Working it all out in Gippsland

Petter finds the meaning of (flyfishing) life – well, sort of – on East Gippsland estuaries. 

Maslow’s pyramid of human motivation is a theory about human needs and behaviour. It says we are driven by 5 needs: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualisation needs. While flyfishing gives us sense of belonging and the occasional sense of love towards our fishing buddies, it’s mainly the two top tiers where our hobby comes into play.

The top tier is about self-actualisation: reaching our full potential through problem-solving and creativity. This is where we take some risks, and venture into the unknown to get better at something new. This is the spice in life, the last piece in achieving true fulfilment. It comes after all the other basics are in order. Working out where the fish are, and how to get them to take our fly, is about problem-solving and creativity. As flyfishers, we find great joy in this.

Self-esteem tier peaking. Dun feeders on a familiar lake.

Near the top of Maslow’s pyramid, one step below self-actualisation, there’s the self-esteem tier. Prestige and accomplishment. This is the feeling we get when we do something that we’re good at. Something that gives us confidence and the feeling that we’re killin’ it. ‘Oh yeah, I’m so good at this!’ Going back to a familiar spot and knowing exactly what to do to catch heaps of fish gives us that feeling. Like that favourite run during an evening rise. No need to think. Just pull ‘em in, one after the other. This too gives us great joy.

When Andrew sent me a message back in Feb saying ‘Mate, it’s time to go fishing! Been too long,’ I said yes without hesitation, knowing that when I go fishing with him, I’ll be killing it, coming back feeling good about myself. Radiating self-esteem. Will be fishing with people in the know. Gonna brain ’em for sure. That’s what I needed. Through Covid, my fishing rods have been collecting dust, waders have gone mouldy, and my passion waning… Time for a booster.

I had no say in the planning. Andrew was in control. Bream and estuary perch in East Gippsland. Trip designed to test the new toy, a Hewes Redfisher, and hit these fisheries in their prime. The boat was Andrew’s dream watercraft, basically designed for the fishing we were in for. I was ready. Just needed a top-up of suitable flies, so stopped by the shop. There was no shortage of advice and encouraging anecdotes from the boys about the bream being everywhere out there. ‘Just give it a few twitches, pause and you’ll be on’.
Monday 6am start. I’m down at the front of my apartment as Andrew pulls up in the Land Rover with the Redfisher on the back, looking just a little out of place in the busy streets of South Melbourne.

‘Nice rig buddy! I wish I could be you just for a little bit, have your toys, feel what it’s like to be a real man.’

To which Andrew replies, ‘Nah you’re from Norway, you’ll never understand what that feels like.’

‘Yeah, but I’m pretty so it doesn’t matter’.

We’re off to a good start. And after searching out a coffee we’re on the road, heading to Bemm River, where we’ll meet talented photographer Michael Hurren @hurricane_flyfishing, and stay for three nights. The target is primarily bream. We’ve got the gear, the perfect boat, the confidence, and the skills. ‘Man, this is gonna be so good. It’ll be boiling with fish down there’. We’re bursting with anticipation.

As we settle in for the 6 hour drive, I start asking about techniques and what sort of fishing we’re in for. I’d been very passive on this one. No reading, no planning, just happy to let Andrew take control.

As I begin probing about the fishing, a sense of doubt starts creeping in. Andrew doesn’t seem to know where in the lake we’ll be fishing, what the tides are doing, or if the inlet is open or closed. Surely these are important considerations? Has he dragged me along as a test rabbit on a trip that is about learning something new? Taking risks? We may not be able to work it out. Return feeling beaten. No boost in self-esteem, just a humbling experience to remind me how little I know about flyfishing. That I’m useless at it. This is not what I need to help me get back into fishing!

Andrew can sense my concerns, and quickly reassures me that Mick will know. He’s keen as hell and would have worked it out for us. Ah good!

Mick is there waiting as we pull up at Bemm River Cottages around midday. He’s been scoping things out. He sure seems keen and speaks with confidence about what we should be doing. We get our stuff sorted, beers in the Esky, rods rigged, and the boat is soon sliding off the trailer into the lake. It’s warm, humid, and a light breeze. Birds everywhere. In the glassy water we see wakes from the fish moving around in the shallows. Ooh boys, this is gonna be good!

Motor starts up and idles while Mick and Andrew are chatting. They decide to head straight across the lake to a nice-looking shoreline to the south at the Mahoganies, where Jim Allen allegedly caught heaps of bream 50 years ago. As we near the shoreline, we deploy the electric motor and approach the shallows with care. With our rods ready, we see fish scattering away from our boat. Spooked! We can’t get within 20m of fish before we see big swirls and wakes as they flee. The wind is offshore. As we move repeatedly into the flats, the fish are spooked, and then we drift off. We persist for a few hours. Trying shrimp patterns, Gurglers, BMS. But it feels hopeless. We are just spooking fish everywhere we go. It seems that after all, we’re just three guys on the perfect boat with all the gear, experience with all sorts of fishing, but without a clue about what it takes to catch a bream.

We begin debating our next move. A few ideas thrown around, but with no one taking charge, decision paralysis set in. I suggest a beer to a resounding YES from all. Everything feels good again. As we enjoy our beer, the boat is drifting towards the eastern shoreline. A snag sticks out of the water just at the drop-off between the shallow weedy flats and deeper water. It looks perfect.

Andrew drinks his beer faster than normal and announces, ‘I’m fishing that snag.’ He gets his rod out, ties on a Gurgler, and pulls line off the reel. We use the electric to get into position. The scene is perfect. Beautiful loops in the cast. Mick and I with beers in hand. Glow from the setting sun. Delightful. We’re in with a chance here!

Despite everything feeling so positive, the cast goes straight into the snag and gets stuck. We head over to retrieve the fly. We laugh, give Andrew a hard time, and open another beer. It’s been a long day. We deserve it.

As we enjoy our beer, we hear a heavy THUMP behind the boat and turn around to see a large swirl, and a lot of water moved. Interesting. Light is getting lower. Another THUMP. We quickly finish our beers and Mick suggests surface flies. Second cast, and Mick’s surface fly is crunched by a solid bream to loud cheers from all of us. Wow! What a take! We have an hour of glorious fishing. Several bream and estuary perch landed using surface flies. Something very big grabs Andrew’s fly, but he pulls too hard and breaks off. We all agree it was huge. And that he should have done better. Great boat banter. We motor back to the ramp with invigorated hope for day two.

We’re up at 7am and fill up on bacon and eggs, then pack the Esky for a full day of boating and flyfishing. Once back on the water, we head straight out for that snag, hoping to begin the day where we left it the night before. But that’s not how fishing works. Tide was different. Wind was different. We fish hard for a couple of hours, mixing things up with fly selection and retrieve. It seems devoid of fish. We reconsider our plans. It’s 11am. Too soon for beer? No.

We find a little quiet eddy and drop the anchor to contemplate our next move. Let’s fish the deep drop-off along the channel leading out towards to mouth. Lots of snags, and the water is clear. Might spot some. And we do. Heaps. But very spooky fish, and we’re not converting effectively. One mullet and one bream sighted and caught. Both on little shrimp patterns. That’s it for day two. Eight hours of fishing, two fish caught. But we’re laughing. We know we are very far from having worked out anything about this lake, with so much more to discover.

But that will have to wait for another time, because on day 3, we head to Tamboon Inlet. It’s similar in size to Bemm, but prettier, with its hilly surroundings, and tea-tree lined shores. Sections of boulders along the shoreline looked interesting. With the surroundings and the colour of the water, it feels like we’re on Bronte Lagoon in Tassie. Anticipation is up. The hard work from previous days forgotten. New beginnings.
We worked hard. Fishing snags, edges and weed-beds for no return. Just one massive swipe at Mick’s popper out of nowhere. Probably a tailor – it misses the fly and cuts through his tippet. The popper floats, intact, and we retrieve it, laughing at our misfortune. We’re now at the point where we’re lacking any real purpose or direction. We are beaten. Unaccomplished. Beer anyone? Yes.

Hey, let’s go check the entrance. We motor across the lake and arrive at beautiful-looking water. This will hold all sorts of stuff. Surely! We pull up to the shore, after having learned from the previous day that these settings are challenging to fish from a boat when the tide is running. We start fishing some shallow flats where Mick had detected some diamond-shaped prints in the sand, suggesting flathead country. Second cast and BAM! Mick is hooked into a huge dusky flathead. He lands it, and after some photos, decides to release it. Big flatties like this are best left to breed. We have an extremely productive session, catching 6 flathead and a nice bream within a couple of hours. All on chartreuse Clousers. Sometimes it’s just so easy. We’re thrilled. A massive fix of endorphins, laughter and banter. The last few hours of fishing on the trip. Such a sweet way to wrap things up.

We have a meal at Cann River pub that night, watching the Shane Warne memorial from the MCG. Amazed at how many people’s lives he touched. Must take someone really true to themselves to make an impression on all those people. No pretending, no trying to please, just be at one with yourself. It was a touching ceremony. The burly blokes in high viz and dirty boots at the pub agree. It goes quiet when Sir Elton John pays his tribute.

Now back in Melbourne, I can’t wait to return to the water. The trip is not what I imagined it would be. It was hard. I don’t feel accomplished. It didn’t help with my self-esteem as a fisherman. I feel humbled by how much there is to learn in flyfishing. The trip has made me more curious though. A trigger to get out of my comfort zone, try something new. Tap into other sources of joy, not just going back to that familiar stretch of water on the Goulburn where I know the big dog lives, or the old faithful dry-dropper on my favourite stream. Those trips are reassuring and safe. I go there and feel confident I will catch fish. Return with photos and bragging rights. But we need to keep challenging ourselves to keep the passion alive. Stay creative, and continue problem-solving. Become a better, more versatile flyfisher.

And then there’s the sense of belonging, community and the love we find in the friendships we build. These friendships grow the most during testing times, when fishing is hard, there are unexpected events, we’re tired, wet and hungry. The joy and fulfilment we find from the bonds that we form during our fishing adventures sit lower down in Maslow’s pyramid – the fundamentals. It’s at the core of what we do in flyfishing and such a big part of why it makes us happier. Fishing is about so much more than the fishing itself. I’m hugely grateful for the friendships I have found through flyfishing.

Thanks guys, for all those great trips.