here.
Roll on Winter
I’m typing at my desk while rain lashes the southern side of my house. It’s a pig of a day – 6C, with a Severe Weather Warning for Damaging Winds, and another for Heavy Rainfall (with a risk of flash flooding). Even I’m not going out in that! But give it a couple of days, and that wind is forecast to settle, most lakes will have had a handy top-up (I’ll check the websites to see which have had too much) and it’ll be time to get out there again. I’m looking forward to that, I really am.
FLYSTREAM FACTS – WESTERN VICTORIA WINTER LAKE FLIES
Everyone wants the magic fly, and I know the feeling! But under cold hard analysis, it turns out that, in many cases, the western winter lakes fly you feel confident fishing, is the best fly.
For what it’s worth, my winter box looks like this:
- Woolly Buggers and variants (like Magoos in various weights and sizes, in olive or green, followed by black). Whatever the tie, plenty of inherent movement helps. I don’t like oversized hackles, but I do like Marabou and other soft, ‘wiggly’ fibres like emu. The more the fly can pulse and wriggle on its own, the better. As well as a few that are lightly weighted, carry some with gold bead-heads, and some with orange bead-heads.
- The BMS, and Olive Zonker patterns like Wet’s Zonker, the Gambusia and the Green Machine.
- Scintilla Stick Caddis, mostly with dark bodies; some with orange heads, some with a more ‘natural’ pale yellow or pale green head.
- Buzzers – lots! Including red, and black with a splash of red. And Milly Midge. All in size 12-16.
- Griffiths Gnat and Claret Carrot.
- Orange-beaded nymphs.
- And last but by no means least, a traditional Tom Jones or ten.