The Lowland Rise
Tassie fly fishers and regular "blow-ins" like myself will remember the 2006-7 Tasmanian trout season for the late season dry fly bonanza that took place on the lowland rivers in the northern midlands. The only thing preventing the fish from rising every day was inclement weather and even then a few fish could usually be picked up by visiting notorious insect hatching "hot spots'.
Some of the hatches were immense and the dry fly fishing was outstanding. Every single fish we caught during March and April was stalked, seen or ambushed. On certain days the fish were working themselves into a feeding frenzy likened to the spectacle of bronze whalers rounding up pilchards in the surf. We couldn't even reel in our fly lines without fish slashing and smashing dry flies as they skidded and waked across the surface. The late season fly fishing in northern Tasmania completely eclipsed the early and mid-season's sport.
Enter the black ant
The best dry fly action came to some enormous flying ant hatches that took place both in the highlands and the northern midlands. At one point it almost became farcical driving through Cressy observing heaving clouds of ants hovering up and down Cressy Road. The locals were either bemused or annoyed by the presence of the flying insects but the nearby trout were waiting in gluttonous anticipation.
The colossal head of fish which live in both Brumby's Creek and the Macquarie River began positioning themselves mid-stream from around 10 am waiting for the flying ants to come hovering over the water. Providing the weather was fine and the breeze light, there were predictable hatches each day peaking at around 1 pm, then dissipating and ceasing by 3 pm. If you were fortunate enough to experience Tassie magic, clear skies, warm air and very light winds, you could almost set you watch to the gigantic hatches, which took place under these conditions.
As the weather deteriorated, so did the hatches. Cold, blustery overcast conditions kept the insects out of sight and the trout down. In these conditions, fly fisher's really desperate for some action managed to scratch out the odd fish by searching the depths but to me this is a bit like watching grass grow, possibly less interesting. The flipside to fishing a trout Mecca like northern Tasmania, is the unpredictability of the weather, especially late in the season. For every fine day you will get an absolute shocker. Normally there will be 2 or 3 days of really poor weather followed by a fine spell, then back to the bar for another 2 or 3 days. It's important to make use of the fine spells and fish hard during these times.
One of the more notable observations I made during the autumn involved the generally erratic and capricious Brumby's Creek. The HEC who regulate the flows on this celebrated water had raised and lowered the flows all season. Quite often the "tap would be turned on" in the morning and switched off later the same day, only to resume again later that night! This type of thing is usual for Brumby's and regular fly fishers become blasÃ© about these flow irregularities.
Normally when the tap is on and the water is up, fly fishers from near and far will be found patrolling around or drifting over weir number 1, picking off the monster brown trout that govern this great water. When the water flowed, the fishing was superb at dawn and dusk with trout mooching around the edges sipping beetles or splashing at red spinners if the weather was cooler. The beetle feeders were big, unproblematic and predictable, but the fish gliding under the clouds of red spinners were cautious and galling. That said, they could be coerced using a flat red spinner fished in the surface film, but the tippet had to be unobtrusive. Co-polymer tippets are indispensable on these demanding trout.
I rarely bother joining the crowds on weir number 1 anymore during clear days. The maddening trout feeding on adult dragon and damselflies are a sadistic diversion I usually try to avoid. When the gigantic weir number 1 fish are performing back flips taking these large flies, an astute fly fisher can find another late season bonanza just down the road.
The canals, which link the 3 weirs to the Macquarie River are, a magnet for the big flying ant hatches previously mentioned. Surprisingly the better fishing occurred during those maligned days when the HEC turned off the Brumby's Creek tap at Poatina. The very low water served to concentrate the enormous head of Brumby's Creek weir fish into the confined canal runs and pools, where they could be found gorging themselves on flying ants.
One day when conditions were perfect, I stopped at Lees Bridge and almost fell in upon seeing 30 or more fish rising to ants in stationed positions upstream of the bridge. Further inspection revealed hundreds of fish rising throughout the entire canal system. The weirs were depleted of water, lifeless and bleak and the canals were receiving an influx of hungry, opportunistic fish. Every conceivable patch of water saw fish sipping black ants from the surface. It reminded me of the old-timers tales of the famous Shannon Rise, where you could "walk across the fish's backs" as they moved upstream from the Shannon Lagoon in search of the snowflake caddis.
Furthermore on this weekday I had the entire system to myself. A car with three very "green" fly fishers drove up and down the dirt track beside the canals showing some moderate interest only to drive back out the gates headed in the direction of Miena. I wonder if they realised what was causing the water surface to boil the way it was?
A small black spider fished dry on a fine co-polymer tippet brought a dozen fish to the bank in a little over fifteen minutes. This frenetic action started to become ridiculous as 1-1 ½ pound fish kept taking everything thrown at them, so I decided to limit my casting over the gin clear water choosing to target the bigger rises and larger fish. A pod of quality fish were rising line a stern below some bushes mid-stream, closer to the near bank. These heavier fish were the ultra-selective erudite variety, which ridicule any hint of drag. They became irritating during the latter part of the hatch as the wind picked up, refusing deliveries which positioned the fly more than two inches either side of their station. When presentations met their approval the fly was taken convincingly usually in the top lip, a common occurrence with ant feeders. The fish in this small area averaged 2-2 ½ pounds with one big-tailed fish pushing towards 3 ½ pounds.
This activity took place every day during late March providing the sky showed more blue than grey and when the wind was mild to warm. Previously I would never have picked the Brumby's Creek canals as a setting for hatches of this magnitude especially at minimum flow.
The flying ants were also present on the Macquarie River during the day but in nowhere near the same proportion. The "Mac" fish are notoriously stubborn patrons due to their tendency to shift positions in the river, refusing to take up station in opportune locations. The trap here was to speedily cast a fly just ahead of the rise before the fish had a chance to move on. A fly delivered approximately one foot ahead of the rise usually encouraged a take. Quickly landing the fly in the forward ripples of the rise usually saw the fish offer a bit of latitude in terms of perfect presentation. In fact a splashy landing in the rings of a rise was often met with a more confident take as the fish took immediate notice of the imitation.
The evening rise
I've always found daytime fishing on the lower Mac a bit of a slog, never really living up to expectations. For me the fishing begins just before sunset, when the "splatters', small fish leaping to white moths, pre-empts the better fishing that follows. If the wind abates to anything less than a light Tasmanian gale, there are normally larger fish working the edges under clouds of white moths. If you are fortunate enough to encounter a flat calm on the Mac in early autumn get ready for a memorable session. Some almighty fish show themselves in these conditions as the white moths swarm around the tussocky banks.
The late David Scholes and other fly fishing luminaries would deride any suggestion that colossal hatches of white moths still exist on the lower Mac today. Evidently the majority of fly fishers still believe this fallacy. In early March I visited the Mac every night, fishing the hatches of white moths for the giant fish that patiently sit below the vast swarms. For three weeks I remember seeing maybe five other anglers and only one other fly fisher. Several unforgettable evening rises saw the entire river heaving with surface feeding trout.
There is a particularly big pool with strong swirling currents that I normally walk past and ignore, as it is generally too deep to effectively sight fish. Having caught a number of rising fish upstream for an hour or so I headed back downstream towards the car. As the sun set behind the Great Western Tiers, every fish in the river began rising like it was their last meal. Some of the rises were stunning, 4 pound plus fish breaking the flat surface with their prominent nebs. In the ensuing bedlam that took place I managed to shatter two 3 pound tippets on unexpected weighty fish before landing four 2 ½-3 pound fish in 40 minutes.
A large trout was rising off a point in the big swirling pool mentioned previously. Satisfied with my catch I wasn't too fussed about taking any more fish so I casually dapped and dragged a size 10 Adams through the area, not really expecting the 5 pound brute to smash the fly the way she did. When you're attached to a fish this size and it pushes it's way into the mid-stream torrent of a fully flushed Macquarie River, especially after dark, you soon realise you will be arriving at the hotel much later than first anticipated. But who cares!
When the weather was anything less than perfect, the Mac fish adopted a supercilious attitude similar to that of their snooty Brumby's Creek cousins. The small hatches of white moths kept moderate numbers of fish moving about in search of a meal, the rest stationed up in the current and were easy targets with a small Adams. The moving fish tend to loiter in the calmer edges where they can pick off a substantial meal away from the energy sapping main current. By placing a small Partridge & Orange wet fly in the area a fish is patrolling, then "stroking" the fly back just under or even through the surface, these fish can be provoked into attacking the flies, normally hooking themselves in the process.
I get a lot of short takes, missed and dropped fish when the small wet fly fishes with the hook point down in the standard fashion. The fly can be made to fish upside down by applying a very large drop of varnish to its head. It's a pain, but the hook-up conversions seem to go from about 60 % to 80 % when the fly fishes upside down. Alternatively you can use a short twist of lead wire on the under body but expect to spook hoards of wary fish. The fish you land will generally be hooked solidly in the top lip.
This is exciting stuff as the fish are usually mooching around in less than a foot of water and the splashy charging attack normally occurs at short range. This close quarter stalking in the half light beats drifting dries in the main current hands down for excitement.
I spent three nights at the end of March working on one such fish in the Mac, which had a habit of patrolling a 15 m beat on the near bank. It was a perfect location and even in horrendous weather this trout was able to find an easy meal of white moths at dusk while his friends took refuge in the depths. This was one of those insect hotspots where the overall geography of the location culminates to create an unlimited smorgasbord of food on any given evening regardless of the weather conditions. I try to keep these places up my sleeve for when times get really hard and I "need" to land a fish. This fish was rising under a patchy gorse bank and after dropping him on two consecutive nights, a slight rise in water level, clear skies and a carefully stripped Partridge & Orange brought him undone on the third night.
The upper Macquarie proved a tougher nut to crack due in no small part to the regular buffeting it receives from the prevailing north westerlies. I've always found it bizarre that it can be flat calm at my Longford base and yet only 40 km away (inland!), blowing a ferocious gale at the Stewarton Bridge. Nothing weather related surprises me in Tassie anymore, it can be black and pelting down in Evandale, yet blue skies and no chance of rain in Longford some 15 km away!
At the end of March I peered over the Stewarton Bridge to find two very big black trout in full spawning regalia paired up in the stick weed. This seemed like an early spawning move to me, especially for lowland fish. Even stranger was that in the very next pool the fish were still feeding hard on spinners and moths during the day and at dusk respectively, with no sign of them heading into spawning mode in the foreseeable future.
Many of my friends who live in Tassie's northern midlands declared the 2006-7 fly fishing season as "the worst they can remember". I'm certain the key is to keep searching for the fish. If nothing is moving in Brumby's Creek weir number 1 during the day, head back at dusk. If the tap is turned off, fish the Lake River during the day. If the weather is poor fish the Macquarie River at dusk. There are so many options in this rich band of trouty Australia that it only requires a moderate search to find a few moving fish on any given day no matter what the conditions bring. Search hard on the good days and spectacular late season sport will eventually surface.