Whose fish?

Australia’s handful of genuinely alpine lakes are invariably pretty, but they aren’t always easy fisheries. You would think (hope?) they’d be full of desperate trout, trying to make up for the privations of a long, harsh winter. I’ve seen these lakes frozen over completely, more like an odd-shaped football field than anything you could fish in. It’s easy to imagine the cold, dark world beneath the ice. Brrrr!

So, when the ice melts, the surrounding snow thaws, and that rare warm summer’s day comes along, you would think it would be like a starter’s gun. How could the deprived trout do anything other than carelessly rise to the bounty of alpine insects?

That was the plan for Steve and I, or more correctly, Steve’s plan for us. It was the first mild summer day for a week, and a day on the back of a cold spring, and a winter of deep and prolonged snow. We were almost cackling in triumph as we drove up through the clouds and into the sunshine.

Full of promise.

We parked, filled the daypack with snacks and drinks, checked our gear, tied on flies (one each of Stu Young’s generously-donated leggy foam creations) and strode down the path with all the enthusiasm of flyfishers with a whole day of paradise ahead. Soon after, we arrived at a steep bank above the lake, and Steve immediately spotted a distant but distinct rise.

That was the last sign of a fish for 3 hours. Beetles crash-landed, caddis flitted, and midge buzzed, but not another trout was seen. We polaroided shore after shore until our eyes watered, blind-fished soaks and stream inflows, wind-lanes and foam lines. Nothing.

On occasion, Steve and I might allow that we’re fairly experienced flyfishers, who can nut out most angling problems given enough hours on a water. This time though, we were truly stumped. Had the trout filled up? Had the cormorants spooked them? Were they somewhere we hadn’t looked yet? All these seemed like rather lame excuses. We were fishing in an absolutely beautiful spot on a lovely day, so our lack of success was hardly a disaster. But we had all but given up and it was about time to try another water. Almost.

Trying everything, but nothing.

There was a shore we hadn’t tried, mainly because it’s a shore Steve hasn’t had much success on. As it wasn’t too much of a detour from the walk back, I suggested we give it a go for 15 minutes. Nothing to lose. As we approached, a trout rose once in the middle distance. A sniff.

From the high bank, there was a constant good view down into the ultra-clear lake, and suddenly after hours of nothing, Steve yelled, “Bloody hell, look, a fish!” Then I saw it, a big trout-like shape that was too good to be true… until it moved. After a very short, ‘you go’, ‘no you go’ discussion, I ended up creeping down to water level, losing all visibility in the process, while Steve spotted from above. Kneeling on the sandy edge and following Steve’s urgent commentary regarding the now-invisible trout, I flicked Stu’s fly a safe distance behind its apparently departing shape.

“It’s gone behind that huge boulder,” called Steve breathlessly. Then, “Bugger, I’ve lost it, he hasn’t come out the other side.” Well, fair enough, I thought. One sighting on a large, deep lake is hardly a guarantee of a shot, let alone a catch. “Wait, he’s coming back!” alerted Steve, as surprised as I was. An odd-shaped rock on the shore gave me a sighter, and I recast the fly. Evidently, it landed about 4 metres ahead of the still-invisible (to me) fish.

The trout must have detected the plip, and according to Steve’s commentary, “He’s heard it, he’s coming… coming… having a look… having a look…”  The time frame was too long, and I waited for the inevitable “He’s refused it.” Instead, incredibly, a nose stuck out and clomped the foam fly. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to strike too soon, and I lifted into an explosion.

Anxious minutes.

The big brown leapt clear of the water, tore off, then dived 20 feet down. It was all nerve-wracking, but without any obvious weed or other obstacles, I realised if I kept my cool, success was possible. And after several more minutes, I had the best alpine lake trout I’ve managed to slide a net under.

It was a blissful moment, and as Steve correctly described, a day-changer. Yet after the trout swam off and we basked in our success, the talk soon turned to what had led to its capture.

I’ve fished that lake several times, and know it quite well. But not as well as Steve knows it, or some of our mutual fishing mates who generously share their knowledge with us… as we do with them. What about the actual sighting? While I suggested that shore, it was Steve who actually spotted the trout as I was scanning further away for rises. And once I was down at water level, I was totally dependent on Steve’s tracking of the fish to make the crucial presentation. As for Stu’s fly, on a day when, for whatever reason, hardly any real food was being taken off the surface, it had the crucial appeal to generate a committed take.

Stu’s fly played an important part.

Whose fish was it? Certainly not mine alone. The reality was, it was caught by about half a dozen of us, and as we puffed up the steep slope to the car, Steve and I agreed that was probably the case with many of the trout we catch. On this glorious high country day, that was a nice thought.