A deep, steady drumming on the roof woke me in the dead of night. The sound swelled to almost deafening proportions and then ran out of steam. I held my breath each time the sound petered out. Was this the end of the storm? Each time the sound welled up I felt my chest tighten. No, it’s not gone yet. This is the 150mm rain that was predicted. Not good if you are in Bright, in Victoria’s north-east, and planning to fish the next day. I twisted and turned, haunted by thoughts of previous trips to the north-east with my friend Chris which were cancelled: flooding, then the January 2020 bushfires, then Covid-19 lockdowns… Was tomorrow going to be another one? I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Waking up at 6am, the drumming had stopped. Trees were drooping and dripping heavily. The Ovens River roared at the back gate. Not good. We made our agreed 7am phone call to friend and guide Matthew Howell and decided to roll the dice. The 4WD was fuelled up in town. The bitumen soon made way for gravel, and before long we were splashing through deep puddles and winding our way up through the hills. Where a gate blocked the track, the car was parked. Daypacks were filled and strapped on. The rain had stopped. The sky showed a menacing dark grey and patches of blue all at once. We were still rolling the dice. Then we hoofed it through tracks and into the bush, Matthew taking the lead. We had our first glimpse of the river – it was flowing clear! High fives all around and rods were rigged.
This far up into the mountains, the stream was always going to be a ‘dry or die’ proposition. I had even been convinced to leave my Czech nymph rod in the car. This is unusual. It made me feel like walking into a bar fight with one arm tied behind my back. It got worse when Matthew proposed to fish a Royal Wulff. I took a deep breath. I mean, it is a classic dry fly, full of triggers and it is totally robust. Yet it spins light leaders and trout have seen them by the dozen. I stopped using this fly long ago. But up here, fishing pressure was probably not an issue, so we gave the Wulff a whirl.
First cast with the dreaded Wulff, a nice brown lazily snaked up from the depths of the pool. It sucked in the Wulff and turned down. I lifted the rod. The fly popped out and made a gentle arc through the air. Time to hand the rod to Chris. Next run, same deal. Another fish took the fly, and an apparently well-timed lift produced a flying Wulff. This was repeated three more times until Matthew suggested we check the hook. It had come off! All of us were puzzled by that, as the fly had not touched a tree or a rock; only trout and a series of well-controlled strikes. (No arm-slinging karate chop hook sets.) A reminder that it pays to check the fly after a missed fish. Always. We tied on another Wulff and fish started coming to the net.
A few runs up, I climbed onto a high ledge and peered into a deep pool as the Wulff drifted through the slow section. Suddenly, a grey smudge in the shape of a football appeared under the fly and its big head intercepted it. ‘One-two-three, lift’. The rod nearly doubled out of my hand. Whopper on! At least 3lb. First thought: 5X tippet should be enough. Second thought: move my feet to stay with the fish. So far so good. But as Matthew scrambled along the bank with his net, the fish did a Usain Bolt out of the pool. Going hard and going downstream. In my eagerness to hold the fish near Matthew and the net, I did that unforgivable thing – I clamped up. Just for a second. But the damage was instantly done. The line came tight, the rod bent double. Then no more pull, and a slack, lifeless line wafted back to me on a mountain breeze. Then silence. No harsh words, no jokes. You know you are with good mates and mad-keen fishers by the way they respond when you lose a whopper.
We moved on up the rocky stream, picking up chunky fish at the back of most pools. Then a second whopper appeared, easily 3lb, cruising in to intercept the Wulff Chris had placed in the bubble line. Just as it opened its mouth to eat, his tippet caught on a tiny twig. The fly stopped dead and so did the fish. It made a confused, angry circle around the fly and jumped. Never to be seen again. Silence, followed by some swearing this time. I often wonder how a twig as tiny as a match can stand between glory and failure. Tolstoy once wrote about something similar. I guess there is a lesson here in the complete randomness of life. At least that’s what I offered Chris whilst he was probably quietly kicking himself for not mending the line over that twig and nudging randomness his way!
And so we kept going around each riverbend, ‘Horsing them in with Howell’. When a fish did reject the Wulff, I sometimes quickly replaced it with of my newly-minted, secret CDC flies while Matthew was distracted in conversation with Chris about horses and riding. Those fish then simply ate the fly as if it were a natural. Cast, eat, lift, release, repeat.
Meanwhile, the scenery took my breath away. The sounds and smells of the forest after rain this high up make for a sensory experience.
A bit more about fish rejecting the fly… Trout favoured hugging the back of the pool, and we sometimes blamed the Wulff for a refusal. (I always did anyway!) But whilst occasionally the CDC would outperform it, what was really happening was the dreaded drag. Our lines would be pulled into fast water below the tail-out, dragging the fly before the trout had a chance to grab it. Holding our rod tips high kept line off the water, and that helped. But by the end of the day, we got smarter: move more side on and make a reach cast. Job done.
Then the last fish of the day came into view. Another sighted whopper. Chris’s perfect long cast, a slow eat and well-timed hook-set produced a 1½lb fish. Well, slightly less whopper than we had estimated from a distance. But a great fish to end the day.
Then it was time to pack the rods in their sleeves. Like an airbus getting ready for take-off, we stored away all lose gear and bits and pieces. Put it all in the pack. It was time for the Matthew Howell express to take off through a wall of green as we plunged into the forest. There we slid down banks, skirted past a few lazy copperheads and seemingly skated down the river. Pushing our way back to the car. Over logjams we went, under fallen trees, stepping into mossy holes I hoped were not home to Mr. Tiger Snake. Each step could spell the end. Dripping with sweat we stopped. Chris and I were in sweaty waders, while Matthew was wearing Chuck Norris-strength gaiters. This allowed him to truly wet wade, moving fast and fang-free. That new gear is a great idea (and I have a special birthday coming up…).
Turned out we had 100 to 150mm rain, and still some of my best dry fly fishing in years. And the Wulff? I am telling Matthew that it has regained a place in my fly box. But first I’ll use my CDC fly; tied on hooks that won’t break or buckle. Long may our banter, tall stories, wanderlust and immersive experiences on the north-east streams continue!